Are we well-equipped to future-proof nature?

New scientific developments have the potential to help environmental managers, policy-makers and conservation groups to future-proof nature’s health, argue two studies published recently in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

NatureThe collaborative studies contend that our monitoring and management of the natural environment should include detecting interactions between ecological and human communities.

Scientists from six UK and international research institutions, universities and conservation organisations were involved. The first study, led by Dr Bryan Spears of the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, argues that thanks to the considerable efforts of researchers and citizen scientists, the data and tools to fuel this change in management are becoming readily available and should be harnessed more effectively.

Dr Spears said, “Our study presented a road map for achieving preventative management of nature to complement traditional restoration efforts. The cost estimates for restoration are high and may be as much as €11 billion per year at the EU scale. Add to these costs the losses associated with extreme weather events, including floods and droughts, which are expected to increase with climate change, and it is clear that managing our environment to make it more resilient to future pressures will deliver significant economic benefits.”

The group assessed recent developments across multiple scientific fields and uncovered a suite of tools, from genetics to satellite earth observation, that allow resilience to be measured from the individual to the ecosystem scale.

"It is clear that managing our environment to make it more resilient to future pressures will deliver significant economic benefits." Dr Bryan Spears, CEH

Co-author Dr Craig Allen of the US Geological Survey, said, “Monitoring and managing complex systems of people and nature will always be harder than managing individual species. But anticipating and predicting the responses of ecosystems based on information about individual species, alone, is unlikely to be productive. Techniques to monitor properties of systems that could serve as early warning indicators of deterioration, or indicate measures to build resilience, stand to increase our ability to rapidly and effectively respond to environmental change.”

The study concludes that it is essential that we also identify on-the-ground management measures that build ecological resilience within high value ecosystems to future threats. Large-scale experiments are required to support this.

Key role of long-term studies

A second study of more than 120 long-term records of waxes and wanes in the populations of more than 50 species, led by Dr Sarah Burthe of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology), showed that current indicators are not yet consistently predicting sudden changes in these populations. When ecosystems are approaching a point of collapse under stress, they become unstable, they wobble, and this can be detected using high frequency monitoring of plants and animals across many different ecosystems.

Pair of arctic charrDr Burthe said, “The development of reliable early warning indicators of sudden, undesirable ecosystem change is vital for the conservation of biodiversity. However, there is unlikely to be a “silver bullet” that meets this challenge. Therefore, research should focus on developing a suite of indicators that together provide a powerful mechanism for predicting future change. Long-term studies will play a key role in ensuring that these important new tools come to fruition.”

These findings highlight key opportunities to develop strategies for effective management of the natural world in the face of emerging threats such as climate change, pollution and the spread of non-native species. They also underscore the need for large-scale experimentation and continued monitoring of ecosystems to underpin the development of new approaches to safeguard those ecosystems upon which society relies.

"Research should focus on developing a suite of indicators that together provide a powerful mechanism for predicting future change. Long-term studies will play a key role in ensuring that these important new tools come to fruition." Dr Sarah Burthe, CEH

David Johns, of The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation, said: “We’ve been monitoring the plankton community around the UK for over 70 years, and we have seen many significant changes. Such changes have had profound effects higher up the food web, with most marine organisms relying on plankton for food. This inter-connectivity creates a large problem when attempting to design indicators for marine policy usage, particularly when we have not been able to predict sudden ecological responses.”

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and carried out by staff from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the US Geological Survey, the University of Duisberg-Essen, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and The Tweed Foundation.

Photos: Scots pine (top of page): CEH is leading a project to find a long-term strategy for tree health. Arctic charr (above). Fish data from long-term monitoring of the Cumbrian Lakes were among data studied.

Additional information

Full paper references:

Bryan M Spears (1), Stephen C Ives (1), David G Angeler (2), Craig R Allen (3), Sebastian Birk (4), Laurence Carvalho (1), Stephen Cavers (1), Francis Daunt (1), R. Daniel Morton (1), Michael J. O. Pocock (1), Glenn Rhodes (1) and Stephen J Thackeray (1). 2015. Effective management of ecological resilience – are we there yet? Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12497. 1 Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK; 2 Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden; 3 U.S. Geological Survey, USA; 4 Universitat Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

Sarah J Burthe (1), Peter A Henrys (1), Eleanor B Mackay (1), Bryan M Spears (1), Ronald Campbell (2), Laurence Carvalho (1), Bernard Dudley (1), Iain D M Gunn (1), David G Johns (3), Stephen C Maberly (1), Linda May (1), Mark A Newell (1), Sarah Wanless (1), Ian J. Winfield (1), Stephen J. Thackeray (1) and Francis Daunt (1). 2015.  Do early warning indicators consistently predict non-linear change in long-term ecological data? Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12519. 1 Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK; 2 The Tweed Foundation, UK; 3 Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, UK.

Staff page of Dr Bryan Spears

Science areas: 

Issues: