Forecasting future changes to ecosystems

All it takes is turning on the news to see that our global ecosystem is in a fragile state due to environmental factors, including climate change. Understanding how ecosystems evolve, function and thrive helps researchers to predict future changes. This will ultimately affect not just biological and chemical fluctuations, but also impact public health, agricultural patterns and industry trends across various sectors. Needless to say, ecological forecasting is vital.

It’s important to note that ecological forecasting is not an exact science, and does not guarantee that predicted events will actually occur. However, it is an effective tool for both the public and private sectors. For instance, according to the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Ecological Systems, more than $200 billion in annual resources comes from agricultural ecosystems. Additionally, these efforts provide clean air and water, work to better manage waste management, keep track of crop pollination and also help predict natural disasters like floods or droughts.

“Ecological forecasting is an effective tool for both public and private sectors.”

Why ecological forecasting matters
Ecological forecasting has been put under somewhat of a microscope as of late, especially since climate change has dominated global headlines. This undoubtedly carries over into the field of aquatic ecology, and a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences addresses this very issue at length.

In the opening paragraph of the study’s paragraph, which was conducted in conjunction with the Southeast Ecological Science Center in Gainesville, Florida, and the University of Miami biology department, study authors wrote:

“How can we make forecasts of possible future changes in populations to help guide management actions?”

The authors went on to explain that this is especially pivotal for marine and anadromous fisheries, impacting both freshwater and saltwater habitats. According to the aforementioned Committee on Environment and Natural Resources paper, marine ecosystems provide $27 billion in revenue every year, making them crucial for the economy as well as ecological health.

Ecological forecasting in an era of climate change
It’s important to understand the rate of polar ice cap deterioration to determine how these fish populations will thrive in a constantly changing aquatic atmosphere. The effects of climate change will likely have disastrous effects on both freshwater and saltwater species in the next few decades, making bioassessments and the role of water quality laboratories all the more crucial. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Earth’s temperature is rising due to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This greatly influences the rate at which sea levels rise, levels of acidity in the oceans, patterns of oceanic precipitation and the effects of ice and snow cover. All of these changes will impact marine ecology – which, in turn, has a direct effect on food supply, water resources, public health and ecological systems worldwide.

Applying knowledge we have already gained from observing the natural world, then seeing how changes of this magnitude have already effected these habitats, gives scientists a metric to better assess what environmental factors will impact marine life, as well as human life.

Climate change is impacting a wide variety of oceanic life. Climate change is impacting a wide variety of oceanic life.

Types of modeling involved with ecological forecasting
In the past, scientists have utilized several forms of modeling to conduct ecological forecasting. One of these is palaeobiology modeling, which is considered one of the more traditional forms.

By using this method, scientists can trace fossils from the past to predict taxonomic diversity for the future. One excellent example of this is a study conducted by the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in the U.K., which showed that by looking at fossil records, “tetrapod taxonomic diversity has increased in an exponential fashion” over the years.

Another type of modeling is climate envelope modeling, which looks at climate patterns like sea change, rainfall and geographical shifts in plants and animals. This is often correlated with climate change and biodiversity studies, especially when it comes to threatened or endangered species. A recent example would be a 2014 study published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, which looked at intercontinental divergences in major plant biomes.

Lastly, one of the more recent methods of ecological forecasting is niche level modeling, which mainly links physiological data with plant and animal temperatures. Because this type of modeling pertains to niche distributions for species in a geographic space, it’s usually quite exact.

“Empirical dynamic modeling removes the centuries-old method of using mathematical equations.”

Turning over a new leaf
However, this new modeling type highlighted in the National Academy of Sciences study called empirical dynamic modeling removes the centuries-old method of using mathematical equations to observe and document patterns in nature. Study authors stated that equations have had a valuable place in the field of science, especially when illustrating dynamics and population cycles. However, mathematics “has not had the ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ in ecology that it has had in physics,” according to the study.

Scientists involved with the study said that in marine and anadromous fisheries, habitats where there are sizable interannual;changes in fish populations, using a non-linear means of predicting ecological outcomes becomes quite useful. Study authors believe that using empirical dynamic modeling could be an effective tool in an era where sea levels are changing at rapid pace and marine biodiversity is currently in flux.

As climate change continues to impact the Earth in various ways, ecological consulting is more important now than ever. With this promising new metric for observing and calculating marine wildlife, scientists might have a more productive way of coming up with solutions to solve this worldwide problem for the future.