Can signs from nature presage ecological disaster

January 6th, 2009 - 4:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 6 (IANS) Scientists taking a leaf out of the social sciences are trying to read signs from nature to know whether they presage potential collapse of ecosystems. 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 tools and yardsticks to forecast the health of ecosystems and, ultimately, to prevent serious ecological harm is only now coming into play, said Stephen R. Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) professor of zoology and co-author of the new study.

The study, by two ecologists and an economist, suggests it may be possible to use nature’s leading indicators to avert environmental disaster.

Ecosystems worldwide, comprising 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, said Carpenter.

“It’s a big problem because they are very hard to predict. It is hard to get a handle on statistically,” said 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.

In the new study, Carpenter, Reinette Biggs of Stockholm University and William A. Brock, an economist at UW-M, used northern Wisconsin’s sport fishery as a lab 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,” said Carpenter of the study’s results, according to a UW-M release.

These findings were published on Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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