Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Everything is Exquisitely in Balance…Or Could Be

By Dr. Grant Ballard, Chief Science Officer

The full IPCC report has 18 chapters, covering different ecosystems, regions, and risk types.

A few weeks ago, the world’s leading body of climate scientists, the IPCC, released another sobering report. It describes ongoing significant changes to our climate and warns of what’s to come if we don’t rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unlike previous reports, this one highlights the need for climate adaptation: We need to learn to cope with a changing climate while reducing emissions to stave off the worst of those changes and “transition to a more resilient state.” We need to implement multiple-benefit solutions that enhance biodiversity, availability of clean water, and human health and well-being, while simultaneously maintaining and restoring the ability of oceans, soils, grasslands, and forests to sequester carbon. Key to adapting to the changing climate is conserving and restoring biodiversity, allowing ecosystems to continue the critical work of taking care of us all.

As one example, consider the pollinators (largely insects, birds, and bats). A UN report in 2019 found that losses of pollinators due to habitat degradation, pesticides, and climate change already threatens as much as $577 billion worth of agricultural yields. Pollinator declines are leading farmers in some regions to resort to hand-pollination, an extremely time-consuming and expensive process. But without pollination, our food supply collapses. Planting hedgerows, a practice incentivized with funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is one low-tech solution that provides multiple benefits, including providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, wind-breaks that slow down erosion of topsoil, and carbon sequestration.

Another example, and an important one in a state with as much coastline as California, is “living shorelines.” Ninety percent of our wetlands have been lost to development in the past 200 years. The structures that have replaced them, such as rip-rap and seawalls, do not naturally adjust to changes in sea-level, and do not provide much habitat for native species. They can also exacerbate erosion in adjacent, often less-privileged communities. Natural habitat such as tidal marshes and sandy dunes are crucial buffers to a flood risk that will only increase with a changing climate, and they also provide habitat for California’s imperiled biodiversity. Projects like the multi-partner “Our Coast Our Future” identify places that are vulnerable to increasing flood risk from sea-level rise. Communities are using such tools to explore whether nature-based approaches can reduce these threats through their climate adaptation planning efforts.

For a final example, let’s take a trip to the Southern Ocean, one of the most pristine places in the world. As humans have increasingly overfished easier-to-reach places, the high latitudes are now “the Last Ocean,” the last place on earth where large fish are still relatively numerous. The ocean is one of the biggest carbon sinks available to us, and increasing evidence suggests that this sink depends on intact biodiversity. Fish, whales, and seabirds all eat lots of krill, and krill eat diatoms and other algae. That algae, when left uneaten, is a massive carbon store that sinks to the ocean floor. When krill numbers get too high, as could happen through overfishing, more of the algae gets eaten before it can sequester the maximum possible amount of carbon, disrupting a cycle that has been in balance for far longer than humans have existed. International partnerships have worked to set aside large marine reserves in the Southern Ocean, with more proposed. Unfortunately, the United States, China, and Russia will all need to agree to do more.

These examples highlight three important lessons: First, our world is highly interdependent, and not just the natural world. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains around the world. And we’re seeing it again with the war in Ukraine: changes in one part of the world quickly ripple around our interconnected global economy, further limiting our capacity to cope with climate change.

The second important lesson is that the long-term monitoring of species and ecosystems that our organization and others have been doing for decades is vitally important. Looking back over 50 years enables us to look 50 years ahead with relative confidence, to determine if a change is within the range of normal variability, or something more concerning.

The final lesson is that it is urgently necessary to prioritize and mobilize conservation actions as we consider climate adaptation measures. California has taken a leadership role with the bold commitment to restore or conserve 30% of its natural and working lands and waters by 2030, a goal increasingly shared by governments around the world known as “30×30.” Rigorous analysis is needed to determine which actions will provide the maximum benefits, with considerations of habitat, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and resilience of human communities.

If we’re smart enough to heed these lessons and use a scientific approach to prioritize nature-based solutions, we will see benefits ripple out across the interconnected world, ensuring that thriving wildlife and human populations will survive well into the future.