By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
In virtually every part of the United States, foreign pests have become a danger to national forests and other scenic areas, and to delicate ecosystems.
In Georgia, for example, laurel wilt disease is wiping out redbay trees, which are important to wildlife, especially certain butterflies that need them to survive. In California, where oak trees are a state treasure, sudden oak death is killing them. The Asian long-horned beetle is attacking many trees in New York City and Chicago, while the emerald ash borer is destroying trees in the Midwest.
Each region is fighting these insects on its own turf, at a cost of millions. Recently, however, a working group of scientists sat down to examine the big picture, among other things: What is happening overall with species invasion? How significant is the problem? What do experts know about it? What can be done to combat it on a large scale? What will happen if the country fails to act?
Scientists analyzed everything available about the importation and impact of foreign insects. They concluded that the country is dealing with the destructive effects of more than 455 bugs and 16 pathogens, and predicted that a new and voracious pest will sneak into the country every two years unless the United States steps up its efforts to prevent it.
The working group was convened by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a unique research forum that brings together scientists and other experts from wide-ranging disciplines, including disparate voices, to examine important ecological issues with a fresh eye. The goal is to analyze existing science on a wide-ranging array of important issues and assess their impact on health, the economy and society. The goal, ultimately, is to encourage the development of sound policy and management decisions.
“Let’s say you have a general problem, such as species invasion, which can have a big impact on the way in which ecosystems function. We provide the neutral ground where people can bring alternative viewpoints and ideas for solving a particular problem,” says Ed McCauley, director of the center. “We host these people for a series of face-to-face meetings—many don’t even know each other except by professional reputation—for the first time, to sit down and debate, and hammer out the issues. We provide the environment for them to synthesize all the available data that might never have been pulled together before.”
The center, which was established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1996, and is funded by NSF with $3.26 million annually, has become a model for ecological collaboration, inspiring the creation of at least 18 other centers that employ similar methodology, according to McCauley.
“We have been a game changer,” he says. “We do research very differently from the classical ‘I’m-going-to-get-into-the-lab-or-out-in-the-field’ approach. To be sure, the traditional approach is very important. But what we do, given the amount already generated by research, is look at big questions that can be answered using existing data combined with critical analysis.”
The center uses four different approaches to do this. These include the working groups, which involve between 700-800 scientists annually; resident postdoctoral researchers, who number about 20 and conduct new research, although not in the traditional lab setting, and also participate in the working groups; “distributed” graduate seminars, often on topics already under study by the working groups, in which grad students from numerous universities collaborate; and visiting scholars-in-residence, academics interested in exploring some of these “big picture” questions, who often also serve as mentors for the post-doctoral researchers.
Together, they are tackling a vast universe of ecological issues.
Jennifer Balch, a postdoctoral associate, for example, is studying the impact of fire on global ecosystems and climate change, an area she believes has been under-appreciated until now. In 2009, she was one of 22 scientists writing in Science who concluded that intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming. The paper was cited in a Congressional Research Report last year.
Balch also represented the center in 2009 at the Governor’s Summit on Climate Change, a California meeting convened by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, where she spoke to four Amazon governors about the serious threat of escaped wildfires on tropical forests. “Some of my work in the Amazon has implications for understanding very high tree death with fire and drought,” she says. “The 2010 drought in the Amazon was severe. Fire tends to kill small stems, but drought tends to kill large trees, so combined they can have devastating effects.”
In other work, researchers are trying to better understand the process of decomposition of plant litter and soil organic matter, since the process adds more than ten times the amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than fossil fuel burning and other industrial sources. The scientists are asking, among other things, whether small changes in decomposition rates, possibly through changing the behavior of microbes, could have large impacts on the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
“As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, predicting whether ecosystems will help us out by storing more carbon, or contribute to the problem by releasing more carbon, has become a central focus in ecology,” says Carol Adair, also a postdoctoral associate at the center. “To make these predictions, we use what we have learned about ecology and ecosystems to create models of how ecosystems work. Because decomposition plays such a large role in the global C cycle, it is crucial to develop models that accurately portray this process. My work is winnowing out the models that best predict large-scale, long-term decomposition.”
Another working group of ecologists, chemists, and eco-toxicologists with experience in coastal oil spills is collecting and studying data from the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010. The group plans to design a conceptual framework outlining the potential long-term, direct, and indirect eco-toxicological impacts upon Gulf populations and communities. The goal is to help promote decision-making and future strategic research programs.
Other projects, to name a few, include a study on the impact of urbanization on global biodiversity; an examination of the future of shark populations on coral reefs; the influence of climate and the environment on where species live; and an examination of the intersection between ecologists and social scientists.
“Collectively there are 15 to 20 scientists from around the world working on different topics at any given time,” McCauley says. “Every week, there is a new topic. Every week, the world comes here. Every week is an adventure.”
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