Thrift (Armeria maritime)

This patch of Thrift (Armeria maritime) is growing close to rocks that have grown hot in the sun, raising the local temperature. The photograph was taken with a thermographic camera.

Image: Jonathan Bennie and Andrew Suggitt

Understanding microclimate could improve wildlife conservation management in a warming world, say researchers

Understanding the relevance of microclimate for wildlife may improve the effectiveness of conservation management in a warming world; say a group of researchers who have this week published an article discussing the topic in the popular conservation magazine, British Wildlife.

In the publication, the authors draw attention to the science of microclimate (a phenomenon whereby climate changes over metres and centimetres) and outline a number of practical considerations for conservation in a warming world.
 
Microclimate is brought about by changes in local site conditions: local differences in soil type, soil moisture, surface slopes, and vegetation mean that almost all wildlife experiences microclimate effects.
 
Traditional, coarse-scale modelling approaches for wildlife mean that most of the individuals being studied, for example plants or animals, do not actually experience the approximated climate at their location. This inaccuracy can affect researchers’ abilities to understand and predict the effects of changes on individuals or populations. It is therefore very important that microclimate is both understood and considered in conservation management research and practice.
 
Dr Andrew Suggitt of the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall  said: "Microclimate has always been considered important in conservation, because it tells us why some wildlife sites are more suitable than others. But in the context of climate change, it may also offer opportunities for some species to avoid higher levels of warming or drying. Given attempts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions are not proceeding as hoped, any boost we can give to wildlife already struggling to adapt must be considered vital."
 
The article illustrates the importance of microclimate with a number of case studies, including the construction of Cow Green Reservoir in Upper Teesdale; and the role of modern technology in capturing microclimate effects.
 
The article’s conclusion highlights that lessons learnt from species’ responses to past climate change may not apply to 21st century Britain, and that the historic loss of habitats has reduced the capacity of species to adapt to change by moving to new sites. A greater awareness and consideration of microclimate however may help identify and recognise the role of refugia for threatened species, while also benefitting those that require specific conditions to thrive.  
 
‘Microclimate, climate change and wildlife conservation’ is published in the February edition of British Wildlife. It was written by: Drs Andrew Suggitt, Ilya Maclean, Jonathan Bennie and John J Hopkins (Honorary Fellow) from the ESI; Dr Jenny Hodgson from the University of Liverpool; and Dr Nicholas Macgregor, an ecologist at Natural England.
 
The ESI is working with businesses and enterprises across all sectors of the economy in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate research and expertise into innovative business practices, products and services in order to respond to the challenges of environmental change. It has been funded by the ERDF Convergence Programme (£22.9M) and the South West Regional Development Agency (£6.6M), with significant support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Date: 26 February 2014

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