Tag Archives: climate change

Do We Need Commissioners for the Environment?

Canada has just gone through an election, the USA will next year, and elections are a recurring news item everywhere. In our Canadian election we were spared any news on the state of the environment, and the dominant theme of the election was jobs, the economy, oil, gas, and a bit on climate change. The simplest theme was climate change, and yes, we are all in favour of stopping it so long as we do not need to do anything about it that would cost money or change our lifestyles. Meanwhile the fires of California and Australia and elsewhere carry on, generating another news cycle of crazy comments about the state of the environment.

Is there a better way? How can we get governments of the world to consider that the environment is worthy of some discussion? There is, and New Zealand has led the way in one direction. New Zealand has a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, an independent Officer of Parliament, whose job it is to provide Members of Parliament with independent advice on matters that may have impacts on the environment. The Office is independent of the government of the day and the Prime Minister, and consequently can “tell it like it is”. A few quotations for the 2019 report give the flavour of this recent New Zealand report:

“If there is one thing that stands out from [our] reports, it is the extent of what we don’t know about what’s going on with our environment.  

“…the blind spots in our environmental reporting system don’t represent conscious choices to collect data or undertake research in some fields rather than others. Rather, they represent the unplanned consequences of a myriad choices over decades. Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what’s missing.

“In some ways, the most important recommendations in this report are those that relate to the prioritising and gathering of data in a consistent way. Despite attempts over more than two decades, no agreement has ever been reached on a set of core environmental indicators. This has to happen. Consistent and authoritative time series coupled with improved spatial coverage are essential if we are to detect trends. Only then will we be able to judge confidently whether we are making progress or going backwards – and get a handle on whether costly interventions are having an effect.

https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/focusing-aotearoa-new-zealand-s-environmental-reporting-system

This report is full of ecological wisdom and would be a useful starting point for many countries. Canada has (to my knowledge) no Environmental Commissioner and although various provinces and cities provide State of the Environment Reports, they are largely based on inadequate data. In some cases, like commercial fisheries, Parliaments or Congress have mandated annual reports, provided the secure funding, and retained independence of the relevant director and staff. In many cases there is far too much bickering between jurisdictions, use of inadequate methods of data collecting, long time periods between sampling, and no indication that the national interest has been taken into account.

Most Western countries have National Academies or Royal Societies which provide some scientific advice, sometimes requested, sometimes not. But these scientific publications are typically on very specific topics like smoking and lung cancer, vaccine protection, or automobile safety requirements. We can see this problem most clearly in the current climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations provides excellent reports on the climate emergency but no government is required to listen to their recommendations or to implement them. So, we have local problems, regional problems and global problems, and we need the political structures to address environmental problems at all these levels. New Zealand has provided a way forward, and here is another quote from the 2019 report that ecologists should echo:

Given that many of the environmental problems we face have been decades in the making and that for nearly 30 years we have [made] specific reference to cumulative effects that arise over time…it is astonishing that we have so little data on trends over time.

….it takes time to assemble time series. If we start collecting data today, it may be a decade or more before we can confidently judge whether the issue being monitored is getting better or worse. Every year that we delay the collection of data in an area identified as a significant gap, we commit New Zealand to flying blind in that area. …..A lack of time series in respect of some environmental pressure points could be costing us dearly in terms of poorly designed policies or irreversible damage.

One example may be enough. Caribou herds in southern Canada are threatened with extinction (Hebblewhite 2017, DeMars et al. 2019). Here is one example of counts on one caribou herd in southern Canada:

2009 = 2093 caribou
2012 = 1003
2019 = 185

It would be difficult to manage the conservation of any species of animal or plant that has such limited monitoring data. We can and must do better. We can start by dragging state of the environment reports out of the control of political parties by demanding to have in every country Commissioners of the Environment that are fully funded but independent of political influence. As long as the vision of elected governments is limited to 3 years, environmental decay will continue, out of sight, out of mind.

There is of course no reason that elected governments need follow the advice of any independent commission, so this recommendation is not a panacea for environmental issues. If citizens have independent information however, they can choose to use it and demand action.

DeMars, C.A.et al. (2019). Moose, caribou, and fire: have we got it right yet? Canadian Journal of Zoology 97, 866-879. doi: 10.1139/cjz-2018-0319.

Hebblewhite, M. (2017). Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil and gas industry. Biological Conservation 206, 102-111. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.12.014.

On Planting Trees to Solve the Climate Emergency

Rising CO2 levels could possibly be stopped by planting lots of trees. In recent months the media have rejoiced in a proposal (The Bonn Challenge) to plant trees on 350 million ha of degraded forest land around the globe by 2030 and thereby stop or greatly slow the global increase in CO2. The Bonn Challenge was first proposed in 2011 at a meeting in Germany and to date 43 countries have made pledges to plant trees to cover about half of the proposed needs, perhaps a total of 1 billion trees. Lewis et al. (2019) recently reported on progress to date in meeting this challenge. The question that a flurry of letters to Nature and other journals have raised is whether this goal is ecologically feasible.

There has always been a cohort of scientists seeking a technological fix to the climate emergency by capturing greenhouse gases or changing the atmosphere. To date all these technological fixes fail the economic test. Can biologists ride to the rescue for the CO2 problem and save the world? Clearly many people as well as politicians are technological optimists who hope that we can continue our lifestyle with little change in the coming decades. No one likes nay-sayers but it is important to hear what problems might arise to achieve a forestry solution to the climate emergency.

Lewis et al. (2019) mapped the land areas potentially available for restoration by planting trees. To achieve the Bonn Challenge most plantings would need to be in tropical and subtropical areas where tree growth is rapid. Bond et al. (2019) concentrated their analysis on Africa where about 1 million km2 have been proposed for restoration with trees. But they point out that much of this proposed area is grassland and savannah which support high value biodiversity. Tanzania we might presume would not be happy if the Serengeti was converted to a closed forest ecosystem. If we proceed with the Bonn Challenge and grasslands and savannahs become closed forests, several unintended consequences would occur. Trees utilize more water to grow and given a fixed rainfall in an area, less water would go into rivers, streams and lakes. Trees also absorb more solar radiation so that the climate in the restored areas would warm, while a main objective of the Bonn Challenge is to reverse global warming.

The list of ecological problems is long. Plantations of monocultures typically capture less CO2 than natural forests on the same land area. Forest fires release large amounts of CO2 from both natural forests and plantations, and rising temperatures are increasing forest losses to fire. Carbon capture estimates depend critically on turnaround times which depend on tree growth rates and the uses to which wood is put after a tree is harvested. Smith et al. (2015) concluded in an earlier analysis that afforestation could not achieve the goal of limiting global warming below 2ºC.

All these problems should not stop the reforestation of closed forest areas that were degraded in historical time, as Bond et al. (2019) have pointed out. But unfortunately, this news that we cannot reverse climatic warming by planting large numbers of trees continues the negativity that bedevils the science of ecology – you cannot achieve this goal given the ecological constraints of the Earth. Politicians and the public at large do not want to hear these messages and prefer the belief that technology will come up with a simple inexpensive solution. To shout that “this will not work” is not a way to become popular.

We appear not to have progressed from what David Schindler said 22 years ago:

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem.”
                  (Schindler 1997, pg.4).

Bond, W.J., et al. (2019). The Trouble with Trees: Afforestation Plans for Africa. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (in press). doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.08.003.

Lewis, S.L., et al. (2019). Regenerate natural forests to store carbon. Nature 568, 25-28 (4 April 2019). doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01026-8.

Schindler D.W. (1997). Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5, 1-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1526-100X.1997.09701.x.

Smith, P. et al. (2016). Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change 6, 42-50 (January 2016). doi: 10.1038/nclimate2870.

Thoughts on Wildlife Management

Stop for a moment and think about where we are now in the science of wildlife management and conservation. Look at the titles of paper in our scientific journals. The vast majority of the problems and questions being investigated are basically about how to reverse some human-caused folly. Many wildlife scientists, ecologists, and organismal biologists entered science with the goal of understanding natural systems from the ecosystem down to the molecular level but in the past 60 years the focus has had to shift. This shift has occurred almost unnoticed because it has been gradual in the time scale of human employment and turnover. The ecosystems of the world are in a frightful mess, and virtually all the mess is human caused. So while we engage in many discussions about how to define the ‘Anthropocene’ in the geological sciences (Correia et al. 2018; Zalasiewicz et al. 2017) ecological science is left in the dust because it never leads to ‘progress’.

This came home to me when I considered which of the many study sites in which classical ecological research has been carried out over the last century still exist. They have been replaced by suburbs, highways, shopping malls, farms, and industrial sites, and the associated waterways have been altered beyond recognition. A simple consequence is that if you wished to repeat a famous ecological study done 50-100 years ago, you could not do it because the site has been obliterated. One consequence is that if we wish to do field work today, we choose a new site that has so far been protected from development.

The elephant in the room now is climate change, so if you choose to investigate the trophic dynamics of an Amazonian forest area (for example), you face two problems – the site could be obliterated by ‘development’ before your work is completed, or the climate changes expected during the next 80 years will alter the trophic dynamics of your site so that your current results are no guide to the future state of these ecosystems. Whither predictive ecology? Many of us thought that by discovering and analyzing ecological principles, we could closely approach the precision of the physical sciences, the laws of physics and chemistry. But the more we search for generality in ecology the less we find. We retreat to general principles that are too vague to be of any predictive use for the wildlife managers of the future.

The thought has been prevalent that by investigating the changes in communities and ecosystems in the past we would have a guide to the future. This belief guides much of paleo-ecological research as well as the projections from evolutionary research of how species have recovered from the recent ice ages. But the past is perhaps not necessarily a good guide to the future when we add in the human footprint arising from the combination of population growth and climate change. Ecologists are left with the concern that our findings have much current value but perhaps little long-term insight. 

Many current papers on ecological changes assume a simple extrapolation predicting the future state of ecosystems (e.g. Martin et al. 2019; Yu et al. 2019). Testing these kinds of extrapolations is virtually possible within the lifetime of the typical ecologist, and my concern is that management actions that are recommended now may be completely off the mark in 30 years. Several papers have warned about this (e.g. Inkpen 2017; La Marca et al. 2019; Mouquet et al. 2015) but as far as I can determine to little effect.

I think the bottom line might be a recommendation for all predictive papers to state a strong prediction and a defined time frame so that there is hope of testing the predictive model in ecological time. Otherwise we ecologists begin to fall into the realm of science fiction.

Correia, R.A. et al. (2018). Pivotal 20th century contributions to the development of the Anthropocene concept: overview and implications. Current Science 115, 1871-1875. doi: 10.18520/cs/v115/i10/1871-1875.

Inkpen, S.A. (2017). Are humans disturbing conditions in ecology? Biology & Philosophy 32, 51-71. doi: 10.1007/s10539-016-9537-z.

La Marca, W. et al. (2019). The influence of data source and species distribution modelling method on spatial conservation priorities. Diversity & Distributions 25, 1060-1073. doi: 10.1111/ddi.12924.

Martin, D. et al. (2019). Long-distance influence of the Rhône River plume on the marine benthic ecosystem: Integrating descriptive ecology and predictive modelling. Science of The Total Environment 673, 790-809. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.04.010.

Mouquet, N. et al. (2015). Predictive ecology in a changing world. Journal of Applied Ecology 52, 1293-1310. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12482.

Yu, F., et al. (2019). Climate and land use changes will degrade the distribution of Rhododendrons in China. Science of The Total Environment 659, 515-528. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.12.223.

Zalasiewicz, J. et al. (2017). The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations. Anthropocene 19, 55-60. doi: 10.1016/j.ancene.2017.09.001.

Blaming Climate Change for Ecological Changes

The buzz word for all ecological applications for funding and for many submitted papers is climate change. Since the rate of climate change is not something ecologists can control, there are only two reasons to cite climate change as a reason to fund current ecological research. First, since change is continuous in communities and ecosystems, it would be desirable to determine how many of the observed changes might be caused by climate change. Second, it might be desirable to measure the rate of change in ecosystems, correlate these changes to some climate variable, and then use these data as a political and social tool to stimulate politicians to do something about greenhouse gas emissions. The second approach is that taken by climatologists who blame hurricanes and tornadoes on global warming. There is no experimental way to trace any particular hurricane to particular amounts of global warming, so it is easy for critics to say these are just examples of weather variation of which we have measured much over the last 150 years and paleo-ecologists have traced over tens of thousands of years using proxies from tree rings and sediment cores. If we are to use the statistical approach we need a large enough sample to argue that extreme events are becoming more frequent, and that might take 50 years by which time the argument would be made too late to request proper action.

The second approach to prediction in ecology is fraught with problems, as outlined in Berteaux et al. (2006) and Dietze (2017). The first approach has many statistical problems as well in selecting a biologically coherent model that can be tested by in a standard scientific manner. Since there are a very large number of climate variables, the possibility of spurious correlations is excessive, and the only way to avoid these kinds of results is to be predictive and to have a biological causal chain that is testable. Myers (1998) reviewed all the fishery data for predictive models of juvenile recruitment that used environmental variables as predictors and data was subsequently collected and tested with the published model. The vast majority of these aquatic models failed when retested but a few were very successful. The general problem is that model failures or successes might not be published so even this approach can be biased if only a literature survey is undertaken. The take home message from Myers (1998) was that almost none of the recruitment-environment correlations were being used in actual fishery management.

How much would this conclusion about the failure of environmental models in fishery management apply to other areas in ecology? Mouquet et al. (2014) pointed out that predictions could be classified as ‘explanatory’ or ‘anticipatory’ and that “While explanatory predictions are necessarily testable, anticipatory predictions need not be…….In summary, anticipatory predictions differ from explanatory predictions in that they do not aim at testing models and theory. They rely on the assumption that underlying hypotheses are valid while explanatory predictions are based on hypotheses to be tested. Anticipatory predictions are also not necessarily supposed to be true.” (page 1296). If we accept these distinctions, we have (I think) a major problem in that many of the predictive models put forward in the ecological literature are anticipatory, so they would be of little use to a natural resource manager who requires an explanatory model.

If we ignore this problem with anticipatory predictions, we can concentrate on explanatory predictions that are useful to managers. One major set of explanatory predictions in ecology are those associated with range changes in relation to climate change. Cahill et al. (2014) examined the conventional hypothesis that warm-edge range limits are set by biotic interactions rather than abiotic interactions. Contrary to expectations, they found in 125 studies that abiotic factors were more frequently supported as setting warm-edge range limits. Clearly a major paradigm about warm-edge range limits is of limited utility.

Explanatory predictions are not always explicit. Mauck et al. (2018) for example developed a climate model to predict reproductive success in Leach’s storm petrel on an island off New Brunswick in eastern Canada. From 56 years of hatching success they concluded that annual global mean temperature during the spring breeding season was the single most important predictor of breeding success. They considered only a few measures of temperature as predictor variables and found that a quadratic form of annual global mean temperature was the best variable to describe the changes in breeding success. The paper speculates about how global or regional mean temperature could possibly be an ecological predictor of breeding success, and no mechanisms are specified. The actual data on breeding success are not provided in the paper, even as a temporal plot. Since global temperatures were rising steadily from 1955 to 2010, any temporal trend in any population parameter that is rising would correlate with temperature records. The critical quadratic relationship in their analysis suggests that a tipping point was reached in 1988 when hatching success began to decline. Whether or not this is a biologically correct explanatory model can be determined by additional data gathered in future years. But it would be more useful to find out what the exact ecological mechanisms are.

If the ecological world is going to hell in a handbasket, and temperatures however measured are going up, we can certainly construct a plethora of models to describe the collapse of many species and the rise of others. But this is hardly progress and would appear to be anticipatory predictions of little use to advancing ecological science, as Guthery et al. (2005) pointed out long ago. Someone ought to review and evaluate the utility of AIC methods as they are currently being used in ecological and conservation science for predictions.

Berteaux, D., Humphries, M.M., Krebs, C.J., Lima, M., McAdam, A.G., Pettorelli, N., Reale, D., Saitoh, T., Tkadlec, E., Weladji, R.B., and Stenseth, N.C. (2006). Constraints to projecting the effects of climate change on mammals. Climate Research 32, 151-158. doi: 10.3354/cr032151.

Cahill, A.E., Aiello-Lammens, M.E., Fisher-Reid, M.C., Hua, X., and Karanewsky, C.J. (2014). Causes of warm-edge range limits: systematic review, proximate factors and implications for climate change. Journal of Biogeography 41, 429-442. doi: 10.1111/jbi.12231.

Dietze, M.C. (2017). Prediction in ecology: a first-principles framework. Ecological Applications 27, 2048-2060. doi: 10.1002/eap.1589.

Guthery, F.S., Brennan, L.A., Peterson, M.J., and Lusk, J.J. (2005). Information theory in wildlife science: Critique and viewpoint. Journal of Wildlife Management 69, 457-465. doi: 10.1890/04-0645.

Mauck, R.A., Dearborn, D.C., and Huntington, C.E. (2018). Annual global mean temperature explains reproductive success in a marine vertebrate from 1955 to 2010. Global Change Biology 24, 1599-1613. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13982.

Mouquet, N., Lagadeuc, Y., Devictor, V., Doyen, L., and Duputie, A. (2015). Predictive ecology in a changing world. Journal of Applied Ecology 52, 1293-1310. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12482.

Myers, R.A. (1998). When do environment-recruitment correlations work? Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 8, 285-305. doi: 10.1023/A:1008828730759.

 

Ecology as a Contingent Science

The Northern Hemisphere is working through a summer of very warm weather, often temperatures 10ºC above ‘normal’. Climate change should in these conditions be obvious to all. Yet despite these clear changes, all the governments of developed countries – including Canada, USA, Australia, Britain – are doing next to nothing about the causes of climate change. This bald statement will lead to a lot of noise about “all we are now doing…”, a carbon tax promoted loudly but that is so low it can have little effect on emissions, and endless talk in the media about “sustainable practices” that are far from sustainable. Why should this be? There are many reasons and I want to discuss just one that pertains to the science of ecology.

Imagine that you are a physicist or chemist and are studying a physical or chemical problem in a lab in Germany and one in Canada. You would expect to get exactly the same experimental results in the two labs. The laws of chemistry and physics are universal and there would be consternation if results differed by geographical locations. Now transform this thought experiment to ecology. You might expect the converse for ecological experiments in the field, and there is much discussion of why this occurs (Brudvig et al. 2017, Marino et al. 2018, Zhou and Ning 2017). We need to think more about why this should be.

First, we might suspect that the ecological conditions are variable by place. The soils of Germany or France or New York or Vietnam differ in composition. The flora and fauna vary dramatically by site even within the same country. The impacts of human activities such as agriculture on the landscape vary by area. Climates are regional as well as local. Dispersal of seeds is not a uniform process. All these things ecologists know a great deal about, and they provide a rich source of post-hoc explanations for any differences. But the flip side is that ecology does not then produce general laws or principles except very general ones that provide guidance but not predictive models useful for management.

This thought leads me back to the general feeling that ecology is not categorized as a hard science and is thus often ignored. Ecologist have been pointing out many of the consequences of climate change for at least 30-40 years with few people in business or local political power listening. This could simply be a consequence of the public caring about the present but not about the future of the Earth. But it might be partly the result of ecology having produced no generality that the public appreciates, except for the most general ecological ‘law’ that “Mother Nature takes care of itself”, so we the public have little to be concerned about.

The paradigm of stability is deeply embedded in most people (Martin et al. 2016), and we are in the process of inventing a non-equilibrium ‘theory’ of ecology in which the outcome of ecological processes leads us into new communities and ecosystems we can only scarcely imagine and certainly not predict clearly. Physicists can predict generally what a future Earth climate with +2ºC or + 4ºC will entail (IPCC 2013, Lean 2018), but we cannot do this so readily with our ecological knowledge.

Where does this get us? Ecology is not appreciated as a science, and thus in the broad sense not funded properly. Ecologists fight over crumbs of funding even to monitor the changes that are occurring, and schemes that might alleviate some of the major effects of climate change are not tested because they are expensive and long-term. Ecology is a long-term science in a world that is increasingly short-term in thinking and in action. Perhaps this will change but no politician wants to wait 10-20 years to see if some experimental procedure works. Funding that is visionary is stopped after 4 years by politicians who know nothing about the problems of the Earth and sustainability. We should demand a politics of sustainability for our future and that of following generations. Thinking long-term should be a requirement not an option.

Brudvig, L.A., Barak, R.S., Bauer, J.T., Caughlin, T.T., and Laughlin, D.C. (2017). Interpreting variation to advance predictive restoration science. Journal of Applied Ecology 54, 1018-1027. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12938.

Chapman, M., LaValle, A., Furey, G., and Chan, K.M.A. (2017). Sustainability beyond city limits: can “greener” beef lighten a city’s Ecological Footprint? Sustainability Science 12, 597-610. doi: 10.1007/s11625-017-0423-7.

IPCC (2013) ‘IPCC Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.) http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_ALL_FINAL.pdf

Lean, J.L. (2018). Observation-based detection and attribution of 21st century climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. Climate Change 9, e511. doi: 10.1002/wcc.511.

Marino, N.A.C., Romero, G.Q., and Farjalla, V.F. 2018. Geographical and experimental contexts modulate the effect of warming on top-down control: a meta-analysis. Ecology Letters 21, 455-466. doi: 10.1111/ele.12913.

Martin, J-L., Maris, V., and Simberloff, D.S. (2016). The need to respect nature and its limits challenges society and conservation science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113.

Zhou, J. and Ning, D. (2017). Stochastic community assembly: Does it matter in microbial ecology? Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 81, e00002-00017. doi: 10.1128/MMBR.00002-17.

On A Global Agenda for Ecology

Reading the ecology literature now I am excited by the papers that are filling in small gaps in our understanding of population and community ecology. Good work indeed. But I am concerned more about the big picture – what would we like ecological science to show to the world in 50 years as our achievements? There are two aspects of this question. At present the findings of ecological research are presented in the media mostly as what could be coarsely described as ecological trivia, light entertainment. We must continue to do this as it is an important part of keeping the public aware of environmental issues. The second aspect of our public face is the bigger issue of how we can make the future world a better place. This part is a global agenda for ecology that should be the background focus of all our research. So what should be our global agenda?

We could call it global change. Specifically, how will our ecological systems change as a joint consequence of climate change and human disturbances? So look out the window to any natural landscape where you live and ask how much we now know that will allow you to predict what that scene will be like in a century or so. We should be able to make this prediction more easily with human disturbed landscapes that with those driven by environmental change, but I am not sure everyone would agree with this hypothesis. We will probably know that if we continue to overgraze a grassland, we will end with a weed infested wasteland or even bare soil. Consequently, a rational management agency should be able to prevent this degradation. These kinds of change should be easy to manage yet we as a society continue to degrade ecosystems all over the globe. Is there an general index for degradation for the countries of the world, so we could add it to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, freshwater contamination, overharvesting of fish and timber, and a host of other environmental indicators that are useful to the public?

The consequences of climate change are the most difficult to understand and possibly manage. We have lived in a dream world of a stable environment, and the mathematical gurus focus on stability as a sine qua non. Change in a system that is well understood should be predictable both in the short term of 50 years and in the long term of 500 years. But we are not there yet. We work hard on the pieces – is the bird population of this particular national park going up or down?, how rapidly are peat bogs releasing CO2 under current changing climate? – but these details while important do not allow one to predict whole ecosystem shifts. more rapidly. What do we need to do as ecologists to achieve a broad consensus on global issues?

Sutherland et al. (2013, 2018) have made a heroic attempt both to recognize fundamental ecological questions and to identify emerging issues in a broader societal framework. This helps us to focus on both specific ecological issues as well as emerging global problems. One useful recommendation that could proceed from these reviews would be a specific journal that would review each year a small number of these questions or issues that would serve as a progress bar on increasing understanding of ecological unknowns.

A personal example might focus the problem. My colleagues, students, and I have been working in the Yukon boreal forest at Kluane for 46 years now, trying to understand community dynamics. The ecosystem moves slowly because of the cold climate, so in the short term of 50 years we cannot see there will be much significant change. But this is more of a guess than a solid prediction because a catastrophe – fire, insect attacks – could reset the system on a different pathway. The long term (500 year) trajectory for this ecosystem is much harder to predict, except to say that it will be driven largely by the climate-vegetation axis, and this is the link in ecosystem dynamics that we understand least. We cannot assume stability or equilibrium dynamics in boreal forests, and while paleo-ecologists have given us a good understanding of past changes in similar ecosystems, the past is not necessarily a good guide to future long-term changes. So I think a critic could well say that we have failed our attempt to understand our boreal forest ecosystem and be able to predict its trajectory, even though we have more than 300 papers describing how parts of this system interact.

My concern is that as we make progress with the pieces of the ecology puzzle we more and more lose sight of the final goals, and we are lost in the details of local ecosystems. Does this simply mean that we have an ecological ‘Red Queen’ that we will forever be chasing? Perhaps that is both the fundamental joy and the fundamental frustration of working on changing ecological systems. In the meantime, enjoy slaying the unknowns of local, specific ecosystems and on occasion look back to see how far we have come.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101(1): 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33(1): 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.

 

On the Loss of Large Mammals

The loss of large mammals and birds in the Pleistocene was highlighted many years ago (Martin and Wright 1967, Grayson 1977, Guthrie 1984 and many other papers). Hypotheses about why these extinctions occurred were flying left and right for many years with no clear consensus (e.g. Choquenot and Bowman 1998). The museums of the world are filled with mastodons, moas, sabre-tooth tigers and many other skeletons of large mammals and birds long extinct. The topic has come up again in a discussion of these extinctions and a prognosis of future losses (Smith et al. 2018). I do not want to question the analysis in Smith et al. (2018) but I want to concentrate on this one quotation that has captured the essence of this paper in the media:

“Because megafauna have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function, past and present body size downgrading is reshaping Earth’s biosphere.”
(pg. 310).

What is the evidence for this very strong statement? The first thought that comes to mind is from my botanical colleagues who keep reminding me that plants make of 99% of the biomass of the Earth’s ecosystems. So, if this statement is correct, it must mean that large mammals have a very strong effect on plant ecosystem structure and function. And it must also imply that large mammals are virtually immune to predators, so no trophic cascade can occur to prevent plant overgrazing.

I appreciate that it is very difficult to test such a statement since evolution has been going on for a long time before humans arrived, and so there must have been a lot of other factors causing ecosystem changes in those early years. Humans have a disproportionate love for biodiversity that is larger than us. So, we revel in elephants, tigers, bears, and whales, while at the same time we pay little attention to the insects, small mammals, most fish, and plankton. Because of this size bias, we are greatly concerned with the conservation of large animals, as we should be, but much less concerned about what is happening to the small chaps.

What is the evidence that large mammals and birds have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function? In my experience, I would say there is very little evidence for strong ecosystem effects from the collapse of the megafauna. DeMaster et al. (2006) evaluated a proposed explanation for ecosystem collapse caused by whaling in the North Pacific Ocean and concluded that the evidence was weak for a sequential megafauna collapse caused by commercial whaling. Trites et al. (2007) and Wade et al. (2007) supported this conclusion. Citing paleo-ecological data for Australia, Johnson (2010) and Rule et al. (2012) argued in another evaluation of ecosystem changes that the human-driven extinction of the megafauna in Australia resulted in large changes in plant communities, potentially confounded by climate change and increases in fire frequency about 40K years ago. If we accept these controversies, we are left with trying to decide if the current losses of large mammals are of similar strength to those assigned to the Pleistocene megafauna, as suggested by Smith et al. (2018).

If we define ecosystem function as primary productivity and ecosystem structure as species diversity, I cannot think of a single case in recent studies where this idea has been clearly tested and supported. Perhaps this simply reflects my biased career working in arctic and subarctic ecosystems in which the vast majority of the energy flow in the system rotates through the smaller species rather than the larger ones. Take the Great Plains of North America with and without the bison herds. What aspect of ecosystem function has changed because of their loss? It is impossible to say because of human intervention in the fire cycle and agricultural pre-emption of much of the landscape. It is certainly correct that overgrazing impacts can be severe in human-managed landscapes with overstocking of cattle and sheep, and that is a tragedy brought on by economics, predator elimination programs, and human land use decisions. All the changes we can describe with paleo-ecological methods have potential explanations that are highly confounded.

I think the challenge is this: to demonstrate that the loss of large mammals at the present time creates a large change in ecosystem structure and function with data on energy flow and species diversity. The only place I can see it possible to do this experimentally today would be in arctic Canada where, at least in some areas, caribou come and go in large numbers and with relatively little human impact. I doubt that you could detect any large effect in this hypothetical experiment. It is the little chaps that matter to ecosystem function, not the big chaps that we all love so much. And I would worry if you could do this experiment, the argument would be that it is a special case of extreme environments not relevant to Africa or Australia.

No one should want the large mammals and birds to disappear, but the question of how this might play out in the coming 200 years in relation to ecosystem function requires more analysis. And unlike the current political inactivity over the looming crisis in climate change, we conservation biologists should certainly try to prevent the loss of megafauna.

Choquenot, D., and Bowman, D.M.J.S. 1998. Marsupial megafauna, Aborigines and the overkill hypothesis: application of predator-prey models to the question of Pleistocene extinction in Australia. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters 7: 167-180.

DeMaster, D.P., Trites, A.W., Clapham, P., Mizroch, S., Wade, P., Small, R.J., and Hoef, J.V. 2006. The sequential megafaunal collapse hypothesis: testing with existing data. Progress in Oceanography 68(2-4): 329-342. doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2006.02.007

Grayson, D.K. 1977. Pleistocene avifaunas and the Overkill Hypothesis. Science 195: 691-693.

Guthrie, R.D. 1984. Mosaics, allelochemics and nutrients: An ecological theory of late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. In: Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution ed by P.S. Martin and R.G. Klein. University of Arizona Press Tucson.

Johnson, C.N. 2010. Ecological consequences of Late Quaternary extinctions of megafauna. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London, Series B 276(1667): 2509-2519. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1921.

Martin, P.S., and Wright, H.E. (eds). 1967. Pleistocene Extinctions; The Search for a Cause. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 453 pp.

Rule, S., Brook, B.W., Haberle, S.G., Turney, C.S.M., Kershaw, A.P., and Johnson, C.N. 2012. The aftermath of megafaunal extinction: ecosystem transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science 335(6075): 1483-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1214261.

Smith, F.A., Elliott Smith, R.E., Lyons, S.K., and Payne, J.L. 2018. Body size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary. Science 360(6386): 310-313. doi: 10.1126/science.aao5987.

Trites, A.W., Deecke, V.B., Gregr, E.J., Ford, J.K.B., and Olesiuk, P.F. 2007. Killer whales, whaling, and sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific: a comparative analysis of the dynamics of marine mammals in Alaska and British Columbia following commercial whaling. Marine Mammal Science 23(4): 751-765. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2006.00076.x.

Wade, P.R., et al. 2007. Killer whales and marine mammal trends in the North Pacific – a re-examination of evidence for sequential megafaunal collapse and the prey-switching hypothesis. Marine Mammal Science 23(4): 766-802. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2006.00093.x.

Three Approaches to Ecology

I ask the question here why ecology is not appreciated as a science at a time when it is critical to the survival of the existing world. So the first question we need to answer is if this premise is correct. I offer only one example. A university zoology department has recently produced a discussion paper on its plans for faculty recruitment over the next 15 years. This document does not include the word “ecology” in any of its forward planning. Now it is probably not unusual for biology or zoology departments in major universities to downplay ecology when there is so much excitement in molecular biology, but it is an indicator that ecology is not a good place to put your money and reputation as you await a Nobel Prize. So if we can accept the initial premise that ecology is not appreciated, we might ask why this situation exists, a point raised long ago by O’Connor (2000). Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

There are three broad approaches to the science of ecology – theoretical ecology, empirical ecology, and applied ecology. These three areas of ecology rarely talk to each other, although one might hope that they could in future evolve into a seamless thread of science.

Theoretical ecology deals with the mathematical world that has too often only a tangential concern with ecological problems. It has its own journals and a whole set of elegant discussions that have few connections to the real world. It is most useful for exploring what might be if we make certain mathematical assumptions. It is without question the most prestigious part of the broad science of ecology, partly because it involves elegant mathematics and partly because it does not get involved in all the complexities of real-world ecological systems. It is the physics of ecology. As such it carries on in its own world and tends to be ignored by most of those working in the other two broad areas of ecology.

Empirical ecology has set itself the task of understanding how the natural world works at the level of individuals, populations, communities and ecosystems. In its pure form it does not care about solving practical ecological or environmental problems, but its practitioners assume probably correctly that the information they provide will in fact be useful now or in the future. It seeks generality but rarely finds it because all individuals and species differ in how they play the ecological game of survival. If it has a mantra, it is “the devil is in the details”. The problem is the details of empirical ecology are boring to politicians, business people, and to much of the television generation now operating with a 7 second or 140 character limit on concentration.

Applied ecology is where the action is now, and if you wish to be relevant and topical you should be an applied ecologist, whether a conservation biologist, a forester, or an agricultural scientist. The mantra of applied ecologists is to do no harm to the environment while solving real world problems. Applied ecologists are forced to put the human imprint into empirical ecology, so they are very much concerned with declining populations and extinctions of plants and animals. The main but not the sole impact of humans is on climate change, so much of applied ecology traces back to the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, all added to by the increasing human population with its rising expectations. But applied ecologists are always behind the environmental problems of the day because the issues multiply faster than possible solutions can be evaluated. This ought to make for high employment for applied ecologists but in fact the opposite seems to be happening because governments too often avoid long-term problems beyond their 4-year mandate. If you do not agree, think climate change.

So, the consequence is that we have three independent worlds out there. Applied ecologists are too busy to apply the successful paradigms of empirical ecology to their problems because they are under strict time limits by their line managers who need to suggest immediate action on problems. They must therefore fire off solutions like golf balls in all directions, hoping that some might actually help solve problems. Empirical ecologists may not be helpful for applied ecologists if they are overwhelmed by the details of their particular system of study and are constrained by the ‘publish or perish’ mentality of the granting agencies.

Finally, we lay on top all this a lack of funding in the environmental sciences for investigating and solving both immediate and long-term ecological problems. And I am back to my favourite quote in the ecological literature:

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem.” (Schindler 1997).

What can we do about this? Three things. Pressure our politicians to increase funding on long-term environmental problems. This will provide the person-power to find and test solutions to our known problems. Vote with your ballot and your feet to improve sustainability. And whether you are young or old strive to do no harm to the Earth. And if all this is too difficult, take some practical advice not to buy a house in Miami Beach, or any house near the beach. Do something for the environment every day.

 

O’Connor, R.J. (2000) Why ecology lags behind biology. The Scientist 14(20):35. (October 16, 2000).

Schindler, D.W. (1997) Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6

 

On Evolution and Ecology and Climate Change

If ecology can team up with evolution to become a predictive science, we can all profit greatly since it will make us more like physics and the hard sciences. It is highly desirable to have a grand vision of accomplishing this, but there could be a few roadblocks on the way. A recent paper by Bay et al. (2018) illustrates some of the difficulties we face.

The yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) has a broad breeding range across the United States and Canada, and could therefore be a good species to survey because it inhabits widely different climatic zones. Bay et al. (2018) identified genomic variation associated with climate across the breeding range of this migratory songbird, and concluded that populations requiring the greatest shifts in allele frequencies to keep pace with future climate change have experienced the largest population declines, suggesting that failure to adapt may have already negatively affected population abundance. This study by Bay et al. (2018) sampled 229 yellow warblers from 21 locations across North America, with an average of 10 birds per sample area (range n = 6 to 21). They examined 104,711 single-nucleotide polymorphisms. They correlated genetic structure to 19 climate variables and 3 vegetation indices, a measure of surface moisture, and average elevation. This is an important study claiming to support an important conclusion, and consequently it is also important to break it down into the three major assumptions on which it rests.

First, this study is a space for time analysis, a subject of much discussion already in plant ecology (e.g. Pickett 1989, Blois et al. 2013). It is an untested assumption that you can substitute space for time in analyzing for future evolutionary changes.

Second, the conclusions of the Bay et al. paper rest on an assumption that you have adequate data on the genetics involved in change and on the demography of the species. A clear understanding of the ecology of the species and what limits its distribution and abundance would seem to be prerequisites for understanding the mechanisms of how evolutionary changes might occur.

The third assumption is that, if there is a correlation between the genetic measures and the climate or vegetation indices, one can identify the precise ‘genomic vulnerability’ of the local population. Genomic variation was most closely related to precipitation variables at each site. The geographic area with one of the highest scores in genomic vulnerability was in the desert area of the intermountain west (USA). As far as I can determine from their Figure 1, there was only one sampling site in this whole area of the intermountain west. Finally Bay et al. (2018) compared the genomic vulnerability data to the population changes reported for each site. Population changes for each sampled site were obtained from the North American Breeding Bird Survey data from 1996 to 2012.

The genetic data and its analysis are more impressive, and since I am not a genetics expert I will simply give it a A grade for genetics. It is the ecology that worries me. I doubt that the North American Breeding Bird Survey is a very precise measure of population changes in any particular area. But following the Bay et al. paper, assume that it is a good measure of changing abundance for the yellow warbler. From the Bay et al. paper abstract we see this prediction:

“Populations requiring the greatest shifts in allele frequencies to keep pace with future climate change have experienced the largest population declines, suggesting that failure to adapt may have already negatively affected populations.”

The prediction is illustrated in Figure 1 below from the Bay et al. paper.

Figure 1. From Bay et al. (2018) Figure 2C. (Red dot explained below).

Consider a single case, the Great Basin, area S09 of the Sauer et al. (2017) breeding bird surveys. From the map in Bay et al. (2018) Figure 2 we get the prediction of a very high genomic vulnerability (above 0.06, approximate red dot in Figure 1 above) for the Great Basin, and thus a strongly declining population trend. But if we go to the Sauer et al. (2017) database, we get this result for the Great Basin (Figure 2 here), a completely stable yellow warbler population for the last 45 years.

Figure 2. Data for the Great Basin populations of the Yellow Warbler from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, 1967 to 2015 (area S09). (From Sauer et al. 2017)

One clue to this discrepancy is shown in Figure 1 above where R2 = 0.10, which is to say the predictability of this genomic model is near zero.

So where does this leave us? We have what appears to be an A grade genetic analysis coupled with a D- grade ecological model in which explanations are not based on any mechanism of population dynamics, so that the model presented is useless for any predictions that can be tested in the next 10-20 years. I am far from convinced that this is a useful exercise. It would be a good paper for a graduate seminar discussion. Marvelous genetics, very poor ecology.

And as a footnote I note that mammalian ecologists have already taken a different but more insightful approach to this whole problem of climate-driven adaptation (Boutin and Lane 2014).

Bay, R.A., Harrigan, R.J., Underwood, V.L., Gibbs, H.L., Smith, T.B., and Ruegg, K. 2018. Genomic signals of selection predict climate-driven population declines in a migratory bird. Science 359(6371): 83-86. doi: 10.1126/science.aan4380.

Blois, J.L., Williams, J.W., Fitzpatrick, M.C., Jackson, S.T., and Ferrier, S. 2013. Space can substitute for time in predicting climate-change effects on biodiversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(23): 9374-9379. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1220228110.

Boutin, S., and Lane, J.E. 2014. Climate change and mammals: evolutionary versus plastic responses. Evolutionary Applications 7(1): 29-41. doi: 10.1111/eva.12121.

Pickett, S.T.A. 1989. Space-for-Time substitution as an alternative to long-term studies. In Long-Term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives. Edited by G.E. Likens. Springer New York, New York, NY. pp. 110-135.

Sauer, J.R., Niven, D.K., Hines, J.E., D. J. Ziolkowski, J., Pardieck, K.L., and Fallon, J.E. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD. https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/

On Mauna Loa and Long-Term Studies

If there is one important element missing in many of our current ecological paradigms it is long-term studies. This observation boils down to the lack of proper controls for our observations. If we do not know the background of our data sets, we lack critical perspective on how to interpret short-term studies. We should have learned this from paleoecologists whose many studies of plant pollen profiles and other time series from the geological record show that models of stability which occupy most of the superstructure of ecological theory are not very useful for understanding what is happening in the real world today.

All of this got me wondering what it might have been like for Charles Keeling when he began to measure CO2 levels on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1958. Let us do a thought experiment and suggest that he was at that time a typical postgraduate students told by his professors to get his research done in 4 or at most 5 years and write his thesis. These would be the basic data he got if he was restricted to this framework:

Keeling would have had an interesting seasonal pattern of change that could be discussed and lead to the recommendation of having more CO2 monitoring stations around the world. And he might have thought that CO2 levels were increasing slightly but this trend would not be statistically significant, especially if he has been cut off after 4 years of work. In fact the US government closed the Mauna Loa observatory in 1964 to save money, but fortunately Keeling’s program was rescued after a few months of closure (Harris 2010).

Charles Keeling could in fact be a “patron saint” for aspiring ecology graduate students. In 1957 as a postdoc he worked on developing the best way to measure CO2 in the air by the use of an infrared gas analyzer, and in 1958 he had one of these instruments installed at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii (3394 m, 11,135 ft) to measure pristine air. By that time he had 3 published papers (Marx et al. 2017). By 1970 at age 42 his publication list had increased to a total of 22 papers and an accumulated total of about 50 citations to his research papers. It was not until 1995 that his citation rate began to exceed 100 citations per year, and after 1995 at age 67 his citation rate increased very much. So, if we can do a thought experiment, in the modern era he could never even apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, much less a permanent job. Marx et al. (2017) have an interesting discussion of why Keeling was undercited and unappreciated for so long on what is now considered one of the world’s most critical environmental issues.

What is the message for mere mortals? For postgraduate students, do not judge the importance of your research by its citation rate. Worry about your measurement methods. Do not conclude too much from short-term studies. For professors, let your bright students loose with guidance but without being a dictator. For granting committees and appointment committees, do not be fooled into thinking that citation rates are a sure metric of excellence. For theoretical ecologists, be concerned about the precision and accuracy of the data you build models about. And for everyone, be aware that good science was carried out before the year 2000.

And CO2 levels yesterday were 407 ppm while Nero is still fiddling.

Harris, D.C. (2010) Charles David Keeling and the story of atmospheric CO2 measurements. Analytical Chemistry, 82, 7865-7870. doi: 10.1021/ac1001492

Marx, W., Haunschild, R., French, B. & Bornmann, L. (2017) Slow reception and under-citedness in climate change research: A case study of Charles David Keeling, discoverer of the risk of global warming. Scientometrics, 112, 1079-1092. doi: 10.1007/s11192-017-2405-z