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    With the arrival of El Niño, prepare for stronger marine heatwaves

    Oceans are warming up, and dangerously so. Since April this year, the average global sea surface temperature has been unusually high and rising; by August, oceans in the Northern Hemisphere had reached record-high temperatures, even surpassing 38 °C in one area around Florida.These extreme temperatures, fuelled by the climate crisis, have manifested as a series of marine heatwaves — periods of anomalously warm sea temperatures that can last for weeks, months or even years — across the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In some areas around the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, surface waters in June and July were 4–5 °C warmer than is usually recorded at this time of year. Temperatures are also soaring off the coast of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, extending across the tropical Pacific, around Japan, and off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. Marine heatwaves are more intense, last longer and occur more frequently than they used to. From 1925 to 2016, the number of days classed as experiencing marine heatwaves increased by 54%1.This makes the concurrent likelihood of a strong El Niño — a climate phenomenon that is typically associated with a rise in global temperatures — particularly worrying.Marine heatwaves disrupt, threaten and damage ecosystems. They are particularly dangerous for temperature-sensitive organisms that live in cool waters, such as kelps, and immobile warm-water organisms, such as corals. Many species might be susceptible to disease or mortality, with knock-on effects. For example, in 2014–15, a marine heatwave off the west coast of the United States, dubbed the Blob, caused widespread loss of sea stars. This in turn caused a bloom of sea urchins (on which sea stars predate), which in turn damaged kelp forests2. Rising water temperatures can also cause some species to migrate to cooler waters.Such events also affect local communities, including through economic losses from impacts on fisheries and aquaculture. The Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens), for example, disappears from its usual fishing grounds during marine heatwaves. In 2015–16, the sea off eastern Tasmania in Australia saw high mortality rates for oysters and abalones during a warm spell. And although tourism has played a part in the degradation of corals, mass bleaching of coral reefs also dents tourism, because white corals do not appeal to snorkellers and divers. The impact of a heatwave on marine industries can run into billions of dollars3.

    An autonomous glider is deployed into the Indian Ocean to monitor marine conditions.Credit: Suzanne Long/Alamy

    Given the impending overlap of El Niño conditions with long-term warming trends, it is pressing to closely monitor regions with a high likelihood of marine heatwaves, and to develop and implement a range of approaches for reducing risks to wildlife and economies. Here, we urge decision makers in marine and coastal biodiversity conservation, fishing, aquaculture and tourism industries to devise such a strategy for the coming months as well as for the decades ahead. We set out four priorities.Identify threatened regionsWhere communities are prepared, impacts can be mitigated, at least partially. This depends on knowing which regions are most likely to be affected.An analysis of historical data can reveal which areas experienced marine heatwaves during previous El Niños, and suggests where such events are most likely to occur when it develops: in the northeast Pacific (affecting coastal waters from California to the eastern Bering Sea); the tropical central-to-eastern Pacific and the shelf waters of Ecuador and Peru; off eastern Australia; and the Indian Ocean, including off the east coast of Africa, southern India, and southeast Asia (see ‘El Niño and marine heatwaves’ and Supplementary information). These areas are known to be susceptible to mass die-offs of diverse marine habitats, from tropical coral reefs to temperate kelp forests4.

    Source: Analysis by A. J. Hobday et al. based on data from; see Supplementary Information

    El Niño occurs as part of a cycle (see ‘What is El Nino?’), but this is not the only climate cycle to influence marine heatwaves. Other ocean and atmospheric patterns operate on timescales ranging from a few years to several decades. These manifest as natural variations in temperature in different ocean basins5. For instance, the current negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is associated with warming waters around Australia, the northwest Pacific, the northern Indian Ocean and parts of the South Pacific and South Atlantic. In the next few months, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole is also predicted to start to warm the western Indian Ocean. This pattern, reinforced by El Niño,typically brings a warm and dry summer for many parts of Australia.
    What is El Niño?

    Short-term patterns in global climate such as El Niño are superimposed on long-term anthropogenic warming, with serious consequences predicted for many regions of the globe.
    The El Niño–Southern Oscillation is a major climate phenomenon that comprises a warm phase (El Niño), a cool phase (La Niña) and a neutral phase. These switch, irregularly, every few years. El Niño — when winds over the tropical Pacific falter and the warmest waters in the western Pacific flood eastwards, disrupting the entire atmospheric circulation — has the most widespread impact on sea surface temperatures globally.
    For the past three years, the world has been experiencing La Niña conditions, associated with cooler global temperatures and cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. Earlier in 2023, conditions in the tropical Pacific began to reverse and El Niño seems to be developing. It is likely to amplify until the end of this year and possibly into next year as well, and is poised to trigger major marine heatwaves.

    There are counter trends, too — although El Niño drives rising temperatures in many areas, it suppresses the likelihood of marine heatwaves in a few regions, including the waters off Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the Philippines and western Australia.Although our understanding of marine heatwaves has lagged behind that of their atmospheric counterparts, researchers have learnt a great deal about these extreme events since the last El Niño. A better grasp of how different climate cycles are connected, as well as their influences, will aid preparations.Improve forecasts and warningsWork is progressing on predicting spikes in seawater temperatures6. Ocean weather forecasts are reliable a week or so in advance7, probabilistic seasonal forecasts give indications several months ahead8,9, and centennial-scale climate projections that take into account anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions provide the longest view10.Spatial maps showing probabilities of marine heatwaves are most accurate in open oceans where climate drivers, particularly El Niño, are strongest, and less so nearer coasts, where local ocean and atmospheric conditions become important. Building predictive power for these regions — by improving coupled ocean–atmosphere models and assessing the accuracy of their predictions — is crucial for local biodiversity conservation efforts as well as the fishing, aquaculture and tourism industries.Plan local responsesThis year, countries such as Australia and the United States are using seasonal-scale early warning systems, with lead times of several months, to provide marine-heatwave briefings to conservation agencies, the fishing and aquaculture industries, and the public.Options to alleviate potential impacts or improve recovery after a marine heatwave vary by industry (see ‘Managing marine heatwaves’ and Table S1 in Supplementary information). These steps depend on the marine environment and the species or ecosystems of concern, as well as on the expected timing, severity and spatial extent of the forecast event.

    Source: Adapted from A. J. Hobday et al. Prog. Oceanogr. 141, 227–238 (2016) and

    In the case of marine heatwaves predicted to develop in winter and spring, when waters are generally coolest, aquaculture industries might need to change the feed mix for species such as salmon, prepare for disease outbreaks, or change the time of harvest to ensure animals are in prime condition. For summer and autumn events, when temperatures exceed the coping range for many species, fisheries might need to reduce catch limits or close an area altogether, to enable species to cope with the stress of warmer waters. Without such interventions, marine heatwaves can result in reduced catches for several years, as was seen in crab and scallop fisheries off western Australia following a 2011 event.Changes in the distributions of species could also challenge jurisdictional management for fisheries. For example, when mackerel and squid moved from southern to northern Californian waters in 2016, quota management, employment and market prices were affected.

    A kelp forest near Santa Barbara Island, California.Credit: David Fleetham/Nature Picture Library

    The fishing and aquaculture sectors can shift harvesting and production schedules to maximize yield before temperatures rise, move inactive fishing vessels to cheaper moorings and reduce seasonal staff hiring in regions where activities are poised to decline. Other management strategies might include delaying restoration of kelp and seagrass in previously affected areas when further marine heatwaves are forecast. Innovative approaches, such as restoration that introduces species adapted to warmer conditions or the temporary alteration of clouds to protect coral reefs from solar radiation, need to be investigated.Some tourism enterprises, such as diving or snorkelling firms, might reduce numbers of staff during marine heatwaves, or modify their activities to minimize job losses. Whale-watching trips could be increased, for example, as happened off the coast of San Diego, California, during the Blob. Sports-fishing companies should ensure they have the appropriate permissions, equipment and staffing when warmer-water species move to areas where they are not usually seen.Monitor impacts of warmer watersFor the scientific community, warnings months ahead of likely rises in temperatures provide the opportunity for in-depth studies. Hypotheses can be developed and tested, data can be gathered — for example, by using underwater gliders to determine the vertical structure of heatwaves — and samples can be collected and analysed.

    A sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides; right) and red sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) off southeast Alaska.Credit: Jeff Mondragon/Alamy

    To better understand ecological responses to extreme warming events, researchers should scale up monitoring efforts to characterize a region’s physical and biological conditions before a heatwave’s onset. They should deploy sensors to measure key variables (such as temperature, oxygen levels, salinity, and the abundance and composition of nutrients and plankton) across multiple scales in time and space and at high resolution, from the surface to deeper waters. Although intense sampling during an extreme event provides a wealth of information, robust characterization of an ecosystem before a heatwave is also crucial, to provide a baseline. Data should be collected to assess changes in habitat types as well as the growth, reproduction and survival of species.A wide range of approaches, including remote sensing (such as for monitoring phytoplankton), fisheries surveys (to assess changes in fish distribution and abundance, for example), environmental DNA collection and citizen science (for detecting species outside their normal ranges) can help. Indigenous and local communities might notice early changes in the environment and should lead monitoring and planning endeavours.Predictions of which species or habitats will be affected by a marine heatwave, on the basis of existing information or ecological theories, will allow hypotheses to be tested — such as the idea that impacts are greatest in the warm part of a species’ range. Species that can survive only in a narrow range of temperatures, such as tropical corals, and those living close to their thermal limits, can serve as indicator species for wider impacts.

    A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) swims near an algal bloom off Tenerife in the Canary Islands.Credit: Sergio Hanquet/Nature Picture Library

    Oceanographic survey tools such as gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles should be deployed to sample the evolution of marine heatwaves. They can record a range of data, including on temperature and salinity but also levels of ocean acidification and of oxygen and nitrogen, to better understand environmental change. Where threatened species or populations might be affected, being able to collect and ‘biobank’ samples to preserve genetic diversity would be an important step for further research and subsequent restoration.Worryingly, the climate crisis could eventually cause oceans to reach a permanent heatwave state relative to historical baselines11, and some regions might no longer support certain species and ecosystems. The ecosystems that emerge might not operate and respond to warmer waters in ways that can be anticipated12. Scientists might not be able to prevent these consequences, but it is crucial to devise and implement adaptive strategies to keep them at bay temporarily or soften their impacts wherever possible. This could buy time for species and ecosystems, and the industries that rely on them, to adjust and transform9.Regardless of whether a full-blown El Niño event occurs this year, these preparations will aid many marine businesses, because all projections indicate that more-frequent, stronger and longer-lasting marine heatwaves are inevitable in the near future. More

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    Heishan Gorge project: learn from past oversights

    Freshwater biodiversity in China’s upper Yellow River is once again under threat, this time from the planned Heishan Gorge hydraulic engineering project. This follows the construction of multiple reservoirs along the Yellow River basin since the 1950s. Local governments should learn from the past and assess the project’s potential ecological impacts before going ahead.
    Competing Interests
    The author declares no competing interests. More

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    Hypocrisy is threatening the future of the world’s oceans

    Europe’s fisheries are catching yellowfin tuna at unsustainable levels, scientists say.Credit: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty

    It is a heart-breaking litany. As the world warms, its oceans are acidifying — they have become 30% more acidic during the industrial era. The area covered by low-oxygen marine ‘dead zones’, which are almost devoid of life, has more than quadrupled1 since 1960. By 2025, the amount of plastic in the seas is expected to total 150 million tonnes2. Even now, only 3% of the ocean is strongly protected by marine reserves.None of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is on track to be achieved by 2030, as Nature has been reporting in this series of editorials. But progress on a few, including the 14th goal — to conserve and sustainably use the oceans — has actually been going backwards since the 2015 UN summit at which the SDGs were agreed.SDG 14 comprises ten targets and pledges intended to address acidification, pollution, overfishing, biodiversity loss and other ocean ills. Three are on track, and two others are progressing, albeit too slowly to be achieved by the deadline. The remaining five have either stagnated or regressed. This failure is not for want of talking or pledging. In 2020, under the auspices of a High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (the Ocean Panel), co-chaired by Norway and Palau, 14 coastal states committed to 100% sustainable management of their waters by 2025. By the end of 2022, 17 countries, accounting for more than 40% of the world’s coastal zones, were covered by this pact.
    UN high seas treaty is a landmark – but science needs to fill the gap
    In February 2022, meanwhile, France hosted representatives of more than 100 countries at a historic ocean summit in Brest. A number of attendees vowed to join a plan to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, to adopt new laws to safeguard marine life in waters beyond national ownership, and to end illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, a term that covers a gamut of unsustainable practices that cost the global economy up to US$50 billion a year.It’s not a lack of knowledge that’s stopping words being translated into actions. In 2018, the Ocean Panel commissioned a two-year review of available intelligence on ocean threats and opportunities, from some 250 experts around the world, closing many existing gaps. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement — there’s a need for better regional data on fish biomass, for instance, which could help efforts to determine where and how to protect stocks.But the one gap science alone cannot fill is a lack of leadership, something that is most evident in the disturbing misalignment of promises and action from self-proclaimed ocean champions. In June, Norway announced new permits for offshore oil and gas drilling worth $18.5 billion, and proposed opening some 280,000 square kilometres of its waters to deep-sea mining, a nascent industry that risks wreaking havoc on poorly understood ocean ecosystems. Similarly, France, also the host nation for an upcoming UN Ocean Conference in 2025, is opposing a measure to exclude a destructive fishing practice called bottom trawling from marine protected areas in the European Union.The EU itself seems to be operating two sets of policies. Successes it has chosen to highlight include a 37% decrease in fishing pressure — a measure of the extent to which a stock is being exploited — and a 22% increase in fish biomass in its waters between 2005 and 2020. This contrasts sharply with its actions elsewhere; it has been fighting conservation measures in the Indian Ocean that would curb chronic overfishing of yellowfin tuna. French and Spanish ships harvest up to one-third of tuna in these waters with the aid of fish-aggregating devices — large floating structures made of wood or plastic that attract fish, including juveniles, and are associated with unsustainable fisheries.
    Protecting the ocean requires better progress metrics
    Other big maritime nations — China, India, Brazil and Russia — are facing major challenges in achieving SDG 14. But none has held itself up as an ocean leader. Conversely, Chile’s government is making strides. It has designated 41% of the country’s waters for protection, and, last year, the government proposed (albeit unsuccessfully) to revise the constitution, in part to bring in broader ocean-management measures, including more stringent controls on coastal salmon farming.There’s still time to turn the ship around. Key to this will be the implementation of measures to hold nations accountable for their promises, for which Nature and others have previously advocated. This, in turn, needs better progress metrics. In this respect, researchers can and are playing a crucial part3. There’s also a need to finance help where it’s needed. According to one analysis, implementation of SDG 14 will require an extra $150 billion a year4. But implementing some SDGs will make funding available for others. Ending harmful fisheries subsidies, for example, should free up between $22 billion and $35.4 billion a year5.Much of the extra funding required for SDG 14 has already been negotiated through other forums, such as the UN’s Green Climate Fund. And last December, as part of the Kunming–Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, nations agreed to raise at least $200 billion a year by 2030 from public and private sources to fund biodiversity protection, both on land and in the water.This isn’t just about dewy-eyed sentiment for our beautiful blue planet: the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people depend on the oceans and the life they sustain. There’s much that scientists can do to achieve ocean sustainability. But to get SDG 14 back on track for 2030, world leaders must stand by the promises in their rhetoric. More

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    These animals are racing towards extinction. A new home might be their last chance

    In a remote national park on Australia’s most southwestern tip, a lone radio tower stands above a quiet wetland. Every five seconds, it collects signals from a few dozen young tortoises hiding out beneath the glassy waters. The tiny tortoises don’t journey far, but researchers are tracking their every move. The fate of a species — one of the most endangered in the world — might depend on these data.There are fewer than 70 adult western swamp tortoises (Pseudemydura umbrina) living in the wild in two small wetland reserves north of Perth, Australia. These spots are all that remains of the creatures’ native habitat, and they are drying out, owing to rising temperatures and a reduction in rainfall. So, in August last year, scientists selected 41 juvenile tortoises from a captive-breeding programme in a zoo and released them into this national park, some 330 kilometres south of where the tortoises are naturally found. The aim is to see whether the animals can tolerate cooler climates, and whether this new habitat might ensure the species’ future as the planet warms.This experiment is part of a series of closely monitored field trials testing one of the most controversial strategies for saving a species — a concept called assisted migration. The tortoise is thought to be the first vertebrate to be moved beyond its historical range because of climate change.Nicki Mitchell, a herpetologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, is leading the project that is trying to save the tortoise. Her team is now on their fourth trial of releasing captive-bred tortoises into selected wetlands to test the potential of assisted migration, also called assisted colonization. It’s a high-stakes strategy — and one that researchers have long debated. “It is a demonstration project for the world, and we particularly want to make sure there are no perverse outcomes,” Mitchell says.Conservation biologists and land managers have long resisted the idea of assisted migration, mainly because introduced species could become invasive pests, carry diseases or upend existing ecosystems. Few places know the risks better than Australia, which has waged war against cane toads, rabbits and other invasive species that people purposefully introduced to the continent in ill-fated schemes.But attitudes towards assisted migration are slowly shifting as conservationists realise just how fast the climate is changing. Several projects are in the works, only a step or two behind the swamp tortoise experiments. Researchers in eastern Australia are testing plans to move critically endangered pygmy possums, which are threatened by increasing temperatures and droughts, and scientists in Hawaii are relocating seabirds to higher ground, to protect them from rising seas that are fast destroying their nesting habitat.

    Hayley Bates hopes to transfer mountain pygmy possums to lowland environments.Credit: Tamara Dean

    Those leading the charge are urging their peers to confront difficult decisions head-on, lest more species go extinct. And as a first test, the swamp tortoise trials are in the spotlight as researchers wait to see whether the project proves successful. Early results suggest that the juveniles are growing as expected, but the researchers say it’s still too early to reach a conclusion; in a previous trial, the tortoises failed to thrive in another southern location that had looked good on paper.“What changes perception more than anything,” says Lindsay Young, a conservation biologist working in Hawaii on the seabird project, “is establishing a precedent for having done it successfully.”Nowhere to goFor a species at the forefront of research and conservation, the swamp tortoise is an unassuming creature. No bigger than a human hand, they have dark, plain shells and spend the wetter months in shallow ponds. When those dry out during the heat of summer, the animals settle under bushes and logs, entering a dormant state called aestivation until the rains return.This rare and elusive tortoise was presumed extinct when it was first described from a museum specimen in 1901. Half a century later, in 1953, it was rediscovered in the wild. But the tortoise has nowhere to go. The last fragments of its known wetland habitat on the outskirts of Perth are now fenced in, surrounded by the expanding city and drying out despite efforts to pump water into them. Predators, poachers and wildfires also threaten the tortoises’ existence.
    Invasive palms and WWII damaged an island paradise. Could fungi help to restore it?
    The strategy of assisted migration is not a new one. It was first proposed in 1985, but it has not seen widespread use. Barely a dozen species of tree, lichen and butterfly have been moved to cooler climes because of foreseen changes to their climatic niche. Many more have been shifted to avoid predators, pathogens or human construction — which are more immediate, localized threats than climate change.Shifting a species within its known range or restocking wild populations with captive-bred animals is common practice in conservation. But assisted migration oversteps ecological boundaries and makes many conservation scientists feel uneasy. “It’s an enormous thing for conservation to do, to change the range of a species to keep it alive,” says Kylie Soanes, a conservation biologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia.Nevertheless, Mitchell sees trialling assisted colonization as a better alternative to watching the last remaining captive populations of an iconic species dwindle to extinction.Mitchell hatched the idea to shift the tortoise south with Gerald Kuchling, a herpetologist at the Western Australian government’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and principal scientist of the department’s swamp tortoise recovery team. Given the tortoises’ rarity, the researchers had to devise methods of predicting where suitable wetlands for the tortoise were likely to occur two decades from now, on the basis of wetland hydrology, local climate projections and the tortoises’ physiology1. That modelling, which screened more than 13,000 locations, led the researchers to one spot: an area in the southwest corner of Western Australia with plenty of seasonal wetlands, two of which would become the site of the first assisted colonization trial in 2016.The team released a dozen captive-bred tortoises at each southern site as part of the trial and, at first, it looked like a good move. The introduced tortoises, which had small radio transmitters glued to their shells, grew as well as their northern kin2. In 2021 a bushfire destroyed 90% of the tortoises’ original habitat. But then data started trickling in from the next trial, which involved releasing another 48 radio-tagged juveniles in 2018.The results, published in May3, suggest that the tortoises released in the southernmost wetland basked less and grew more slowly than did those in their home haunt. The wetland, the researchers discovered, was fed by a chilly stream and it rained there more often than it did in the creatures’ home habitat. That meant that the introduced tortoises were less active; which might have impeded their growth.

    The western swamp tortoise is Australia’s rarest reptile.Credit: Matthew Abbott/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

    Despite those results, Mitchell says the 2018 trial still yielded important insights about how swamp tortoises spend their days, thanks to custom-made data-loggers glued to their shells that gauged when the animals were basking in the shallows and when they were submerged deep underwater. “None of that was known because they’re an incredibly cryptic species,” she says. “You very rarely observe them in the wild.”Past and current trials have been approved on the proviso that the team can monitor the tortoises closely, recapture them and return them to Perth Zoo. “Which is why we’re aiming to find every animal we can, as often as we can,” says Mitchell, whose team did recapture the tortoises that were released in the first few trials. The tortoises are unlikely to become invasive or encroach on other threatened species, she adds, because they grow so slowly and eat only small aquatic insects and tadpoles.But monitoring is arduous and expensive, and the cost of the field work is draining the researchers’ remaining funding. Mitchell and her team of graduate students and volunteers are continuing their data collection until at least the end of 2023 with financial support from World Wildlife Fund Australia.Despite her hopes for the project, Mitchell says that assisted colonization won’t be suitable or feasible for every species at risk. “There are millions of species,” she says, “and we’re not going to get to many of them.”Climate concernsSean Williamson is one conservation biologist eager to see how the programme delivers. Based at Monash University in Melbourne, he’s been watching its progress from afar. He says Mitchell’s research has kindled cautious interest among conservation biologists about whether assisted migration could work for other egg-laying reptiles, such as green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), which nest on low-lying islands throughout the tropics.
    Expeditions in post-war Colombia have found hundreds of new species. But rich ecosystems are now under threat
    Williamson, like all of the researchers Nature spoke to, is wary of the risks that assisted migration poses. But, when faced with losing an “unfathomable” number of species to climate change, he says conservation biologists should consider every tool at their disposal, including assisted migration.Researchers are exploring this option with a population of mountain pygmy possums (Burramys parvus). In the wild, these palm-sized possums are marooned in the highest reaches of the Australian Alps, in a fragmented area totalling less than 7 square kilometres. The possums survive winter by hibernating under a blanket of snow. But with less snow and fewer moths to eat in drought years, the possums are living on the edge in their current habitat.Yet, fossil evidence suggests that their ancestors lived in lowland rainforests 25 million years ago4. So researchers built a facility near Lithgow, Australia — some 500 km from where the animals are usually found — to test whether modern possums could survive in the same environment as their forebears.Hayley Bates, a biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and her colleagues moved 14 possums in 2022 from another facility to open-air enclosures with artificial rock walls and nesting boxes that mimic the animal’s home boulder fields. “So far, they’re doing pretty well,” she says.The possums have started breeding, which suggests they can adapt to lower elevations with occasional snow. Bates says seeing the possums breed is an important milestone in the project, which is built on a decade of field work to understand the species. The long-term plan is to release the possums into a series of small, fenced enclosures in the bounds of the wildlife sanctuary where the breeding facility is built.Any potential releases into outdoor fenced sites are still another 5 to 10 years away, and hinge on many more experiments with captive-bred possums, to work out what they might eat in their new home, and how they fare with unfamiliar predators.Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Young and her team at the non-profit organization Pacific Rim Conservation based in Honolulu, where she is the executive director, are working to save seabird species that aren’t yet critically endangered, but nest on the edge of low-lying islands. Rising seas and storm surges are already wiping out countless nests, Young says, and hurricanes have erased some of Hawaii’s northwestern atolls. These threats will only intensify as the planet warms.

    Conservation biologist Lindsay Young collects a black-footed albatross.Credit: Eric VanderWerf/Pacific Rim Conservation

    Pacific Rim Conservation is working to make sure enough black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) chicks survive to sustain future populations. In 2017, the team began relocating weeks-old chicks from Hawaii’s northwestern atolls to Oahu, an island on which black-foots don’t usually nest.Operating under state and federal permits, Young and her colleagues housed each chick in its own A-frame shelter at the new nesting ground, a state park, some 225 km from their usual breeding spot, and hand-fed them fish milkshakes until they fledged5.It will be a few years yet before the relocated black-foots reach maturity and possibly begin breeding at their new nesting site, alongside other seabird species. Being long-lived birds that feed at sea, the albatrosses aren’t expected to become invasive or impinge on other land-dwelling species, Young says.Unpredictable risksFor a long time, some conservation scientists said that assisted colonization wasn’t an idea their peers should even be discussing. However, a survey conducted from 2016 to 2021 in Hawaii suggests that attitudes are changing, particularly among wildlife managers who realise their past inaction and their unwillingness to accept risk might have led to some extinctions. This is especially palpable on small island nations where species are hemmed in by rising seas.
    Protecting monarch butterflies’ winter home could mean moving hundreds of trees
    “We’re just on the front lines here,” says Melissa Price, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, who conducted the survey6 of 22 conservation practitioners. Scientists who are normally cautious are now considering making bold moves to save some Hawaiian species from disappearing, which “tells me how dire the situation is”, she says.Some researchers who once opposed assisted migration are reconsidering their stance. Mark Schwartz, a conservation scientist at the University of California, Davis, says he has become more accepting of assisted colonization now that he has seen researchers working methodically to assess the risks of moving species, such as with the western swamp tortoise.“But that doesn’t mean that I don’t deeply worry about our capacity to do it right,” Schwartz says. That’s why he and other researchers are calling for the establishment of global standards on assisted colonization to guide its responsible implementation7.Other researchers and organizations are ambivalent. In a statement outlining its position to Nature, the Ecological Society of Australia says that moving species into new habitats is expensive and risky, making assisted colonization a ‘last resort’ option in conservation planning. But the society acknowledges that as climate change worsens, “we may have to turn to assisted migration more often”. It also says that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and halting habitat loss are the two best ways to safeguard against extinctions.Ali Chauvenet, an ecological modeller at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, says that there are many tools available to help in making decisions about assisted migration. These include modelling techniques to estimate the possible impact on ecosystems and risk-assessment frameworks to judge the likelihood that an introduced species will become invasive, or survive in a new place.

    Black-footed albatross chicks were moved to Oahu, Hawaii, to establish a nesting colony there.Credit: Lindsay Young/Pacific Rim Conservation

    Invasive-species biologists tend to oppose the idea because of what could go wrong. One study tried to compute the consequences of assisted migration and the likelihood of its success8. In a model simulation, it found that there is a good chance of saving selected species with assisted migration, but a recipient ecosystem might lose nearly half of its species on a rare occasion. However, the model simulated assisted migration in an artificial ecosystem of just 15 species. “It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Chauvenet says.Despite some researchers warming to the idea of assisted colonization, there are major regulatory hurdles to moving species into new areas, says Lesley Hughes, an ecologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Government agencies, at least in Australia, rarely recognize assisted migration — or any interventionist action — as a valid option in threatened species recovery plans, according to a review9 of 100 plans that Hughes conducted in 2018. Since then, there has been some progress, she says, “but it’s at a glacial pace”.In the past few years, the US National Park Service and Parks Canada have both enlisted the help of researchers to develop frameworks and evidence maps10 on assisted migration. And in June last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced proposed changes to the US Endangered Species Act that would make it easier for conservationists and wildlife officials to consider assisted migration as a conservation tactic, say researchers.However, the thought of moving species across ecosystem boundaries raises questions about who gets to make those decisions and draw those lines. Indigenous people, for example, have long been excluded from conservation circles, says Jacqueline Beggs, an invasive-species biologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who is of Ngāti Awa descent.“There’s going to be a lot of deep conversations required,” Beggs says, “to think our way through the issues, particularly from an Indigenous perspective.”A colder homeThe swamp tortoises’ wintertime wetlands are, for now, brimming with water. But come December or early January, they will dry out, at which point the tortoises will hunker down and aestivate. Before then, Mitchell and her team will ramp up their monthly monitoring to fortnightly welfare checks — to save any radio transmitters from falling off during the juveniles’ growth spurt. But there’s nothing to stop the tortoises from getting picked off by predators or waddling out of range.The animals could get some help from the authorities. In October, Australia’s Commonwealth government added the swamp tortoise to a priority list of the top 110 threatened species and included moving the tortoise to southern climate refugia as an action item. Mitchell hopes the federal government will supply funding for the project; then her team could hand over the reins to a locally based team that could monitor the tortoises’ movements, growth and survival.To keep costs down, Mitchell’s team are exploring other monitoring approaches besides radio tracking, such as measuring traces of DNA the tortoises leave behind and tracking the sounds they make using underwater hydrophones.One big question for the future is how well the tortoises can reproduce in colder climates. Mitchell says it could be another 10–15 years before any of the juveniles released last year reach breeding age — if they survive in their new home that long. For the shy, slow-growing swamp tortoise, there simply aren’t any quick answers to these burning questions. More

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    The right kind of farm helps forest birds prosper

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    A growing agricultural sector is one of the greatest global threats to wildlife. But an analysis shows that in Costa Rica, diversified farms — which host a variety of crops, as well as plants that emulate natural habitats — could help to stem the loss of some forest birds1.

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    Conservation biology More

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    How we set our lab on an environmentally sustainable path

    Caroline Giuglaris was inspired by student demonstrations around the world against climate change.Credit: Joly Victor/ABACA/Shutterstock

    After starting my PhD in biophysics at the Curie Institute in Paris in October 2020, I was startled by the amount of waste that comes out of a laboratory: sterile packaging, excess chemicals that can’t be reused and all kinds of plastic containers. And I became more aware of this issue thanks to the School Strike for Climate, in which secondary-school students, inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, skipped Friday classes to participate in demonstrations demanding climate action.In 2020, my department (130 scientists across 13 teams) launched an internal sustainability initiative called the Green Physics Lab, which I asked to join. I decided to deepen my knowledge of academia’s environmental impact. The more I dug into the topic of sustainable research, the more passionate I became. I started to realize that the waste that my lab produced was only one small part of its carbon emissions — a concept that the initiative had not yet addressed. All those pipette tips were just the tip of the iceberg.In 2021, I discovered the work of Labos 1Point5, an international academic collective that aims to reduce the environmental impact of research. This group gathers resources and develops tools to help scientists to reduce their carbon footprints. As a result, I decided to take on a challenge with Jean de Seze, a labmate in my PhD programme. Could we measure our department’s carbon footprint and set our lab on a trajectory that was compliant with targets set out in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which describes the impact of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels?We are not experts in carbon accounting and have not yet investigated other environmental impacts such as biodiversity pressures, pollution or water use from our lab activities, but we did our best to follow the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a tool that has been adopted by many governments and industries, with our limited resources. You can do it too. Here is an overview.Start by assessing your carbon footprint …I started by collecting information about our existing footprint by looking at energy consumption, a list of lab purchases and travel details. I then converted these data into a standardized metric, known as carbon dioxide equivalents.The first tranche of data collection was difficult, because we had no idea who had access to the numbers or who was willing to help. For instance, it took us a few months and help from our department director before the facility-services office gave us heat- and electricity-bill data. And we had to earn the trust of the head lab manager before we could access the database containing information on purchases and travel. There were many discussions on how to analyse travel data while complying with data-protection regulations. Since we first collected those data, we’ve gained our colleagues’ confidence and now know who to contact for help, which makes things easier.To estimate the lab’s final footprint, I multiplied consumption by CO2 conversion factors that I found in the literature1 and in the Labos 1Point5 database2 for emissions of purchases. This can be done using a spreadsheet.Another useful option is entering all the data into Labos 1Point5’s open-source online tool. We found that our department released into the atmosphere the equivalent of 4 tonnes of CO2 for each person per year.… but don’t dwell too much on the detailsRefining a carbon-footprint estimate is very time-consuming. We first focused on obtaining a rough assessment for our team. We then shared our results with our colleagues and broadened our analysis to include the whole department.We identified key elements that contributed greatly to our footprint, and started thinking about how to reduce their impact. In most labs, the main emissions are related to purchases (especially biochemical reagents), energy consumption and air travel. We found that, in 2021, consumables accounted for 44% of the department’s emissions (total purchases made up 69%), heating and electricity accounted for 20% and air travel accounted for 6% — at that time, travel for international conferences was still curtailed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first recommendations were to encourage teams to share chemicals and stocks to reduce purchases, and to raise the freezer temperatures to reduce electricity consumption.Broaden your baseTo deepen our impact, we needed to make our results known to the department. Our first discussions with the lab director last January were broadly positive.Those on the leadership team helped us when they could, but they warned us that some of our proposals would be hard to implement. Indeed, current institutional policies (which are changing) usually do not take carbon emissions into consideration. For example, they might favour the cheapest option for longer travel, which is often by air.After several months of gathering and analysing data, we presented our results at our department’s weekly seminar. The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially from the younger people. After that seminar, we reached a critical mass of 25 volunteers, whom we organized into four working groups: electricity and information technology, travel, purchases and plastic and waste. Each group had two tasks: to improve the estimate of our current carbon footprint, and to propose rules to reduce it in the future. There is also a communications group that works with the department to facilitate guideline implementation.Jean and I now lead the Green Physics Lab. We have monthly meetings at which we share our hurdles and progress and debate ideas, and I have integrated the working groups’ results into the bigger picture.Get into actionFor the first steps you take, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are many resources online to help you, including Labos 1Point5, My Green Lab and the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework. In our lab, we aim to reduce our use of consumables by testing the suitability of reusable glassware for common items, and we use tubes made of plastics constructed from renewable biomass materials. We have also reduced our use of sterile plastic for non-sterile tasks.The department’s largest suppliers now deliver orders twice per week for everyone, instead of several times per day for each team. Each month, volunteers run a bike-repair workshop to encourage people to reduce carbon emissions on their commute by cycling to work. With the department director, the Green Physics Lab members agreed on a lab policy to encourage people to raise freezer temperatures from –80 °C to –70 °C. A few teams in the department, as well as others at the institute, are testing this.This side project is not part of my PhD work, and in 2021, it was mainly a weekend task. But I am now fortunate to be funded by my lab for the extra work, equivalent to two days per month entirely dedicated to the Green Physics Lab, on top of my PhD grant.Set a targetQuantifying your current carbon emissions is good, but how will this translate into the future? Set short- and long-term goals, and assess your progress often. We proposed an ambitious plan to halve our emissions between 2021 and 2030. We also wrote a ‘green statement’, which was debated and voted on by the lab council, to formally acknowledge the need for an environmental transition in our workplace. We can now refer to this statement when we advocate concrete actions.For instance, one proposal that we are debating is using trains instead of planes to travel in France. We aim to implement this policy by 2025, and hope to put more stringent rules into place between 2025 and 2030.Communicate, communicate, communicateI try to update our department members on our progress frequently, to keep the buzz on sustainability in their heads. We also organize sustainability challenges and workshops and share interesting articles on the subject. We will hold our first symposium on sustainable research in October.We know that some of our proposals, such as reducing air travel and switching −80 °C freezers to −70 °C, are, understandably, not popular. Having an open discussion on the pros, cons, feasibility and constraints can help to reach an agreement. And we found that having senior researchers in the group on our side helped us to convince others to get on board.Finally, external communication is paramount. Since we have started this journey, we have realized that many labs are further along in this process than we are, but information on their carbon footprints, data usage and the initiatives that they have adopted can be hard to find. I try to promote our work at conferences and seminars — even when they are unrelated to sustainability — with posters and talks.Celebrate small successesYou will probably meet a lot of resistance, refusal or, worse, deadly silence, during this journey. Celebrate every bit of progress that you make. Don’t be too hard on yourself if the world is not ready for your green ambitions. More

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