Changing to face change: the need for new management approaches
By the end of this century, the Arctic - one of the world’s last and largest intact natural spaces - will be a very different place. Temperatures are warming more than twice as fast as they are for the planet as a whole. Sea ice is melting. Arctic wildlife and people are beginning to live altered lives.
These days, the question is not whether the Arctic will change; the question is whether this change will push plant, animal, and human systems beyond the brink - a point where gradual ecological shifts give way to sudden, unpredictable transformation, and our long-familiar polar environments and communities become abruptly unrecognisable.
Many scientists now recognise that current approaches to conservation and natural resource management may not be enough to help important arctic regions avoid this threshold.
Protecting weakened species populations or imperiled habitats remains important, but today’s scale and pace of change requires safeguarding ecological strength, durability, and responsiveness to change: we need to identify ecosystems that are viable and providing services to people (eg. harvests of mammals, fish, or other food) so we can support the characteristics and features that invigorate these systems and help them adapt in the future.
The complexity of arctic living systems makes it difficult to anticipate exactly how rapid change will affect biodiversity or any single resource. By emphasising a more comprehensive ecosystem approach to conservation, RACER maximises the management options available for protecting the North and its unique ecological identity into the future.
Given the rate at which we are racing to develop resources in the Arctic, time is also of the essence: we need scientific tools now that can help us to manage biodiversity and other natural resources and to support the ecosystem services important to the livelihoods and well-being of arctic people - even as we continue to deepen our comprehension of the complexity of arctic life.
The beginning of RACER
The rationale for RACER began with a review of the current state of arctic conservation during a WWF workshop in Oslo, Norway in May 2009. Conference participants agreed that the scale and the speed of climate-related ecological change in the Arctic would soon outpace and frustrate efforts to conserve species and habitats where they are found today.
The immensity of this challenge demanded a significantly new way of thinking about planning and management in the Arctic.
The Oslo workshop concluded that a first step must be a rapid assessment of where arctic ecosystems were functioning particularly well now and how likely they would continue to function in the climate-altered future.
The assessment would take a mechanistic view and look for the features (on the landscape or at sea) whose characteristics drive exceptional productivity and diversity and lend resilience to regional ecosystems. Both the current location of features and the ecological drivers at work in these places would become important targets for conservation and management efforts in the face of change.
In October 2010, WWF’s arctic expert advisors met in Ottawa, Canada. Equipped with resilience science and a better understanding of the limits of arctic data, the group developed the RACER analytical framework - a model that could be both quick and effective (based on the best available information) at identifying the most important sources of ecosystem strength within arctic ecoregions.
A series of ecoregional workshops followed to further develop the on-the-ground methods and to examine the preliminary conclusions of the sample pilot studies - including those in the Beaufort Sea, the Laptev Sea, the Central Canadian Tundra, and the Eastern Chukotka region of Russia.
The overall RACER framework also continued to develop to bridge the gaps between its ecosystem-theoretical foundations and the practicable approaches to ecological assessments identified by the case studies.
Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea), endemic to the Arctic. © WWF / Hartmut Jungius
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