Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Stéphane Boyer, senior lecturer at UNITEC Institute of Technology is worried that plants and animals can’t move fast enough to survive climate change. His solution: give nature a helping hand, by digging up entire ecosystems, and moving them hundreds of miles, to maintain optimum climatic conditions.
Climate change threatens entire ecosystems – let’s pick them up and move them
Climate change poses a major threat to the world’s ecosystems. As the world warms, animals and plants will move to keep pace with their preferred climate, but many will be unable to keep up with the speed of change, particularly if humans are in the way.
Programs to move individual species to protect them from climate change already exist. But they are largely limited to those species that are conspicuous, large and charismatic (mostly mammals and birds).
In any given ecosystem, there could be thousands of species (many of which we still don’t know about). Those capable of migrating may have a chance of reaching more hospitable conditions but most species will not be able to cover the large distances required to find a different climate in the short period of time it will take for their environment to change. These ecosystems are effectively fated to disappear, unless of course they could be moved to a safer location.
Picking up and moving entire ecosystems at risk of being wiped out by climate change could be one way to preserve vulnerable plants, animals and insects. It may sound far-fetched, but actually this technique has already been used to deal with other human impacts.
Many questions remain unanswered. We don’t know how much it will cost, whether people will accept it, or even whether it will do more good than harm. But to protect ecosystems from climate change, we need to consider all the options.
The history of my native Australia is a cautionary tale, on the negative consequences of introducing new species, but also a tale of the adaptability of species.
Rabbits, introduced from temperate England, rapidly colonised the arid Australian desert. They are still a major pest species. For decades, Australia has funded a biological warfare laboratory dedicated to trying to kill the rabbits – so far without lasting success.
The Prickly Pear at its peak took over 15,000 square miles of farmland out of production, because it was so difficult to control. The South American Cactoblastis Cactorum moth was released to control the problem, and largely worked out as expected – though in this case Australia probably got lucky. In other places, Cactoblastis is considered a damaging invasive species.
The poisonous Cane Toad, introduced to control Cane Beetles, rapidly spread throughout tropical regions of Australia, wreaking toxic havoc on native predators, until the more persistent species of local wildlife finally discovered a way to eat them without being poisoned.
My point is, if ecosystems are geographically connected, species will naturally find a way to adapt and / or move in response to climate change, no matter how fast it occurs. There have been many natural abrupt shifts in climate, such as the Younger Dryas, which were a lot faster than anything we are likely to cause. The ecosystem survived just fine.
If ecosystems are geographically isolated from each other, given the havoc individual introduced species can cause, transplanting an entire cross section of one ecosystem into another in my opinion is just environmental vandalism. The combined system will eventually sort itself out, as new patterns emerge. But why do it in the first place?