Climate change is a threat to ecosystem biodiversity and a reason to unite #ForNature

June 5, 2020

Picture by UNDP Belarus

Climate change and the disappearance of animals and plants often go hand in hand, although people do not always realize this link. Animals, plants, fungi and bacteria simply do not have time to adapt to this process. What changes are observed in Belarus, and how can UNDP help?

As a result of global and regional climatic changes in Belarus, a shift in weather and climate conditions has occurred in the last two decades. According to experts of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the climatic norm in the country is exceeded by 1.3℃. The highest temperature increase has occurred in winter and spring months.

One of the main factors of natural origin that affect biodiversity is global climate change, manifested in Belarus mainly by a decreased precipitation and increased air temperature in comparison with climatic norms. Climate changes increase the risks of disturbance of the ecological and water balance of the territories, changes in the flora and fauna species composition, shrinkage of the boreal habitats area and spread of foreststeppe and steppe species. Climate changes also cause accelerated successions of natural ecosystems (overgrowth of open meadows and mires with reeds, trees and shrubs, overgrowth and eutrophication of rivers and lakes), expansion of invasive alien animal and plant species and displacement of native species. 

Forests suffer from climate change

Climate change causes serious consequences in the forest ecosystems of Belarus, the basis of which is formed by perennial plants - trees with a life cycle that covers many dozens and even hundreds of years. Formed in the “old” climate, forests are not able to adapt within one or even several years, as it happens in the case of grass communities.

According to Maxim Ermokhin, the head of the Laboratory for Productivity and Sustainability of Plant Communities at the Institute of Experimental Botany at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, a steady change in climate indicators through changes in groundwater levels, fires, reproduction of insect pests and stimulation of diseases of woody plants leads to changes in the composition and structure of forests.

Droughts, the frequency and intensity of which have increased in recent years, have become one of the most unfavorable forms of impact on forest vegetation, as well as frequent hurricanes and squalls. 

“Droughts cause weakening of trees and create favorable conditions for the mass reproduction of stem pests. As a result, the mass drying out of spruce forests, and in recent years pine forests, has taken on the character of ecological disaster in the southern and central regions of Belarus. The situation is aggravated by the massive drainage reclamation carried out in 1950-1980. As a result, we are already observing a shift in the distribution border of spruce forests in a northern direction,”comments Maxim Ermokhin.

Invasions of alien species, extinction of native and rare species and wintering problems

Climatic changes lead to the degradation of habitats of rare species and become the main reasons for the reduction in their numbers. As a result, the number of globally threatened species is declining in Belarus, including The populations of the following species are declining: Speckled ground squirrel, Aquatic warbler, Great snipe, Black-tailed godwit, Eurasian curlew, Common pochard, Meadow pipit, European mink and European crayfish. 

European crayfish. Picture by Sergei Gapon

Aquatic Warbler. Picture by Sergei Gapon

At the same time, the European mantis, which had previously been found only in the vicinity of the Homiel town, has spread throughout the whole territory of Belarus over the past few years. The Chinese wolf spider has spread throughout the south-eastern part of the country, the Buffalo treehopper, an invasive alien species, has spread throughout the whole Polesie region. 

According to Oleg Borodin, a leading researcher at the Biological Resources Laboratory of Terrestrial Invertebrates, Scientific and Practical Center, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, animals whose life cycle is associated with a transition through zero degree are especially affected. “In recent years, during the late autumn – early spring period, the transition through 0 degree can occur in Belarus sometimes a hundred times, which leads to disruption of the wintering regime, which seriously affects, for example, bees and many animals that fall into the winter hibernation,” notes Oleg Borodin.

Climate change contributes to invasion when alien insect species rapidly increase in numbers and develop new regions. Currently, the number of alien terrestrial invertebrate species registered in the country has reached more than 130. As a result of climate warming, the entire territory of Belarus was invaded by the Horse-chestnut leaf miner, causing drying-out of the Horse chestnut and which is included in the list of the 100 most dangerous invasive species in Europe. The Asian ladybeetle is rapidly spreading throughout the country; its excretions can cause allergic reactions in humans and it's dangerous for native species of insects.

The list species that are not characteristic of our region also includes buffalo cicada - a North American species that was brought to Europe in the 60s. In Belarus, the species was first noted in 2001 near Mazyr, and now it has spread almost to Minsk. Active distribution has occurred over the past 5 years.

“Climate change has led to the appearance of golden jackal in Belarus. The species that is characteristic for South Asia and the Near and Middle East. This is a natural distribution, but the true reason that led the species to the new territories should be analyzed,” Oleg Borodin emphasizes.

In the south of Belarus – a new agro-climatic zone and a threat to rare species

According to experts, a new agro-climatic zone has formed in the south of Belarus. Drainage measures were held here in the Soviet times, the hydro refime was severely disturbed. As a result, a critical situation for breeding rare species of birds is already observed today. Thus, the last expedition of ornithologists within the framework of the UNDP-GEF “Wetlands” project, which investigated the floodplains of the rivers of the Mogilev and Homiel regions, found a decrease in the number of rare sandpipers.

“The absence of spring floods, dry autumn and snowless winters, and the decrease in rainfall in the spring twice since 2015 — all these factors strongly affect the reproduction of wetland birds. Today we are witnessing a decrease in the numbers of the Black-tailed godwit, curlew, meadow ridge, and lapwing. All of these species are affected by climate change. We observe that places that are absolutely suitable for nesting are not occupied today due to very dry conditions,” said Dmitry Zhuravlev, senior researcher in the monitoring and cadastre sector of the animal department, Scientific and Practical Center for Biological Resources of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

Black-tailed godwit. Picture by Sergei Zuenok

Lapwing. Picture by Sergei Zuenok

Sandpiper. Picture by Sergei Zuenok

Climate change mitigation is in focus of the country and UNDP

Belarus has already taken a number of measures to overcome the negative effects of climate change. By 2022, it is planned to adopt a Long-Term Development Strategy on low greenhouse gas emissions and a National Action Plan for adaptation to climate change.

Under the Paris Agreement, Belarus has undertaken voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% by 2030. This also includes the country’s commitments on rewetting and disturbed peatlands rehabilitation that will help to reduce CO2 emissions across the country. The new law “On the Protection and Use of Peat Bogs” will contribute to the fulfillment of these commitments, as it will ensure the preservation of natural peatlands and the сarbon accumulated in them. The development of the law was facilitated by the UNDP-GEF "Peatlands-2" and "Wetlands" projects.

Dakudauskaje peatland. Picture by UNDP Belarus

Climate change will also play a significant role in the new UNDP Belarus country program for 2021–2025, which was developed jointly with the national partners. With the support of its development partners, including the European Union and the Global Environment Facility, UNDP has already mobilized about $ 7 million to adapt the country to climate change and minimize emissions.

The new UNDP-GEF project "Preparation of the Seventh National Communication for the Implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Third Biennial Report" will help to strengthen the legislation in the field of combating climate change in Belarus. It is designed to help strengthen national capacities for Belarus to fulfill its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Implementation of the project will make it possible to take into account climatic aspects when developing national and sectoral strategies and programs in the energy sector, industry, construction, and agriculture. The project with a budget of more than 892 thousand US dollars is intended to become an effective platform for joint action and will allow government bodies, scientific institutions, the private sector, the public and other interested parties to exchange thie views on urgent solutions to climate conservation and adaptation to its consequences.

Biodiversity restoration by peatlands rewetting

Taking into account the geographical position of Belarus, its soil and climatic features, the country focuses on the preservation and restoration of mire ecosystems, which are recognized worldwide as one of the most valuable and, at the same time, the most vulnerable natural biotopes in terms of carbon sequestration and maintenance of biodiversity under climate change conditions. An important contribution to this direction has already been made by UNDP environmental projects.

The "Clima-East and "Peatlands-2" projects, funded by the EU and the GEF accordingly, were implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and conducted research and restoration of habitats of globally threatened bird species, re-wetting of degraded peatlands, and restoration of open meadow and bog ecosystems. Today, the UNDP-GEF "Wetlands" project is actively continuing this work.

New methods of the ecological rehabilitation of degraded peatlands have been developed in the framework of implementation of international projects, national programs and plans. Technology of ecological rehabilitation of degraded peatlands by means of planting of the black alder trees was tested within the “Peatlands-2” project at the area of 200 ha. Black alder forests play an important role in carbon sequestration, maintenance of the favorable water regime, supporting rare and endangered species of animals and plants, including globally threatened species (Greater spotted eagle and others). 

This year, the new accelerated restoration method will be tested on the extracted Dakudauskaje peatlands (Lida district, Hrodna region). The seeds of bog plants will be planted on the peat bog, which will allow to restore the bog and the key biospheric functions of the bog ecosystems - the climatic function, stabilization of the regional hydro regime - within 5 years.

Only by combining the efforts of environmental organizations, international donors, civil society and scientific community, we can maintain the harmony of nature in all its diversity. 

Peatland restoration in Belarus. Picture by UNDP