What to Expect in 2018: Horizon Scanning Identifies Risks and Opportunities Related to Global Biological Diversity

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

What are the emerging issues that will likely affect global diversity, ecosystem services, and conservation efforts in 2018? Results from the 9th annual horizon scan, conducted by 24 experts and described in a recently published study, identified early signs of the 15 top future challenges and trends related to themes that include new mechanisms driving the emergence and geographic expansion of diseases, innovative biotechnologies, reassessment of global change, and the development of strategic infrastructure to facilitate global economic priorities.

Tiksi, Russia NOAA research lab site

Tiksi, Russia Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Notably, the 15 top challenges and trends are not well appreciated yet—they represent novel findings at the horizon of current scientific thinking, as for example risk of infection from thawing permafrost in the Arctic regions, radiation threats on wildlife from next-generation mobile phone networks, the use of deep water lasers for trawling the sea, and the belt and road initiative in China.

As a case in point representing the challenges, let’s take a closer look at the risk of infection from thawing permafrost in the Arctic regions. Permafrost is defined as ground (soil or rock and included ice or organic material) that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. Most of the permafrost existing today formed during cold glacial periods, has persisted through warmer interglacial periods, and resembles a giant freezer, locking in place plant matter carbon and even microbes. However, as a consequence of climate change, permafrost is at increased risk of melting, causing unwelcomed effects—including the release of frozen dormant microbes that may remain infectious after they thaw.

512px-Bacillus_anthracis_Gram

Bacillus anthracis. This media comes from the Center for Disease Control’s Public Health Library #2226.

A notorious case is that of the virus Pithovirus sibericum, which had been frozen in Siberian permafrost for 30,000 years and, following thawing in a laboratory, was able to infect and kill amoebae. Ominously, in August 2016, an outbreak of anthrax—a deadly bacterial disease—sickened dozens of people and resulted in the death of a 12-year old boy in Siberia. The outbreak also killed more than 2,000 reindeer. It turns out that a recent heat wave had caused melting of the permafrost, exposing the carcass of an infected reindeer that had died about 75 years earlier. The long dormant spores of the highly infectious anthrax bacteria spread from the carcass to the environment. Then, the infectious bacteria disseminated from the soil and water in the food supply, infecting reindeers grazing nearby and leading to human cases.

The risks in the Arctic are clear: infectious microbes released in a given area from which they have been absent for a long period could result in population-threatening epidemics. It should also be noted that mining for minerals and drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic could augment the extent and speed of permafrost melting, increasing the risk of spreading infectious disease.

So, how were the 15 top challenges and trends identified? Their identification is the result of a horizon scan funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and carried out by an international team of 24 researches and experts in the areas of economics, policy, journalism, ecology, microbiology, conservation practice, and professional horizon scanning.

Caroline Culshaw, one of the study’s author and Head of Environment & Health at NERC, said: “We need to identify early signs of future threats and trends to ensure UK environmental science can focus on solutions to major challenges and make the most of opportunities.”

Horizon scanning is a technique mostly based on “desk research.” Desk research, also called secondary research, reviews previous research findings, perspectives, and knowledge obtained from a wide variety of sources on a given subject in order to understand the “big picture” on that topic. The authors of the 2018 horizon scan used scientific journals, news articles, webpages, press releases, reports, surveys, blogs, videos, and radio programs.

By determining what is constant and what changes, either temporarily or constantly, horizon scanning detects early signs of future threats and trends with emphasis on new technology and its effects on the issue at hand. It focuses on findings in the margins of current thinking that challenge past assumptions, and may result in the shaping and support of local, national, and international decision making.

The other identified challenges and trends are vitamin deficiency as a possible driver of declining wildlife populations, geographic expansion of chronic wasting disease, new RNA-based pesticides, genetic control of mammal populations, capturing water from the air, increasing the tolerance of plants to salt, changes in the global iron cycle, underestimation of soil carbon emissions, rapid climate changes on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, international collaborations to encourage the expansion of marine protected areas in the high seas, and effects of culturomics—the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis of word frequencies to the study of human culture—on conservation science, policy, and action.

The identification of the 15 top challenges and trends provide an early awareness and alert system, leading to improved social preparedness. For example, the 2015 horizon scan pointed out that underground coal gasification—a technique used to extract methane by burning underground coal beds—could result in groundwater contamination and production of greenhouse gases. In response, the UK government commissioned an independent review of the issue. In October 2015, Scotland banned underground gasification of coal. Thus, the annual horizon scans may result in the shaping and support of decision making.

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