Predicting The Future For Biological Conservation
Catching tomorrow’s issues today can mean the difference between success and failure. With these ideas in mind, scientists and policymakers recently published a paper where they identify emerging threats and opportunities in the realm of biodiversity conservation. The goal is to keep ahead of future threats and to take advantage of upcoming windows of opportunity.
This practice of anticipating future developments without much evidence is called horizon scanning. In the past, horizon scanning has identified problems such as microplastic pollution before it was widely discussed. The paper identifies fifteen developments on the horizon that may merit more attention and research. They have not yet affected biological diversity but, experts believe, may in the future. Most of them are likely unfamiliar to the general public.
Many of the issues pose threats to ocean life. For example, the researchers mention chitosan, a material that is purified from crustaceans and insects. Because chitosan is a convenient and useful material that has the potential to replace plastic, the demand for chitosan may grow beyond what natural sources can supply. To produce enough chitosan, farmers may farm shellfishes on the coasts, which may damage wetlands and other nearby ecosystems.
New fishing strategies may also have a negative impact on ecosystems. Fishers have started to use lights deep in the ocean to attract fishes. These artificial-light fisheries may harm animals adapted to the dark. However, they may substitute for trawling, which is very environmentally damaging. Finally, extensive ocean garbage patches may cause complex and unpredictable effects on the ecosystem. Researchers don’t know whether these effects will be negative (e.g. because plastic is toxic) or positive (e.g. because plastics provide a new habitat for certain species).
Global warming has a large effect on the oceans. Because of global warming, upper ocean currents are more shallow and move more quickly. Accelerated upper ocean currents may warm surface waters and nutritionally impoverish them. They may also make ocean conditions such as weather less predictable. Global warming could also destroy coastal wetlands. Scientists thought that wetlands could grow upward and landward, which would reduce the wetland losses from global warming. However, recent research suggests that wetlands grow more slowly than scientists thought.
The horizon scanning report names many technologies environmentalists should watch. Researchers use machine learning to develop new drugs. Machine learning could make less toxic pesticides and better drugs for wild animals. However, it could also make potent chemicals that damage ecosystems. The experts also listed genetic engineering of trees as a development to follow. The fast-growing non-native trees often used in reforestation programs could be genetically engineered to be sterile, which would protect biodiversity.
Right now, many batteries use lithium. Lithium mining pollutes groundwater, disturbs fragile ecosystems, and takes a lot of energy. The experts identified three potential battery-production developments with consequences for biological conservation. First, advances in lithium mining technology could reduce the traditional downsides of mining. Second, biobatteries, which contain DNA and proteins, could be more powerful, transportable, storable, safer, and degradable than lithium batteries. Third, thermal batteries, which store energy as heat, may become a source of energy that is more sustainable and easier to store than lithium batteries.
Other emerging technologies may impact fertilizer use. Improved systems for collecting and converting human urine into fertilizer may reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers, the production of which is a major source of greenhouse gases. Human urine fertilizer may also reduce sewage-related pollution. However, human urine fertilizer could be so cheap that farmers use too much, which would increase eutrophication and greenhouse gas emissions. Another way to reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers is to genetically modify plants and bacteria so that plants receive nutrients from the bacteria more efficiently.
A few other developments made it onto the horizon scanning list. First, more knowledge about microbiomes, microorganism communities that exist everywhere from soil to coral reefs, could allow us to control them in ways that protect the ecosystem. Second, the Perkinsea infection, which is highly deadly to some species of amphibians, could spread massively because of climate change and increased transportation around the globe. Finally, some countries have implemented new biodiversity reporting requirements. Legislation and regulation could hold companies accountable for their environmental footprints, aiding biological conservation.
Researchers don’t yet know if the selected developments in the 2023 horizon scan will become relevant. The warming climate, the ever-changing economy, scientific research, societal responses and many other factors may affect which of these problems and possibilities come to fruition. By anticipating changes in the landscape of biological conservation, we can take charge of our future and safeguard the world’s ecosystems for a long time to come.