Ecological Restoration, Meet Climate Change

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Ginko trees are comfortable in warmer climates. Image by CS76

What Ecosystems Should We Restore?

One of the biggest debates in the restoration community is what to restore.

If we’re trying to move back, to replace an ecosystem that was lost, what ecosystem are we trying to replace?

With a climate that’s been relatively stable for thousands of years, it’s easy to ignore the fact that the Earth’s ecosystems have always changed, and sometimes they’ve changed profoundly.

There have been times when glaciers stood where large cities are today. There have been times when large reptiles walked in the Arctic.

The Earth’s climate is not static, and we know that, but it’s easy to forget how completely different our planet has been in the past, and what a different place the world could become in the future.

The Climate Change Forest Project

The discipline of restoration is having to adjust to this new reality. On Cortes Island, just off the coast of British Columbia, Oliver Kellhammer has taken a different approach to restoration.  What he’s doing goes far against the grain, yet at its core, his Climate Change Forest Project is restoration. He’s simply restoring an ecosystem that none of us would recognize: one that was prominent at the height of the Eocene Thermal Maximum, fifty-five million years ago.

On the surface, Kellhammer’s work might look like a ragtag assortment of ginkgo trees, dawn redwoods, and walnuts. He might look like a gardener, one who’s enjoying growing oddball trees in his garden. However, his intentions are quite different. Kellhammer told Decoded Science that he’s working to create resilience – but resilience to a projected global warming trend. The trees he’s cultivating thrived when the temperature was much higher than it is now.

Should ecologists experiment with pre-restoration of ecosystems, working to ensure that there is vegetation that can accommodate climactic shifts present in each region?  Kellhammer’s Climate Change Forest project is one attempt to incorporate a challenging vision of the future climate into a real life, on-the-ground ecosystem. As he works to restore trees that were native to the region fifty-five million years ago, Kellhammer may be forging a new path for restoration, one of prestoration: creating an ecosystem that can encounter a new climate, live to tell the tale, and spread.

Resources:

Harris, James A. Richard J. Hobbs, Eric Higgs, and James Aronson. Ecological Restoration and Global Climate Change. (2006). Restoration Ecology. Volume 14, Issue 2, pages 170–176. Accessed October 12, 2012.

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