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How can Earth’s ecosystems adapt to climate change?

A new study published in the journal Science has argued that, while attempting to mitigate climate change is becoming increasingly urgent, so is the concurrent need for proactive stewardship of the Earth’s rapidly changing biosphere. Since oncoming changes will seriously challenge current natural resource management and conservation efforts, new forward-looking conservation approaches to enable the adaptation and resilience to climate change of a variety of species, communities, and ecosystems are absolutely necessary.

“There is actually a lot we can do to help systems cope with oncoming climate change,” said study lead author Jonathan Moore, a professor of Biology at the Simon Fraser University. “From restoring connectivity to reducing local stressors to conserving future habitats – all of these proactive approaches can help the ecosystems that we rely upon to adapt to climate change.”

According to study co-author Daniel Schindler, an expert in Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Washington, in order for species and ecosystems to adapt and be resilient to climate change, preservation-orientated approaches should be complemented by attempts that enable and foster ecological change. 

“Local efforts to conserve biodiversity and regenerate habitat complexity will also help maintain a diversity of future options for species and ecosystems in an unpredictable future,” explained Professor Schindler.

Thus, conservation efforts should focus not only on “climate change losers,” but also on the proactive management of emerging opportunities. For instance, while threatening species such as polar bears, warming Arctic oceans and shrinking sea ice may create more fish production in some areas – a phenomenon that needs to be taken into account too when devising proactive approaches to help ecosystems cope with climate change.

“Earth’s systems have an incredible capacity to adapt and be resilient to changes. That is what has allowed some species to persist for millions of years. But our actions are seriously undermining that adaptive capacity,” said Professor Moore. “Natural resource management and conservation efforts will need to embrace the dynamic aspects of the biosphere to help maintain functioning ecosystems and protect biodiversity amid ongoing climate change.”

While it is important and urgent for humanity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to control the pace of climate change, even with the most aggressive reduction strategies further warming will likely persist for decades. Thus, additional strategies to enable adaptation and resilience will be crucial for maintaining functional ecosystems and conserving biodiversity.

“The biosphere has never been static – and we need to embrace management approaches that maintain a dynamic and fluid biosphere. Thus, conservation and management need to be prospective – looking to the future, and proactive – taking action for the future,” Professor Schindler concluded.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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