It’s a four-hour drive from Toni Lyn Morelli’s home near Amherst, Massachusetts, to her field sites on the slopes of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. She rises long before dawn to make that drive, arriving by 8 a.m. to meet her student assistants. With her team assembled, Morelli, a research ecologist with the Department of the Interior’s Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, spends the day, and several more to come, livetrapping red squirrels, which she tags, radio-collars, measures, and releases.
Every three weeks, someone from her team returns, telemetry antennas in hand, to track how the animals are moving about the mountains. While red squirrels shift their distribution from year to year as spruces and other conifers they feed on shed their seeds, the climatic conditions they’re sensitive to aren’t changing uniformly. Observing how the squirrels move through this environment, then, will help the researchers find areas of relative stability. These are known as climate refugia.
“Refugia provide a safe haven during periods of an unfavorable climate,” Morelli and her co-authors wrote in the journal PLOS One in 2016. Indeed, such areas—whether they be on mountain slopes, in shady forests, or in deep, cool canyons—are characterized as being naturally buffered from local and regional climate changes. As global temperatures rise, these pockets could help to ensure the continued existence of valued species. In identifying refugia, Morelli and her collaborators—part of a cadre of conservation scientists working on this issue—hope their efforts will contribute to improvements in land management. “We’re looking to create a product that is as useful as possible,” Morelli says.