Mapping Climate Refuges

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Climate refugia, that is places which can withstand climate change better than other regions and buffer the impacts of climate change, are seen as potentially critical in minimizing impacts over the next century. Mapping these refugia and prioritizing them for protection could be a key goal for land managers as recent work has shown.

In a recent study, it was found that 15 percent of natural lands in California can serve as climate refugia, where the natural vegetation of trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials combine to offer plant diversity and protection. These areas could be less affected by climate change and could help conserve key natural resources and services. These places are more able to withstand wider fluctuations in temperature and precipitation. Areas such as the northwest Klamath Mountains, northern Sierra Nevada, and Central Coast contain vegetation that can be more resilient to climate fluctuations. Vegetation such as mixed conifer, Douglas fir, an sage scrub are particularly resilient. This also means that other vegetation types may face greater stress as they are less able to adapt to temperature/precipitation fluctuations. Using simulations to look at climate fluctuations in California over the next century where greenhouse gases continue their upward trajectory, about half the state’s native vegetation is expected to be under threat. This makes it more critical to conserve the more resilient places as future resource areas and areas that can mitigate some effects of climate change.[1]

This work in California also highlights a wider goal in helping regions in North America and beyond to protect refugia locations. The Refugia Research Coalition is attempting to encourage research that identifies refugia regions, synthesize research for the public, and produce maps and resources so that resource managers can better protect areas and identify research priorities.[2] The coalition also uses earlier research that has highlighted adaptation and mitigation strategies that identify climate refugia that can be used by conservation efforts, where a conservation cycle was used to help researchers and efforts better plan efforts.[3] Not all researchers have agreed that climate refugia may offer havens for species and biodiversity, as some recent research has suggested that climate models and biodiversity maps suggest these refugia offer short-term refuges and could be vulnerable to wide fluctuations in climate in the coming decades.[4]

Examples of the physical basis for geographic locations likely to experience reduced rates of climate change. Source: Morelli, T. L., Daly, C., Dobrowski, S. Z., Dulen, D. M., Ebersole, J. L., Jackson, S. T., ... & Nydick, K. R. (2016). Managing climate change refugia for climate adaptation. PLoS One, 11(8), e0159909.  CC BY 4.0
Examples of the physical basis for geographic locations likely to experience reduced rates of climate change. Source: Morelli, T. L., Daly, C., Dobrowski, S. Z., Dulen, D. M., Ebersole, J. L., Jackson, S. T., … & Nydick, K. R. (2016). Managing climate change refugia for climate adaptation. PLoS One, 11(8), e0159909. CC BY 4.0

Other research has also attempted to look at animal life, particularly fish which are critical for food resources in a future climate change scenario. Research has suggested water temperature change will substantially alter species’ adaptation in different regions. However, researchers also created maps of potential climate refugia for fish by looking at discharge rates and groundwater availability, which can help supply and counter potential changes to water temperature and chemistry. Similar to plant species, mapping and focusing efforts to protect water quality and creating frameworks to evaluate benefits in areas for species could enable managers to better focus conservation efforts in given regions.[5] Another study highlighted fisheries that should prioritize climate refugia practices are not monitoring closely conservation practices, making them vulnerable to over fishing and other threats that may negate their resilience under climate change scenarios.[6]

More scientists see that climate refugia might be a best option to focus conservation efforts by identifying these resources and focusing conservation efforts in these select areas. Other research has highlighted that even these areas could be vulnerable to climate change and the window of time they offer in conservation efforts might be limited. Nevertheless, increasingly we are seeing more maps and identification of areas that protect flora and some fauna from more extreme changes forecast to occur to our climate in the coming decades. Even if these areas are effective in withstanding climate change, other work has highlighted these areas need close monitoring to enable them to mitigate other threats such as over-exploitation of resources.


[1]    For more on climate refugia in California, see:  Morelli, T.L., Barrows, C.W., Ramirez, A.R., Cartwright, J.M., Ackerly, D.D., Eaves, T.D., Ebersole, J.L., Krawchuk, M.A., Letcher, B.H., Mahalovich, M.F., Meigs, G.W., Michalak, J.L., Millar, C.I., Quiñones, R.M., Stralberg, D., Thorne, J.H., 2020. Climate‐change refugia: biodiversity in the slow lane. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18, 228–234.

[2]    For more on climate refugia research efforts in North America, see:


[3]    For more on research and use of the conservation cycle for climate refugia, see:   Morelli, T.L., Daly, C., Dobrowski, S.Z., Dulen, D.M., Ebersole, J.L., Jackson, S.T., Lundquist, J.D., Millar, C.I., Maher, S.P., Monahan, W.B., Nydick, K.R., Redmond, K.T., Sawyer, S.C., Stock, S., Beissinger, S.R., 2016. Managing Climate Change Refugia for Climate Adaptation. PLOS ONE 11, e0159909.

[4]    For more on a counter-argument regarding climate refugia and species diversity, see:  Brown, S.C., Wigley, T.M.L., Otto-Bliesner, B.L., Rahbek, C., Fordham, D.A., 2020. Persistent Quaternary climate refugia are hospices for biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Nature Climate Change 10, 244–248.

[5]    For more on the protection of fish populations using climate refugia concepts, see:  Ebersole, J.L., Quiñones, R.M., Clements, S., Letcher, B.H., 2020. Managing climate refugia for freshwater fishes under an expanding human footprint. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18, 271–280.

[6]    For more on fisheries and management effectiveness as climate refugia, see:  McClanahan, T., Abunge, C., 2020. Perceptions of governance effectiveness and fisheries restriction options in a climate refugia. Biological Conservation 246, 108585.



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