More than two dozen futurists, environmental scientists and others from around the world recently put their heads together to do a “horizon scan” of emerging trends that are getting relatively little attention but have the potential to have substantial impact on biodiversity conservation in the future.
The research team, led by William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, then narrowed the list down to 15 top trends poised to affect biodiversity for better or for worse in the months ahead.
“By increasing recognition of the issues described in this paper, we aim to encourage dialogue about their potential negative and positive impacts on conservation, in order to guide proactive solutions and harness future opportunities,” the researchers write.
Here are the issues that bubbled to the top for 2019:
Antarctic Sea Floor
Antarctic ice is melting faster than we thought. As meltwater flows to the ocean, it’s likely to change the salinity of near-shore waters and carry sediments that settle on and kill creatures living at the bottom of the sea. It also may stimulate plankton growth, changing how ecosystems function in the area. These alterations all stand to alter the flow of carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere, potentially affecting the trajectory of climate change. Some changes are likely to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, while others could increase its release. How these changes will affect the carbon cycle is currently unknown.
Recent research suggests that permafrost holds more than 1.6 million metric tons (1.8 million tons) of mercury, far more than previously estimated and about twice the amount found everywhere else on Earth. As climate warms and permafrost thaws, much of this mercury will be released into the water cycle and transported to distant locations. Because mercury is toxic to humans and other animals, harms brain and reproductive function, and alters the function of plants and microbes, this release could have consequences for life around the world.
Plastic Solutions as Problems
Heightened awareness of plastic’s downsides has led to numerous efforts to produce more benign substitutes and/or ways of managing conventional plastics. Little has been done to consider the full life-cycle implications and potential unintended consequences of deploying these new approaches. But from changes in recycling approaches, to the use of biological agents to degrade materials, to the manufacture of substitutes for conventional plastics from plants, all alternatives will have ramifications of their own for food security, water use, ecosystem integrity and more. Not only that, but the promise they offer—whether it’s realized or not—could defuse other efforts to reduce rather than shift plastic consumption.
Concerns that active ingredients in conventional sunscreens contributing to coral reef bleaching have led to a search for substitutes that can block ultraviolet rays from reaching beachgoers’ skin with less adverse environmental impact. One such compound, shinorine, is drawing increasing interest, with recent research yielding a method for production in commercial quantities. Shinorine is known to cause inflammation in humans but little else is known of its biological activity. Widespread adoption of shinorine without sufficient research could expose corals or other aquatic and marine organisms to a new substance with unknown impacts.
A New River for China
A massive new irrigation canal called the Hongqi River has been proposed for northern China. Although the project is still in the conceptual stage, it is drawing attention of scientists and policy-makers alert its potential impact on ecosystems in the vicinity and far beyond. Carrying 60 billion cubic meters (2 trillion cubic feet) of water per year, the channel would have tremendous implications for the environment and biodiversity along its route, from accelerating conversion of land to agriculture to changing hydrology across the region and affecting water supplies downstream in India, Bangladesh and beyond. It also holds the potential to affect climate and even increase the frequency of earthquakes.
DIY Weather on the Tibetan Plateau
China is developing plans to set up a battery of rocket-based devices along the edges of the Tibetan Plateau to release silver-iodide particles that will create clouds and produce rain over some 1.6 million square kilometers (600,000 square miles) of land with the goal of improving water security for people downstream. The technology, if deployed, could dramatically alter weather in the area, potentially leading to the deterioration of alpine cold steppe and meadow ecosystems and loss of habitat for species that inhabit them. It also could affect flow in river systems throughout much of Asia with ancillary impacts on both humans and ecosystems along the way.
The development of salt-tolerant strains of rice is good news for food security, since it allows continued production of this important staple crop in areas where rising sea level and irrigation have increased the salinity of traditional rice-growing regions. However, because the development also holds promise for being able to expand the crop along ocean coastlines and on inland salt steppes, it raises new concerns for the integrity of ecosystems. In addition, commercial growth of salt-tolerant strains could increase demands on freshwater resources, since they may be needed to dilute saltwater to appropriate salt concentrations.
Open Season on Gene Editing
Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has elected not to regulate the use of gene editing in plants in many instances, techniques such as CRISPR are drawing increased attention from the research and development world. The implications of increased innovation for conservation are uncertain. Gene editing applications that reduces the use of farm chemicals or makes it possible to produce more crops on less land could bode well for biodiversity. Those that bring unintended consequences to wild species or that result in increased use of agro-chemicals could lead to adverse outcomes instead.
Fishy Oilseed Crops
The (perhaps) good news: Genetic engineers have figured out a way to get other oilseed crops to produce the omega-3 fatty acids that are normally found in fish and prized for their health-promoting capabilities. Application of this technology might not only improve the nutritional value of vegetable oil, but also reduce harvest pressure on strained wild fish populations. The (perhaps) bad news? By displacing other oils within the oilseed plants, these alterations could diminish the plants’ ability to provide sustenance to insects. In fact, one study has already shown that caterpillars that feed on the genetically altered plants are more likely to develop into butterflies with deformed wings than are other caterpillars.
Cherry-picking Plant Microbiomes
Growing demand for sustainable agricultural may usher in a new agricultural revolution based on modifying plant microbiomes—complex communities of microbes that affect growth, disease resistance, drought tolerance and more. Because of their complexity, microbiomes have not been extensively manipulated in the past, but recent technological advances may change that. Increasingly cheap DNA sequencing and developments such as machine learning have led to an explosion in start-up companies aimed at modifying plant microbiomes to benefit agriculture. Other applications could include improving our ability to restore damaged ecosystems. The implications of manipulating plant microbiomes are unknown, but may be both positive and negative for biodiversity, ranging from reduced pesticide and fertilizer use to the expansion of farmland into areas currently unsuitable for agriculture.
Extinction in the Indo-Malay islands
Only 2 percent of land in the Indo-Malay islands are formally protected from development, despite the region’s rich biodiversity and exceptional number of organisms found nowhere else. Oil palm plantations on the islands are small relative to more-established plantations in nearby island nations, but deforestation is increasing and there are indications the palm-oil industry is expanding. Because so many species are unique to the Indo-Malay islands, further expansion of plantations could lead to a large number of extinctions.
Deeper Sea Fishing
The slice of the ocean that stretches from 200 to 1,000 meters (656 to 3,280 feet) below the surface teems with fish, but economics and technology have limited human exploitation for food—until now. As demand for ocean fish grows, a number of countries, including Pakistan and Norway, have begun to explore harvesting this “mesopelagic zone.” Fish in this zone perform important functions in ocean food webs and carbon capture; they also tend to reproduce and grow slowly. Because ocean fishing is currently not effectively regulated on a global scale, this trend raises red flags for the sustainability of their populations and ultimately of these functions.
Microbial Protein for Livestock
Livestock production places hefty demands on the environment in the form of land use, nitrogen cycle disruption and greenhouse gas emissions. As demand for protein from animal-based sources grows, so does interest in finding ways to reduce food animals’ environmental impact. One approach under consideration is to supplement traditional feed sources with proteins made by industrially produced microbes. Whether such a practice is a net gain or drain for biodiversity, however, depends on the details. Some proposed systems could reduce land use impacts but increase energy demand, while others could reduce nitrogen and greenhouse gas pollution but lead to more disruption of habitat. Industrial production and use of of microbial proteins for livestock feed would also have as yet unknown implications for people working in the industry.
Buying Insurance on Earth’s Behalf
Could the insurance industry play a role in protecting natural areas and helping damaged habitat recover from disasters? That is the idea behind a joint project involving the Mexican government, hotel owners, the insurance industry and The Nature Conservancy. A trust fund known as the Coastal Zone Management Trust has created an insurance policy for a portion of the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean Sea. In the case of a severe storm, the insurance policy will provide funds for restoration projects. In this way, natural assets are able to continue to provide benefits to the people who depend on them. Such a strategy could hold promise for protecting the integrity of other natural systems as well.
The Montreal Protocol: Regulation or Guideline?
The presence of CFC-11, a manmade chemical responsible for depleting Earth’s protective ozone layer, has declined more slowly than anticipated after the 1987 Montreal Protocol established an international commitment to limit its production. As a result, the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth could increase—with troubling implications for humans and other species. An investigation suggests that China is using the chemical to produce insulation for construction. With this apparent challenge to the authority of the Montreal Protocol, the question arises: If this multilateral agreement can’t be enforced, what could any attempt at global environmental governance accomplish? The world’s response to this situation could have great implications for the future of international environmental agreements.