Fall Discovery #2 – Environmental Tipping Points

Most of us don’t worry too much about endangered species. We doubt the loss of any one plant, animal or microbe will have much effect on our lives – or the lives of any other living thing on the planet.

But that’s not so. Everything is connected in the circle of life, and the ramifications of anything becoming extinct can be multiple and far reaching.

One of the things that ecologists and other scientists who study the natural world want to learn more about is the topic of environmental tipping points.

How can we know when some human activity has gone on too long, or too extensively — so that all members of a particular living thing have decreased to the point it will no longer be able to bounce back and continue to live?

What difference will the absence make to other living things?

Science Daily
recently posted an article about a new study under way at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

ScienceDaily (Oct. 30, 2012) — Predation by otters keeps urchin populations in check, allowing kelp — a favorite food of urchins — to flourish. But what if otters were harvested to near extinction for their fur? The resulting overabundance of urchins would decimate the kelp forest, leaving little food or shelter for fish and invertebrates. And so it may go, as declines in these species are likely to affect others.

Such is the potential trickle-down effect on the food chain of even subtle shifts in a single species — tipping points that can induce wholesale, sometimes irreversible change to entire ecosystems. Examples of these ecological thresholds and unintended consequences are many — the otter-urchin scenario occurred in Alaska and California — but solutions are few. Some UC Santa Barbara researchers hope to change that.

A new project of scientists at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and partners aims to synthesize existing research on tipping points in marine ecosystems and conduct case studies to devise a set of early warning indicators and management tools that may help to predict, even prevent, threatened systems from falling off the precipice.

“. . .  we seldom have information about how human actions are affecting these things — and how close we might be to those tipping points,” said Carrie Kappel, associate project scientist and lead principal investigator (PI) on the study.

The NCEAS team of Kappel and co-PIs Ben Halpern and Kimberly Selkoe — with partners at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — have been awarded $3.1 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for the soon-to-launch study, “Ecosystem Thresholds and Indicators for Marine Spatial Planning.”

“We’re looking at how natural ecosystems respond to changes in human pressure, or to climate change, and what the effects are on the human community. I think people sometimes forget that we are managing these systems not just for the sake of creating bureaucracy and regulations. We have an interest in keeping ecosystems healthy and sustainable not just for nature’s sake, but because we, as humans, fundamentally value and depend upon them,” said Halpern, director of UCSB’s Center for Marine Assessment and Planning.

Among the core focuses of the four-year project is identifying advance indicators of threshold shifts, which could include water quality, an abundance or lack of certain species, and even rates of disease, according to co-PI Selkoe, a marine ecologist and NCEAS associate scientist. Ascertaining such early warning signals, she said, will improve the monitoring capabilities of ecosystem managers and potentially enable them to prevent threshold shifts — or at least be better prepared.

To read the entire article, go to: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121031111431.htm

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