Building an ark for the Anthropocene

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 5 2014, 07:28am hrs
We are barrelling into the Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet. A recent study published in the journal Science concluded that the worlds species are disappearing as much as 1,000 times faster than the rate at which species naturally go extinct. Its a one-two punchon top of the ecosystems weve broken, extreme weather from a changing climate causes even more damage. By 2100, researchers say, one-third to one-half of all earths species could be wiped out.

As a result, efforts to protect species are ramping up as governments, scientists and non-profit organisations try to build a modern version of Noahs Ark. The new ark certainly wont come in the form of a large boat, or even always a place set aside. Instead, it is a patchwork quilt of approaches, including assisted migration, seed banks and new preserves and travel corridors based on where species are likely to migrate as seas rise or food sources die out.

The questions are complex. What species do you save The ones most at risk Charismatic animals, such as lions or bears or elephants The ones most likely to survive The species that hold the most value for us

One initiative, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services formed in 2012 by the governments of 121 countries, aims to protect and restore species in wild areas and to protect species like bees that carry out valuable ecosystem service functions in the places people live. Some three-quarters of the worlds food production depends primarily on bees.

We still know very little about what could or should be included in the ark and where, says Walter Jetz, an ecologist at Yale involved with the project. Species are being wiped out even before we know what they are.

Another project, the EDGE of Existence, run by the Zoological Society of London, seeks to protect the most unusual wildlife at highest risk. These are species that evolved on their own for so long that they are very different from other species. Among the species the project has helped to preserve are the tiny bumblebee bat and the golden-rumped elephant shrew.

While the traditional approach to protecting species is to buy land, preservation of the right habitat can be a moving target, since its not known how species will respond to a changing climate.

To complete the maps of where life lives, scientists have enlisted the crowd. A crowdsourcing effort called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility identifies and curates biodiversity datasuch as photos of species taken with a smartphoneto show their distribution and then makes the information available online. That is especially helpful to researchers in developing countries with limited budgets. Another project, Lifemapper, at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, uses the data to understand where a species might move as its world changes.

We know that species dont persist long in fragmented areas and so we try and reconnect those fragments, says Stuart L Pimm, a professor of conservation at Duke University, and head of a non-profit organisation called SavingSpecies. One of his groups projects in the Colombian Andes identified a forest that contains a carnivorous mammal that some have described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, called an olinguito, new to science. Using crowd-sourced data, we worked with local conservation groups and helped them buy land, reforest the land and reconnect pieces, Pimm says.

Coastal areas, especially, are getting scrutiny. Biologists in Florida, which faces a daunting sea level rise, are working on a plan to set aside land farther inland as a reserve for everything from the MacGillivrays seaside sparrow to the tiny Key deer.

To thwart something called coastal squeeze, a network of migratory greenways is envisioned so that species can move on their own away from rising seas to new habitat. But some are basically trapped, says Reed F Noss, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Central Florida who is involved in the effort, and they will most likely need to be picked up and moved. The programme has languished, but Amendment 1, on the ballot this November, would provide funding.

One species at risk is the Florida panther. Once highly endangered, with just 20 individuals left, this charismatic animal has come backsome. But a quarter or more of its habitat is predicted to be under some 3ft of water by 2100. Males will move on their own, but females will need help because they wont cross the Caloosahatchee River. Experts hope to create reserves north of the river, and think at some point they will have to move females to new quarters.

Protecting land between reserves is vital. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, known as Y2Y, would protect corridors between wild landscapes in the Rockies from Yellowstone National Park to northern Canada, which would allow species to migrate.

Researchers have also focused on refugia, regions around the world that have remained stable during previous swings of the earths climateand that might be the best bet for the survival of life this time around.

A section of the Driftless Area encompassing north-eastern Iowa and southern Minnesota, also known as Little Switzerland, has ice beneath some of its ridges. The underground refrigerator means the land never gets above 50 or so degrees and has kept the Pleistocene snail, long thought extinct, from disappearing there. Other species might find refuge there as things get hot.

A roughly 250-acre refugia on the Little Cahaba River in Alabama has been called a botanical lost world because of its wide range of unusual plants, including eight species found nowhere else. Noss says these kinds of places should be sought out and protected.

Daniel Janzen, a conservation ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is working to protect large tracts in Costa Rica, says to truly protect biodiversity, a place-based approach must be tailored to the country. A reserve needs to be large, to be resilient against a changing climate, and so needs the support of the people who live with the wild place and will want to protect it. To survive climate change we need to minimise the other assaults, such as illegal logging and contaminating water, he says. Each time you add one of those you make it more sensitive to climate change.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, beneath the permafrost on an island in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Norway, preserves seeds from food crops. Frozen zoos keep the genetic material from extinct and endangered animals. The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive in Michigan, meanwhile, founded by a family of shade tree growers, has made exact genetic duplicates of some of the largest trees on the planet and planted them in living libraries elsewhereshould something befall the original.

In 2008, Connie Barlow, a biologist and conservationist, helped move an endangered conifer tree in Florida north by planting seedlings in cooler regions. Now she is working in the West. I just assisted in the migration of the alligator juniper in New Mexico by planting seeds in Colorado, she says. We have to. Climate change is happening so fast and trees are the least capable of moving.