Research Article: Biodiversity Areas under Threat: Overlap of Climate Change and Population Pressures on the World’s Biodiversity Priorities

Date Published: January 26, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Juliann E. Aukema, Narcisa G. Pricope, Gregory J. Husak, David Lopez-Carr, Stephanie S. Romanach.


Humans and the ecosystem services they depend on are threatened by climate change. Places with high or growing human population as well as increasing climate variability, have a reduced ability to provide ecosystem services just as the need for these services is most critical. A spiral of vulnerability and ecosystem degradation often ensues in such places. We apply different global conservation schemes as proxies to examine the spatial relation between wet season precipitation, population change over three decades, and natural resource conservation. We pose two research questions: 1) Where are biodiversity and ecosystem services vulnerable to the combined effects of climate change and population growth? 2) Where are human populations vulnerable to degraded ecosystem services? Results suggest that globally only about 20% of the area between 50 degrees latitude North and South has experienced significant change–largely wetting–in wet season precipitation. Approximately 40% of rangelands and 30% of rainfed agriculture lands have experienced significant precipitation changes, with important implications for food security. Over recent decades a number of critical conservation areas experienced high population growth concurrent with significant wetting or drying (e.g. the Horn of Africa, Himalaya, Western Ghats, and Sri Lanka), posing challenges not only for human adaptation but also to the protection and sustenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Identifying areas of climate and population risk and their overlap with conservation priorities can help to target activities and resources that promote biodiversity and ecosystem services while improving human well-being.

Partial Text

Global climate change, with increasing variability in precipitation and temperature, sea level rise, and extreme weather events, poses challenges to humans as well as to biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Our approach consists of a multi-step combination of several spatiotemporally explicit datasets to identify areas of overlap between long-term precipitation changes, population changes and areas of concern for biodiversity conservation. We identified areas across the globe that have experienced significant changes in rainfall over the past 30 years. We use the climatological wettest three months of precipitation as a percentage of the mean annual precipitation received, measured as a standardized precipitation index (SPI). We chose this metric to account for variations in timing and in quantities of rainfall across the globe making comparisons possible. In areas of rain-fed agriculture, this metric may be a proxy for agricultural potential (along with temperature, evaporation rate and other factors we do not directly account for). We propose that areas experiencing greater magnitudes of change may experience greater direct effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as changes in species composition or rates of primary productivity. We restrict our analysis to between 50 degrees latitude north and south to align with the chosen precipitation product. This spatial limitation is imposed by rainfall training data, which identifies a relationship between cloud top temperatures and rainfall rate [40]. We combined the climate data with spatial data on population change, biodiversity conservation priorities, and human livelihoods and examined the spatial intersection of these datasets in ARCGIS 10.1.

Between 50 degrees latitude north and south, we found that 17.5% of the terrestrial area has become wetter compared to only 3.7% that has undergone significant drying over the last three decades (Fig 1). At the same spatial extent and time period, we calculated a 38% average increase in total population density using the GPW dataset. The IndoMalay realm has experienced more wetting (37.3%) than average, as has the Afrotropic Realm (26.1%), while the Nearctic (6.7%) and Neotropic (6.2%) realms have experienced more drying than the global average. Overall, approximately 10.6% of the Palearctic realm has experienced wetting while only 2.3% has been undergoing drying trends over the last three decades.

In our dataset we found that globally there has been relatively little wetting and very little drying during the wettest three months over the past three decades that meet our criteria. While this is encouraging, there is nuance in where this wetting and drying has occurred. Furthermore, we used just one metric of changing climate, specifically a change in the wettest three months of the year at each location across the globe. That timing captures a critical period for the agricultural or general vegetation development at any given location, but may miss some meaningful changes in other parts of the year. For instance, some of the drying noted in the Greater Horn of Africa is not identified in annual trends because of increases in rainfall during the second season. Furthermore, our criteria for screening removed many locations where large changes in millimeters weren’t large enough relative to the mean. This was done with agriculture in mind, but certainly other vegetation types may be adversely impacted by trends (large or small), that didn’t pass through our screening process. Furthermore, we are examining historical precipitation trends that include both census-based and projected data. As such, these data may not necessarily be indicative of future trends in all areas.

Areas with high population growth and changing precipitation patterns, such as the horn of Africa, are vulnerable to environmental degradation and food insecurity. Healthy ecosystems are critical for maintaining livelihoods. The patterns we have found indicate areas where changes in precipitation and population increase could lead to ecosystem degradation and loss of ecosystem services. In addition, this analysis can be used to test hypotheses about the impacts of wetting and drying on agricultural extensification and habitat conversion by examining remote sensing data in similar areas that have experienced different types of precipitation change. Future research may usefully integrate finer scale population and climate variables and additional time periods of human socio-economic vulnerability data. While more research is needed to advance more carefully informed policy solutions, building on the growing literature in the area, our results reveal acute confluence of human population pressures to climate change in areas of high biodiversity priority, such as Eastern Africa, Himalaya, Western Ghats, and Sri Lanka, suggesting opportunities for economic, health, policy, and healthcare sectors to synergize targeted efforts towards ameliorating coupled human and planetary health and wellbeing in areas of high priority for both.




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