Ask the Conservationist

Changing Climate, Changing Habitats

To be sure, climate change is a doozy of a problem. And scientists everywhere are working 'round-the-clock to come up with solutions for reducing the impacts of a changing climate and adapting to them.

But where does habitat conservation fit in? In the face of climate change, are certain habitats more important to save than others because more species depend on them?

Find out in this month's "Ask the Conservationist."
Carlos Paez of Anchorage, AK, writes:

"How does The Nature Conservancy rate habitats in relation to their significance to the viability of fauna? And how does climate change factor into those calculations?"

Jennifer Molnar:

Conserving healthy habitats is crucial in helping species survive climate change. Warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns are transforming habitats and leaving many species vulnerable. With some habitats being impacted more than others and more changes coming, we are being challenged to think in new ways and adapt our conservation strategies to be more effective in the face of climate change.

Temperature and precipitation determine where habitats are located, how they function, and what species they support. Changes in these climate variables can alter habitats and put stress on species — including polar bears that have to swim further to hunt for seals on summer sea ice that is disappearing as Arctic temperatures warm.

Two major factors that influence how much a habitat is likely to be impacted — and therefore how vulnerable its species may be — are the health of a habitat and the magnitude of climate change it will experience.

Healthier, more intact habitats are able to better adapt to changes. While all species won't be able to survive in their current habitats — some will migrate, others will not survive there — healthier ecosystems will have a better chance of continuing to provide basic functions that species rely on.

Healthy, intact habitats have always been a goal — even without changing climates, they function better when undisturbed. But now we are looking at "intactness" in new and broader ways. For example, a salt marsh can be vulnerable unless it has natural habitat inland so it can migrate ahead of sea level rise. Maintaining natural north-south corridors can allow species to migrate to higher latitudes in search of cooler temperatures.

The magnitude of climate change can also influence habitat vulnerability. Not all places on Earth are experiencing the same changes. For example, while the Arctic tundra is relatively intact, it is one of the most vulnerable habitats due to greater temperature changes that are already happening in high latitudes — leaving species like the polar bear at risk.

Reducing other threats in these vulnerable regions can help habitats here adapt to the changing climate.

While global action is needed to reduce emissions of carbon and lessen the magnitude of climate change, local and regional actions can help make habitats and their species more resilient. We are being challenged to think creatively about how we apply conservation tools to help habitats and species adapt and survive as climates change.

Originally posted in January 2009.

About the Conservationist

Jennifer Molnar is the managing director and lead scientist of the Conservancy's Center for Sustainability Science.


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