Refugia of Futures Past

Current research suggests that society may not meet Paris Agreement climate mitigation goals to keep global temperature rise below 1.5-2.0 oC, and global biodiversity losses are at accelerated rates similar to the ‘big five’ mass extinctions in the fossil record. New research also raises questions about the habitability of some Earth regions due to changes in temperature, sea level, seasonality shifts, and extreme weather regimes. Current human-centred adaptation research focuses on goal-oriented short-term scenarios (e.g. 2030/50/100) via present-day political, legal, and social structures and values (e.g. states, communities, regions, UNFCCC, SDGs). Yet the scale of environmental change extends beyond these time-horizons and evidence of past conditions found in the fossil and palaeoclimate records reflect those predicted for post-2100. Fundamental long-term questions remain about how and where people can live in a radically changed future Earth environment that is likely to resemble the deep past.
‘Refugia’ are locations where climate and biodiversity conditions allowed humans and hominins and other organisms to survive past episodes of climate change characterised by glaciation and reduced global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. In the deeper past, this includes organism redistributions in extreme global heating events (e.g. supposed uninhabitable equatorial regions across the Permo-Triassic boundary; rapid +8 oC rise at the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum).
While research exists on past human refugia, and future nonhuman refugia, we can find no studies scoping the presence of humans in future refugia. A need thus exists for basic research into the baseline conditions and distribution of future Earth human refugia, which the detailed palaeoclimate evidence can inform. We envision these conditions to begin at a subsistence level of existence for human groups relative to different climate and biomass/diversity conditions likely found in the future. Establishing a subsistence understanding creates a habitability floor upon which social and technological scenarios can be layered to identify adaptation pathways that can be directly applied to high-level adaptation research, policy, and practice.
The aim of this project is to initiate a long-term interdisciplinary collaboration to explore the baseline conditions for Earth habitability under long-term future global environmental change to influence adaptation research, policy, and practice.
Lead Academic at Lead Institution
Dr Christopher Lyon – University of Leeds
Lead Academics at other institutions
Dr Andrew Beckerman – University of Sheffield
Prof Rob Marchant – University of York
Other members of staff associated with this project
University of Leeds

  • Dr Tracy Aze
  • Dr Alex Dunhill
  • Dr Dan J Hill
  • Prof Lindsay Stringer
  • James McKay
  • Bethany Allen

University of Sheffield

  • Dr Tom Webb
  •  Dr Deborah Sporton

University of York

  • Prof Paul O’Higgins

University of Oxford

  • Associate Professor Erin E Saupe

Université de Montréal

  • Prof Ariane Burke and Dr Julien Riel-Salvatore

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