Europe has the world's most extensive network of conservation areas but they are selected without taking the effects of climate change into account. A team of European researchers, led by Spaniards, has shown for the first time that this phenomenon threatens these areas, including those of the network Red Natura 2000. The impact will be greater in southern countries like Spain.
The study, which has been published in Ecology Letters, is the first "exhaustive" evaluation of the effects of climate change on species' range in the protected areas of 38 European countries and those in Red Natura 2000.
"The models predict that towards the end of the 21st century, some 58% of Europe's terrestrial vertebrates and plants may no longer have suitable climatic conditions to survive in the protected areas of each country," says Miguel B. Araújo, lead author and researcher in the department of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology at Spain's National Natural History Museum (CSIC).
In general, protected areas are better at preserving species from climate change than other areas because "they are usually mountainous regions which act as 'climate refuges'."
Nevertheless, "the Red Natura 2000 network is more vulnerable and may lose more species than surrounding unprotected areas," emphasises Araújo, adding that these zones are in plains where the effects of climate are "more intense." The changes in climatic conditions, according to the study, will affect 63% of the species included in Red Natura 2000, by 2080.
The impact on biodiversity will be felt throughout Europe but "will be greater in southern countries like Spain," according to the expert. The biodiversity of Scandinavian countries and zones of high altitude will suffer "more complex" effects.
For the research team, many species widely distributed in Europe will benefit from the rise in temperatures, and will extend their range towards higher latitudes and altitudes. But those species that tolerate cold and which are currently restricted to zones of the extreme north and higher altitudes "will face grave problems in the future," summarises Araújo. Birds, amphibians and mammals will be the great "losers."
The EU excludes climate change
European conservation policies are based on the idea that species do not change their ranges unless obliged to do so by human activity. To incorporate the 'climate change' factor into these policies would signify "perhaps working with a great deal of uncertainty," stresses the expert.
Measures to adapt biodiversity to climatic change will increase the total cost of conservation policies. "In institutions like the EU, decisions are made by consensus, are not always easy and may respond to very different interests," underlines the researcher.
But to facilitate the adaptation of biodiversity to climatic change, the scientists propose the introduction of habitat management measures that increase ecosystems' resilience and make local dispersion of species easier. "We should also consider creating new protected areas which would fulfil an important role for biodiversity in a context of changing climate," Araújo recognises.
Conservation measures should also be systematically integrated with those in unprotected natural spaces to increase these spaces' permeability as conduits for the dispersion of species. "Whenever possible, it should be guaranteed that policies which impact the land contribute to the mitigation of climate change, how society adapts to these changes, and the conservation of biodiversity," he concludes.
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