Animals Seek Refuge to Survive Climate Change, Scientists Working Hard to Learn More

Devils Postpile National Monument. Image: Lauren Sommer/KQED

Past scientific studies have found that ecosystems with high biodiversity are better able to face the threat of climate change than those with fewer species. However, after the UN’s landmark report from earlier this year showing that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, it’s become more urgent to understand how plant and animal populations are faring when faced with the stress of climate change. As KQED reported, “scientists are searching for pockets of ecological resistance in the face of climate change, places that seem to be warming less quickly than others due to unique natural conditions. The hope is that as the earth continues to get hotter, these “climate refugia” could serve as strongholds for plants and animals.

Where Do Such Places Exist?: As the Atlantic explained, these refugia whether they be on mountain slopes, in shady forests, or in deep, cool canyons—are characterized as being naturally buffered from local and regional climate changes. In California, Devils Postpile National Monument in the Sierra Nevada mountains contains meadows that are significantly cooler than surrounding areas due to the monument’s special topography.

  • Deanna Dulen, superintendent of the monument, has worked with teams of scientists to set up monitors to understand how refugia function so her team can know how to manage Devils Postpone and allow it to thrive.

Not So New: Scientists are aware of climate refugia as they existed in prehistoric times and in-between glacial periods where plants and animals found ways to survive extreme conditions.

Why This Matters: Land managers are anxious to understand these unique places so that they can better protect these areas. In the case of Devil’s Postpile, conservationists are now actively working to protect it from invasive species and to manage surrounding forests so that they don’t become overgrown and fire-prone. Climate refugia can also reveal lessons about climate adaptation and how humans can best support nature to handle the impacts of climate change that will likely be inevitable.

Go Deeper: Refugia in forests are even helping researchers better understand the dynamics of forest fires. 

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