Ecological globalization | EurekAlert! Science information
Ecosystems are constantly exchanging materials through the movement of air in the atmosphere, the flow of water in rivers, and the migration of animals through the landscape. However, humans have also established themselves as another important driver for the networking of ecosystems. In the June 2008 special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, titled “Ecology at the Continental Level in an Increasingly Connected World,” ecologists discuss how human influences interact with natural processes to affect connectivity at the continental level. The authors conclude that networks of large-scale experiments are required to predict long-term ecological changes.
“We know the world has always been connected by a shared atmosphere and the movement of water,” says Debra Peters, author of the issue and a researcher at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). “The world is also strongly networked through the movement of people and the transport of goods from local to global. There is increasing recognition among ecologists that these connections can have profound influences on the long-term dynamics of ecological systems. ”
The transport of many types of materials, including gases, minerals, and even organisms, can affect natural systems. This movement results in a “greenlash” that occurs when environmental changes that are confined to a small geographic area have far-reaching effects on other areas. For example, a drought in the 1930s caused smallholders to abandon their farms across the American Midwest. The lack of crops increased local soil erosion, which led to severe dust storms. Large amounts of windswept dust migrated across the continent, causing the infamous Dust Bowl and affecting air quality, public health and settlement patterns across the country.
Due to increasing globalization, people often inadvertently bring alien plants, animals and diseases to new places. Invasive species and pathogens such as fire ants from South America and the SARS virus from China can create large and expensive problems: The US currently spends over $ 120 billion a year on measures to prevent and eradicate invasive species. Understanding ecosystem connectivity across a range of scales – from local to regional to continental – will help scientists predict where invasive species are likely to move next.
The authors agree that field ecology studies should focus on long-term sample networks spanning a number of geographic scales. The integration of data from existing and evolving networks, such as the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) and the NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), will result in a value for ecological comparisons that no experiment can provide looking for their own kind.
“In order to draw conclusions about the consequences of increasing networking, we have to provide information about processes that extend over a large space and time,” says David Schimel, author of the edition and managing director of the NEON project. “Our observations will characterize ecological processes from the genome to the continent and document changes from seconds to decades.”
Additionally, the authors suggest that long-term studies should incorporate data from social and behavioral science to enable the inclusion of human movement patterns in their scientific models. Ecologists hope that understanding connectivity patterns within and between ecosystems will lead to more accurate predictions of future ecological change.
To learn more about ecological connectivity, check out a podcast interview with Debra Peters on June 2 on the Ecological Society of America website at http://www.esa.org/podcast.
The special edition of Frontiers was supported by the National Science Foundation, USDA-ARS, and the Consortium for Regional Ecological Observatories. The edition is free and will be made available to the public on June 1 at http://www.frontiersinecology.org/.
The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest professional body of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the world. Since its inception in 1915, ESA has promoted the responsible use of ecological principles to solve environmental problems through ESA reports, magazines, research and expert reports to Congress. ESA publishes four journals and hosts an annual scientific conference. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.
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