Monday, November 01, 2010

Wilderness: A Beacon of Hope in a Changing Climate

Two recent articles have underscored the importance of wilderness areas—and in particular Nevada’s areas—as refugia to help species survive the onslaughts of climate change.

The myriad micro-environments nestled among Nevada's mountain ranges provide greater options for plants and wildlife trying to survive in a changing climate (the High Schells Wilderness, photo copyright Norman Herterich).

On October 27, the Washington Post reported on an article published in the online scientific journal, Nature:

“A growing number of creatures could disappear from the earth, with one-fifth of all vertebrates and as many as a third of all sharks and rays now facing the threat of extinction, according to a new survey assessing nearly 26,000 species across the globe.

“In addition, forces such as habitat destruction, over-exploitation and invasive competitors move 52 species a category closer to extinction each year, according to the research, published online Tuesday by the journal Science. At the same time, the findings demonstrate that these losses would be at least 20 percent higher without conservation efforts now underway.

"We know what we need to do," said Andrew Rosenberg, senior vice president for science and knowledge at the advocacy group Conservation International and one of the paper's co-authors. "We need to focus on protected areas, both terrestrial and marine."

In short, wilderness and other protected areas help minimize species extinction. A recent article, “Dancing with Climate Change” in High Country News explains the why:

“Mountain climate is patchy, explains [Forest Service ecologist Connie Millar]. The American West is warming more rapidly than other parts of the U.S., but that's just on average. Within the 11-state region lie tens of thousands of cooler pockets, due, in large part, to the presence of mountains. Biologically, this translates into resilience. On the flat, for example, an organism might have to travel several hundred miles to find a suitable niche, whereas in the mountains, a hop, skip and jump will often do the trick. "Because mountains are so topographically rough, so heterogeneous, they provide incredible opportunities for movement," Millar observes.”

In short, Nevada’s mountainous wilderness areas hide niches, micro-climates, where species can survive while everywhere else is becoming unsuitable.

Unfortunately, we don't know which species, or how many, will be forced to move to adapt to a changing climate. But by protecting Nevada’s wild landscapes, we ut we can give a fighting chance to those here at home.

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