New Science Team Aims to Reduce Climate Change Extinctions

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Conservation International, the University of Arizona, Leeds University, Catholic University of Chile, Stellenbosch University and Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens launch Spatial Planning for Protected Areas in Response to Climate Change (SPARC), to model climate change-related shifts of species and ecosystems to suggest placement of protected areas

Today, Conservation International (CI) and six top international universities announced the launch of a team of scientists that will provide tropical countries with the information needed to avoid extinctions due to climate change. The project, Spatial Planning for Protected Areas in Response to Climate Change (SPARC), will use a big data approach to plan for effective conservation in the coming decades by modeling the climate change response of over 100,000 species in tropical ecosystems on three continents. SPARC is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a multi-national fund that addresses global environmental problems.

"Parks protect species from extinction - from loss of habitat and from climate change, if we put them in the right places," said Lee Hannah, Senior Scientist Climate Change Biology, Conservation International.

Recognizing that species and ecosystems move to track suitable climate, the research team will anticipate these movements by drawing on information contributed from scientists around the planet. SPARC will model the effect of climate change on rare tropical plant and animal species. This will allow governments, scientists and conservationists to identify regions and ecosystems that, if protected, preserve biodiversity and critical ecosystems. The goal is to build networks of protected areas that reduce extinctions due to climate change, at the same time delivering clean water, tourism opportunities and numerous other benefits to people.

"Protected areas in Africa and South America help maintain rainfall, reducing the effects of climate change," said Jon Lovett, Professor, School of Geography, University of Leeds.

Modeling this number of species across all of the tropics requires next-generation science techniques that are being supported by national research funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, NSERC in the UK and the Belmont Forum internationally.

"We will use computational engines, cyberinfrastructure and supercomputing supported by NSF programs to scale up our ecological models so that we can forecast how individual species respond to climate change, for hundreds of thousands of species. For the first time, we will be able to see what climate change truly means for the distribution of species and biomes," said Brain Enquist, Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona in Tucson.

Impacts from climate change have already caused movements of species and ecosystems, often crossing national borders or the boundaries of protected areas. The ranges of species are shifting in different ways, as each tracks its unique climatic tolerances. The long-term effects of such changes could lead to novel combinations of species and new land-use conflicts. SPARC will use big data to document and synthesize the impacts of these shifts using multiple state-of-the-art climate change models, datasets and planning methods. That information will be used to pinpoint locations for new protection that will safeguard both present and future locations of species.

“It’s no secret that tropical ecosystems are under increasing pressure from human activities and that opportunities for new protected areas are dwindling. The time to act is now to get protected areas in the right places to help prevent species extinctions in a changing climate,” said Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department at George Mason University.

Investments in conservation and their successful application are placed at risk by climate change. SPARC aims to close the gap between current areas set aside for conservation and the lands that will become necessary to protect in the near future. SPARC will assess the effects of climate change in the three highest diversity tropical regions: South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. This focused analysis will help inform the development and management of national protected area networks by providing critical information on the movement of key species. The regional perspective provides the basis for understanding what individual nations can do to protect biodiversity and what actions would require collaboration with neighboring countries.

“The great thing about the big data approach we are taking with SPARC is that we will be able to produce locally useful information on a global scale,” said Richard Corlett, Director of Center for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Renowned international researchers, including Richard Leakey (Stonybrook University; Turkana Basin Institute), Carlos Nobre (CAPES - Brazil), Rebecca Shaw (WWF) and Nijivalli H. Ravindranath (Indian Institute of Science) form the science guidance panel of the project. They are helping design cutting-edge methods for the massive data collection, modeling and analysis the project will undertake. SPARC project management is provided by Conservation International and involves researchers from the University of Arizona (USA), Leeds University (UK), Catholic University of Chile (Chile), Stellenbosch University (South Africa), and Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens (China).

About Conservation International
Conservation International (CI) uses an innovative blend of science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature people rely on for food, fresh water, and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about CI and the "Nature Is Speaking" campaign, and follow CI's work on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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Kevin Connor
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