What we don’t know still hurts us, environmental researchers warn

Jan 29, 2009

Knowledge gaps continue to hobble scientists' assessments of the environment, a Michigan State University researcher and colleagues warn. Their warning follows sobering conclusions drawn from what they do know and could help set the global agenda for research funding in the years to come.

A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide humanity, said Thomas Dietz, director of the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program and professor in sociology and crop and soil sciences. The MEA found about 60 percent of ecosystem services supporting life — including fresh water, fisheries, clean air, pests and climate — are being degraded or used unsustainably. The MEA projected continued deterioration at current rates.

But drawing conclusions is still limited by what researchers call discipline-bound approaches that don't fully describe the range of the Earth's dynamic and complex biophysical and social systems.

"In only a few cases are the abilities of ecosystems to provide human well-being holding steady, and in almost every case we're seeing declines in ecosystems underpinning human well-being," said Dietz, who was involved in the original MEA.

Many view that assessment as a baseline for analyzing climate change, Dietz said, although that was not the purpose of the report. He and fellow scientists are set to publish what amounts to a post-MEA gap analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"The conclusion that things are getting worse in general comes out of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment," he said. "Our job was to say 'OK, what science do we need to do?'"

Among the biggest knowledge gaps Dietz and colleagues found, he said, is "really thinking seriously about the interaction between humans and ecosystems, back and forth. How are we changing ecosystems and how are ecosystems affecting us?"

Probing such questions suggests a larger role for MSU, Dietz said, given its strengths in researching coupled human and natural systems.

The lack of long-term ecosystem monitoring and data collection is another deficiency the world scientific and policy communities must address, Dietz and colleagues wrote. Research tends to be underwritten for maybe three years, but data needs, in many cases, to span decades to be of greatest value.

On the other end of the spectrum, addressing abrupt ecosystem changes — "those are the scary things" — and developing early warning systems also are challenges confronting scientists and the policymakers.

Recommendations such as those made by Dietz's group tend to carry weight when national science agencies make research funding decisions, he said. Ecosystem change might sound like an academic subject to many in the developed world, he said, but "for an awful lot of people around the world, the functioning of the ecosystem is right in their front yard and at their water tap."

Source: Michigan State University

Explore further: Conservation scientists asking wrong questions on climate change impacts on wildlife

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Noise pollution impacts fish species differently

Jul 24, 2014

Acoustic disturbance has different effects on different species of fish, according to a new study from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter which tested fish anti-predator behaviour.

A global view of oceanic phytoplankton

Jul 18, 2014

University of Maine oceanographer Ivona Cetinic is participating in a NASA project to advance space-based capabilities for monitoring microscopic plants that form the base of the marine food chain.

Recommended for you

Big data confirms climate extremes are here to stay

19 hours ago

In a paper published online today in the journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature, Northeastern researchers Evan Kodra and Auroop Ganguly found that while global temperature is indeed increasing, so too is the variab ...

Peru's carbon quantified: Economic and conservation boon

19 hours ago

Today scientists unveiled the first high-resolution map of the carbon stocks stored on land throughout the entire country of Perú. The new and improved methodology used to make the map marks a sea change ...

How might climate change affect our food supply?

20 hours ago

It's no easy question to answer, but prudence demands that we try. Thus, Microsoft and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have teamed up to tackle "food resilience," one of several themes ...

Groundwater is safe in potential N.Y. fracking area

20 hours ago

Two Cornell hydrologists have completed a thorough groundwater examination of drinking water in a potential hydraulic fracturing area in New York's Southern Tier. They determined that drinking water in potable ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MikeB
3 / 5 (4) Jan 29, 2009
"Recommendations such as those made by Dietz's group tend to carry weight when national science agencies make research funding decisions", he said.

SEND MORE MONEY... THINGS ARE MUCH WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT!!!
GrayMouser
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2009
Have you ever wondered if there was a connection between the increase in wild claims and the so called science shows on TV?
Velanarris
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 31, 2009
"Recommendations such as those made by Dietz's group tend to carry weight when national science agencies make research funding decisions", he said.

SEND MORE MONEY... THINGS ARE MUCH WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT!!!
No they're saying:

"Send more money, we still don't know anything."