World's Protected Areas Shelter Humans From Climate Change Impacts

The world’s protected wild areas are a hugely important buffer to the impacts of climate change – these areas are currently absorbing much of the carbon humans are releasing, now that the ocean is reaching saturation.

Over the past 20 years, protected zones have expanded substantially and now take up an area the size of Russia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

As of 2010, 12.7% of the earth’s land is protected (17 million square kilometers), up from 8.8% in 1990. The United Nations has set a target of conserving 17% by 2020, which means adding another 6 million square kilometers (twice the size of Argentina or India).

This sharp growth is crucial to conserve pure water, store greenhouse gases and protect wildlife and plant species. Wetlands, mangroves and other important features reduce the impact of natural disasters.

"Some of the world’s protected areas are properly managed but many, many of them aren’t," Trevor Sandwith, director of  IUCN’s Global Protected Areas Programme, told Reuters.

One way to meet the United Nations target would be to recognize land that indigenous peoples control, since they are  better at conserving it than governments.

Climate change is already causing rapid, massive changes with "cascading effects" on ecosystems and biodiversity, says a report by the US Geological Survey.

For example, changes occuring for winter weather – how much the soil freezes, the amount of snow cover and air temperatures – affect the ability of ecosystems to store carbon. 

Longer growing seasons and warmer winters are already increasing the likelihood of pest outbreaks, leading to tree mortality and more intense, extensive fires. 

Coastal habitats are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and more severe storms. The loss of wetlands and coral reefs leave the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts particularly vulnerable.

"Geographic range and timing changes are causing cascading effects that extend through ecosystems, bringing together species that haven’t previously interacted and creating mismatches between animals and their food sources," says  Nancy Grimm, a lead author of the report.

Read the report:

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