Protected Areas Are Cooler and Provide Species a Refuge From Climate Change, Study Finds

Protected areas are not only fun to explore, they also provide plenty of benefits, including protecting biodiversity, improving local economies, and even preventing the spread of animal-to-human disease. They’ve also been a tool in the fight against climate change, and a new study helps explain why that is.

Research recently published in Science Advances looked at the ability of both protected and non-protected areas to serve as a heat buffer. The research team, including lead author Dr. Xu Xiyan, scientist and professor at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that protected areas are cooler. This was especially true of protected boreal forests, which were found to warm at a rate of up to 20 percent lower than their surroundings. This helps shine a light on how best to manage lands to help mitigate climate change impacts, and to provide a sanctuary for wildlife.


The team writes, “The fact that nonprotected areas with the same type of vegetation as PAs show reduced warming buffer capacity highlights the importance of conservation to stabilize the local climate and safeguard biodiversity.”

To gather their data, the team used two databases: one on the world’s protected areas and one on land surface temperatures from 2003 through 2018. They then compared temperatures in both protected and unprotected areas of the same vegetation type in the same grid cells across the globe.

In so doing, they found that grid cells with more protected areas saw a slower rate of warming, particularly in boreal and temperate deciduous forests. As forests are biodiversity hot spots, this also means that these protections are helping plenty of species that may be at risk as the planet warms.


Dr. Xu Xiyan says, “The slowed rate of warming is particularly important for species in the boreal regions because the northern high latitudes have warmed faster than the rest of the world. Protected areas provide a home for threatened species, and the home is air-conditioned naturally!”

There were also lower maximum temperatures in protected areas, compared to similar sites that may be used for other land uses or that deal with more disturbances. This may have been helped along by the increased foliage found in the canopy of protected areas.

Dr. Jia Gensuo, co-author and professor of global change ecology at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, says, “The cooling effect of protected areas on daily and seasonal maximum temperatures is particularly important because it can protect species in the wild from episodes of extreme heat. Under a warming climate, as heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, protected areas create thermal refugia.”


The team says that this means protected areas are key in helping species thrive, as they remain within the upper and lower thermal limits for their survival.

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