Climate change

Challenges in conservation plans for largely untouched lands

Abstract intactness is a commonly used measured for ecological integrity, especially when scientists have a goal to evaluate conservation status of landscape scale.  Arctic and sub-Arctic regions can be considered as almost untouched from this point of view. For example, A recent landscape assessment suggests that 95% of Alaska shows no measured direct or indirect impacts of human development on the landscape. At the same time, we know that because of climate change Earth is losing significant percent of ice lands.  

In the latest article “Ecological integrity and conservation challenges in a rapidly changing Arctic: A call for new approaches in large intact landscapes” written by professor of University of Alaska Anchorage, E. Jamie Trammell and his colleagues, the subject of right perception of scientific measurements raises on a first place. 

Please also read: The first glacier funeral

Landscape integrity

Landscape integrity datasets represent a measure of a landscape’s naturalness, or its inverse, the level of human modification. Generally referred to as human footprint modeling, a hybrid approach was developed here by incorporating distance, density, and spatially explicit fuzzy logic methods for quantifying the impacts of anthropocentric infrastructure on the landscape. 

The most common approach for estimating ecological integrity is through mapping ecological or landscape intactness. Intactness, defined by Carter, is a ‘‘quantifiable estimate of naturalness measured on a gradient of anthropogenic influence across broad landscapes or ecoregions‘‘.

Misleading statistics

Approximately 86 000 km2 of Alaska is directly or indirectly modified by human development, approximately the area of Ireland. While fragmentation effects may appear relatively small in terms of percentage of area, the absolute area of habitat lost or impacted, such as wetlands filled, placer mines constructed, or forests clear-cut, is far from negligible. Furthermore, levels of intactness do not appear to be related to levels of biodiversity. Alaska’s size and relatively high levels of intactness, as traditionally measured, lead to a common (mis)perception that it can absorb significant landscape change without loss of ecosystem services and ecological integrity.

Professor’s assessment found that approximately 95% of the state has ‘‘very high’’ intactness (defined as very little to no human modification), and 3% of the state has ‘‘high’’ or ‘‘medium’’ intactness, while less than 0.5% has ‘‘very low’’ intactness. Very few areas in the contiguous US approach these levels of intactness, including those areas that have been intensely managed for biodiversity and protected from development for over a century (Trammell and Aisu 2015). Yet, when summed across all levels of impact, approximately 86 000 km2 of Alaska is directly or indirectly modified by human devel- opment (Trammell and Aisu 2015), approximately the area of Ireland. While fragmentation effects may appear rela- tively small in terms of percentage of area, the absolute area of habitat lost or impacted, such as wetlands filled, placer mines constructed, or forests clear-cut, is far from negligible.

What are indicators that can show effectiveness in conservation measures in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions?

  • Ecological condition-specific targets
  • Incorporation of ecologically relevant data to address short-term and long-term responses of the system, at a minimum would include:
  1.  Permanent and seasonal anthropogenic footprint s Climate-linked perturbation
  2. Direct and indirect pollution
  3. Invasive species
  4. Legacy or contemporary overharvesting
  • Linkage of local-scale processes to landscape-scale models

Arctic and sub-Arctic systems, as well as other large intact areas, provide unique opportunities for conservation planning, but require tools and approaches appropriate to unfragmented landscapes undergoing rapid climate-driven ecological transformation. We conclude with possible directions for developing more appropriate metrics for measuring ecological integrity in these systems.

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