US Geological Survey



Date of this Version



Eaton, M. J., S. Yurek, Z. Haider, J. Martin, F. A. Johnson, B. J. Udell, H. Charkhgard, and C. Kwon. 2019. Spatial conservation planning under uncertainty: adapting to climate change risks using modern portfolio theory. Ecological Applications 29(7):e01962. 10.1002/eap.1962


U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA


Climate change and urban growth impact habitats, species, and ecosystem services. To buffer against global change, an established adaptation strategy is designing protected areas to increase representation and complementarity of biodiversity features. Uncertainty regarding the scale and magnitude of landscape change complicates reserve planning and exposes decision makers to the risk of failing to meet conservation goals. Conservation planning tends to treat risk as an absolute measure, ignoring the context of the management problem and risk preferences of stakeholders. Application of risk management theory to conservation emphasizes the diversification of a portfolio of assets, with the goal of reducing the impact of system volatility on investment return.We use principles of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which quantifies risk as the variance and correlation among assets, to formalize diversification as an explicit strategy for managing risk in climate-driven reserve design. We extend MPT to specify a framework that evaluates multiple conservation objectives, allows decision makers to balance management benefits and risk when preferences are contested or unknown, and includes additional decision options such as parcel divestment when evaluating candidate reserve designs. We apply an efficient search algorithm that optimizes portfolio design for large conservation problems and a game theoretic approach to evaluate portfolio trade-offs that satisfy decision makers with divergent benefit and risk tolerances, or when a single decision maker cannot resolve their own preferences. Evaluating several risk profiles for a case study in South Carolina, our results suggest that a reserve design may be somewhat robust to differences in risk attitude but that budgets will likely be important determinants of conservation planning strategies, particularly when divestment is considered a viable alternative. We identify a possible fiscal threshold where adequate resources allow protecting a sufficiently diverse portfolio of habitats such that the risk of failing to achieve conservation objectives is considerably lower. For a range of sea-level rise projections, conversion of habitat to open water (14–180%) and wetland loss (1–7%) are unable to be compensated under the current protected network. In contrast, optimal reserve design outcomes are predicted to ameliorate expected losses relative to current and future habitat protected under the existing conservation estate.