Climate Change and Biodiversity Prioritisation

With limited resources available for safeguarding the biodiversity values of the region, rigorous prioritisation is essential – now more than ever with the added challenge of climate change.

Biodiversity prioritisation is not a new concept and over recent years in the Wet Tropics region, sophisticated prioritisation frameworks have taken a multitude of information into account in order to determine where the best investments for biodiversity can be made.

An example of this is the development of the Interactive Biodiversity Assessment and Planning Framework (IBAPF) which was led by the Far North Queensland Region of Councils (FNQROC) and the Strategic Offsets Investment Corridors mapping, developed through a partnership between Terrain and FNQROC based on this framework.

However, until recently, the missing element in this prioritisation process has been the future climate conditions.

Historically, we have based our understanding of the pre-European location and extent of our ecosystems as a reference point for deciding where to invest for connectivity. The challenge of restoring habitat to its pre-European condition has been extremely challenging and there are very few success stories.

Climate change…changes everything

Climate change over the next few decades will reduce the need for using pre-European conditions as a reference.

Ecologists are advising that now, more than ever, it is essential to plan for the future and not base everything on the past, as changes in climate conditions will need to be a key factor in decision making about restoration.

Many species have a narrow climate tolerance, especially endemic species that are unique to a particular habitat and climate. With changes in the temperature, rainfall, evaporation and humidity, some species may no longer be able to survive in their current locations.

Other areas may become more suitable for them and over time, they may need to ‘move’. If there is no suitable habitat for them to move through or resettle in, this will mean their survival will be at risk.

This is particularly concerning for endemic species, especially those that are only found here in the Wet Tropics region.

All Time Biodiversity Mapping

If their current location becomes unsuitable and they are not able to move between habitats because of inhospitable land uses such as urban development, large stretches of agriculture with no functional corridors or a lack of suitable habitat elsewhere in cooler areas, then these species will be threatened with extinction.

New science can help

Fortunately, we now have projections of what our future climate will be. We can use this information to predict the areas in the landscape that may be climatically suitable in the future for our flora and fauna species.

If there is habitat available and species are able to relocate there, then these areas can act as important refugia.

Click here for a more detailed presentation of this cutting edge science by Dr. April Reside.

Throughout this project, researchers have used the latest future climate models in conjunction with information about the climate conditions that are suitable for a range of vertebrate species of Australia. This research has answered several key questions:

  1. Where in the landscape is it currently suitable for EACH species to live, as well as which areas of the landscape are home to the most number of species, especially endemic species (current hot spots for biodiversity)?
  2. Where in the landscape will the climate remain suitable for these species in 2055 and 2085 based on the latest climate projection models?
  3. After bringing these different layers together, where in the landscape is:
  • suitable now, but not in the future (lost areas)?
  • suitable in the future but not now (gained areas)? and
  • suitable now AND in the FUTURE (always suitable)?

This information is available for EVERY vertebrate species of the Wet Tropics. This will be extremely useful for recovery planning for these species, particularly ones that are currently very restricted in their habitat.

Species included in this sample are:

  • Lemuroid Ringtail Possum
  • Northern Leaf Tailed Gecko
  • Macleay’s Honeyeater
  • Musky Rat-kangaroo
  • Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo
  • Green Ringtail Possum
  • Mahogany Glider

Check out more climatic species distributions online using the CliMAS Tool:

Planning for the whole landscape

Planning for a single species is not always going to get the best biodiversity result overall.

The analysis which combines the data from ALL species shines a spotlight on the areas of greatest current and future habitat value.

The areas that will be the “hot spots” of the future require protection and careful management. It is here in these areas that we have the highest chance of safeguarding the greatest diversity of species.

For planning purposes, this information is vital for a number of reasons:

  • It may not be worthwhile investing heavily in the restoration of habitat that will no longer be suitable in 50 years due to a change in the climatic conditions
  • It will be important to protect and enhance those areas that are likely to support biodiversity currently as well as into the future
  • It may be necessary to consider building connectivity between current habitat and areas which will remain important in the future, to enable movement between these areas if necessary.

Climate future is not the only consideration

There are of course many other pieces of information to be taken into consideration when planning. For example, willing landholders or specific investment opportunities may be determining factors in where habitat restoration occurs.

If a future suitable area in terms of climate conditions is in the middle of a major intensive agricultural zone or a large city, it may not be feasible to create the habitat that is necessary for biodiversity to thrive.

However, it is an important factor to take into consideration and to ensure that we are investing in the future resilience of our biodiversity and ecosystems in the most effective way.

Once finalised, this data will be integrated with the existing biodiversity prioritisation framework, which will ensure that decisions are being made for now and for the future.

Watch this space for progress on this process of integrating the climate suitability data.