Several years ago I created a series of posters for my classroom at the time that showed the different biomes around the world. A biome is a generalized description for an area that is based on climatic factors such as precipitation, temperatures, and geography. A desert is one type of biome. The plants and animals that live in a particular area are, you could say, uniquely qualified for their positions. They manage the terrain, the moisture availability, the temperatures like pros. But as anyone who has experienced a job where the job duties change over time will know change can take a while to adapt to. The thing is, that when I have to learn new skills or change the way I do something it isn’t that big of a change. So I might have to learn a new program, that’s okay because chances are I have some prior experience with something that I can build on to help me learn the new program. In educational contexts we call this process scaffolding. We help students to learn new skills or new information by breaking them up into smaller skills that they have some sort of connection to. Think of it this way, you probably learned how to stand before you learned how to walk and you probably learned how to walk before you learned how to run or skate or ski. But climate change means that local areas are being changed in terms of their precipitation and temperatures. Those posters I made years ago are going to change as we continue down this path of excess (excess production and consumption that leads to excess greenhouse gas emission). And while one could argue that the change is happening slow enough that the plants and animals will have time to change, changing how your body stores and uses water isn’t the same as learning how to multiply numbers after learning how to add. Changing species to function in a different biome takes a lot more than just learning a new skill, it requires changing your physiology and anyone who struggles to adjust to a hot climate or a cold climate when your body is used to the other one knows how hard this can be.
But there’s another challenge as well that is complicating matters: habitat destruction. This isn’t the best analogy because going on vacation implies a positive and habitat destruction is definitely not, but you know how when you’re on holiday and something happens it can be way more difficult to adapt than it would be at home. It’s raining and you don’t have the right clothing, or your bike gets a flat tire and you already used your spare, or you get sick and can’t find the right medication. Now consider how this applies to the plants and animals that are dealing with a changing climate and put them in a degraded habitat where they can’t access the things that they are used to using to survive.
A Finnish study looked at the impacts of conservation areas on climate induced migration of bird species. What they found was that the protected areas provided some much needed scaffolding for the birds. Birds that needed to move north because of the changing climate were able to survive longer in the southern conservation areas than they could in the deteriorated areas. This gives them more time to adapt as a species. Similarly, species can move into more northern conservation areas sooner than they can move into the deteriorated areas. These protected habitats are in a way more familiar to the species and therefore don’t require as big of a jump to survive within them. They are like learning how to stand before learning how to walk. The problem is that while most of us have had the opportunity to learn how to both stand and walk within our lifetimes, the adaptations that the birds in the study and all plants and animals need to make will take multiple lifetimes. This means that maintaining and expanding our protected areas world wide is vital. It also means that we need to consider how we can maintain those areas outside of the protected areas.
Petteri Lehikoinen, Andrea Santangeli, Kim Jaatinen, Ari Rajasärkkä, Aleksi Lehikoinen. Protected areas act as a buffer against detrimental effects of climate change-Evidence from large-scale, long-term abundance data. Global Change Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14461