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
New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)
Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study
30.03.2017 | Rochester Institute of Technology
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
24.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.04.2017 | Life Sciences