On 27th May 2016, Professor Brian Moss – one of the most influential figures in modern freshwater ecology – sadly passed away. Regarded as a world-authority in shallow lake ecology, Moss was for many years the Professor of Botany at the University of Liverpool, before retiring in 2008.
Born in 1943 in Stockport, he spent early years exploring the landscape of the Peak District before undertaking undergraduate studies and a PhD in Botany supervised by Frank Round at the University of Bristol, and research overseas in Malawi and Michigan, USA.
Moss wrote over 244 publications in his distinguished career, including Ecology of Fresh Waters, published in 1980, which became a key textbook for an overview of freshwater ecology concepts, used by generations of students. Moss was known as a generous and inspirational teacher, a superb communicator and popular speaker (you can watch him lead a chorus of ‘Mud, Glorious Mud’ with a group of undergraduate zoologists here)
Moss was President of the British Phycological Society, Vice-President of the British Ecological Society and President of the International Association for Limnology. He was awarded the Association’s Naumann-Thienemann Medal in 2007 and the 2009 International Institute of Ecology Prize for excellence in ecology.
The result of the latter prize was a book entitled Liberation Ecology (2012). His University of Liverpool colleague Rob Marrs describes the unique book as “a scientific textbook written for the general public, using parallels in religion, art, music, and his mother–in-law’s washing line to get over complex issues of ecology and environment.”
In 2010 Moss was awarded the Institute of Ecology and Environment Management’s Medal for his lifelong contribution to the study of freshwater ecology. Moss was a committed advocate for environmental science and conservation, often emphasising the power of the individual and the community in catalysing positive change, but also had a wide range of other interests, particularly playing the double bass.
Brian Moss, freshwater ecologist: July 6th 1943 to May 27th 2016.
On 23rd June, British voters will decide on the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. The EU is an economic and political partnership of 28 countries (or member states) which was formed after the Second World War. The UK joined the then-European Community in 1973. The EU provides a ‘single market’ for people, goods and capital to move easily between member states, and sets rules and standards across a wide range of areas including industry, commerce and environmental management. By far the biggest EU expenditure is on agriculture, so the environment is, de facto, at the heart of the Union.
‘Brexit’ is the term given to the question of a British exit from the EU: a portmanteau of ‘British’ and ‘exit’. There are two competing official campaigns on either the side of the issue, each made up of cross-political party collectives of politicians and campaigners: Leave and Remain. Within, and alongside, these campaigns are numerous smaller campaign and advocacy groups (see, for example the wide range of groups on the ‘Scientists for the EU’ website)
Leave or Remain?
The Vote Leave campaign is predominantly focused on issues of immigration and open borders, and reducing perceived excessive EU bureaucracy, fees and trade rules. Broadly, the Vote Leave campaign wants an independent United Kingdom with stronger sovereignty, control over borders and immigration, and better autonomy over law-making, economic and trade decisions.
The Britain Stronger in Europe (or ‘Remain’) campaign argues that Britain is better off keeping its strong position within the EU. The Remain campaign cites the benefits to UK jobs, business and trade, workers rights and the NHS gained from EU membership. Significantly, the Remain campaign argues that Brexit would cause damaging uncertainty and instability in the UK economy, a sentiment that has been broadly echoed by organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, The International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England.
Where is the environment in the debate?
Whilst neither side foregrounds the environment as a key political issue in campaign literature, both have discussed the environmental impacts of EU policy in recent weeks. The RSPB asked politicians from both sides of the debate to argue their case in terms of environmental impacts, and their interviews with MPs Caroline Lucas from Remain, and George Eustice from Leave, can be watched here.
For the Leave campaign, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (or CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (or the CFP) – both policies regulating the productive and extractive use of nature – have caused environmental and economic problems. The Leave campaign argues that both policies are wasteful and bureaucratic and have restricted the productivity of British farmers and fishermen. CAP has had a particularly negative effect on UK environments, increasing agricultural pollution and run-off and accelerating the decline of some bird populations through the farming practices it encourages. Attempts to address these impacts have been implemented through CAP Reforms over the last 20 years, which seek to encourage more environmentally-friendly methods of farming.
Focusing largely on fisheries policy, the Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, George Eustice recently argued that the UK was ‘losing its voice’ in European environmental policy-making. Writing in the Evening Standard, Eustice argued that, “EU supporters make glib claims about having a seat at the table but when it comes to wildlife conventions we are losing our voice. Since the Lisbon Treaty it is now, extraordinarily, unlawful for the UK to speak and vote without first getting permission from the European Commission.” Eustice has also has made environmental deregulation a key part of the ‘Leave’ argument.
What the EU does for nature
On the other hand, it can be argued that EU membership has helped significantly modernise and improve UK environmental policy since the 1970s. Billions of euros have been spent on EU environmental research and policy (for example, through Framework Seven and LIFE projects) promoting conservation and restoration. EU directives have played a significant role in improving the quality of drinking and bathing water, the reduction of landfill waste, the reduction of emissions from power stations and the protection of habitats.
A recent House of Commons expert audit of EU environmental policy in the UK found that “the overwhelming majority of our witnesses also believed that the UK’s membership of the EU has improved the UK’s approach to environmental protection and ensured that the UK environment has been better protected.”
Ecosystems and species rarely conform to political boundaries, and the stresses and problems they face similarly tend to cross borders (take pollution along a huge river basin like the Danube, for example). Emerging environmental issues such as climate change and the spread of invasive species are inherently dynamic across large geographical areas. Cross-boundary EU environmental policies such as the Water Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives (or ‘Nature Directives’) have encouraged co-operation in the management of large-scale environmental issues across European countries.
At more local scales, the Natura 2000 initiative provides a network of protected areas across Europe for the continents most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Covering over 18 % of the EU’s land area and almost 6 % of its marine territory, Natura 2000 provides the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. UK Prime Minister David Cameron – a figurehead for the Remain Campaign – recently said that “EU membership underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK, while amplifying our voice in the world on vital issues like cutting global emissions.”
And writing on the Brighter Green website, Green MP Caroline Lucas of the Remain Campaign said, “For all the advantages of EU membership, none stand out quite so clearly as the European Union’s role in protecting our environment. In many ways, it’s easy to see why working with our European neighbours makes sense. The threats our environment faces – from cross-border pollution, to overfishing in our seas and climate change – don’t respect national borders, meaning that solutions must span the divide between nation states too. Indeed, when it comes to protecting our environment, it seems to me that if the EU didn’t already exist – we’d have to invent it.”
EU freshwater policy: a broad success story
The protection and restoration of freshwater habitats, water quality and species populations is one of the big success stories of EU environmental policy. Speaking at the recent EU LIFE conference in Manchester, UK Environment Minister Rory Stewart said, “Through the EU we have improved more than 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and our water environment is in the healthiest state for 25 years. We are able to protect and enhance the environment far more effectively if EU countries continue to work together.”
Over recent decades, industrial pollutants reaching rivers and lakes have been significantly reduced, both in the UK and across Europe. Similarly, air pollution in the UK resulting from harmful emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides has been significantly reduced in recent decades as a result of EU policy such as the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. This has caused a reduction in acid rain and reversal of the acidification of freshwater ecosystems.
Three reports on the environmental consequences of the referendum
In recent months, a number of reports which assess the possible environmental consequences of a Leave vote for UK environments have been published. In March, a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), commissioned by WWF UK, the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts suggested that, “It is likely that a potential UK departure from the EU would leave the British environment in a more vulnerable and uncertain position than if it were to remain as a member of the EU.”
In April, an Environmental Audit Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to evaluate UK and EU environmental policy, and the potential consequences of Brexit. The published Audit synthesised statements given by experts from academia, UK and EU policy making, environmental stakeholder and NGO groups such as the RSPB and National Farmers Union.
The Audit concluded that,
“Despite the key role that the EU has played in UK environmental policy, relatively little appears to have been done by way of planning in the case of the UK leaving. None of the witnesses to our inquiry made an environmental case for leaving the EU. The UK Government’s view is that this would trigger a “long and tortuous” negotiation. There are, therefore, significant unanswered questions about what relationship a UK outside the EU would have with it and with the rest of the world, just as there are unanswered questions as to how our relationship with the EU might develop.
Nonetheless, two points were made to us repeatedly. Firstly, the UK would still need to meet international environmental commitments made in the UN and elsewhere, many of which are reflected in EU law. Secondly, a UK outside the EU would still have to comply with some aspects of EU environmental legislation, particularly if it wishes to secure preferential access to the Single Market, but with significantly less ability to influence the process of its development.”
Finally, a report by a group of UK academics commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council outlines the three likely possibilities of the Referendum vote: Remain; Leave (‘Norwegian’ Option); and Leave ‘Free Trade’ Option.
The ‘Norwegian’ Option describes how, following a Leave vote, the UK could apply for membership of the European Free Trade Area (alongside Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) to participate in the European Economic Area trading bloc. Under this option, many existing EU rules would still apply, yet the UK would have little say in how these are shaped or enforced. Most existing EU environmental rules would continue to apply apart from those covering bathing water, habitats and birds, and some aspects of climate legislation and the Water Framework Directive. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) would no longer apply. The ‘Free Trade’ option describes how, following a Leave vote, the UK would remain independent from the EU and need to negotiate new trade and political relationships with other European countries.
Uncharted waters? How the referendum could affect UK rivers and lakes
What do these reports have to say about the possible implications of Brexit for UK freshwaters? The overarching theme is one of uncertainty: chiefly in how UK environmental policy and management can be significantly rearranged following a Leave vote, whilst environmental protections and regulations are maintained. Under a ‘full’ exit, it is conceivable that environmental standards and planning regulations may be relaxed, potentially to give UK business and industry competitive advantages in new trading agreements. However, the environmental costs could be substantial.
Prof Steve Ormerod is well placed to comment on the environmental implications of Brexit – as Chairman of Europe’s largest wildlife charity, the RSPB, and a leading freshwater ecologist, he says,
“The major environmental NGOs are clear and unanimous in their perspective: while none is telling its members how to vote in the referendum, the Wildlife Trusts, Buglife and the heavyweight international players WWF and RSPB have made clear that the UK’s environment would be safer if the UK remained part of the European Union.
Three key arguments for them are i) the international needs of nature conservation and climate change mitigation; ii) clear evidence that the major EU Directives deliver for nature with more teeth than flimsier conventions such as Ramsar or the Bern Conventions and iii) the deregulatory agenda of the ‘Leave’ campaign, which could see effective nature protection stripped away (see this recent RSPB blog for more information).
In freshwaters, too, the evidence is that EU regulation has been effective. Our own evidence shows how controls on air pollution from the Large Combustion Plants Directive (88/609/EEC) helped to accelerate recovery from the effects of acid rain over large areas while Britain’s urban rivers have improved substantially since implementation of the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in 1991 (91/271/EEC) (Vaughan & Ormerod 2012). The Water Framework Directive is very likely to spur similar improvements.
The UK’s government is held to account by these and other Directives in ways that our own regulators seem increasingly unable to attain.”
Freshwater management in Europe is significantly shaped by the Water Framework Directive, which requires member states to manage water quality to a ‘good’ standard within river basin areas. Adopted in 2000, the WFD is underpinned by ‘daughter directives’ on improving ground water, urban waste water; drinking water and bathing water; and strengthened by related nitrates and integrated pollution control directives.
The WFD would still (largely) apply under a ‘Norwegian’ exit, but not under a full exit. UK freshwater managers and planners would need to work with new management strategies that replace the existing River Basin Management Plans, and the potential to mobilise funding, expertise and experience for water management with expert groups across the continent would be negatively affected.
One of the key advantages of the Water Framework Directive is that it allows for governments, water managers and other stakeholders to work in dialogue to systematically set long-term European goals for environmental management. The WFD is not perfect (see Daniel Hering and colleagues writing on its success and failures in 2010), but it is one of the strongest and most effective pieces of European environmental policy, which is helping catalyse projects that improve water quality and freshwater ecosystem health, both in the UK and across Europe.
After a full exit, UK freshwater organisations would no longer be able to apply to pots of European money such as LIFE to fund their work, and would likely be reliant on government and private funding instead. The LIFE initiative has co-funded 237 projects in the UK since 1992, to a total value of €528.4 million, allowing conservation groups such as the RSPB to develop conservation projects.
Calm or troubled waters?
The key theme running through this debate is the uncertainty of a Leave vote: chiefly, what would replace the networks of protected areas, environmental legislation, funding and European research projects that help provide strong protection and restoration for the UK’s freshwaters?
A Leave vote would not necessarily cause the collapse of freshwater conservation efforts in the UK; of course there are many aquatic scientists, campaigners and conservationists with vast experience and expertise who would doubtless advocate for new conservation and restoration efforts. Such efforts would need to work within the priorities of an independent government administration, which given George Eustice’s recent comments, is likely to push through environmental deregulation.
The big issue highlighted in every report mentioned here is the time-lag in transitioning existing conservation efforts from working within comprehensive (and broadly successful) EU policies and standards to those decided by a newly independent government. The danger here, of course, is that in this process, strict and strong EU environmental standards and protections may be relaxed, leading to a potentially uncertain future for UK freshwaters.
Last year, the EU MARS project produced a short video explaining the growing problem of freshwater multiple stressors.
Multiple stressors describe the combinations of environmental impacts like pollution, floods and drought that place stress on the health of an ecosystem. The interactions and impacts of multiple stressors can be extremely complex, and often unpredictable.
Featuring footage from freshwaters across Europe, and expert interviews with MARS scientists Anne Lyche Solheim and Steve Ormerod, and Anders Iversen from the Norwegian Environment Agency, the film provides an introduction to the problem of multiple stressors, and how they are being addressed in European science and policy.
The film has recently been subtitled, meaning that the narration text can be followed without the need for sound. You can watch the video above, and turn on subtitles using the ‘CC’ button in the bottom bar.
Rewilding is a concept that has increasingly captured the attention of environmentalists and the public across the world. Broadly put, rewilding projects attempt to restore natural ecological processes in degraded ecosystems, and often to reintroduce flora and fauna that has become locally extinct.
In this way, rewilding approaches often draw from ecological theories which emphasise ecosystem processes, disturbance and uncertainty. A subtle, but important, distinction between rewilding and restoration ecology, then, is the openness in rewilding to new and different landscape trajectories when functional processes (see, for example the ‘ecology of fear‘ in Yellowstone following wolf reintroduction) are reinstated.
Restoration projects, on the other hand, frequently define a set of compositional targets for restoration – specific habitats, species or ecological quality targets, for example. Rewilding takes inspiration from past environments without necessarily attempting to recreate them, and often takes a landscape-scale approach to encouraging interconnected and dynamic ecosystems across wide geographical areas.
Of course, rewilding shares many approaches, practices and goals with restoration, and any differences in approach and outcome may be seem as only semantic. Indeed, rewilding is often framed as a progressive, experimental, hopeful, or even unrealistic, branch of restoration ecology. But through emphasising the value of wild environments, rewilding is increasingly catching the attention and imagination of wide public and academic audiences.
The question is: what can rewilding ‘do’ for degraded ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already?
A new policy brief produced by Rewilding Europe and Paul Jepson from Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment argues that rewilding approaches can reinvigorate European environmental policy, and extend and improve existing restoration approaches. In ‘Making Space for Rewilding: Creating an enabling policy environment‘, the authors frame rewilding as a ‘logical next step’ for the development of EU policy, and suggest how policy spaces for rewilding might be encouraged in the future.
Paul Jepson explains, “We need new concepts and innovation in policy for nature conservation to regain ground. Rewilding presents an opportunity to shift gear from protection to restoration, upgrading ecosystems, improving network connectivity and creating new value for people”
The authors carried out interviews with ten experts in EU nature policy to explore the potential role of rewilding approaches in environmental policy, the Nature Directives, wilderness and ecosystem restoration. The resulting policy brief identifies how rewilding might contribute to existing policy frameworks such as the Water Framework Directive, and a Trans-European Green Network (TEN-G). Notably, the authors suggest rewilding as important part of policy approaches seeking to reach the 15% restoration target committed to in the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe suggests that “There is huge potential in Europe for rewilding and large landscape restoration. Through this lens we can imagine a pan-European network of sites that capture the public imagination and ‘brand’ different regions of Europe, with a positive impact of creating a European identity.”
Rewilding is a term rarely heard in debates over freshwater ecosystems. Restoration is the dominant approach and discourse, with projects seeking to reverse the damage done by humans to rivers and lakes over many decades, even centuries. Restoration is at the centre of the EU Water Framework Directive, which requires member states to improve the ecological health of their freshwaters to ‘good’ status.
Perhaps the relative absence of freshwater rewilding discourse (at least compared to terrestrial environments) is that aquatic life is often invisible or hard to see without specialist equipment. This means that the ‘charismatic‘ animals that often help legitimate and communicate rewilding projects on land (wolves, lynx or sea eagles in the UK, for example) are often difficult to see in freshwater environments. One notable exception, of course, is the European beaver, which is being reintroduced (although not always officially) as part of a trial rewilding project at Knapdale in Scotland.
It could be argued that a key element of any rewilding practice is imagination: not only to imagine what the past might have been, but more importantly what the future could be. This is a hopeful environmentalism, which sits within (and at odds with) wider contexts of debates over the Anthropocene, which emphasise the role of humans as (largely negative) architects of the Earth system.
Accordingly, does the lack of visibility of freshwater life, and the invisible threats of dissolved and minute pollutants (as opposed to, say, deforestation or development on land), mean that rewilding discourses will remain marginal in freshwater ecosystem management?
To return to our first question (and one, not entirely addressed in this short brief) how might the philosophies and practices of rewilding extend, or even reinvigorate, a European freshwater policy system which already places great emphasis on restoration?
Finally, how can rewilding philosophies which emphasise dynamic and potentially uncertain ecosystem trajectories be integrated into policy-making processes based on ecological targets and management plans?
We will publish a special feature with Paul Jepson in the coming weeks to expand on these questions and explore the potential value of rewilding as concept and practice for EU freshwater environments.
Hydropower plants often produce electricity in response to energy demands. This means that their energy production can be intermittent and changeable, which in turn causes fluctuating releases of water downstream into river systems.
This causes rapid and short-term fluctuations in water speed, depth and quantity downstream – a process termed hydropeaking – which can affect the ecology and hydromorphology of the rivers exposed to such changeable and often unpredictable regimes.
Fluctuations in water flow can also alter the temperature of the river downstream – causing reductions in summer and increases in winter – a process termed thermopeaking. Hydropeaking and thermopeaking from hydropower releases are now widespread and common occurrences in many European mountain rivers and streams.
HyTEC experiments in the Austrian Alps
A team of researchers from the EU MARS Project are carrying out ongoing experiments on the effects of hydropeaking and thermopeaking on aquatic life at a facility known as HyTEC close to Lake Lunz in the Austrian Alps.
The team have studied how algae and macroinvertebrate populations are impacted by hydropower releases, using a series of experimental channels where variables such as water flow and temperature can be controlled and ecological responses monitored.
The effects of hydropeaking and nutrient addition on benthic algae growth
Benthic algae are a key component of aquatic food webs. They are useful indicators of stream water quality, and their short lifecycles mean that algae populations can provide ongoing, responsive records of environmental change. Frequent hydropeaking events can affect the growth of benthic algae and affect their community structures and ability to colonise new habitats. Algae can be washed away in floods, or left stranded by areas close to the shoreline drying up after a flood.
The MARS team simulated hydropeaking events for one hour each day for a month in four experimental channels. One channel was kept as a control, one had nitrogen added, one had phosphorous added, and one had both phosphorous and nitrogen added. These nutrient additions were used to investigate the multiple stress effects of hydropeaking in stream ecosystems affected by nutrient pollution.
Antagonistic relationships between hydropeaking and nutrient addition
After a month, where no nutrients were added, algal growth was significantly higher in the channels with no hydro- or thermopeaking, compared to those where it was simulated. Where no hydro- or thermopeaking was simulated, algal growth was highest in the channels where phosphorous had been added. A shift in the assemblage was observed in these high growth channels from diatom-dominated to algae (chlorphyta)-dominated.
However, where both hydro- and thermopeaks were simulated and nutrients were added, there were no significant differences in algal growth between the different channels. This means that one hour of hydro- and thermopeaking each day cancelled out any potential algal growth following nutrient addition. This is termed an antagonistic relationship between stressors.
The effects of hydropeaking and thermopeaking on macroinvertebrate drifting
Macroinvertebrates are animals without a backbone that can be seen with the naked eye: taxa such as mayflies, beetles, caddisflies, dragonflies, worms and crustaceans. They are important links in the food web between producers (such as algae) and consumers (such as fish). Many macroinvertebrates are sensitive to water quality and so their populations provide excellent indicators for environmental change.
Some macroinvertebrate species ‘drift’ across and along a stream’s course throughout their lifecycles, (re)colonising habitats. This drifting behaviour is increasingly recognised by scientists as an important process in shaping ecosystem structure and function in rivers and streams.
The MARS team used experimental channels to study how hydropeaking and thermopeaking affected drifting behaviour of marcoinvertebrate taxa, and how this behaviour differed during the day and during the night.
Drifting highest at night under hydropeaking and thermopeaking
The first results from their experiments indicate significant differences between macroinvertebrate drifting behaviour in response to hydropeaking, thermopeaking and time of day.
Drifting behaviour was highest where only hydropeaking was simulated, and was lower under combined hydropeaking-thermopeaking conditions. For both simulations, drifting behaviour was highest at night, and significantly higher than drifting behaviour of macroinvertebrates in the control experiments under normal conditions.
The team identified specific drifting traits for macroinvertebrate species. Those that were likely to drift tended to be swimming surface taxa with small body sizes and cased caddisflies. On the other hand, those less likely to drift were clinging or burrowing interstice taxa, with large body sizes and caseless caddisflies.
Initial results for ongoing research at HyTEC
This initial research from the HyTEC experiments has indicated that hydropeaking and thermopeaking have significant effects on the growth of benthic algae and on the drifting behaviour of macroinvertebrates in stream ecosystems.
The HyTEC experiments on hydropeaking continue, with ongoing research questions including whether macroinvertebrate drift behaviour effects juvenile fish populations and if hydropeaking and thermopeaking affect the top-down control of benthic algae by macroinvertebrates.
We live in a world that never stays still. People and places are ever more globally interconnected, dynamic and developing. Technological innovations feed into new cycles of use, waste and pollution. Ecosystems flux over time and space through invasions and introductions, novel assemblages and emergent patterns.
Circling all of this, scientific consensus predicts an increasingly variable and warming climate in the century to come. An age that could well be ratified later this year as a new geological epoch, fundamentally shaped by human activity and known as the Anthropocene.
How can environmental policy makers deal with such complexity and dynamism in a world they seek to positively influence? How can environmental policies anticipate the changes of uncertain future worlds? And what research programs, early warning systems and governance structures are needed to make such ‘anticipatory policy making’ a reality?
A new Science for Environmental Policy ‘Future Brief’ addresses these questions by examining a range of tools and approaches that can be used to identify emerging environmental risks. The approaches examined include strategic foresight tools, scanning of the internet for information, citizen science and state-of-the-art monitoring technologies. Produced for the European Commission DG Environment by the Science Communication Unit, UWE in Bristol, the Future Brief then discusses the policy implications of this range of new approaches.
The Brief contains many examples of new developments from freshwater science and policy, and is summarised below. It can be read in full here.
Two key terms can help us better understand the issues raised by the Future Brief. Risks may be predicted and/or detected by early warning systems such as river gauging networks and remote sensors. Identifying and quantifying the risk of flooding, for example, at an early stage gives environmental managers a better chance of mitigating its negative effects (e.g. through evacuation, temporary flood barriers, provision of clean water and food, and so on).
The UNEP defines four key elements for early warning systems: risk knowledge, monitoring and predicting, disseminating information, and responses. However, the authors of the Future Brief suggest that one or more of these elements is usually lacking in the real world. The Brief outlines the many challenges in designing early warning systems, particularly in the trade-offs between rapidity of response and accuracy of risk detection; and the need for decision-making using partial or uncertain monitoring data.
Whist environmental monitoring is increasingly supported by the European Commission for identifying threats, such early warning systems need to be constantly developed and updated to account for emerging environmental risks. Emerging risks are risks that are new; or familiar risks that are presented in new or novel conditions. An example of an emerging risk is the growing number of new chemical pollutants entering freshwater systems, as addressed by the EU SOLUTIONS project. Emerging risks can be organised by their ‘knowability’. Using a NASA typology (made famous in a Donald Rumsfeld speech), emerging risks may be:
- Known knowns: risks we are aware of and understand;
- Known unknowns: risks we are aware of but do not understand, usually due to a lack of comprehensive research (as is the case for multiple stressors in aquatic ecosystems);
- Unknown knowns: risks we understand but are not aware of;
- Unknown unknowns: risks we are neither aware of nor understand.
Of these risks, ‘Unknown unknowns’ pose a big challenge. These are risks that emerge from new or unknown hazards (for example, new pollutants or rapid climatic changes) that if undetected may lead to major environmental problems. Catastrophic examples of these (for example the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) are termed ‘black swans‘, or extremely rare and unpredictable events.
Despite this uncertainty, increasingly advanced and adaptive environmental monitoring systems allow us to predict emerging risks. The new Future Brief examines five of these approaches.
Early warning signals from foresight approaches
Foresight approaches gather information on different future possibilities for natural and human systems to predict the range of trajectories they make take, and design suitable management strategies to mitigate emerging environmental risks. The two main foresight approaches are horizon scanning and scenario planning.
Horizon scanning involves compiling and reviewing all available research and monitoring data on an topic to identify emerging issues and knowledge deficiencies. For example, the UK based Cambridge Conservation Initiative undergo a yearly horizon scanning exercise for global conservation issues (download the latest one here). Horizon scanning was used by the 2013-15 review panel for the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, to identify emerging issues for wetland policy and conservation.
Scenario planning is a broader and more speculative means of anticipating future environments. Often based on a mix of historical data, expert judgement, stakeholder inputs and predictive models, scenario plans develop a range of narratives on how the world might develop in the future. Scenarios are particularly useful for imagining emerging low-probability ‘unknown unknown’ risks. One recent freshwater example of scenario plans are those developed by the MARS project, predicting the future of Europe’s freshwaters.
Early warning signals from technology
Technological advances allow scientists and policy makers to predict many emerging risks with increasing precision. Monitoring technologies can range in scale from tiny water pollution sensors in individual water bodies, to satellites orbiting the earth to detect global rainfall patterns. Chemical monitoring of European freshwaters has historically focused on ‘known known’ priority substances in the Water Framework Directive: those which are known to cause harm to aquatic life and water quality.
Techniques to detect ‘unknown’ chemical pollutants in freshwaters include ‘non-target screening‘ using liquid chromatography to separate the elements found in a water sample, and bioindicators and bioassays which determine the presence of a pollutant through known effects on other biological elements. Such monitoring systems can give continuous data-streams of information on pollutants in an ecosystem.
The EU SOLUTIONS project is working with new monitoring technologies in an effort to better assess and monitor clusters of emerging chemical pollutants in freshwaters. Here, ‘multiple stressor‘ effects add another layer of uncertainty to our understanding of emerging risks.
Early warning signals from citizen science
Environmental citizen science involves members of the public monitoring patterns and processes in the natural world. An evolution of historical amateur naturalist groups, citizen science programs often now take advantage of cutting-edge technologies such as smartphones, apps, GPS and portable microphones to allow the public to quantitatively document elements of the environment. The data collected – species identifications and counts, invasive species monitoring, water levels, and so on – can then be brought together to give environmental managers up-to-date information on changes in the environment.
Such indicators – for example, the spread of an invasive species such as the signal crayfish – can provide early warning systems in areas not covered by scientific monitoring programs. Citizen science is not without its challenges: often relying on public access to (often expensive) personal technologies, often focusing on terrestrial environments only, and requiring investment in digital training and infrastructure to ensure that the data collected is as accurate and appropriate as possible.
Early warning signals from online media monitoring
Like citizen science, media monitoring is an old approach that is being increasingly invigorated by modern technologies. Scanning software is being developed to monitor keywords and phrases in online public communications such as social media, discussion boards and news-sites. Details of emerging risks and threats to the environment can then be ‘crowdsourced’ through monitoring online discussions.
For example, MediSys is an internet monitoring and analysis system that scans information from the European Media Monitor software that gathers reports from worldwide news portals – in 60 different languages – to rapidly identify potential threats to public health. These threats include toxins, bioterrorism, bacteria and viruses, pesticides and nuclear threats amongst others. MediSys is used by the European Commission Health and Food Safety Directorate-General to provide automated early warnings of emerging threats to human health to policy makers and the public.
Early warning signals from rate-change theories
In recent decades, our theories of environmental processes have broadly shifted towards complexity, dynamism, chaos and uncertainty. So called ‘state-shifts‘ have become a key topic for systems ecologists, describing how ecosystems can shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another (e.g. forest to savanna) in response to stress and alteration. The biologist Paul Ehrlich used a ‘rivet popping’ metaphor to describe how an altered ecosystem may act like an aeroplane which is gradually having its rivets removed in flight. In Ehrlich’s metaphor, species are the rivets holding an ecosystem together, and their extinctions are like rivet removals. The aeroplane is likely to stay in the air for some time, until a ‘tipping point‘ is reached when it falls apart and crashes (although metaphor has been questioned, for example by Richard Hobbs and colleagues).
Whilst it is difficult to accurately predict such tipping points, systems theorists are increasingly developing a theory known as Critical Slowing Down to give early warnings of when a system may be approaching a critical threshold. For example, ecologist Steve Carpenter and colleagues undertook a long-term experiment in an American lake (pdf) to identify statistical early warning systems for state-shifts in the aquatic food web. Over three years, they gradually added largemouth bass – a top predator – to the lake. This caused a state-shift from an algae-filled ecosystem with abundant prey fish populations to a clear lake dominated by the bass.
Working with critical slowing down theory, Carpenter and colleagues identified changes in the food web in the year before the ecosystem’s tipping point. Such research is extremely useful to environmental managers and policy makers seeking to implement continuous monitoring programs, providing new approaches for early warning systems which detect potential significant environmental changes.
The range of approaches outlined by the new Future Brief demonstrate how new technologies, theoretical advances and better monitoring data are all helping policy makers deal with an increasingly complex and dynamic world. The challenge is to address the needs of current societies and environments, whilst anticipating how they might change in the future. You can read the Future Brief in full here.