Pandemic refuges: Lessons from two years of COVID-19

View the paper “Pandemic Refuges: Lessons from Two Years of COVID-19”

Refuges from an ecological perspective are defined as those places that are safe havens for species and habitats – more formally we tend to identify them as habitats that convey spatial and temporal resistance and/or resilience to biotic communities affected by disturbances. Refuges are garnering a large amount of attention in the conservation literature as we begin to observe accelerating climate impacts on biodiversity and are often prioritised for protection as places that are no regret options for investment. How to best protect species now and into the future is a big question that I am often confronted when supporting conservation planning for jurisdictions (e.g. we included climate refugia as a key conservation feature when planning with PNG, and more recently we’ve been grappling with this in Tasmania and what climate resilience might look like for private reserves).

Interestingly – refuges have played a similar role or definition in the human risk analysis and management literature. Refuges have been proposed as a means of ensuring that at least some people survive a global catastrophe. While it would be better to avoid the catastrophe in the first place, if a catastrophe is to occur, a refuge could be a real difference-maker in terms of the long-term effects on human civilization. Prior global catastrophe refuges research emphasizes highly isolated locations such as islands (also great refuges for biodiversity so I guess humans and biodiversity have some shared characteristics in their refuge needs). My friend, family member, and now valued colleague Seth Baum of GCRI grapples with these questions in his global catastrophe work. 

Through varied ponderings we discovered this concept of refuges overlap in our respective disciplines and our own lived experiences during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted us to think more seriously about how to define, identify, and leverage the refuge concept as a politically viable policy response to global catastrophes. This work led to a paper which we co-authored in the journal of Risk Analysis.

Whether COVID-19 classifies as a global catastrophe is a matter of interpretation. It is certainly a global event that has had catastrophic effects for many people. However, as the paper shows, it does not meet the criteria of most published definitions of global catastrophe. Nonetheless, as an extremely severe global event, it provides a rare and important source of evidence for the study of global catastrophic risk. (See also the GCRI Statement on the COVID-19 Pandemic.)

During the first two years of COVID-19, several political jurisdictions have effectively served as refuges by maintaining a very low spread of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. Some of these jurisdictions have sought to avoid any transmission of SARS-CoV-2, a policy sometimes known as “zero COVID”. Residents of these jurisdictions were able to live relatively normal lives without risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Furthermore, in the event that the pandemic were to prove overwhelmingly catastrophic for other jurisdictions, these refuges could offer a survivor population.

Prior research on refuges for pandemics focused on island nations on grounds that their geographic isolation and political unity would make them effective places for avoiding the pandemic pathogen. During the first two years of COVID-19, some island nations have served as refuges; Australia and New Zealand are examples. However, this paper shows that other jurisdictions can also succeed as refuges.

The paper studies two jurisdictions with especially low spread of COVID-19: China and Western Australia. China is the most populous country in the world, with extensive and heavily populated land borders with other countries. Western Australia is sub-national jurisdiction that is connected by land to the rest of the country, although the land connection is a sparsely populated desert. The two jurisdictions differ in other respects: China is authoritarian and has a collectivist culture, whereas Western Australia is democratic and has an individualist culture. Nonetheless, both jurisdictions have a high degree of political centralization and capacity for isolation. During the pandemic, both have also been highly motivated to avoid pathogen spread. Together, the cases provide a more nuanced understanding of the sorts of jurisdictions that can succeed as refuges for pandemics and perhaps also for other global catastrophe scenarios.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. As the pandemic continues to unfold, more will be learned about refuges and other topics of relevance to global catastrophic risk. Indeed, several significant events occurred while the paper was under peer review, including China’s struggle to contain the new Omicron variant and Western Australia’s decision to open its borders. In fact, as I sit here writing this blog the ‘refuge endgame’ is the next big question for me. What does an optimal or even mildly successful exit from refuge status look like (and how do we define success in order to guide optimal policy design)? We are living a natural experiment which provides the conditions by which to evaluate successful policies and to learn from them for future pandemics and other global catastrophes.

The paper extends GCRI’s research on the aftermath of global catastrophe, especially the paper Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes.

Academic citation:
Baum, Seth D. and Vanessa M. Adams, forthcoming. Pandemic refuges: Lessons from two years of COVID-19Risk Analysis, DOI 10.1111/risa.13953.

Image credit: Voice of America

International women’s day

I was reminded that International Women’s Day is Tuesday March 8th and this year’s theme is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow“. What a great theme. It made me think about my own role as a female scientist and the types of events I like to host and participate in that hopefully address gender bias but also more broadly contribute to improving the environment around us. Late last year I was honored to receive Tasmanian Young Tall Poppy of the Year award (learn more about the Tall Poppy campaign and the 2021 Young Tall Poppy award winners here I made the video below as part of the campaign and thought it was a nice way to talk about how I contribute to a sustainable tomorrow.

Priorities for biomass – Voices in One Earth

One Earth posed the interesting question of what should be the priorities for biomass:

“Plant biomass is the basis of our diets and ecosystems, and a promising renewable source of energy and materials. The demand for biomass is increasing, but space limits our capacity to deliver enough biomass to meet food security, bioeconomy, and conservation targets, and climate change threatens productivity further. This Voices asks: which should be the priorities for plant biomass and what are the main limits to achieve them?”

I enjoyed pondering this and adding my ‘voice’ alongside some other interesting perspectives. I posit that it’s not an either or but ultimately about multiple objective planning with shared goals. And ultimately halting land degradation is critical for addressing the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change and can (if we plan smartly) address sustainable food production.

Check out the diversity of views here:

Meeting biodiversity, climate, and water objectives through integrated strategies

I’m pleased to see this important new paper out led by Martin Jung – Our press release below.

We are collectively failing to conserve the world’s biodiversity and to mobilize natural solutions to help curb global warming. A new study carried out by the Nature Map Consortium, shows that managing a strategically placed 30% of land for conservation could safeguard 70% of all considered terrestrial plant and vertebrate animal species, while simultaneously conserving more than 62% of the world’s above and below ground vulnerable carbon, and 68% of all clean water.

In November, governments will convene in Glasgow under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Natural climate solutions for mitigation and adaptation will be high on the agenda, as illustrated by the recent G7 Nature Compact and the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature signed by 88 heads of government. In 2022, China will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to agree a new Global Biodiversity Framework, including proposed targets to conserve at least 30% of land and the ocean by 2030 and to apply integrated biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning to address land- and sea-use change.

To stop the decline of nature and meet the Paris Agreement objectives, strategies need to be designed and implemented for better managing land use for agriculture, infrastructure, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, water provision, and other needs. As underscored by the draft Global Biodiversity Framework and current efforts in Costa Rica, China, and other countries, this requires spatial planning to assess where biodiversity conservation would bring the greatest benefits to other policy objectives.

To support such integrated strategies, a paper by the Nature Map consortium just published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution presents an approach for spatial planning. The paper set out to determine areas of global importance to manage for conservation to simultaneously protect the greatest number of species from extinction, conserve vulnerable terrestrial carbon stocks, and safeguard freshwater resources. This effort is the first of its kind to truly integrate biodiversity, carbon, and water conservation within a common approach and a single global priority map. Another distinct novelty of the work is the consideration of a comprehensive set of plant distribution data (about 41% of all plant species) in the analyses, and the setting of species targets for extinction risk.

“To implement post-2020 biodiversity strategies such as the Global Biodiversity Framework, policymakers and governments need clarity on where resources and conservation management could bring the greatest potential benefits to biodiversity. At the same time, biodiversity should not be looked at in isolation. Other aspects such as conserving carbon stocks within natural ecosystems should be considered alongside biodiversity, so that synergies and trade-offs can be evaluated when pursuing multiple objectives,” explains lead author Martin Jung, a researcher in the IIASA Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group.

“The new global priority maps developed as part of the study show that when it comes to identifying new areas to manage for conservation, such as protected areas or community-managed forests, quality (location and management effectiveness) is more important than quantity (global extent). To aim for quality of conservation and achieve the goal of safeguarding biodiversity, government and non-government agencies should be setting objectives and indicators for what they want: conserving species, healthy ecosystems and their services to people, and identify areas to conserve accordingly. Our study provides guidance on how to do that,” adds study coauthor Piero Visconti who leads the Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group at IIASA.

Credit: Adam Islaam | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

The researchers note that conserving a strategically located 30% of land could yield major gains for conservation, climate, and water provisioning. Specifically, it would safeguard more than 62% of the world’s above and below ground vulnerable carbon and 68% of all fresh water, while ensuring that over 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate and plant species are not threatened with extinction. As the work shows, meeting these objectives will require strategic placement of conservation interventions using spatial planning tools like Nature Map and, crucially, require enabling their stewards to effectively manage these areas.  

“This type of approach can support decision makers in prioritizing locations for conservation efforts, and shows just how much both people and nature could gain. To be successful long-term, these areas must be managed effectively and equitably. That includes respecting the rights of, and empowering indigenous peoples and local communities,” says co-author Lera Miles, Principal Technical Specialist – Planning for Places, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

“Maps for integrated spatial planning, as called for in the draft Global Biodiversity Framework, are necessary for meeting climate and biodiversity objectives. They are also critical for financing natural climate solutions, improving carbon markets, and greening supply chains,” says Guido Schmidt-Traub, an author of the paper who has also written a related commentary in the same issue of Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The study demonstrates that optimizing jointly for biodiversity, carbon, and water maximizes synergies that can be gained from conservation compared to placing emphasis on any individual asset alone. Through strategic action in selected locations, significant benefits can be achieved across all three dimensions. Conservation efforts however need to be greatly scaled-up by all actors in society to meet global biodiversity and climate objectives.

Jung points out that the analysis identifies the upper potential value of any given area to be managed for conservation at global scale. The team by no means suggests or implies that all areas with high value are to be placed under strict protection, recognizing that these management choices are decided by national and local stakeholders. 

The team’s analyses also quantitatively confirm many areas earlier described as biodiversity hotspots, which were previously based on expert opinion alone. By including selected data of the global tree of life that have so far been ignored in global prioritizations – such as reptiles and plants – the team identified new areas to be considered as important for biodiversity at a global scale. These include, for instance, the southeastern United States and the Balkans. The research has also been useful in updating and improving the information on all areas of global importance for biodiversity conservation.

“Our methods, data, and the global priority maps are meant to be used as a decision support tool for major conservation initiatives. Furthermore, the study lays the groundwork for a new generation of integrated prioritizations and planning exercises that all actors can use to inform conservation choices at the regional, national and sub-national levels,” Jung concludes.

The global priority maps can be explored interactively on the UN Biodiversity lab to support decision makers and generate insight and impact for conservation and sustainable development.


Jung, M., Arnell, A., de Lamo, X., García-Rangel, S., Lewis, M., Mark, J., Merow, C., Miles, L., et al. (2021). Areas of global importance for conserving terrestrial biodiversity, carbon, and water. Nature Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01528-7

* The Nature Map project was launched by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS), the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Other partners include Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN), Global Assessment of Reptile Distributions (GARD), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), iNaturalist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, OpenLandMap, the UN Biodiversity Lab, and SYSTEMIQ Ltd. The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment (KLD) provides financial support.

Our article in the Conversation – make sure you are prepared if you are hiking in the winter

First – a small shout out and congratulations to our master student Noelle Nemeth who has been the model student. Last week a paper from her thesis research was published. She had an outstanding radio interview with ABC and has written media articles for The Mercury and also helped us draft an article out in the Conversation today. Her research is timely and important and she’s made the most of interpreting the data she collected and feeding it back to the public and relevant organisations. Congrats Noelle! I’m re-posting the Conversation article below.

If you’re planning to hike this winter, invest in the right gear. Being unprepared for Australia’s harsh terrain can be deadly

Vanessa Adams, University of Tasmania; Jason Byrne, University of Tasmania, and Noelle Nemeth, University of Tasmania

Two years ago, emergency workers rescued a hiker in Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. He had spent nine days in his tent in freezing weather with dangerous blizzards, trying to keep dry from infiltrating snow and rain.

Because he was an experienced and prepared hiker, he had the skills and gear needed to keep himself safe and relatively warm until rescuers could find him. His preparedness ultimately led to his survival.

Such experiences, however, don’t always have happy endings.

Of the hikers, trekkers and bushwalkers who need rescuing from Australia’s harsh wilderness each year, a small proportion never make it back alive. And as we head into winter, the likelihood of accidents increases, especially in places like Tasmania.

Our recent research on hikers in Tasmania shows just how important preparedness is to prevent injuries and deaths. So let’s look at what it means to be prepared for a hike and who’s most at risk.

Slips, drops, hypothermia

Tasmania is quickly becoming known worldwide as a hiking destination, with Cradle Mountain National Park the crown jewel, from short two-hour walks to the multi-day Overland track.

In 2017-18, an estimated 280,000 people visited Cradle Mountain, and 9,000 hikers completed the Overland track between October and May.

Two hikers on a grassland trail
The Tassie wilderness provides awe-inspiring but physically demanding hikes for visitors. Noelle Nemeth, Author provided

But in winter, Tasmania’s weather conditions can change rapidly, particularly in alpine areas that draw people in with the promise of snow-capped mountains. One hour it can be clear and sunny. The next, bad weather can worsen into a blizzard.

The island’s sometimes severe weather means risks are amplified. These can include getting lost, running out of food or water while sheltering, and having an accident such as falling from steep and slippery terrain.

Read more: Photos from the field: capturing the grandeur and heartbreak of Tasmania’s giant trees

Across Tasmania, bushwalker rescues fluctuate substantially by year, from lows of six (2018) to highs of 44 (2019).

Of the recent hiker deaths in Tasmania, some have been due to falls from great heights, while others are attributed to a lack of preparation and appropriate gear causing hypothermia. Hypothermia is life threatening. This video explains how you can be prepared in Tasmania’s parks and reserves.

For park management agencies, rescuing injured hikers or recovering the deceased can be dangerous and expensive. Estimated rescue costs range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars per incident.

At times, bad weather conditions means rescue agencies can’t access sites. They have to make the challenging decision not to respond to rescue calls, to protect the lives of volunteers and rescue staff.

What is preparedness and why does it matter?

Preparedness is about providing yourself with the necessary resources to safely tackle unexpected issues that may arise.

How prepared you are can be the difference between severe injury or death, and survival. We define preparedness as the process of:

  • packing essential clothing and equipment
  • conducting pre-planning and familiarisation with a destination (what are the weather conditions, or trail conditions like?)
  • self-assessment of capabilities (what’s your fitness level, and what are your wilderness knowledge and skills like?)
  • notifying others about your travel intentions.
Hiking boots overlooking a lake in Cradle Mountain
Wearing the right shoes on your next hike can save your life. Shutterstock

Some hikers are better prepared than others

Our research surveyed overnight hikers in Tasmania. And we found a lack of preparedness is related to people’s backgrounds (such as age and sex) and behavioural traits (such as risk taking).

Young men, for example, appear more likely to take risks, overestimating their skills and experience. Some tourist groups, who are unfamiliar with local weather conditions and landscapes, are also at higher risk.

In many accidents, inadequate clothing or footwear is a culprit, such as lack of woollen base layers, hats and gloves, and waterproof outer layers. This can result in hypothermia, frostbite, falls and other major problems.

Read more: We accidentally found a whole new genus of Australian daisies. You’ve probably seen them on your bushwalks

We were surprised by what many hikers didn’t carry, including maps, compasses, whistles, and first aid kits — essential items for all hikers. Some told us they didn’t own that equipment, others thought it was unnecessary.

People in a tour group were less likely to carry food, a first aid kit and safety items, believing their guide would carry it for them. But if group members become separated, the consequences can be fatal.

Hiker beside an orange tent
Maps, compasses, whistles and first aid kits are essential on every hike. Shutterstock

Our research also suggests hikers out for day trips or shorter walks, appear to feel there’s less risk and seem less prepared than if they were doing a longer trip.

They’re unlikely to take an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacon (PLB), which can send a distress signal and alert rescuers to your location in places with no phone reception. They may also wear sport shoes instead of hiking boots, and some don’t carry essential items for winter walking, such as a waterproof jacket or tent.

Being prepared with the right gear and experience is important regardless of how long you plan on being out. The reality is weather conditions can change suddenly, even if you’re not out for very long.

So how can you be better prepared?

In response to past hiker deaths, coronial inquests have identified better education, improved visitor management and safety measures as possible solutions.

But we’ve also identified a simple, but likely effective solution that could supplement a continued lack of appropriate gear: the use of a “gear library”.

A gear library would be set up at visitor centres where you’re usually expected to start hikes and would allow people to hire speciality gear items, such as personal safety devices (EPIRB, PLB). These can usually cost more than $200, but would be substantially cheaper in a gear library, ensuring rescue workers are notified and can find you after an accident.

Read more: Stick to the path, and stay alive in national parks this summer

It’s also important to keep a checklist to pack essential items. Some key items include:

  • adequate supply of food and water, including contingency items for unexpected additional days hiking because of bad weather
  • warm clothes, such as a waterproof jacket with hood and storm front, waterproof over-trousers, sturdy walking boots and warm clothing (a fleece or woollen jumper, thermal base layers, hat and gloves)
  • appropriate footwear, such as hiking boots
  • a tent for overnight hikes
  • a first aid kit
  • a torch.

There are plenty of resources for people seeking information about how best to prepare for their bushwalk, including national park visitor centres, Westpac Rescue Tas and the Parks and Wildlife Tasmania website. These websites provide essential bushwalking guides on what to pack and how to prepare for bushwalking.

Anyone can safely enjoy a good day out in the Tasmanian wilderness — it’s beautiful, but can also be deadly. You can never be too prepared.

Read more: Good signage in national parks can save lives. Here’s how to do it right

Vanessa Adams, Senior Lecturer, Discipline of Geography and Spatial Sciences, University of Tasmania; Jason Byrne, Professor of Human Geography and Planning, University of Tasmania, and Noelle Nemeth, Master’s Research Student, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.