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Microclimates help protect species from global warming

Researchers at the University of York have found that microclimates may provide protection against climate change for many native plants and animals along the British countryside.

The intolerable temperatures that are predicted by the end of this century are expected to push some native species northwards. Many plants, butterflies, and beetles have already started to vanish from the warmer regions of their habitats.

On the other hand, the researchers have found that locally variable habitats such as hummocky hillsides or shaded valleys could help a range of native species survive global warming.

The team analyzed five million records of plants and animals collected by members of the public in England, and discovered that a number of these microclimates are already providing refuge for plants and animals that are the most sensitive to warming, which could be extremely beneficial.

For example, the researchers estimate that the use of an alternative habitat has reduced the likelihood of local extinctions of Dark Green Fritillary butterflies by 63 percent in the parts of the country that have warmed the most.

“It is tempting to think it might be quite nice for the UK to warm up by a few degrees, but this will actually be really bad news for many of our native animals and plants that are adapted to our cooler, wetter climate,” said study lead author Dr. Andrew Suggit.

“However, refugia within the varied topography of the British landscape can have a local temperature difference of as much as seven degrees in daytime maximum temperature, making them extremely important alternative habitats for many climate-sensitive species.”

The researchers suggested that microclimates could be artificially created for plants and animals that are not mobile enough to shift their geographical range, and also in areas where the conditions are not variable.

“Refugia buffer species from adverse climate change, and so they could play an important role in our response to this huge challenge,” said Dr. Suggit.

“This includes making sure that important refugia are protected. Where refugia do not occur naturally, pre-existing engineering or infrastructure projects could be adapted to ensure that variable terrain is left behind and available for our wildlife to use.”

Dr. Ilya Maclean from the University of Exeter is the director of the research.  

“The public can also do their bit by encouraging a good mix of sunny and shady spots in their gardens, and by planting species that offer a lot of cover alongside those that offer less,” said Dr. Maclean.

“Now that we know a substantial amount of warming will unavoidably take place this century, it’s about giving our plants and animals as many options as possible to avoid the adverse heat.”

Co-author Dr. Mike Morecroft added: “This study has provided us with the best evidence yet that refugia can make a real difference to the fate of species threatened by climate change.”

“We now have a good understanding of where they are and which species most need the lifeline they provide. We’re working to incorporate this new knowledge into our conservation planning and management.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Robert Thompson

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