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Migrations in Motion
A visualization shows the likely routes that would be taken by mammals (pink), birds (blue) and amphibians (yellow) as they move northward in response to climate change. (Credit: Mapbox / OpenStreetMap / Migrations in Motion / Nature Conservancy)

A University of Washington professor’s research into climate-caused migrations has been transformed into a hypnotic map of the Americas that gets the message across.

The animated map, titled “Migrations in Motion,” shows the trajectories that species are expected to take in response to the warming trend that’s likely to unfold over the course of the coming decades.

“One of the nice things about the map is that it gives you a look at the main effects of climate change for animals: that species are going to move around,” UW ecologist Joshua Lawler told GeekWire.

Three years ago, Lawler and his colleagues published a study in Ecology Letters that laid out the likely impact of rising temperatures on migration patterns for nearly 3,000 species.

The study suggested that species in North America would tend to shift toward more northerly habitats, following routes that went through higher elevations and less developed terrain. In the eastern United States, the Appalachian Mountains stuck out as a superhighway for species shifts.

The patterns in South America are more complex. In the northern part of the continent, species are expected to move westward, away from the Amazon basin. At higher latitudes, researchers expect species to move southward.

The nonprofit Nature Conservancy participated in the study – and a member of the conservancy’s science team, Dan Majka, created the animated map using the types of visualization tools that previously produced “Perpetual Ocean” and worldwide wind maps.

The flowing lines represent the movement of multiple species, rather than an individual species or animal. Pink lines represent mammals, blue is for birds, and yellow is for amphibians. The Appalachian migration highway stands out clearly, while the flow in the western United States is more widely distributed.

“In the West, there’s a lot more public land, so in general there are more opportunities for species to move through the west than through the east,” Lawler explained. It’s also easier for species to move to higher elevations in order to cope with a warming trend.

In the future, Lawler and his colleagues plan to produce a higher-resolution map of expected migration patterns, particularly for the western United States, and translate that into a plan to clear wider paths for species migration.

Currently, only about 41 percent of U.S. natural land area is connected enough to facilitate species shifts in a warming world, the researchers said in a paper published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To remedy that situation, they suggest tearing down fences, adjusting the routes of pipelines and power lines, and building overpasses and underpasses to help wildlife move across major roadways.

Lawler hopes maps like “Migrations in Motion” will help policymakers as well as the general public see the future unfold before their very eyes. “It was shocking to see these features emerge so clearly,” he said in a news release.

Learn more about “Migrations in Motion” on the Nature Conservancy’s blog.

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