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WWF’s Arctic Conservation Forecast Initiative: Staying one step ahead of climate change

26 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

For decades, saving the magnificent salmon of Alaska’s Pacific Northwest has meant protecting Bristol Bay. But as PETER CHRISTIE explains, the climate crisis is making conservation more difficult—and forcing the salmon to look elsewhere.

THE MAJESTIC, RIVER-THREADED watershed in southwest Alaska is the most productive salmon area in North America—and WWF and others have long battled to keep mining and other industrial development from threatening it. But the menace of climate change means the area is changing: spawn streams are warming, and changing river flows are putting eggs and fry at risk.

Now, salmon searching for cooler streams and better conditions may be more likely to find them farther north. For the first time, conservationists are being forced to consider that saving Pacific salmon in the climate-altered future may have less to do with today’s Bristol Bay and more to do with where the best conditions for the salmon will be tomorrow.

“Really, for these species, it means anticipating salmon rivers where there are no salmon yet,” explains Martin Sommerkorn, head of conservation with the WWF Arctic Programme. “So, at this point, we need to make sure these rivers have free access for spawning salmon and that there is no development at the mouths of the rivers, or development all along them, that could block those migrations.”

IMAGINING THE FUTURE ARCTIC

The trick, in other words, is to take conservation steps now that envisage where and how biodiversity will live and thrive later—after climate warming has forced them to move or adapt. It’s conservation as a moving target, and it’s no mean feat.

Sommerkorn is one of the organizers behind WWF’s new Arctic Conservation Forecast Initiative, a unique workshop series that offers some hope of meeting this extraordinary challenge. The project, which concludes this autumn, has been gathering international experts from climate science, oceanography, ecology and conservation to share knowledge from their distinct
fields.

The aim is to look at the latest projections of what Arctic climate change will mean for temperatures, snow, sea ice, glacier melt and other physical land and sea features in the future, and imagine how these changes will affect ecosystems, habitat and species, like the Pacific salmon.

“Obviously, the Arctic is going to change like crazy in the coming decades—we know this from all the projections of physical variables in global models,” says Sommerkorn. “But our [current] view of conservation is quite static. We want to be prepared and
figure out where to emphasize conservation in the future.”

It is also about looking at how to emphasize conservation: while in some cases, this new view of proactive conservation will mean protecting species where they don’t yet live (but likely will), it may also mean protecting suitable habitat “corridors,” such as northsouth mountain ranges, so species can easily shift their ranges and survive the altered climate. In other cases, it may mean focusing conservation efforts on existing ecological hotspots, where exceptional productivity and other life-supporting features are expected to continue and will become far more important to species, habitats and people as the Arctic heats up.

SUPPORTING RESILIENCE

For some species, such as the migratory caribou found across the North, this future-thinking conservation means working to reduce non-climate-related threats—such as accelerating Arctic development—so that a species’ natural resilience can help it cope with the stresses of climate change.

“There’s huge stress involved in such an adaptation,” says Sommerkorn. “We must make sure to take most or all of the other pressures off so they have a chance to adapt, and we must make sure they have the strength to do so.”

Unfortunately, he says there will be an element of triage. “It won’t be possible to save all Arctic life and all current Arctic places, given all the changes ahead, even with the best possible temperature increase outcome. So we want to make sure we invest wisely. And the changes may actually be coming quite quickly.”

For Sommerkorn and other participants in the conservation forecasting workshops, this knowledge adds a sense of urgency to their work. As the Arctic warms ever more quickly, mining, shipping and other industries are accelerating across the region. The need for conservation to stay one step ahead means that the final report from the workshop series— expected later this autumn—will be vital in discussions with industries and marine and terrestrial planners and managers to ensure the protection of features that are necessary for the future of Arctic life.

“We have to make sure conservation is on the map,” says Sommerkorn. “And we must take a future perspective so we can negotiate on behalf of life. That’s proactive conservation."

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DAVID MILLAR is a research associate with the Arctic Institute of North America in Canada.