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Conserving Biodiversity in the Face of Climate Change

Conservation Goal
Protection of native fauna and flora is one of the basic goals of most conservation organizations.  This is often accomplished by conservation of sites that contain rare and endangered species and protection of habitats or landscapes that are known to be important for plants and animals.  Over the long term, ecosystems change and this is a natural phenomenon.  Natural causes of change are disturbances such as fire, flood, drought, and wind; diseases and pathogens; and changes brought about by the arrival of new species or the loss of keystone species. 

Change Happens Faster Now
Climate change
will exacerbate ecosystem change.  As temperatures increase, weather patterns change, and sea levels rise, the composition of plants and animals in our ecosystems will change as well.  This poses a challenge for conservationists – how do you protect habitats for plants and animals when the composition of the ecological communities will be rapidly changing over the next century? Mark Anderson, the regional scientist for The Nature Conservancy, argues that it is difficult to protect the specific actors (i.e., the plants and animals) because we do not know who they will be as climate change effects occur, but we can protect the stage (i.e., the physical habitat) upon which they will thrive. Therefore, the purpose of this project is to establish a process where the conservation community can assess the potential value of "the stage" to ensure that we be able to maintain rich communities of native plants and animals as climate change effects manifest themselves. Landscapes with a large variety of species tend to be resilient to disturbance and able to deliver important ecosystem services.

Our Audience
Conservationists work at many scales. Our project strives to inform local conservationsits who work at the parcel scale (10's-100's of acres). Other conservationists work at regional, national, and global scales. All are important. Moreover, other criteria must inform conservation decisions such as the size and connectedness of protected lands. The ELUs of a candidate site are one of many important factors to consider.

Ecological Land Units
Using Ecological Land Units -- ELUs -- we provide a mechanism to identify properties that will be important in protecting biodiversity now and into the future as different species of plants and animals come and go as climatic conditions change. It is uncertain what particular species will occupy specific habitats when climates are very different, but ELUs help us identify landscapes that will support rich biodiversity in changing climates. To learn about our process, view the pages in the "How ELUs Can Guide Conservation" in the left navigation panel. We have used the the Town of South Kingstown and the South Kingstown Land Trust as an example of how ELUs might be used to identify priority conservation areas.