New project funded: European Conservation for the 21st Century

The comma butterfly has moved 220 kilometres northwards from central England to Edinburgh, in only two decades

Europe is facing a perfect storm of changes in climate and in how we use our land. High-profile, international projects such as ALARM have found that these changes will drastically alter habitat throughout Europe, turning many species out of their current ranges. Species that are driven out of their historic habitats will survive if they can find a new home elsewhere. But the ecological communities we are accustomed to – the systems of species that live in the same area and often rely upon each other for survival – will be pulled apart as individual species go their separate ways. We rely on these ecological communities for vital functions such as crop pollination, carbon storage, and groundwater management (we call these functions ‘ecosystem services’). Thus for the protection of both biodiversity and our own well-being it is urgent that we figure out when and where animals and plants are going to move, and what this means for ecological communities. Most importantly, we must find ways to mitigate the havoc wreaked by environmental change. These are the goals of a new project that I am coordinating. The project is ‘European Conservation for the 21st Century’ (its less than imaginative acronym is ‘EC21C’) and it a collaboration amongst seven international research groups, that is funded by the European Union.

At the core of this project is the union of multiple different scientific tools for studying ecological change. Tackling the biodiversity crisis across Europe means we have to study how thousands of animals and plants will be affected by climate and land-use change. To do this we have to understand the types of climate and vegetation that each species calls home, and then predict where this habitat will be found in the future. However, figuring out whether species will be able to move fast enough to keep up with the shifts in their habitat, we will also have to study how far individuals can travel, and whether they encounter barriers, such as unsuitable habitat, along the way. To understand how changes in species distributions will disrupt ecosystem services, we need to evaluate the functions that are carried out by the group of species that makes up a community. Each of these sets of predictions requires a different tool – a model, a field study, a theoretical analysis. Several of these tools are already developed, many by members of our team, and some we will develop during this project, but none can tackle the problem by itself. So what’s really exciting about this project is that we bring together so many different ways of studying environmental change to take a look at the really big picture of the future of biodiversity in Europe.

Green Infrastructure: Trinity River Corridor, a 9-mile urban park that provides flood protection, recreation, transportation and biodiversity conservation to Dallas, Texas.

In truth, there are several potential futures facing Europe, and the outcome depends on the policies that are chosen by the EU, national governments, and even your local town council. Most land in Europe is already being pretty heavily used by us, so we can’t just slap nature reserves down wherever species are at risk. Even if we could, environmental change would just drive endangered species out of nature reserves (this is happening already). The budding alternative is the green infrastructure approach ‘GI’, which is now officially part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Any policy that might affect the environment is now supposed to explicitly take into account the impacts on biodiversity. This applies from the EU Common Agricultural Policy to local land-planning decisions. Helping species to move to new homes, and ecological communities to keep functioning, are tasks that need to be undertaken by every village, county and country throughout the EU. Because GI sets common goals for all of these areas it is an ideal tool to tackle the biodiversity crisis. However, the success of GI will depend on whether politicians can agree to pass legislation, whether local councils agree to enforce policies, and whether scientists and stakeholders can agree on which policies to recommend. So rather than stick to predicting the doom and gloom of predicting species extinctions in the future, this project will also figure out what kind Green Infrastructure is needed to help species survive in the long term, and ask whether diverse groups such as farmers, local politicians, house building companies and even scientists can work together to make this happen.

The EC21C project kicks off in January 2013, and there will be several research positions opening in the research groups of the project members listed below. And see the job adverts for a technician and a post-doc to work with me.

Project PIs:

  • Regan Early (Coordinating PI) and Miguel Araújo. “Rui Nabeiro” Biodiversity Chair, University of Évora, Portugal.
  • Ingolf Kühn and Jennifer Hauck. Departments of Community Ecology and Environmental Politics at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany.
  • Uno Wennergren. Spatiotemporal Biology lab at the University of Linköping, Sweden
  • Veiko Lehsten. Centre for Studies of Carbon Cycle and Climate Interactions at Lund University, Sweden
  • Xavier Morin. BIOFLUX research group, Functional Ecology Department, University of Montpellier, France.
  • David Vieites. iBioChange research group, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid, Spain.
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