Morelli, Colleagues Map Areas Buffered from Climate Change

A Sierra Nevada meadow

In a recent paper in Ecosphere, Toni Lyn Morelli, adjunct assistant professor of environmental conservation and a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist with the Northeast Climate Science Center, and colleagues elsewhere present some of the first maps of climate change refugia – areas buffered from climate change that can be managed for species conservation – focused on mountain meadows in California.

She says of the project funded by the California Landscape Conservation Cooperative, “We’re really excited about this work, which was stakeholder-driven. We think it will be really important to meadow conservation and restoration in the Sierra Nevada.”

Morelli and a team of scientists led by Sean Maher of Missouri State University, with others at the University of California, Australia National University and other USGS scientists, produced a map of connected refugia. The team identified meadows that had changed the least in terms of local temperature and precipitation over the last century, then estimated how hard it would be for organisms to move between these refugial meadows based upon barriers such as roads, rivers and topography.

The authors point out that “climate refugia management has been proposed as a climate adaptation strategy in the face of global change. A key to this strategy is identification of these areas as well as an understanding of how they are connected on the landscape.”

Their analysis shows that, though some will act as refugia, most meadows likely will experience drastic climate change in the coming century. 

Morelli says, “Sierra Nevada meadows are critical not only for biodiversity and recreation but also as water storage for millions of Californians. This study points to particular sites where conservation and restoration efforts could help protect meadows and the wildlife that live in them in the face of climate change.” By combining connectivity and climate refugia, the study provided an important perspective for climate adaptation management strategies.

They conclude, “Climate change is projected to reduce the number of refugial meadows on a variety of climate axes, resulting in a sparser network of potential refugia across elevations. Our approach provides a straightforward method that can be used as a tool to prioritize places for climate adaptation.”