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Protected areas provide a thermal buffer against climate change

According to the latest Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, climate change is currently emerging as a major threat for biodiversity, with plant and animal species facing greater risks of thermal stress as global warming pushes temperatures beyond their usual thermal tolerance.

Now, a team of researchers led by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IAP) has found that terrestrial protected areas not only offer habitat, but also provide a thermal buffer against climate change, thus serving as refugia for biodiversity. 

The scientists discovered that, when compared to nonprotected areas which are often disturbed or even converted to other land uses, protected areas of natural and semi-natural vegetation can effectively cool the land surface temperature. For instance, such areas cool the local daily maximum temperature in the tropics, and reduce diurnal and seasonal temperature ranges in temperate and boreal regions.

Moreover, vegetation in these areas has a higher amount of foliage in the canopy than in nonprotected areas (even of the same vegetation type), thus modulating local temperatures through physiological and biophysical processes.

“The cooling effect of protected areas on daily and seasonal maximum temperatures is particularly important because it can protect species in the wild from episodes of extreme heat,” explained study senior author Gensuo Jia, an expert in the impact of climate change on ecosystems at IAP. “Under a warming climate, as heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, protected areas create thermal refugia.”

According to the researchers, biodiversity responses to climate change are determined by microclimate – the local set of atmospheric conditions near the ground that is modulated by habitats and landscape features at the local scale. Thus, protected areas provide shaded habitats which can moderate biotic responses to macroclimate warming.

While nature conservation has long been recognized as a nature-based solution to climate change, helping prevent carbon emissions from land-use change and enhancing carbon removal from the atmosphere, this study shows that the effectiveness of nature protection in stabilizing local climates cannot be ignored. According to the scientists, protected forests effectively slow the rate of warming, with a warming rate in protected boreal forests up to 20 percent lower than in surrounding regions.

“The slowed rate of warming is particularly important for species in the boreal regions because the northern high latitudes have warmed faster than the rest of the world,” said lead author Dr. Xiyan Xu, an expert in climate change at IAP. “Protected areas provide a home for threatened species, and the home is air-conditioned naturally!”

The findings suggest that protected areas can significantly contribute to climate change mitigation and highlight the need to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises simultaneously.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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