Now, in a new study, scientists take a page from the social science handbook and use leading indicators of the environment to presage the potential collapse of ecosystems. The study, published today (Jan. 5) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two ecologists and an economist, suggests it may be possible to use nature’s leading indicators to avert environmental disaster.
Ecosystems worldwide — lakes, ocean fisheries, coral reefs, forests, wetlands and rangelands — are under constant and escalating pressure from humans and many are on the brink of collapse, according to Stephen R. Carpenter, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of zoology and an author of the new study.
“It’s a big problem because they are very hard to predict. It is hard to get a handle on statistically,” says Carpenter of what ecologists call “regime shift,” a disastrous change in the way an individual ecosystem functions. Such change can be dramatic, as in the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery or increasing desertification in Africa and the Middle East, and can have serious economic, political and social consequences.
Stephen R. Carpenter, 608-262-8690, firstname.lastname@example.org
The idea of using leading indicators in science is not new. Geologists use seismic indicators to try to predict earthquakes and physicians use measures of such things as cholesterol and blood pressure to try to predict patient health. But applying the same kind of monitoring and statistical tools to forecast the health of ecosystems and, ultimately, to prevent serious ecological harm is only now coming into play, says Carpenter.
In the new study, Carpenter, Reinette Biggs of Stockholm University and William A. Brock, an economist at UW-Madison, used northern Wisconsin’s sport fishery as a laboratory to see if leading indicators of ecological collapse can be detected far enough in advance to avert disaster.
“The answer is ‘yes’ if the policy interventions can be swift and ‘no’ if there are delays,” says Carpenter of the study’s results.
Northern Wisconsin has the largest concentration of freshwater lakes in the world, and the sport fishery is a critical economic engine for the region. The researchers looked at two major threats to the fishery: overfishing and habitat destruction caused by lake home-building and the loss of trees that would otherwise fall into the lake and provide habitat for sport fish.
“If you are a fish, woody habitat is perfect. It’s a place to hide and it has food. It’s like a room with a refrigerator,” says Carpenter. “But there is way less habitat in lakes with a lot of houses. We are particularly concerned about woody habitat loss.”
In both the case of habitat loss and the case of overfishing, indicators of potential harm to the fishery can be detected before a breakdown in the lake ecosystem occurs, Carpenter explains. “However, only in the case of overfishing can policy change fast enough to avert the damage. It is not possible to act fast enough to avert the damage from habitat destruction because it takes too long to grow the trees. In that case, you have to start over.”
The key to avoiding disaster, Carpenter argues, is monitoring: “We really need to be monitoring and analyzing the data from these ecosystems as a way to keep them healthy. Otherwise, by the time the problem surfaces it is too late.”
Carpenter says it is possible to sense impending ecosystem regime shifts by carefully monitoring the changing variables that are likely to damage an environment. For example, daily measuring of chlorophyll in a lake could reveal an impending transition to a state where water quality will decline to the point that plant and animal communities in the lake are at risk.
“The behavior of the system becomes extremely variable in the run up to change. You see a lot of variability, and right at the point of regime shift, it becomes very unstable,” Carpenter notes.
According to Carpenter, in addition to expanded monitoring and analysis of ecosystem data, averting regime shifts depends on effective policy. Enabling society to respond more rapidly to information about looming change, he says, is necessary to keep ecosystems producing the things people need.
Terry Devitt | Newswise Science News
Rutgers-led innovation could spur faster, cheaper, nano-based manufacturing
14.02.2018 | Rutgers University
New study from the University of Halle: How climate change alters plant growth
12.01.2018 | Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale
Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...
For photographers and scientists, lenses are lifesavers. They reflect and refract light, making possible the imaging systems that drive discovery through the microscope and preserve history through cameras.
But today's glass-based lenses are bulky and resist miniaturization. Next-generation technologies, such as ultrathin cameras or tiny microscopes, require...
Scientists from the University of Zurich have succeeded for the first time in tracking individual stem cells and their neuronal progeny over months within the intact adult brain. This study sheds light on how new neurons are produced throughout life.
The generation of new nerve cells was once thought to taper off at the end of embryonic development. However, recent research has shown that the adult brain...
Theoretical physicists propose to use negative interference to control heat flow in quantum devices. Study published in Physical Review Letters
Quantum computer parts are sensitive and need to be cooled to very low temperatures. Their tiny size makes them particularly susceptible to a temperature...
Let’s say the armrest is broken in your vintage car. As things stand, you would need a lot of luck and persistence to find the right spare part. But in the world of Industrie 4.0 and production with batch sizes of one, you can simply scan the armrest and print it out. This is made possible by the first ever 3D scanner capable of working autonomously and in real time. The autonomous scanning system will be on display at the Hannover Messe Preview on February 6 and at the Hannover Messe proper from April 23 to 27, 2018 (Hall 6, Booth A30).
Part of the charm of vintage cars is that they stopped making them long ago, so it is special when you do see one out on the roads. If something breaks or...
15.02.2018 | Event News
13.02.2018 | Event News
12.02.2018 | Event News
16.02.2018 | Information Technology
16.02.2018 | Health and Medicine
16.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy