As climate change disrupts habitats, researchers believe wildlife will instinctively migrate to higher elevations and latitudes, but for many species, that will mean navigating around, over or through human settlements and infrastructure.
“One of the ways species were able to survive past climate changes was to move, but today they’re going to have to do that while encountering human-caused barriers that weren’t there in the past,” says Brad McRae, a senior landscape ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.
In 2013, McRae and other researchers from the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy identified potential future habitats for close to 3,000 different species based on various climate change models. They then plotted routes connecting each species’ present-day habitat with its projected future habitat and found that increasing fragmentation of natural landscapes due to human activity threatens many species’ abilities to adapt to climate change.
“We have more and more data every year thanks to GPS collars and genetic markers that tell us how connected different wildlife populations are to different landscapes, and those all tell us that urban areas are going to be barriers for a lot of species,” McRae says. “Raccoons will do just fine, but not other animals that are shyer or just vulnerable to human impacts.”
McRae believes the key to preserving North America's biodiversity in the face of climate change will be preserving wilderness connectivity — a concept that includes broad initiatives like creating national parks, but also local projects that are small in scale but can have a big impact.
"There are lots of ways to promote connectivity — removing fencing, or having fencing along highways that directs animals to overpasses; having fewer rodenticides in agricultural landscapes; or even managing industrial forests in a way that allows animals to move through them," he says.
Dan Majka, a cartographer with The Nature Conservancy, used the data from the study to create the map above, which quickly went viral after it was published on the Conservancy’s science blog in August.
Canadian Geographic spoke to Majka about the process of creating the map and its important conservation message.
You modeled your map after the hint.fm wind map. Why did you decide to visualize the study data in this way?
I remember, when the hint.fm map came out, standing around a computer with colleagues, and our jaws dropped. It’s so beautiful. [Hint.fm creators Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg] had found this way to visualize directional data in an interactive way, which hadn’t really been done before. So in 2013, when Brad and his co-authors published their paper, we said, you know, gosh, wouldn't it be cool to visualize this data in a way like the hint.fm wind map?
How did you figure out how to animate the data?
Data visualization is sort of an interactive thing; people build off each other’s work and improve it and remix it. I tracked down everything I could find to read up on how Viégas and Wattenberg created that map; I watched presentations they gave and took notes. In the meantime Cameron Beccario created earth.nullschool.net, which is even cooler than the hint.fm map, and he put his code on GitHub [an opensource software design community]. I had played with a whole bunch of ideas, and I still have versions sitting on my computer that look like 80s video games, but I finally had the revelation that it would be easier to kind of hack the data from Brad’s study into a format that could be read by this existing library than to try to recreate the whole thing from scratch.
How should people read this map?
You might look at this map and think "Wow, species in Florida are moving to Canada," but that’s not really the best interpretation. Each line isn’t an individual species, but represents an average direction for a number of species. What it allows you to do is pick out the most important areas we need to be worried about in terms of conserving connectivity across multiple species.
The map has garnered a lot of attention from tech blogs and on social media; how do you feel about the reaction it's provoked?
You put something out there and you're like, "It’d be cool if 10 people 'like' it or retweet it," but by now there’ve been thousands of comments on the map and I've seen how people misinterpret it. I wasn’t trying to create a doomsday scenario with this, and neither I think was Brad. What I hope people would take away from it is an understanding that climate change is going to affect species and where they can live, and that we still have the power to do something about that, to enable them to move more easily to where they may need to move in the future. I don’t feel like it’s too late, but it is urgent.