Areas around lakes may provide refuges for wildlife, like these ones in the northern part of the Yukon Plateau (Photo: Hilary Cooke)
However, even in the most stable areas, change is not just possible, but likely. Climate change refugia that are “terrain-mediated” — like higher altitude areas or shaded slopes — may become more vulnerable to change as average temperatures rise and even these relatively cooler locations warm. Other “ecosystem-protected” features, such as peatlands, may be much slower to change, but even these may be subject to “tipping points” — sudden changes caused by events such as permafrost thaw in the north, or changes in the water table caused by human activities such as road building and resource extraction.
Large intact areas offer the best chance to buffer the impacts of climate change. This is partly due to their capacity to facilitate species’ shifts across climatic gradients, like moving to higher altitudes or further north. It is also because of the large ecological inertia stored within intact ecosystems, especially in extensive peatland complexes that have developed over thousands of years, where change has always been a slow process. Equally important is the capacity of large landscapes that can accommodate the large “stand-replacing” fires that characterize the boreal region — these are fires in the overstory of a forest that can initiate forest regrowth or succession.
Canada has committed to protecting 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030. Understanding how to help wildlife survive the impacts of climate change should be a cornerstone of this work. By identifying areas with strong potential to serve as climate-change refugia, we can help ensure that biodiversity protection efforts are as effective as possible.
We can also use this refugia framework to address the impacts of human activities on sites that are particularly important for wildlife survival in the face of climate change. For example, avoiding draining peatlands through mining operations or logging old forests that have valuable climate buffering properties, can help to maintain areas that are naturally resistant to change.