Beaches, good weather and wine: Protecting the world’s five Mediterranean climates

By Alison Hewitt
Originally posted in UCLA Today

The scientists and resource managers attending the 12th MEDECOS conference all study Mediterranean ecosystems, five scattered areas that nevertheless share the same climate; provide a habitat for separately evolved, but strikingly similar plants and animals; and host an abnormal abundance of unique life forms, said UCLA ecologist and conference chair Phil Rundel.

Phil Rundel"I love tropical rainforests," but diversity is denser in Mediterranean areas, said Rundel, a UCLA professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. All five regions hug the west coast of a continent – coastal California and Baja California; Chile; the western Cape region of South Africa; south and southwest Australia; and 19 countries ringing the Mediterranean basin.

Thanks in part to their appealing weather, wine regions and beaches, all five areas have major cities – and all face growing threats. Urbanization, wildfires, climate change and invasive species are just a few of the dangers that MEDECOS attendees will tackle at the four-day conference hosted by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, and the UCLA Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve.

Glen MacDonald"Because we’re located right within the North American Mediterranean biome, it’s fitting that UCLA is a powerhouse of expertise," said IoES Director Glen MacDonald. "We have scientists at UCLA working on the Mediterranean from the perspective of ecology, the physical sciences, geology, climate, plants and animals, hydrology and engineering. It’s excellent to be able to share that with the world through the MEDECOS conference."

More than 250 people have registered for the conference, including more than 50 from overseas, representing 14 countries and all five Mediterranean regions. The focus is on sharing the latest science with resource managers like the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks, local conservancies, U.S. Forest Service, firefighters and city planning departments, said Felicia Federico, executive director of the UCLA La Kretz Center. Linking science with management is part of the center’s core mission.

Felicia Federico"You can have all these great scientific findings, but if nobody’s putting them to use, nothing’s going to change," said Federico, the conference co-chair. "I wanted to make sure that this conference wasn’t just scientists with intriguing information. We really wanted it to be about how these findings are telling us to change what we do."

The MEDECOS conference is the capstone to the La Kretz Center’s first year of operations, demonstrating the Center’s ability to bring the best thinking to bear on the critical issues facing California’s unique ecosystems, Federico added.

With fire season right around the corner, one timely speaker session seeks to influence how cities prepare for wildfires, particularly at the "urban/wildland interface" where housing developments meet tinder-dry open space, said Jon Keeley, an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Keeley, who is also a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), will lead the Wednesday morning session on recent USGS research about how to reduce the number of houses vulnerable to wildfires.

fire season

The research found that controlled burns and brush clearance around houses aren’t as linked to protecting homes from fire as previously believed, Keeley said.

"Wildland fuels really aren’t what determine housing losses," Keeley said. "It has more to do with location than anything else."

The most vulnerable areas are those that had the most fires in the past, even though that’s where there’s sometimes the least fuel, Keeley said. Wind corridors that push fires speedily forward play a greater role than the amount of nearby fuel, he added. "Urban fuels" – the plants in front and back yards – also play an important role. During the conference session, a fellow USGS researcher will reveal what common landscaping homes that have recently burned had, Keeley said.

Jon KeeleyKeeley and Rundel are also co-authors of a new book, "Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems: Ecology, Evolution and Management," coming out in November, billed as the first comprehensive look at everything known about how fires affect Mediterranean ecosystems. Keeley’s session begins Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. in the Northwest Auditorium on the Hill, where conference attendees are staying.

Keeley is among nearly a dozen UCLA faculty and doctoral students leading or participating in the conference, Rundel said. Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and IoES, will moderate a talk Tuesday on oaks in Med regions, from how to protect oaks from climate change and wildfire, to maintaining cork-oak populations even as screw-top wines decrease demand for farmed corks.

Victoria SorkTuesday, UCLA doctoral student Erin Riordan joins a session on coastal sage scrub ecology, a threatened ecosystem that hosts many unique and threatened species, Rundel said. Riordan’s research looks at the shifting boundaries of sage-scrub environments due to climate change, and, using climate models, looks at whether protected open space will still encompass the same habitats in a few decades.

"There’s already evidence that plants and animals in the Sierras are getting pushed higher and higher, and eventually they’ll get pushed off the mountains altogether," Rundel said.

"With 95 percent of California’s coastal sage scrub cleared away by development, much of what remains is protected," he continued. "But with climate change, all our parks could end up in less-than-perfect places."

boney ridge

Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at IoES, joins a Wednesday morning panel where she will discuss what a Mediterranean city is like. All five regions are running out of water, facing new fire management concerns, and trying to develop sustainable industry and resource use, Rundel noted.

The conference will close on Friday with the entire group considering what challenges each region faces, and what they can learn from each other to improve natural resource management. "The Mediterranean regions of the world are relatively small, but they are high in the diversity of endemic species — species that are only found in those regions," MacDonald said. "These regions are very, very vulnerable to climate change and other threats. The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability is particularly pleased to be hosting this conference, because it fits so well with our mission to bring together environmental sustainability researchers on campus and around the world."