New Study: Brighter Future for Birds Is Within Reach



By Dr. Jeff Wells

October 11, 2019 | National Audubon Society

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As we mark World Migratory Bird Day, billions of birds that hatched in the Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska are pouring south to wintering areas across the Americas. Those birds can’t ponder what the future holds for their descendants, most of which will face intensifying threats, especially from climate change. But scientists have found a way to gaze into the possible futures for these birds.

In a landmark new study, Audubon scientists used modern computer forecasting approaches to provide a glimpse into three possible scenarios for North American birds.

The results of the worst possible future are stark: if global temperatures rise to 3.0 degrees C, two-thirds of the 604 bird species modeled would disappear from significant portions of their current range and would not be able to make up for the lost range with enough newly occupied area.

But another future is also possible. If world leaders hold global temperatures rise below 1.5 degrees C, about three-quarters of the climate vulnerable species would no longer be at risk from climate impacts.

That’s like telling people about to be hit by a hurricane there is a way to turn it into a rainstorm by the time it reaches their shores.

That is hopeful news, made better with the realization that humanity already knows and is working on the solutions that will weaken that climate change hurricane.

Drastically lowering industrial greenhouse gas emissions is the very highest of priorities. But we must also not forget the imperative of implementing nature-based solutions like maintaining intact habitats that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Protecting large landscapes increases the likelihood of keeping those carbon stores safely tucked away where they do not contribute to climate change. At the same time, protecting those large landscapes gives birds and other animals and plants their best chance to have healthy populations resilient to the stresses imposed by the changing climate and better able to adapt. Large protected areas also provide spaces that can allow wildlife and plants to shift their ranges to accommodate the new conditions imposed by the climate change that is already underway.

The Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska is one of the world’s largest storehouses of carbon, the result of thousands of years of accumulation and cold storage across this vast landscape. Canada’s Boreal Forest alone is estimated to have a minimum of over 200 billon metric tons of carbon stored in its soils, peat, under permafrost and in it trees and other plants—the equivalent of up to 36 years’ worth of global carbon emissions.

The Audubon study showed that in the worst-case scenario future, birds of the Boreal Forest would be among those hardest hit by climate change. This is especially alarming, since the boreal is the nesting grounds for billions of North America’s birds.

Fortunately, the Boreal Forest region is also the home of some of the most forward-thinking solutions. Indigenous governments and communities across Canada are at the forefront of establishing new Indigenous-led models for protecting and conserving vast carbon-rich Boreal Forest landscapes. They recognize that turning a climate hurricane into a rainstorm will require solutions that match the scale of the problem.

Here are just some examples of recent progress:

  • The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation led the creation of the six-million-acre (24,000 km2) Thaidene Nene Indigenous Protected Area in the Northwest Territories.

  • The Dehcho First Nations established the 3.5 million (14,218 km2) Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area/National Wildlife Area west of Yellowknife, NWT.

  • In the border region between Manitoba and Ontario, four Anishinaabe First Nations have established the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site that protects millions of acres (thousands of km2) of boreal forest and wetland habitat.

  • Further north in Manitoba, the Sayisi Dene First Nation has begun planning to protect 12 million acres (50,000 km2) of intact habitat within the pristine Seal River watershed.

  • Over in eastern Ontario, the Moose Cree First Nation is working diligently toward protection of their million-acre (4,000 km2) North French River Watershed.

These are real solutions to averting the worst possible future outlined in the Audubon study for birds and, by extension, to us humans since we breathe the same air, drink the same water, and endure the same temperatures as the birds. Let us all follow the example being shown by these Indigenous governments and communities and push all governments to start enacting solutions quickly and at the necessary scale to turn a proverbial climate change hurricane into a rainstorm.


 Photo credit: Jeff Nadler