Climate regulation: Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (Canada)

An important feedback loop exists between ecosystems and climate. While ecosystems regulate climate by influencing the mechanisms of water, energy and greenhouse gases (GHGs) exchange between land and the atmosphere, climate variation itself impacts the dynamics of ecosystem processes, determining the maintenance of their integrity and capacity to provide goods and services for people (Bonan, 2008; Foley et al., 2003; Heimann & Reichstein, 2008; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; World Bank, 2010). As such, climate regulation is important to ensure the normal functioning of the biosphere, which in turn will maintain the delivery of regulation services. The latest IPCC report states that "continued emissions of GHGs will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system" (IPCC, 2013). Under current climate change scenarios, protected areas are key to ensuring the provision of regulation services that can act both in terms of mitigation, by sequestering carbon and reducing deforestation; and in terms of adaptation to climate change, by ensuring the resilience of the ecosystems to extreme events is maintained and services such as climate regulation continue to be provided (World Bank, 2010).The two case studies –the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and Ibiza - have been selected to highlight the benefits ecosystems deliver through climate regulation in terrestrial and marine environments.

Key messages

- World Heritage Sites that contain large tracts of forest can significantly contribute to the delivery of climate regulating services by ensuring that carbon stocks remain undisturbed.

- Coastal and aquatic ecosystems also play an important role in carbon sequestration by capturing significant amounts of ‘blue carbon'

- Regulation effects occur not only on a local scale, but taken together these sites can also impact the global climate system; therefore, World Heritage sites can be of particular importance for mitigating further impacts of climate change

- Since the effects of climate change already occurring are likely to not be reduced even under best-case scenarios, it is important for areas that provide regulation services to be managed and have a protection status, given that they too are likely to suffer indirect consequences from a changing climate.




Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (Canada)

Location and World Heritage designation

With a total area of 230,684 km2, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site is comprised of seven contiguous parks that straddle along a 400 km-long belt, between the British Columbia and Alberta borders (UNEP-WCMC, 2012a). A mosaic of mountain peaks, valleys, caves, glaciers, lakes and waterfalls compose the mountain landscape, as well as the presence of an important fossil record, and have led to its inscription under criteria (vii) and (viii) (UNESCO, 2014a). Although reserve status had already been attributed to the parks in 1887 under the Rocky Mountains Park Act, Jasper, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1984, and were joined by Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hanber Provincial Parks in 1990 (Parks Canada, 2009).

Climate regulation

Mountains are among one of the key ecosystems contributing to climate regulation services (Harrison et al., 2010). A wide variety of unique habitats and features can occur in mountainous sites, such as heath and grasslands, forested areas, peatlands, glaciers and areas covered by snow. The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks support the delivery of climate regulation services through carbon storage in forested areas and peatlands. Forests have an important role in the global carbon cycle by acting as carbon sinks. For example, globally Boreal Forests biomes have been estimated to store up to 380 Gt of carbon (World Bank, 2010). A study conducted in national parks across Canada (Sharma et al., 2013) reported carbon stock densities being higher than those reported for reference forest areas with no protection status. Besides acting as a carbon sink, forests also play an important role in climate regulation by controlling the surface albedo (Betts, 2000; Sharma et al., 2013). Similarly, snow and glaciers also contribute to reflecting solar radiation and regulating the climate.

Climate regulation occurs both on a local and global scale and the regulation services provided by the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks will not only impact the local climate, but also have further effects on the global climate regime. In the face of global warming and climate change, this World Heritage Site will have an important role in local adaptation to climate change; for example, ensuring the conservation of the local fauna and flora, the storage and sink of carbon, by retaining water in glaciers and snow as well as ensuring constant and safe water supply to the lowlands for domestic and industrial use (Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, 2005). On a global scale, regulating effects will also be important to mitigate further impacts of climate change. The preservation of large forested areas will limit further CO2 emissions and increase CO2 sinks, being a key element in achieving climate mitigation objectives (Sharma et al., 2013). With climate change being a global challenge, both mitigation or adaptation measures will have to be taken locally, and World Heritage sites are ideal locations for such actions to occur (UNESCO, 2007).