Albion Monitor /News
Stanford University

Global Survey of Enviro Damage Planned in 2001

by Janet Basu

A year to take stock of the world's biodiversity makes sense scientifically, morally, even commercially, scientists say
The scientific projects sound intriguing, even fun. Here are three quick examples:

  • A global coral reef check, where local scientists, divers, even tourists would be enlisted to measure the health of the world's reef ecosystems

  • Internet connections among the world's natural history museums, so that all the pictures and information collected about plants or sea creatures since the 18th century would be accessible to scholars and school children

  • A retracing of the voyage of the HMS Beagle to the New World, comparing the environments today with those that Charles Darwin observed as the ship's naturalist -- one of several expeditions to gauge the impact of humans on Earth over the past 150 years

But for more than a dozen scientists around the world who have volunteered to help organize the biodiversity year planned for 2001, and dubbed "IBOY" for short, there is a sense of urgency in proposing these ideas, a sense that loss of biodiversity is an international problem that must be addressed now.

"It is time to bring biodiversity to the front burner"
Stanford ecologist Harold Mooney, one of the organizers of IBOY and of DIVERSITAS, the international group that will coordinate the data-gathering year, put it succinctly: "It is time to bring biodiversity to the front burner, where both scientists and governments will pay more attention to it," he said.

Mooney and four other internationally prominent IBOY supporters organized a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Philadelphia on Feb. 13. They are challenging their fellow researchers from the United States and around the world to join them in planning this international blitz in biodiversity studies for the year 2001.

In interviews conducted while they planned the AAAS symposium, the five talked about the vast and rapid changes that humans have made in natural systems throughout the planet, and the losses that will occur if those changes cannot be managed sustainably, losses not only to the beauty of the landscape but to human health and well-being, to scientific knowledge, even losses to the commercial "gold rush" of biotechnology.

Sarukhán, chair of the international organizing committee for IBOY, said the project is the brainchild of DIVERSITAS, an international network of scientists headquartered in Paris, working together to promote biodiversity science on both regional and global scales and to integrate the results to policy.

"There is a growing sensibility about the importance of many global environmental problems," Sarukhán said. "That is one reason that so many nations signed the International Convention on Biodiversity that was drafted in Rio. And obviously one of the factors in the global climate change that was debated last year in Kyoto is the role of biological systems which are essential to the ecological balance of the planet.

"On the other hand, we are pressed against the wall of time," Sarukhán said. "The pressure from loss of biodiversity is so strong. Every year that passes, the process continues, every year it is more urgent to do something useful in understanding, managing or saving the biodiversity that remains. But individual nations often don't have enough information about the specific ecosystems that are under pressure within their borders. And because species don't have passports, don't pay any attention to borders, often the information that we need to manage them is regional as well as local."

A database on Mexican flora and fauna of Mexico and the environments in which they survive includes details about local topography and vegetation, plus historical information
Sarukhán said IBOY was inspired by the example of the International Geophysical Year in 1957, when scientists worked together across national and academic boundaries to advance knowledge about the earth, oceans and atmosphere.

By the time IBOY officially begins in 2001, it will consist of dozens, perhaps hundreds of projects, sponsored by governments and non-governmental organizations, some global and some very local in scale. Sarukhán said the guiding criteria will be that projects must be intensive and capable of achieving specific, physical goals within one to two years. Within this short-term focus, IBOY is aimed to fill in the gaps where scientists know too little, and to build data platforms to combine the knowledge they already have accumulated.

He said the organizers will work to coordinate projects in the planning stages and then to make the results available to all. "There will be an effort to make the information available in simpler terms for non-scientists, to decision-makers and the general public as well as researchers," he said.

The organizers also will work to coordinate international participation. "We want to make sure there is room for participation of countries that don't have a large scientific community as well as those that do," Sarukhán said. "This is an area of research where many small countries already have made important achievements; you don't need sophisticated technology to do this, just good science. It is an opportunity to get people cooperating, collaborating with each other and in some cases training each other."

An example of how such projects might work comes from Mexico's own biodiversity commission, CONABIO. Founded five years ago, the project is developing a database on the flora and fauna of Mexico and the environments in which they survive, to guide the nation's planning and preservation efforts. Researchers use the latest Global Information System (GIS) database mapping software to layer on details about local topography and vegetation, plus historical information about the region's natural history that has been collected in Mexican and European museums. The database already is influencing local policy decisions, Sarukhán said. And Mexico has begun to share the technology with its neighbors in Central America, and to propose development of a North American biodiversity database to include the United States and Canada.

In case of a major oil spill, it is difficult to assess the damage because no data were collected before the event
Time for Scientists to Take Responsibility

As past president of AAAS, marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University issued a challenge to her fellow scientists to enter into a new social contract, to use their skills to address the most urgent needs of society.

The biodiversity problem is one of those needs, she said in a recent interview: "Scientists have been aware of its seriousness for some time; now it's time to take action." For example, humans have transformed one-half to two-thirds of the land surface of the planet; have exploited two-thirds of the fisheries to full or near capacity; have added 30 percent to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and have contributed to the loss of one-quarter of the bird species that have ever been alive.

"Things are changing at faster rates over larger scales than ever before in history, and in fundamentally new ways. The past does not give us a lot of guidance about how to act in the future," Lubchenco said. "And it is our own future that is at stake. The challenges that human actions make to biological systems have an impact on human health, on social justice, on the economy, on national security.

"In my view, the job of the scientific enterprise is to produce knowledge, and so far in the current era, we are not meeting that challenge. Scientists are not providing the full sweep of information needed for individuals and governments to understand what's happening in the world and make informed decisions about it.

"The need to get that information does not preclude the urgency to take some actions now -- we already know enough, for example, to stop dumping all sorts of stuff into the oceans. But we need new research and new monitoring targeted specifically to get information needed for sound public policy."

Lubchenco sees IBOY as an opportunity to take a "snapshot" of biodiversity. "It will give us a baseline so we can understand how things are changing, and so we can direct our activities to the most seriously threatened places."

In her own field, the lack of that baseline information is acute. There are no maps that show the locations of underwater vegetation in kelp forests or along reefs. In case of a major oil spill, or a bloom of the harmful algae that cause red tides, or the arrival of a harmful species like the zebra mussel, it is difficult to assess the damage because no data were collected before the event. She said that some IBOY projects, including the coral reef survey and a planned global Census of the Fishes, should provide some of that baseline data.

The Biotechnology Gold Mine

There's a practical, even a profit-motive reason to study and protect biodiversity, said Colwell, a microbiologist who also is a past president of AAAS.

"Fundamentally, biotechnology is based on biological diversity," she said. "We're looking for gold amongst the genes that comprise the diversity of the living world. Instead of being 49ers with pickaxes, we prospect in the lab for novel microorganisms, novel antibiotics, novel pathways. With genetic engineering we can mine genes, transfer them to yeasts or fungi, and enhance the expression of the genes and thus tap new compounds, new products for the improvement of the health of humans, animals and plants.

"The beauty of this is that we need not destroy diversity in order to exploit it... 'Exploit' is a harsh word, but with biotechnology it is possible to exploit in an environmentally beneficial way."

"Scientists know very little about the diversity of species in non-tropical 'hotspots'"
There are a few misconceptions about biodiversity that Michael Donoghue would like to change. One is the idea that discoveries of new species are not as exciting as they once were, that finding another beetle is just filling in details and not much of a surprise. Another misconception is that while tropical rain forests still need to be studied, most of the denizens of other ecosystems on the planet are pretty well known.

"In fact, discoveries have been made over the last few years that would knock your socks off," said Donoghue, a professor of biology at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Herbaria. "For example, scientists have discovered a plant, Lacandonia, that bears its seeds not in the center of the flower, as in the other 250,000 species of flowering plants, but instead around the outside." Other recent discoveries: a creature living under the noses of gourmands, on the lips of lobsters; and the archaebacteria, which turn out not to be directly related to bacteria, but instead represent a whole new lineage of living things.

Those discoveries are just the beginning, Donoghue said. "Scientists know very little about the diversity of species in non-tropical 'hotspots' of biodiversity like the eastern Himalayas. And when it comes to the diversity of bacteria or fungi, we haven't even classified the species in our own backyards."

The biggest misconception Donoghue would like to overturn is that scientists can study biodiversity simply by counting the numbers of species that exist. "The problem is bigger and more interesting than this," he said. "Our assessment of biodiversity depends on knowledge of what species exist but also on how these species are related to one another, how they form branches on the tree of life. Species are not interchangeable -- a thousand different rhododendrons is not the same as a thousand species including corn, bananas and mammals. When we measure biodiversity, we must take into account the representation of different branches of the phylogenetic tree. Although we are making great progress, we still know very little about who is related to whom."

Some of the recent discoveries of species have an immediate value to humans -- doctors already are testing a powerful new painkiller recently isolated from the skin of a tropical frog, and knowledge gained from the study of Lacandonia may have a major impact on the horticultural industry. "When biodiversity is lost, we lose those benefits, often without knowing they are gone. As you lose diversity, you probably are getting rid of some things you most want to have," Donoghue said.

But he is even more concerned about losses of major branches of the tree of life, whole groups of organisms that may have evolved completely different chemistries, completely different genes from those commonly understood. Those might represent losses in some of the "gold," the novel organisms that biotechnology companies seek to turn into cures for human ills. They also represent losses in knowledge about how life works.

Donoghue envisions IBOY-coordinated international field expeditions to document diversity in key areas of the world -- a start on a database that would catalog the species, their relationships and their function in ecological communities for critical points on the map.

For years, Harold Mooney has been urging his fellow ecologists to pay attention to the impact of the changes they see in natural systems. "IBOY is an opportunity to stop and take stock of those changes," he said. "We will seek to answer such questions as: How much have we lost in terms of global biodiversity, and how much do we currently have left? Why are we losing biodiversity and how do we conserve, maintain, perhaps even improve the diversity that we still have? What does it matter -- what implications does it have for humans when biodiversity is lost?

"This is work in a new kind of biodiversity science, where we synthesize the information on ecosystems from taxonomy and systematics to population genetics and systems ecology, to the effects of human influence on natural systems." Mooney said.

Mooney listed a few of the other projects proposed for IBOY:

  • An "enemies list" of the world's most troublesome invaders and the habitats most vulnerable to invasion. The "alien invaders" in this case are plants or animals that hitchhike to new locations on the globe and cause havoc there. Zebra mussels clog sewage outfalls throughout the Great Lakes, for example, while invading grasses make Hawaiian forests susceptible to wildfires.

  • A global frog report. Amphibians -- including frogs -- appear to have been disappearing from habitats around the world for the past decade. An international survey of amphibians and their habitats will help scientists and policy-makers understand the patterns of loss and see how they are related to other aspects of global change

  • A worldwide truffle hunt. In the woodlands of Europe, mushrooms and other fungi are being heavily impacted by human activities. In the woodlands of Europe, mushrooms are shifting their range, a change that may put pressure on shrubs and trees that depend on certain types of soil fungi. Scientists will assess what the loss of fungi could mean for the soil decomposing processes needed by forest ecosystems -- and for the humans who depend on forests for erosion control, water purification and other ecosystem services.

  • A planetary stethoscope. Each landscape has its own metabolism, Mooney says: Like a patient taking a breath under the doctor's waiting stethoscope, a forest or a meadow takes in or gives out carbon, oxygen, energy and water at its own unique rate. Those exchanges differ with the season, and with stresses like heavy snowfall or drought; ecologists have learned to measure the exchanges as one gauge of changes in the health of an ecosystem. "There are enough data now to begin a global network that would characterize the metabolic diversity of the earth's ecosystems," Mooney said.

Once stitched together, this global biodiversity computer system would be like the worldwide systems now available to map and track weather and climate changes. In fact, since plants are important sources and storage sinks for greenhouse gases like carbon in the atmosphere, a global map of ecosystems and their metabolism could be important data for climatologists seeking to predict and understand global warming.

DIVERSITAS will maintain a web page to chronicle the progress of the International Biodiversity Observation Year.

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Albion Monitor February 24, 1998 (

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