In the face of #ClimateChange, beavers are engineering a resistance — KUNC

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

[Emily Fairfax’s] latest publication suggests that ecosystems, broadly, could stand to benefit from beaver wetlands in ways that are uniquely resistant and resilient in the face of climate change. Scientists have already touted the benefits of process-based restoration, a low-tech means of rebuilding floodplains over time. The new paper contends that beavers are “a force of 15-40 million highly skilled environmental engineers” whose tiny hands and teeth are ready to help implement that restoration.

The study is largely a summary of existing research, pulling together and contextualizing established science about rivers and beavers. It makes the case that beavers were once pivotal in shaping and maintaining healthy riverscapes before their populations were crippled by years of trapping. Chris Jordan, an Oregon-based ecologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is one of the study’s co-authors. He said the research stands in the face of “dire warnings” and the “doom” of harm beyond our control.

“In reality,” he said, “it’s not out of our control. Here is something that we can do. Here is something that we can think about as an adaptation and mitigation strategy – returning riverscapes to their natural state. And that’s going to give us climate change protection and resilience.”

That protection and resilience comes in a few forms. The first is a safeguard against flooding. Warming temperatures are increasing the frequency of heavy rain and rapidly melting snow. In the channel of a narrow stream or river, that surge of water is likely to quickly overtop the banks and flood. Beaver wetlands, with their wide swaths of soggy land, would help spread some of that water out and limit flooding downstream.

Just as they are helpful in the face of too much water, beaver complexes have proven useful in areas with not enough. High-mountain snow serves as a kind of natural reservoir for the region, slowly releasing water throughout the spring and early summer, assuring a steady supply to the places where humans divert and collect it. But as the West rapidly warms and dries, snowpack is getting smaller and melting earlier. Beavers, meanwhile, are essentially building miniature reservoirs in mountainous areas throughout the region.

Drought also means an increased risk of wildfires, and beavers have proven their mettle against the flames. Even in areas completely ravaged by wildfire, where tree trunks are scorched into blackened toothpicks and soil is left gray and ashen, beaver complexes survive unscathed. The wet earth and thriving greenery resist burning, leaving oases of green in the middle of the lifeless moonscapes left behind by wildfire.

Spreading water out across valley floors also has proven benefits for water temperature, water quality and even carbon sequestration. Water laden with sediment, nitrates or carbon slows down in beaver ponds, allowing particles in it to settle or get consumed by microbes, unlike in a fast-moving stream…

Jordan said allowing or helping beavers to expand their work would help more areas, at least locally, steel themselves against more extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change. But he is candid that the animals won’t turn things around entirely.

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