Helping people and ecosystems adapt to climate change

Manishka De Mel: Helping people and ecosystems adapt to climate change

Manishka De Mel (left) is a senior associate at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia Climate School. With climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig (right), she recently co-edited the book “Our Warming Planet: Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation”.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, Manishka De Mel – a senior associate at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia Climate School – felt bothered by a range of environmental issues around her, such as pollution from vehicles, waste management issues and deforestation. After high school, she felt motivated to study environmental science.

At the time, Sri Lanka had no undergraduate programs in this field. So she moved to the UK to study environmental management at Imperial College London. Shortly after graduating in 2004, she pursued a master’s program in biodiversity conservation at the University of Oxford. Equipped with the knowledge to find solutions to environmental problems in developing countries, she returned to Sri Lanka in 2006 to work in two organizations focusing on air pollution, deforestation, environmental justice and climate change.

While working in the field with his team members and seeing how Sri Lanka was trying to build coastal resilience following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, De Mel realized that climate change would also have a devastating impact on the coast of the island. areas.

“In the early 2000s, climate change was not a hot topic. During my undergraduate and masters programs, we only had a few climate lectures. It wasn’t even a module or a class,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about climate science, and that’s how I decided to join the Masters in Climate and Society program at Columbia.”

After graduating, De Mel landed a job at the Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) in late 2013. She now leads a portfolio of conservation and development projects that stretch from the Caribbean coast to the Himalayas. snowy.

Building climate resilience in coastal regions

At CCSR, De Mel collects information to assess the impact of climate change on ecosystems and communities in Asia and Latin America. This information then enables governments and other stakeholders to build their resilience to climate variability and extreme weather events.

In a 2021 study published in the journal Weather, climate and society, De Mel and colleagues found that stakeholders associated with conservation projects in tropical and subtropical countries do not have access to appropriate climate risk information. Local actors also had little or no resources to integrate this information into decision-making processes. These barriers prevent vulnerable communities from planning ahead and adapting to climate change.

“We have worked to provide our expertise on rising temperatures, extreme heat, precipitation patterns, sea level rise and ocean heat to local decision makers. Then we guide them on how this information can be used effectively to reduce local climate risks in the future,” said De Mel.

The search party walks along the shore in Mexico. Photo: WWF

One such project where De Mel and his colleagues helped integrate climate risk information into planning took place in the Mesoamerican reef region in the Caribbean Sea. It is the second longest barrier reef system on earth. With over 60 types of coral and over 500 species of fish, the entire region is a hotspot for marine biodiversity and tourism. The coral reef stretches over 600 miles, bordering four countries – Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.

The reef system is threatened by the impacts of climate change such as coral bleaching, extreme weather and sea level rise. Damage from unsustainable development projects and pollution is also taking its toll on marine ecosystems and fisheries, explained De Mel.

mangroves in belize

Mangroves provide protection from the impacts of climate change while providing other benefits to communities and ecosystems. Photo: Manishka De Mel

She worked with CCSR Principal Investigator Cynthia Rosenzweig and researchers from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to find ways to conserve the fragile Caribbean ecosystem. The duo partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the governments of the four countries to provide information on climate risks to guide local stakeholders on adaptation measures that could help protect local communities.

Local stakeholders used climate risk information, along with other relevant information, to decide on a pilot adaptation project in each of the four countries of the Mesoamerican Reef region. In 2020, Belize merged climate change analysis into its Coastal Zone Integrated Marine Plan to restore coastal dunes and mangroves in the Yucatan Peninsula, and used the information to help set new reduction targets. emissions under the Paris Agreement.

As lead author of the United Nations Environment Program’s Adaptation Gap Report 2020, De Mel observed that only a tiny fraction of climate finance goes to nature-based climate solutions, such as restoration of coastal wetlands and coral reefs. These solutions are often inexpensive and provide other benefits to local people and ecosystems.

As the focus is increasingly on nature-based solutions, De Mel warned that without measures to reduce carbon emissions, the effectiveness of adaptation projects is minimized. During storms, hurricanes or floods, young mangrove trees and coral farms can be severely damaged, for example. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria demolished 75 coral farms in Puerto Rico.

“We are now investigating how extreme events affect nature-based solutions on the ground as they are implemented,” De Mel said.

As she wraps up the project in the Caribbean, she simultaneously examines how climate change is altering local ecosystems in a radically different landscape.

Stakeholders in Honduras discuss the climate team’s findings at a workshop. Photo: Manishka De Mel

Assessing climate risk in snow leopard habitats in the high mountains of Asia

In the high-altitude Himalayan regions, endangered snow leopards and their prey bear the brunt of rising annual temperatures, rapidly melting glaciers and erratic rainfall. In 2015, De Mel partnered with WWF to help determine which elements of climate change could have serious consequences for snow leopard habitats in the high mountains of Asia. The project included parts of eastern Nepal, Sikkim (a state in the Indian Himalayas), Bhutan and Tajikistan.

The researchers found that, “while direct changes in climate such as increased temperatures are not likely to harm snow leopards themselves, climate change impacts on habitats and prey populations are likely to pose many challenges to the species,” De Mel said. “As mountainous areas continue to warm, they may become more suitable for agriculture and ranching, leading to greater overlap between human uses and snow leopard habitat, leading to increased conflict with Identifying and planning for these ever-changing challenges, while trying to minimize poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat loss, will provide the best chance of snow leopard survival. .

De Mel continues to study mountainous regions to this day. In a recent study for the Wildlife Conservation Society, she and her colleagues developed climate projections for the Panj-Amu River Basin in Afghanistan.

The team found that by the middle of the century, the number of extreme heat days could increase in the western and central parts of the river basin. Over most of the river basin, the frequency of rare drought events – which historically occur every 10 years, on average – could increase by two to three times. And if emissions remain high, by the end of the century, areas of permafrost in some regions could locally disappear, retreating only to mountain peaks, potentially threatening ecosystems and infrastructure.

The researchers also analyzed the Wakhan Corridor in eastern Afghanistan – a strip of rugged mountainous territory that consists of semi-desert alpine and tundra regions. The researchers warned that even small increases in heavy rainfall events could significantly increase the risk of mudslides, erosion, flash floods and landslides.

Despite these dire climate projections for some of the world’s most vulnerable regions, De Mel’s work underscores the importance of recognizing these disruptive pressures on society and natural ecosystems in order to plan for them in advance.

After working in other Asian countries such as Myanmar and Uzbekistan, De Mel looks forward to continuing to reach out to local communities and organizations in developing countries, working alongside them and learning from them. also.

She recently co-edited a book called “Our Warming Planet: Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation”, to which 38 climate experts contributed. The 25 chapters of the book provide educational resources for students, teachers and professionals.

The book is a continuation of the theme that runs through much of De Mel’s work: putting information about climate change into the hands of the people who need it most.