On Research Questions in Ecology

I have done considerable research in arctic Canada on questions of population and community ecology, and perhaps because of this I get e mails about new proposals. This one just arrived from a NASA program called ABoVE that is just now starting up.

“Climate change in the Arctic and Boreal region is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth, resulting in reduced Arctic sea ice, thawing of permafrost soils, decomposition of long- frozen organic matter, widespread changes to lakes, rivers, coastlines, and alterations of ecosystem structure and function. NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology Program is in the process of planning a major field campaign, the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), which will take place in Alaska and western Canada during the next 5 to 8 years.“

“The focus of this solicitation is the initial research to begin the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) field campaign — a large-scale study of ecosystem responses to environmental change in western North America’s Arctic and boreal region and the implications for social-ecological systems. The Overarching Science Question for ABoVE is: “How vulnerable or resilient are ecosystems and society to environmental change in the Arctic and boreal region of western North America? “

I begin by noting that Peters (1991) wrote very much about the problems with these kinds of ‘how’ questions. First of all note that this is not a scientific question. There is no conceivable way to answer this question. It contains a set of meaningless words to an ecologist who is interested in testing alternative hypotheses.

One might object that this is not a research question but a broad brush agenda for more detailed proposals that will be phrased in such a way to become scientific questions. Yet it boggles the mind to ask how vulnerable ecosystems are to anything unless one is very specific. One has to define an ecosystem, difficult if it is an open system, and then define what vulnerable means operationally, and then define what types of environmental changes should be addressed – temperature, rainfall, pollution, CO2. And all of that over the broad expanse of arctic and boreal western North America, a sampling problem on a gigantic scale. Yet an administrator or politician could reasonably ask at the end of this program, ‘Well, what is the answer to this question?’ That might be ‘quite vulnerable’, and then we could go on endlessly with meaningless questions and answers that might pass for science on Fox News but not I would hope at the ESA. We can in fact measure how primary production changes over time, how much CO2 is sequestered or released from the soils of the arctic and boreal zone, but how do we translate this into resilience, another completely undefined empirical ecological concept?

We could attack the question retrospectively by asking for example: How resilient have arctic ecosystems been to the environmental changes of the past 30 years? We can document that shrubs have increased in abundance and biomass in some areas of the arctic and boreal zone (Myers-Smith et al. 2011), but what does that mean for the ecosystem or society in particular? We could note that there are almost no data on these questions because funding for northern science has been pitiful, and that raises the issue that if these changes we are asking about occur on a time scale of 30 or 50 years, how will we ever keep monitoring them over this time frame when research is doled out in 3 and 5 year blocks?

The problem of tying together ecosystems and society is that they operate on different time scales of change. Ecosystem changes in terrestrial environments of the North are slow, societal changes are fast and driven by far more obvious pressures than ecosystem changes. The interaction of slow and fast variables is hard enough to decipher scientifically without having many external inputs.

So perhaps in the end this Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (another misuse of the word ‘experiment’) will just describe a long-term monitoring program and provide the funding for much clever ecological research, asking specific questions about exactly what parts of what ecosystems are changing and what the mechanisms of change involve. Every food web in the North is a complex network of direct and indirect interactions, and I do not know anyone who has a reliable enough understanding to predict how vulnerable any single element of the food web is to climate change. Like medieval scholars we talk much about changes of state or regime shifts, or tipping points with a model of how the world should work, but with little long term data to even begin to answer these kinds of political questions.

My hope is that this and other programs will generate some funding that will allow ecologists to do some good science. We may be fiddling while Rome is burning, but at any rate we could perhaps understand why it is burning. That also raises the issue of whether or not understanding is a stimulus for action on items that humans can control.

Myers-Smith, I.H., et al. (2011) Expansion of canopy-forming willows over the 20th century on Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada. Ambio, 40, 610-623.

Peters, R.H. (1991) A Critique for Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 366 pp.

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