Helping dying species find new habitats
Speaking of finding a habitable planet, the Sept. 24 journal Science has highlighted an interesting debate in the conservation community about recolonizing species that are going under because of climate change. The hope is that they can prevent species from going extinct by giving them a new home, one that is now habitable because of changing climate conditions.
Some 20-30 percent of the Earth’s species are at high risk of extinction if global temperatures exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As climate change causes shifts in habitats, making old homes inhospitable and new areas welcoming to a species, the major question becomes should humans actively assist that transition. From a more theoretical standpoint, should habitats be considered stable, timeless places to be preserved as nature reserves or parks? Or are habitats dynamic and changing with climate change being just the latest example of the never ending force impermanence on the landscape?
These are questions that even the most seasoned of ecologists scratch their heads over. One the one hand, the article points out, moving a species may be the last hope of saving it from extinction. On the other, bringing it to a new place could open up a series of unknown consequences to the other species living there, similar to the destruction caused by other introduced species. Do you save one species and put the others at risk?
What’s clear is that there isn’t much time to make good decisions. Species are dying off at an alarming rate and ecological studies take much time and thought to generate satisfactory answers. Inaction by scientists could mean that citizens’ groups and agencies make decisions on their own.
“Assisted colonization,” as it’s called, is a bit like geo-engineering. People are seeking a technological solution to the crisis because other solutions seem hopeless. But we surely don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into, or whether we can pull it off.