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The top 15 hot conservation topics for 2012

16 December 2011, by Tamera Jones

Mining for rare earth elements in the deep ocean, a surge in the number of drugs in the environment, and warming of the deep sea are among 15 key conservation issues scientists say could affect the diversity of life on Earth in the near future.

Black smoker on the ocean floor

Black smoker on the ocean floor.

The issues all relate to potential changes in the climate, technology or human behaviour that could have significant consequences for the environment. These effects could be positive or negative.

Mining in the deep ocean could rise up the agenda in the not-too-distant future, because there may soon be a world shortage in rare earths. These elements include lanthanum and yttrium. They're used in a whole range of hi-tech appliances from laptops, mobiles and televisions to cars, headphones and cameras.

At the moment, China controls around 97 per cent of the supply of these elements, but limits how much it's prepared to export. This has triggered a search for new sources in the deep sea.

Last great wilderness

But the deep sea is one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. And far from being devoid of life, it's teeming with unusual creatures that can survive the darkness and immense pressures. If we start mining in the deep sea, we may end up losing this wilderness.

Another issue that could soon crop up is a rise in drugs discharged into sewers and water courses as the world's population ages and use of medicines becomes routine. In the UK alone, researchers expect the use of medicines to double by 2050. Scientists have detected a range of pharmaceuticals like statins and cancer drugs in the environment already.

Researchers have previously found that metabolised oral contraceptives can feminise fish and that antibiotics in the environment are linked to antibiotic resistance. But the study warns that the effects of the increasing use of drugs by an aging population have yet to be assessed.

'We wanted to get people thinking about the consequences of these issues to avoid the situation we got into with biofuels,' says Professor Bill Sutherland from the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

'We wanted to get people thinking about the consequences of these issues to avoid the situation we got into with biofuels.'
Professor Bill Sutherland, University of Cambridge

Biofuels were supposed to be a green alternative to fossil fuels, but now they're a serious problem. In some cases pristine rainforest, home to a huge variety of life, is cleared to grow plantsfor biofuels. 'We should have seen that coming,' says Sutherland.

While horizon scanning is widely used by businesses to identify new markets, and by the military to spot potential conflict zones, conservationists don't generally use this approach.

But Sutherland has been here before. In 2009 and in 2010, he led similar exercises to figure out which issues most need conservationists' attention, given limited research funds. He has also led exercises to spot problems for global and UK biodiversity.

In this latest study, Sutherland invited 22 experts to submit up to five issues they thought could become problematic for conservation in the future. The group came up with 80 which - after two rounds of voting and debate - they whittled down to 15.

'Another issue that has appeared before on this list is geoengineering. That's something that's likely to rocket up the agenda. But we haven't really thought in detail about the implications,' says Sutherland.

In this year's exercise, there was a striking focus on the marine environment. As well as mining in the deep sea, the experts behind the study decided that as climate changes, warming of the deep sea could also create problems for deep-sea organisms.

Methane venting from beneath the ocean floor also cropped up, as did the possibility of climate-driven colonisations of Antarctic waters by organisms from other regions.

'The rise in the number and range of deep-ocean issues identified may stem from a confluence of circumstances, including the continuously increased technical capacity of humans to monitor, explore and exploit the deep sea,' write the authors.

'It's really for researchers to think about where do we need to do more research to understand the consequences,' adds Sutherland.

The 15 issues identified as potential problems

  • Warming of the deep sea
  • Mining in the deep ocean
  • Methane venting from beneath the ocean floor
  • Climate-driven colonisations in Antarctic waters
  • Increases in pharmaceutical discharges as human populations age
  • Sterile farming to increase food safety
  • Transferring nitrogen-fixing ability to cereals
  • Increased cultivation of perennial cereals
  • Rapid and low-cost genomic sequencing
  • Electrochemical sea water desalination
  • Rapid development and extensive application of grapheme
  • Nuclear batteries
  • Effect of increased cement demand on karst forest and cave ecosystems
  • In-stream hydrokinetic turbines
  • Burning of Arctic tundra

William J. Sutherland, Ros Aveling, Leon Bennun, Eleanor Chapman, Mick Clout, Isabelle M. Côté, Michael H. Depledge, Lynn V. Dicks, Andrew P. Dobson, Liz Fellman, Erica Fleishman, David W. Gibbons, Brandon Keim, Fiona Lickorish, David B. Lindenmayer, Kathryn A. Monk, Kenneth Norris, Lloyd S. Peck, Stephanie V. Prior, Jörn P.W. Scharlemann, Mark Spalding, Andrew R. Watkinson, A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2012, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, published online 29 November 2011, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.10.011


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Your comments

Burning of Arctic Tundra! What is happening;please explain.

Davfid Stimpson-Ball, Rothley, Leicester
Monday, 26 March 2012 - 10:03

Hello David,

you can read the paper using the link to the right. On the subject of burning tundra, it says this:

"The Arctic permafrost has long been regarded as relatively stable, and stores an estimated 14% of the soil carbon of the world. However, in 2007, the Anaktuvuk River fire burned over 1000km2 of tundra in Alaska; lake sediment core analysis indicated that the quantity of soil organic matter consumed during the fire was highly anomalous over the past 5000 years. The frequency and extent of fires in the Arctic tundra may increase during periods of both relatively high summer temperatures and low precipitation, and extensive fires might be linked to a rapid reduction in cover of sea ice in response to increases in air temperature throughout the Arctic. One effect of an increase in the frequency and extent of tundra fires is an increase in nutrient availability, which may facilitate the expansion of shrubs and further increase the frequency and severity of fire."

Tom Marshall, Planet Earth Online
Monday, 26 March 2012 - 10:15

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