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Pre-empting climate change extinctions

IUCN.JPGOne of the world’s largest conservation organizations is getting into the business of predicting which species could suffer most from future climate change – even before the damage begins to show.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is known for its annual Red List, which tracks species populations worldwide over time and nominates those most in danger of extinction. But in a chapter of this year’s Red List report, it released early work on a new roster: species susceptible to a climate-induced snuffout in the years ahead.

The new project may facilitate what is being dubbed ‘pre-emptive conservation’. Emma Marris reports today on Nature Reports Climate Change:

The data [on climate susceptibility] may someday be integrated into the Red List itself, so that researchers who map hotspots of threatened species or otherwise model biodiversity can include future climate-change-related threats, even if species appear to be in the pink of health. Parks can be planned, corridors built, and more aggressive measures, such as so-called ‘assisted migration’, can be considered before population numbers begin to decline — a pre-emptive strike against extinction.

The IUCN’s method differs from widely used (and recently criticized) ‘climate envelope’ studies. Envelopes identify the climatic conditions where species currently thrive, for comparison with projected future conditions. In contrast, the IUCN focuses on telltale traits – for example, slow dispersion or a life cycle closely tied to seasonal changes – that should make it difficult to adapt to climate change. Species can thus be assessed for susceptibility even if their full ranges are unknown.

The preliminary results: 25 per cent of birds, 28 per cent of amphibians and 51 per cent of corals are not now threatened but could be as temperatures rise. To weigh those potential threats, said Wendy Foden, the climate chapter’s first author, the IUCN’s maps of the locations of susceptible species (like the one for amphibians shown above) will need to be combined with projections of regional climate change.

Not all conservationists are keen on the new assessment, however. With climate change expected to wreck whole ecosystems, some consider it outmoded to identify individual species for protection.

Read the full story here.

Anna Barnett

Image: Areas of high concentration of amphibian species assessed as threatened and “climate-change-

susceptible” (reds), and not threatened but “climate-change-susceptible” (yellows). Courtesy of IUCN 2008.


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