CHAMPAIGN, Ill., 4/13/17: A University of Illinois researcher has created a new method to study potential climate change in protected areas.
Scientists use a species distribution model and data on where flora and fauna occur to manage conservation areas. However, these methods can be incomplete because it may be difficult to determine where species live or what type of habitats they prefer, according to Jason Robinson, aquatic entomologist at the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Natural History Survey.
“We don’t always know where all species in a given habitat are located, but we do know where the national parks are,” Robinson said. “Scientists can consider a park environment as an entire protected habitat rather than using individual species to filter predictions of the future composition of ecological communities.”
Robinson studied 163 noncoastal national parks in 48 states, hypothesizing that each park has at least one plant or animal that is unique to that park, a realistic assumption for at least some of the parks. This method eliminates uncertainty about exact locations of the species and offers a useful way to look at the unique climatic regions of the landscape in each park.
Robinson also investigated areas surrounding national parks, studying particular climate features that predict future changes. He found that potential shifts in climate may vary among parks. Some were predicted to have very different temperature and precipitation levels in the future, while others were expected to have few or smaller changes, a function of the parks’ geographic positions.
Overall, the different climates currently occurring within the entire park network may become more similar in the future and potentially affect species that live in those protected areas. Some plants and animals may be highly adapted to certain climate patterns, for example, the timing of seasonal precipitation events or the severity of cold or hot spells. A patchwork of variability across a network of protected areas could offer opportunities for small populations to persist or provide refuges from superior competitors.
An altered climate creates both challenges and opportunities to improve management of protected areas with available resources.
“Park managers can’t protect everything,” Robinson said. “We hope that these methods will be a useful tool for guiding management in the face of an uncertain and changing climate.”
This study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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