This Wednesday was Earth Day and the 45th anniversary of its launch in spring 1970. Since then a lot has happened to challenge the warming planet. Unlike the squabbling human race, plants and animals have figured out a game plan in a world that’s heating up. Their choices are stark, but simple – adapt, evolve, migrate, or die.
So many are on the move.
In the U.K, the comma butterfly has moved 200 kilometres north to Edinburgh, Scotland. In southern California, the endangered quino checkerspot butterfly abandoned its habitat around Los Angeles and headed east for higher ground where its caterpillars adapted to a flowering plant they had never eaten before. Entomologists were jaw-dropped. Marine species worldwide are moving toward the cooler waters of the poles at a mean average rate of 72 km per decade.
In B.C. at least eight bird species are arriving earlier, leaving later, or dropping the idea of migrating at all and becoming year-round residents. All of them have extended their northern ranges. Alien plants, noxious weeds, and highly adaptable insects are flourishing, notably the notorious mountain pine beetle.
What isn’t moving is the mindset of many conservation organizations locked in the idea of protecting wild species in their traditional or historic habitat. That presents a contemporary challenge. How do you conserve something that won’t stay still, asks a research professor with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville?
“If you are an organization that has focused on conserving particular species in a particular place, as many of today’s conservation organizations are, then something has to give,” said Paul Armsworth, lead author and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Either you need to change your business model or revisit your conservation priorities. And neither is going to be easy for some of these groups.”
The research paper was co-authored by a team of scientists from universities, federal agencies, and conservation non-profits, and was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
They made the suggestion that, in order to cope, conservation organizations need to adapt like the animal species they are trying to protect. They need to be bolder and more visionary in their efforts, especially given the extent of coming ecological changes. They need to look at how those habitats will become decades from now.
Some are running with that idea. The environmental group Scenic Hudson in New York State created a detailed plan to shift its land conservation along the Hudson River and develop resources to help local communities near the water adapt to future rising sea levels.
“Previously, we focused on conserving places that harbor the most important habitats and species today,” said Sacha Spector, Scenic Hudson’s director of conservation science. “But then we looked at the projections for sea-level rise in our region. Continuing with business as usual would have left us quite literally under water. Now when prioritizing sites for protection, we also look to acquire areas upslope.”
Spector agreed with the researchers’ suggestions. He said that the authors’ appeal for conservation organizations to start evaluating over what time period their investments in habitat protection is likely to provide conservation benefits is right on target.
As the climate warms and habitats change, new ecological communities will form and ecosystems will transition to new states. Scientists predict these changes will accelerate in the future. Conservation organizations need to be in step with that and ensure that the investments they make today align with the conditions expected in the future.
These are words of wisdom that should touch a nerve in many B.C. communities especially along the coast and rivers.
I wonder how the planet will look on Earth Day another 45 years from now.