New way of monitoring environmental impact could help save rural communities in China

Jun 21, 2012

University of Southampton researchers are pioneering a new way of measuring and monitoring the impact of industrial and agricultural development on the environment.

Working in collaboration with East China Normal University, the Nanjing Institute of and and the University of Dundee, the team has created the world's first long-term record of ecosystem health, which examines the past condition of environmental resources in China's Yangtze basin region, and helps develop forecasts for the future.

"We have examined what effect modern techniques have had on 'ecosystem services' – things like food, fuel, soil and clean water – in the Yangtze basin area. From this we get an overview of the condition of these resources, which are essential for the survival of local communities," says lead researcher Professor John Dearing from the University of Southampton.

The team drilled core samples at two lakes in the region, west of Shanghai, and have made detailed studies of the sediment they retrieved.

Professor Dearing explains, "The data we have compiled came from the analysis of microfossils, geo-chemistry, mineral magnetism, and sediment accumulation rates. These different analyses give us clues about the past health of the environment – for example, pollen samples tell us about the diversity of plant species at a given time, while metal content can be used to measure air quality. By bringing all the information together, we have been able to track the condition of over a 200 year period."

In addition, researchers have examined official statistical records and climate models to give trends on land use, population, gross domestic product (GDP), temperature and precipitation. By comparing these statistics with the core sample data they have seen that as GDP in the Yangtze region increased sharply in the 1970s, the quality of suffered a downward trend. Improved environmental regulation and policies encouraged a partial stabilisation in the 1980s, but the downward trend continued sharply in the 1990s and beyond. The study findings have been published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Dearing comments, "Intensive agriculture has lifted many Chinese rural communities out of poverty in the last 30 years, but irrigation, mechanisation and fertilisers that came with it have degraded soils badly and there is already evidence of declining water quality.

"Economic development and an increase in regional wealth are clear trade-offs for the decline in ecosystem services. However, in the long-term, this decline will be a threat to local livelihoods and could reach a 'tipping point', becoming irreversible.

"Financial indexes, like the FTSE 100 or Dow Jones, are used to monitor the health of an economy, and this project has led us to consider that palaeoecological records could provide the basis for a regional 'ecosystem service index', monitoring the health of a region's environment."

Where suitable, researchers hope to use the technique they have developed in China for other areas of the world, with the aim of helping policymakers to prioritise the most urgent environmental problems and identify which strategies work best to tackle them.

Explore further: Boosting global corn yields depends on improving nutrient balance

More information: intl.pnas.org/content/109/18/E1111.full.pdf+html

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Seeing the hidden services of nature

Mar 02, 2010

Following an intense study of agricultural ecosystems near Montreal, a new tool that enables the simultaneous analysis and management of a wide range of ecological services has been developed by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne of McGill ...

Recommended for you

Global change: Trees continue to grow at a faster rate

33 minutes ago

Trees have been growing significantly faster since the 1960s. The typical development phases of trees and stands have barely changed, but they have accelerated—by as much as 70 percent. This was the outcome ...

Study finds Great Barrier Reef is an effective wave absorber

37 minutes ago

New research has found that the Great Barrier Reef is a remarkably effective wave absorber, despite large gaps between the reefs. This means that landward of the reefs, waves are mostly related to local winds rather than ...

Cape Cod saltmarsh recovery looks good, falls short

50 minutes ago

After decades of decline, grasses have returned to some once-denuded patches of Cape Cod's saltmarshes. To the eye, the marsh in those places seems healthy again, but a new study makes clear that a key service ...

Manure offsets fertiliser's nano-scale changes

53 minutes ago

A UWA study has shown how long-term use of chemical fertilisers changes the soil on a nanoparticle scale and how these changes can be avoided by adding organic matter such as manure.

Red tide off northwest Florida could hit economy

4 hours ago

It's like Florida's version of The Blob. Slow moving glops of toxic algae in the northeast Gulf of Mexico are killing sea turtles, sharks and fish, and threatening the waters and beaches that fuel the region's ...

User comments : 0