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As Wildlife Moves North, Will Driftless Landscapes Provide a Refuge from Climate Change?

hills and valleys in Wisconsin
Photo from the driftless

Climate change has been an issue for decades, and currently scientists are concerned about how it's affecting plant and animal species across the country. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures are expected to rise two to four degrees in the next century, already having risen 1.5 degrees centigrade in the last century.

Jack Williams, a UW-Madison geologist and geographer claims that this is comparable to the rising of temperatures around 8,000 and 19,000 years ago when Earth came out of the last ice age. However, the difference today lies in the fact that the climate is warming at a much faster rate. As expected, this global change in temperature is threatening the lives of plants and animals everywhere.

“Climate change is happening about 10 times faster than the recovery after the ice age,” says Ryan O’Connor, conservative ecologist with the DNR on a technical advisory committee for the project. “Species just can't keep up.”

Photo of the Driftless area in Wisconsin
Simpson Street Free Press

According to recent studies, species are already moving around 11 miles north and 36 feet higher in elevation each decade to find more accommodating environments. Here in the midwest, species commonly found in the southeast are now being seen around Wisconsin and trees native to Iowa are growing in Madison and Minneapolis. In addition, species such as the snowshoe hare that rely on snow cover to stay safe are now exposed to more predators.

A study led by scientists at The Nature Conservancy found a strong correlation between geological diversity and biological diversity. In particular, locations with steep slopes and various types of soil create microclimates that are important for the survival of certain species during the rapid warming of the planet. These microclimates reduce the number of miles a species must travel for resources to survive.

O’Connor claims that although climate change is a huge issue, there is still uncertainty that complicates the issue and scientists struggle to determine their next steps. Nick Miller, director of science and strategy for The Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin, says that knowing about these microclimates can help guide conservation efforts to protect natural resources that will be more valuable in the future. “Conservation isn't about preserving it all,” Miller says, “It’s about finding the best fit between people’s needs, and nature’s needs. Those are interactive. People need nature, and nature needs people.”

[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal; Conservation Gateway; WI DNR]


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