15 for ’11

Milk. New greenhouse gases. Exotic earthworms. Those are just a few of 15 emerging issues that could have a substantial impact on conservation this year, according to a recent “horizon scanning” exercise.

Last year, more than 150 scientists and specialists were asked to identify one to four issues that “might affect species, ecosystems, or regions of global interest” in 2011. The group came up with 71 nominees, which were ultimately whittled down to 15 finalists through a review and ranking process.

In the January issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a research team offers up the nascent concerns (in no particular order):

Increasing milk consumption in Asia. “The consequences of changes in land use to accommodate more dairy cattle and support infrastructure for an expanded industry could be many fold,” the group notes, including more greenhouse emissions and forest clearance.

New greenhouse gases. Since 1978, the Cape Grim Research Station in Tasmania, Australia, has documented a rapid increase in concentrations of two “unfamiliar” greenhouse gases. Levels of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), produced by the electronics industry, have increased at 11% per year. Levels of sulfuryl fluoride (SO2F2), a crop fumigant, have increased at 5% per year.

Productivity increases driven by loss of polar sea ice. Loss of Antarctic ice over the last 50 years has increased the growth of plankton and other organisms, and “such changes in biomass and carbon assimilation will affect marine food chains.”

Biological impacts of perfluorinated compounds. Chemicals used to make products like Teflon and fire-fighting foams linger in the environment and have been detected in tissues of fishes, birds, marine mammals and humans. But knowledge of their biological effects “is rudimentary.”

Expansion in mining for lithium used in rechargeable batteries. Unexploited lithium reserves are “mainly in shallow saline lakes in the high elevation Andean deserts of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia” — but the potential impacts of large-scale lithium extraction are poorly understood.

Genetic techniques to eradicate mosquitoes. Researchers are studying the idea of releasing genetically modified insects in an effort to eradicate strains that spread diseases like dengue and yellow fever. “The potential impacts of such releases on conservation are unclear.”

Nitric acid rain. Europe and the U.S. have dramatically reduced the sulfur emissions from coal-burning power plants that contribute to acid rain. But there are fewer controls on oxides of nitrogen, which can also form acidic precipitation — and there are signs that “nitric rain” is increasing.

Substantial changes in soil ecology. “Large-scale functional shifts appear to be occurring in soils worldwide.” Global soil respiration rates, for instance, have been increasing by 0.1% per year since 1989, apparently in response to warmer air temperatures.

Denial of biodiversity loss. “Social psychologists suggest that denial is expected to increase both in extent and intensity as scientific evidence of a threat from phenomena such as climate change or biodiversity loss accumulates.”

Protected area failure. “With growing pressures from the intensification of agriculture, human population growth, pollution, resource extraction and climate change, the number of failing protected areas, or ones perceived to be failing, both on land and in the sea, will probably increase dramatically.”

Re-emergence of rinderpest. A disease that strikes cattle and other grazing mammals, rinderpest has been eradicated by mass vaccination. But there are “closely related wild relatives that could mutate and spread rapidly” through populations that have lost immunity. The last major rinderpest pandemic, in the 1890s, reportedly killed 90% of Kenya’s wild buffalo.

Climate governance. “The only global agreement with specific targets to control greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, expires at the end of 2012.” Without a new global agreement, efforts to protect species from climate change could falter.

Ocean transformation. A range of changes – from increasing marine aquaculture to ocean energy development – could have “a dramatic impact on the oceans and the species that they support.”

Vegetation change facilitated by earthworms in North American forests. “European earthworms, especially Lumbricus rubellus, have colonized previously earthworm-free temperate and boreal forests in eastern North America… and the long-term consequences remain unclear.”

Hydraulic fracturing. This technology, which pumps toxic fluids underground to fracture rock formations holding natural gas, poses a potential threat to water supplies and surface ecosystems.

The researchers concede that their list is likely to be somewhat off-target. A similar 2009 exercise missed the risks associated with deep sea oil drilling, for instance. But that earlier list did correctly foresee three issues — the ability to synthesize artificial life, the spread of the invasive Lionfish, and potential impact of high-latitude volcanic eruptions – that did rise to global prominence. David Malakoff | January 20, 2011

Source: Sutherland, W., Bardsley, S., Bennun, L., Clout, M., Côté, I., Depledge, M., Dicks, L., Dobson, A., Fellman, L., & Fleishman, E. (2011). Horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2011. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26 (1), 10-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.11.002

Image © Dori OConnell