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Microclimates to provide species refuge from warming temperatures

"Refugia buffer species from adverse climate change, and so they could play an important role in our response to this huge challenge," biologist Andrew Suggitt said.

By Brooks Hays
Microclimates to provide species refuge from warming temperatures
Microclimates could offer refuge for a variety of insects as the planet warms, including butterflies like the green hairstreak, Callophrys rubi. Photo by Matt Cole/University of York

July 23 (UPI) -- As global climate change sees warming temperatures, seasonal shifts and extreme weather alter habitats, many species are being pushed from their historical range. But new research suggests some vulnerable species may be able to seek refuge in microclimates -- small pockets of wilderness featuring cooler temperatures and variable conditions.

When researchers at the universities of York and Exeter looked at how vulnerable species of plants and animals will adapt to rising temperatures in Britain, they realized small hillsides and shaded valleys could help some species escape the heat.

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When the last ice age saw glaciers and frigid temperatures descend across much of the British Isles, red deer and squirrels survived in microclimates featuring slightly elevated temperatures. A similar phenomenon -- this time with cooler pockets of habitat -- could help butterfly, beetle and plant species escape extinction.

When researchers ran models designed to predict the protective abilities of microclimates, they found small pockets of cooler environs helped reduce the dark green fritillary butterfly's chance of extinction by more than 60 percent. The availability of microclimates diminished the green hairstreak butterfly's risk of extinction by 25 percent.

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Depressions in the landscape, that remain shaded for much of the day, or forested hilltops, shaded by trees and cooled by breezes, can offer respite from the surrounding heat.

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"Refugia within the varied topography of the British landscape can have a local temperature difference of as much as seven degrees in daytime maximum temperature, making them extremely important alternative habitats for many climate-sensitive species," York biologist Andrew Suggitt said in a news release.

Some species will be able to escape rising temperatures by moving to latitudes farther north and higher altitudes, but many animals and plants aren't capable of long-distance migration. Microclimates can offer refuge in the places they already live.

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Researchers detailed the benefits of microclimates this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Refugia buffer species from adverse climate change, and so they could play an important role in our response to this huge challenge," Suggitt said. "This includes making sure that important refugia are protected. Where refugia do not occur naturally, pre-existing engineering or infrastructure projects could be adapted to ensure that variable terrain is left behind and available for our wildlife to use."

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