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Scientists Prioritize Protection of 'Climate Refugia'


Even as climate change drives temperatures higher, scientists are finding that some places are warming slightly less. These places are known as climate refugia, and they could be important safe havens for wildlife. Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: It was pretty cold the morning I met Deanna Dulen, which was weird because it was the middle of a heatwave.

You definitely need your winter coat with you.

DEANNA DULEN: Well, see, when I came out this morning, I had the sweater and the vest.

FADEL: Dulen is superintendent of Devils Postpile National Monument. It's a steep mountain valley just outside of Mammoth Lakes in California's Sierra Nevada. Enjoying the cold are about a hundred violet-green swallows feasting on bugs hatching out of the river in this meadow.

DULEN: That's really cool. On their rumps are the most dazzling emerald green kind of amethyst purples.

SOMMER: This valley stays colder than the 10,000-foot peaks around us. Dulen first noticed that when she started working here almost 20 years ago.

DULEN: That's the opposite of what you expect. It was even colder than I ever anticipated it would be.

SOMMER: So she started working with scientists, who installed dozens of temperature sensors. And they figured out that something special is happening here. It's called cold air pooling. Basically, a giant mass of cool air just sits here thanks to the valley's shape.

DULEN: These high walls on the east and west side actually limit the amount of sun.

SOMMER: The mountains above cast a huge shadow on us, preventing the air from heating up in the morning. And that air is trapped here because the valley has a very narrow opening at one end where the granite walls come together.

DULEN: So essentially, that cold air bottlenecks up into this meadow and makes it even cooler.

SOMMER: As much as 18 degrees cooler in the morning compared to land just a few thousand feet above it. Dulen says that means this valley could be buffered, shielded from a warming climate.

DULEN: It doesn't mean it will survive forever, but it's giving us additional time to look at additional conservation strategies.

SOMMER: Dulen says the Park Service is already looking at giving this valley extra protection, like keeping out invasive species or making sure forests aren't overgrown and prone to fires.

DULEN: There's no easy answers, but it's the challenge that we've been called to do. And it's part of working for the National Park Service.

SOMMER: Devils Postpile isn't the only place the Park Service is trying this. In Maine's Acadia National Park, research ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli and her colleagues just mapped climate refugia for 30 different plants and animals. She's with the U.S. Geological Survey.

TONI LYN MORELLI: Climate change refugia are essentially small pockets of resistance holding out in a fast-changing world.

SOMMER: She imagines these places could be safe havens for migrating animals or seed banks for plants that die out elsewhere. But they'll only be buffered for so long.

MORELLI: Conserving refugia is not a long-term solution. Climate change is happening fast, faster than we expected.

SOMMER: She says stopping climate change is the only real fix. But for now, they're trying to buy these ecosystems all the time they can get.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.

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