Climate change challenges biodiversity within protected areas

Protected areas are havens of biodiversity across the globe, but under a warming climate, species using them may shift their niches to areas that are no longer protected.

“Climate change is going to affect everything on Earth,” said Sean Parks, a research ecologist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. “When most protected areas were established, it was assumed the climate was not changing.”

But climate change is altering these areas. The namesake trees of Joshua Tree National Park may not be around by 2100. Glacier National Park’s glaciers are disappearing. Changes like these are altering the ecosystem and the wildlife that occupy them. “These protected areas are meant to protect organisms and biodiversity patterns in them, and that won’t likely hold true under a changing climate,” he said.

Parks led a study published in Environmental Research Letters looking at how climate types within protected areas may change and where the same climate may show up elsewhere in the future. These areas where climates will be similar to current ones in another area are considered climate analogs.

These shifts in climate can provide insight into where new optimal climate tolerances may be for species. “The assumption is that as the climate moves, the organisms associated with that climate also need to move,” he said. The problem is that it may not be easy for species to move to these optimal areas.

After modeling climate shifts under a global warming of 2 degrees Celsius, the team found that globally, 24% of climates that are currently in protected areas will no longer be protected in the future. In addition, 36% of protected lands will develop new climates that weren’t previously protected.

Notably, the team found that a large percentage of climate analogs—23% in Europe and more than 50% in Africa—were showing up in different countries than the original protected area. “This is an interesting concept because different countries have different conservation policies, tolerances of given species and land use practices,” Parks said.

These transboundary range shifts point to the importance of working together with other countries, whether that means treaties or through other international cooperation. In addition, some countries have physical boundaries up that can make species movements challenging, suggesting the potential need for things like assisted translocation.

As efforts like the “30 by 30” initiative—the goal to protect 30% of a country’s land by 2030—ramp up, Parks said these findings may be important in deciding where new protected habitat should be. In addition, Parks stresses the importance of unprotected, private lands for aiding species range shifts under climate change.

Parks said it’s also important to consider all different types of plants and animals, not just the charismatic ones. “The whole umbrella that encompasses biodiversity needs to be considered when we’re thinking about climate change, not just our favorite species that get a lot of attention and conservation dollars,” he said.

Header Image: Joshua Tree National Park is named for the trees found there. But as climate changes, these trees may disappear from the park and the ecosystem it’s known for may shift elsewhere. Credit: Pedro Szekely