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Research shows how climate change can affect nature conservation areas

Publicado em 30 outubro 2019

Por Chloé Pinheiro, da Agência FAPESP

Brazil has the largest expanse of tropical ecosystems in protected areas, but a significant portion of these reserves can be vulnerable to the effects of continued global climate change, according to a study supported by São Paulo Research Foundation – FAPESP and published in the journal Conservation biology.

The study analyzed the vulnerability to climate change of 993 protected areas throughout Brazil, covering all areas of more than 50 square kilometers (km²), including national parks, ecological stations, sustainable development reserves and indigenous areas defined by the National Foundation for Native Peoples (FUNAI).

The principal investigator of the study was David Montenegro Lapola, a researcher at the Center for Meteorological and Climate Research of the University of Campinas (CEPAGRI-UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo. The research started during the scientific initiation of Fernanda Sueko Ogawa with a grant from FAPESP (https: // /NL /totes /136374 /climate change projections-from-the-IPCC-fifth-report-inside-brazilian-protected areas /).

The researchers estimate the resilience of these protected areas and compared the results with predictions about climate change based on indicators from government agencies and previous studies. Of the 993 areas analyzed, 258 were classified as "moderately vulnerable" and 17 were found to be "very vulnerable" to climate change.


The climate change projections used for the study were primarily based on the Regional Climate Change Index (RCCI) developed in 2012 by the Brazilian National Space Research Institute (INPE), a federal governmental institute. The likely impact of climate change and local adaptability (resilience) was measured based on data on native vegetation integrity in and around protected areas, as well as the level of isolation and size.

Estimates of climate-related environmental risks produced by previous studies were also considered. "Extreme climate change could, for example, transform vegetation in the Amazon into Cerrado [Brazilian savanna], while the Pampa [grasslands in the south of Brazil and in parts of Argentina and Uruguay] can become forest, "Lapola said.

The climate change forecasts and hazard assessments were combined with resilience indicators to arrive at the vulnerability ratings. "The classifications are the novelty of this study, allowing us to propose the strategy that is best suited to each area," Lapola said.

The 17 areas with a high vulnerability to climate change together with a low resilience of a total of 20,611 km² are located in the following biomes: Atlantic Rainforest (7), Cerrado (6) and Amazon (4). The 258 areas with average vulnerability were considered moderate in terms of both danger and resilience.

Areas with native vegetation of more than 750,000 km² in total may be at risk in the coming decades.


Protected areas are important to reduce the effects of climate change. "They represent a large carbon store and maintain ecosystems by maintaining pollinators, water resources and services related to our basic needs and food security," said biologist Carlos Joly, member of the steering committee of the FAPESP research program on characterization of biodiversity, conservation, restoration and sustainable use (BIOTA-FAPESP) and co-author of the study.

On the other hand, the expected variations in temperature and rainfall in the coming years can influence these areas, as the Brazilian study shows, the first to produce an analysis focused on conservation units.

"Research has shown that these changes can affect the spread of tree species and the survival of certain species," Joly noted.

In addition to their crucial importance for biodiversity, many of these areas are inhabited by traditional populations – indigenous tribes, coastal fishing communities (caiçaras), river dwellers (ribeirinhos) and farmers. More than 80% of the areas classified as highly or moderately vulnerable by the study are indigenous reserves. "This point deserves special attention given the lack of discussion about how these populations can and should cope with and adapt to climate change so that they and their way of life can continue to exist," Lapola said.

Adjustment strategies

The study proposes four adjustment strategies based on previous research. Each class of vulnerabilities would have a corresponding adjustment strategy. Little or no intervention is required for low-risk resilient areas due to climate change, but their ecosystems must be maintained to serve as biodiversity repositories for restoring other areas.

In areas with average vulnerability, the focus must be on monitoring and conservation. In the most vulnerable areas, the study suggests the implementation of stronger intervention measures, including species relocation, recovery of degraded vegetation, improved inter-area connections and even management of traditional populations in cases of relatively extreme risk to biodiversity.

For both Lapola and Joly, improving connections between protected areas is crucial for the preservation of all biomes. "Ideally, there should be corridors between protected areas to connect one core with the other. This would improve protection and expand species habitats," Lapola said.

"For example, a path adapted to temperatures between 20 ° C and 25 ° C can travel quickly and will want to move if it feels the temperature is rising, but will not have a nearby forest environment to move to if the protected area that is its habitat is small and not connected with others. "

The study defines a lack of connectivity in terms of isolation of an area, analyzing native vegetation within a 10 km radius. Deforestation is one of the factors that leads to a lack of connectivity between areas with native vegetation. "So much so that the most vulnerable areas in the Amazon are those that are already suffering from deforestation," Lapola said.

The next steps in the group's research into the effects of climate change on the protected areas of Brazil include more specific analyzes of the regional contexts that influence vulnerability and the planning of conservation approaches.

However, the authors emphasize the need for action to resolve a number of particularly urgent problems that currently threaten protected areas, such as land ownership disputes, illegal occupation, deforestation, fire, maintenance and shortage of administrative staff, and a lack of resources for supervision and management.

"Much remains to be studied, but the article draws attention to the need to include climate change in government planning for protected areas," Joly said. "It is especially important to raise awareness of the importance of protected areas in an uncertain future climate."