Beavers as Climate Mitigation and Adaptation

TL;DR: beavers are a keystone species and ecosystem engineer. Through their normal day-to-day behaviors, beavers create uniquely disturbance-resistant landscapes and ecosystems. These beaver-modified patches of the landscape enhance biodiversity, improve water quality, reduce damage from wildfire, drought, and flood, and more. These ecosystem services provide on the order of $69,000 per square kilometer, per year of benefits Beavers = Firefighters.

Publication: Jordan and Fairfax. (2022), Beaver: the North American freshwater climate action plan. WIRES Water. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1592

Beavers as Climate Mitigation and Adaptation: The Conceptual Model

Riverscapes – which are composed of the river itself, as well as its floodplains, the riparian corridor, and the shallow groundwater system – are unfortunately already not in good condition in most of the American West. Once a riverscape gets degraded, it easily falls into a cycle of increasing destruction and unhealthiness. Increasing global temperatures exacerbates the riverscape degradation, which in turn makes them even more vulnerable to climate change.

BUT, when beavers move into a riverscape, the story is completely different. Even as global temperatures rise and nudge the riverscapes towards degradation, beaver activity pushes them back in the other direction – towards health and resilience. Once beavers are in the system, their natural behaviors create cycles of increasing riverscape resilience.

Figure from Jordan and Fairfax. (2022), Beaver: the North American freshwater climate action plan. WIRES Water. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1592

Beavers and Climate: a brief summary

There is a huge volume of research demonstrating the many ways that beaver ecosystem engineering results in climate mitigation and adaptation, and that a lot of these benefits are simply a result of reconnecting rivers to their floodplains. In this paper, we highlight a few of realms of climate adaptation and mitigation (and the research characterizing them) that are likely to be particularly important in the coming years.

Table from Jordan and Fairfax. (2022), Beaver: the North American freshwater climate action plan. WIRES Water. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1592

Beavers and Climate: the take home message

The take home message here is that beavers were a dominant ecological, geologic, and hydrologic force on this continent for millions of years, and their absence has thrown things out of balance.

From the paper:
“We need to apply our knowledge of the physical and biological processes of functioning riverscapes and the role that beavers play to drive rapid, comprehensive, and durable action. Actions that address the pervasive degradation of North America’s streams, rivers, and floodplains. Actions that rebuild the natural, functioning dynamics of riverscapes to permit robust responses to disturbance. Riverscape restoration, and in particular process-led and beaver-based restoration, should be the foundation of our national freshwater climate action plan.”