A recent article (Sutherland et al. 2010) from Trends in Ecology and Evolution provides insight on several emerging research areas through a practice called ‘horizon scanning’—really, a sciency way to say that the authors shortlisted environmental issues that they collectively felt were important, merited further discussion, and could effect biodiversity. The point is made that science needs to occur before critical policy decisions are made. Admittedly, this is a fairly obvious statement; but it’s important that we be reminded of it. For example, if a fisheries council realizes that their country’s commercial fishers are rapidly depleting a certain fish stock, it would really be nice to know facets of that organism’s life history (e.g. time to reproductive maturity, lifespan, etc.) so that intelligent management decisions could be made before the fishery potentially collapses. The authors discuss 15 issues on the horizon, so to speak. All are quite interesting and have mostly been understudied, so let’s have a look…
Microplastic pollution: Plastic resins comprise the majority of general litter and over time it degrades to small particles. The effects on wildlife are largely unexplored, but hormonal effects are known and a disproportionate impact on filter-feeding sessile organisms is likely. Alan Weismann gives an eye-opening perspective on the history and implications of this, especially in the North Pacific Gyre, in his book The World Without Us.
Nanosilver in wastewater: Nanosilver refers to tiny particles of silver that are used mainly as an antimicrobial and could be potentially used in utensils, air conditioners, and medical devices.
Synthetic meat: Pretty much what it sounds like…meat grown from muscle stem cells in a lab. Costs are prohibitive at this point (this study cites figures between 10,000 and 100,000 USD per kilogram). This has implications for reducing livestock produced greenhouse gases and relieving pressure on exploited fish stocks, as well as land-use changes. The authors warn of possible adverse effects on plant life dependent upon grazing, however. Plus, they don’t know if anyone would actually want to eat the stuff.
Artificial life: Essentially, designing genomes…a topic of enormous ethical and environmental consequence.
Stratographic aerosols: Geoengineering is increasingly being thrown around in academic circles and in the news. This particular idea has to do with injecting particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, sort of a planetary sun block. This study concedes that such an approach could lower temperatures, but also warns that it would be ineffectual for reducing the atmospheric carbon load or mitigating ocean acidification. Some aerosols could even reduce the pH of precipitation and increase ozone destruction, while virtually all could modify regional climates. Pretty gloomy possible outcomes for something that’s supposed to help, if you ask me. We can all agree that something needs to be done, but I personally doubt that large-scale geoengineering within earth systems that are not even totally understood should be considered without further research.
Biochar: Burning organic material without oxygen produces biochar. The idea is that such a mechanism would sequester carbon (decomposing plants release carbon) and mitigate climate change. However, to have any real effect It would have to be used globally. Questions remain regarding the effect on biodiversity.
Deoxygenation of the ocean: Dissolved oxygen in certain regions of the world ocean has declined since mid-1900s. This spread of anoxia/hypoxia is predicted to get worse with our current carbon emissions. This water condition is having and will continue to have detrimental effects on marine life and may restructure marine food webs.
Changes in denitrifying bacteria: These bacteria convert anthropogenic nitrogen (via fertilizer runoff into rivers, etc., etc.) to molecular nitrogen which then is reincorporated into the atmosphere. However in some cases, these communities, especially it seems in estuaries, have become nitrogen fixing, rather than denitrifying, effectively becoming a source of nitrogen, rather than a sink, with possible ramifications in ocean acidification or the production of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
High-latitude volcanism: Step 1: Glacial melting. Step 2: There’s a volcano! Okay, maybe not that dramatic, but there is volcanic activity under glaciers that’s being uncovered. Volcanic activity could speed up glacial melting, leading to potential sea level rise.
Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish: Lionfish are an invasive species now found from Rhode Island to Columbia, occurring in far greater densities here than in their natural range. They are protected by a barrage of poisonous spines and have the potential to reduce the recruitment of coral reef fish (through consuming larvae). Their effects on the reef ecosystem dynamics are largely unknown.
Trans-Arctic dispersal and colonization: The Arctic in past climatological regimes (e.g. mid-Pliocene) has acted as a dispersal barrier and a controlling force in terms of marine species biogeography. As the waters warm and the ice melts, species may be able to move between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Arctic, with the capacity to alter long established ecosystems. Increased shipping activity through the Northwest Passage is likely to worsen this issue.
Assisted colonization: A significant portion of terrestrial species is predicted to be at risk of extinction by 2050 due to climate change. Assisted colonization refers to the controversial practice of moving organisms to locations that may be more climatologically suitable than where they naturally occur, due to warming in their original locales.
Possible impact of REDD on non-forested ecoystems: REDD (the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program) focuses on increased forest protection, which may in turn cause more pressure to be put on less-protected systems, which may also have high carbon sequestration potential.
Large-scale international land acquisitions: This refers to countries buying up large amounts of farmable land in order to ensure food supply. Despite having potential positive impacts on developing countries in terms of supplying capital, technology and markets, this study warns of the impact of land-use conversion and intensive agriculture on biodiversity. Locals losing access to their own natural resources is also a possible concern.
Mobile-sensing technology: Using the cellphones of the masses to provide real-term data regarding the environment.
All in all, these topics have largely been overlooked, yet seem destined to become conversation issues in the not-so-far-off future (well, some already are) and therefore research should lead policy decisions, rather than the other way around.
Image: Common lionfish (Pterois volitans) from Jens Peterson on Wikimedia Commons.
Sutherland, W., Clout, M., Côté, I., Daszak, P., Depledge, M., Fellman, L., Fleishman, E., Garthwaite, R., Gibbons, D., & De Lurio, J. (2010). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010 Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25 (1), 1-7 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003