Every so often, a conservation problem rears its head that, upon reflection, we realize we had some inkling of even decades ago. Global warming, biofuels, overfishing, etc. The information was there, but scarce, buried in obscurity, or seemingly counterintuitive. Why not try and recognize the crucial questions early, before the lobster is out of the trap, so to speak? (What, I’m a marine biologist!)
Businesses has recognized the need to spot emerging trends with scant information and regularly engages in an exercise called Horizon Scanning. Recently, a group led by William Sutherland decided to appropriate the approach for conservations issues in 2010. With a panel of academics, horizon scanning experts, and representatives of various organizations they identified 61 possible issues and then through voting, discussion, and evaluation winnowed the list down to 15 issues which are of potentially great import, but we don’t have a ton of information on.
Below I have listed the 15 with a little information. I also couldn’t resist, and have included a little color coding. • – Red means something that we are fairly certain can and will be problematic, and needs more research now. • – Yellow means something that either has mixed positive and negative aspects, and hence needs more exploration before it is adapted more widely, or we just don’t know enough about this issue. • – Green are developments that seem largely positive, although we have yet to quite grasp their full implications.
- Microplastic Pollution – Where is all of our plastic waste going? In the oceans, the SEAPLEX project is paving the way forward on this. But across the land, where is the plastic going? What happens as degraded plastics get incorporated into out soils?
- Nanosilver in wastewater: In general, we have no ideas what nanomaterials do once released into the environment. Fortunately, there’s a huge research initiative beginning to address this.
- Synthetic meat: Solve world hunger! Allow even vegetarians to eat meat! While this is synthetic meat is expensive now, look for the price to come down. PETA has even announced a $1 million prize for the first marketed in vitro meat.
- Artificial life: This isn’t a-life in terms of simulations on your computer, but rather, starting with basic building blocks, and building a totally new from scratch. Very cool. Imagine custom-designed vaccine or fuel making organisms. But the potential for unanticipated results (I mean, heck, we don’t even entirely understand how all of the machinery of DNA works yet) or misuse is enormous.
- Stratospheric aerosols: Proposed as a possible counter-force against global warming, sure, it’ll cut-down on insolation. However, putting things in the sky will not solve our CO2 problem and its related issues, such as acidification. Add to that potential issues for plant photosynthesis and acidic rain or other consequences or particular matter in the atmosphere, and you have giant blinking caution light.
- Biochar: A process of burning plant material without oxygen, biochar creates solid carbon that can then be buried in soils, permanently sequestering carbon. As a bonus, some of the byproducts are great at generating energy. However, this only works if it is widespread across the globe. But, what will the consequences of adding so much locked up carbon to soils around the globe? This radical rebalancing of C:N ratios could have large and unanticipated consequences for plant diversity and productivity, particularly if this is rolled out globally without proper research in its impact.
- Mobile sensing technology: With the advent of cellular networks tapped into los internets coupled with real-time image and data-processing, we can deploy all sorts of autonomous sensors around the globe and get data. Cameras, microphones, light-probes, temperature-probes – the list is endless, and the data that can be acquired is stunning. And this is to say nothing of citizen-science efforts that use texting to report sightings of animals or recreational fishing catch.
- Deoxygenation of the oceans: While hypoxic zones in the ocean have always been with us, the increase in the size and duration of these zones has been quite troubling. Why, where, and when these zones form is a key question, particularly as many models predict warming will promote their formation, size, and duration.
- Changes in denitrifying bacteria: I had not previously heard of this, but it makes sense. Nitrogen in ocean sediments is turned into inert N2 by bacteria. However, in some estuaries, declines in primary productivity, and hence the organic detritus, have caused a switch from denitrification to nitrogen fixation. This means that rather than absorbing excess nitrogen, these estuaries become a net exporter of nitrogen into the surrounding waters. Another biogeochemical cycle run amok. But how widespread this phenomena is, whether its impacts are local or global, and more remain unknown at present.
- High-latitude volcanism: Guess what is under those receding ice sheets? You guessed it! Volcanos! Volcanos whose eruptions have, until now, been contained. This is already causing problems in Iceland. How many volcanos there are? How bad are they? What will they do to the atmosphere? Good questions all!
- The invasion of lionfish in the Caribbean: Lionfish are pretty. They’re also highly invasive, and have spread all the way from Rhode Island to Columbia. They’re voracious predators, and their long-term impact on the already impacted Caribbean reef system is only just being understood. This one seemed a little specific compared to the other issues, but, I can see how the impact could be large.
- Trans-arctic dispersal: As the Arctic sea-ice melts and opens up the fabled Northwest Passage, they also open up a road for a new transarctic interchange of biota. Not only this, but rapid shipping across the passage will further facilitate homogenization across both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Arctic.
- Assisted colonisation: This is basically the movement of species to areas not current in their range by humans. There are a lot of good intentions behind this idea – to keep a species’ distribution moving faster than a shift in its habitat due to climate change, to restore lost ecological function provided by a sister taxa (see Pleistocene rewilding), or to transplant a species out of a place where it will otherwise be driven extinct. As with any invasive species problem, though, the potential unintended consequences are enormous, and cannot always be adequately discovered with pre-transplant research.
- Impact of reduced deforestation on non-forested ecosystems: There are a number of efforts going on to reduce the clearing of tropical rainforests. While on its face, this is wonderful, there are some unintended consequences. First, in the 2 years until some restrictions cut in, many countries may accelerate the pace of destruction. Second, eliminating deforestation does not eliminate the demand for land. Efforts to clear rainforests may be shifted to other habitats, some of which may actually be more effective carbon sinks.
- Large-scale international land acquisition: I also found this one rather curious. To shore up their food supply, many nations are buying vast swaths of land in developing countries. This has the benefit of providing work in those nations, as well as a more consistent food supply. It may also lead to more easily enforced environmental regulations if there are only a few major landholders However, it has the cost of turning sometimes natural lands into agriculture. It may also reduce access and ownership by local peoples (colonialism round 2?) causing some intense conflicts in the face of local environmental catastrophes.
All in all, an intriguing list. Given that it’s conservation concerns, it’s not too surprising that much of this list is somewhat disheartening. But, there is a ton of fodder for new research here. This is not to mention the benefits of thinking about and taking action on these issues NOW, before many of them become part of the global status quo.
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