Why Ecology and Environmental Science is Everyone’s Business

I’ve summarised one of our Science on Google+ Hangouts on Air. Our guests discussed three fascinating fields of ecological study: air quality; marine life; and extreme weather events.

Our most recent Science on Google+ Posterside Hangout on Ecology and Environmental Science was excellent and well worth watching in full. It highlighted the intersections between climate change the social consequences of environmental damage. The presentations covered the measurement of air quality; disease outbreak amongst fish; and the relationship between extreme thunderstorms and global warming. Below I give a detailed summary of the points I was most interested in as a social scientist (I will do the same for our previous hangouts).

I urge you to watch the presentations in full and comment on the talks from your perspectives. I am particularly interested in different social science reactions to these talks: how can we make a contribution to weather and marine sciences using the ecological frameworks and methods described by the presenters?

Environmental advocacy is truly an interdisciplinary endeavour that requires both critical public debate and empirical solutions. This includes improved data collection and innovative responses that connect scientific theory to social policy and practice. A collaborative and proactive approach to climate change is not assured. Australia recently changed Government and one of the first tasks our new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, put into effect was to dismantle the Climate Change Commission, which was led by eminent scientist Tim Flannery. (Thankfully the work continues thanks to crowd-source funding.) Abbott also removed the position of Science Minister (along with other adverse social policy shifts). Climate change policies in some other countries are in a better state, but many nations remain reactionary to environmental disasters. For these reasons, ecology and environmental science require our full participation.

All I Need is the Air That I Breathe

Gustavo Olivares is an air quality scientist from New Zealand. His talk demonstrates the importance of being proactive in studying changes in the environment even in picturesque places. Gustavo reports that the air quality in New Zealand is very good in 97% of the country, where the land is rural or un-developed. In the other 3% of the country, the population is concentrated in urban areas. Gustavo notes that 70% of New Zealand’s population lives in urban regions, where 38% of people burn wood for heating and where 52% of households have more than one car. In these areas, 15% of the population suffers from asthma that can be linked to air pollution. One New Zealand study found that every year, 1,100 people die from respiratory illness linked to pollution. This is why it’s important to monitor the relationship between air quality, public health and environmental practices.

Air quality is difficult to measure because people are spread out and air obviously moves around. It is costly to study one site, let alone several sites. Gustavo reports that a single data collection point costs up to USD$60,000 to run for one year. Gustavo’s research studies how useful one data collection site is for monitoring air quality. He uses spatial statistics to examine the spatial correlation between the data collection sites. To put it another way, how far can you stretch the data collected at one point and still use it as an average point of comparison for another location? So for example, if you were collecting data in one suburb (Glen Eden) how far away from that focal point can you go and have the data still be representative of a broader region, such as the city of Auckland?

Gustavo’s team has a specially fitted car (a “mobile platform”) that contains various data collection technologies to help them capture information as they drive around. They would drive through different neighbourhoods in Auckland from 6pm to 2am collecting data on winter nights. The data are of a high resolution, with information being captured every second, driving at a speed of 40km-50km per hour. This is important for the environment in Auckland where air pollution in winter is greater than in summer. Gustavo explains that in summer, the wind moves along swiftly so pollution doesn’t stagnate in one place for too long.

Gustavo’s mobile methodology for testing data collection is very useful. Not only is data collection expensive, but analysis is time consuming. Testing the data collection process itself, and seeing how far one can “stretch” the data and still have the findings be reliable and valid is more than efficient. It’s also a quality check of the data, which ensures that robust, targeted information is being used to address air pollution. The proactive approach on environmental damage is highly inspiring and not to be taken for granted.

Ripple Effects of Marine Disease Outbreaks

Tommy Leung is a Parasitologist and Evolutionary Biologist who studies parasites. His posterside talk focused on how latitude affects the spread of disease amongst fish. In particular, he spoke about how viruses, bacteria and other parasites affect the death rate and outbreak duration in different global regions. Tommy finds that fish that live closer to the equator had an 88% mortality rate during a disease outbreak, whereas only around a third of fish in cooler temperatures died during an outbreak. Conversely, fish in tropical climates endured a shorter outbreak period, usually around a week (and up to 2 months). In cooler waters, the outbreak lasted up to 192 days. Outbreaks were also more likely to kill off younger fish, though adult shellfish lived through a shorter outbreak period (15 days) versus adult finfish (30 days). Tommy says little is known as to why this latter finding has emerged amongst different types of adult and juvenile fish, however, he notes that there are several ecological and social implications of this research.

Tommy says “Ecology is really messy.” Ecology illustrates various interlocked macro patterns. In warmer regions there is a high rate of biological diversity but along with this diversity comes a higher rate of infectious diseases. This finding is true for humans living in warmer climates, and it seems to hold for fish and other species. In cooler regions, however, there is a higher incidence of parasite-related disease outbreaks. 

The implication of Tommy’s research is that there is a high probability that diseases amongst fish could potentially spread to other species. Tommy references a current legal case in Australia where the wild abalone industry is suing the Victorian Government for negligence, after an outbreak of herpes spread from an abalone farm into the wild abalone population. The case shows that being reactive to ecological patterns ensures that diseases will continue to spread, affecting vulnerable populations and disrupting industry.

From a management perspective, Tommy’s research demonstrates that ecology is important not just for the environment and the marine ecosystems involved, but also to humans who depend on fish for their livelihood. As Tommy argues, the social implication is that developing nations who are most dependent on fishing are also more at risk from outbreaks. This is because they use fishing not just to bolster their economy but also for food. Unlike wealthier nations who have a broader access to other food sources, developing nations don’t have the infrastructure to respond to outbreaks. Tommy’s research also shows they have less time to respond as disease spreads quicker and causes more devastation.

Tommy notes that stories of disease outbreaks amongst marine life don’t make it into the news despite the high ecological and social costs. Tommy argues that there needs to be stronger collaboration between ecologists and scientists from other fields in order to ensure that the observed trends are adequately addressed and made more visible to the public. This is a social policy concern as much as it is a biological phenomena. 

Thunderstruck: Mapping Severe Weather and Climate Change

Noah Diffenbaugh is a Climate Scientist who presented his recently published research on thunderstorms. Noah examines the relationship between the amount of energy from the sun and the energy trapped in our atmosphere due to greenhouse gases. He studies how these energy patterns impact our climate, including the weather, seasons and extreme events. He also studies how these weather patterns could potentially be a response to global warming.

Noah reports that the rate of carbon dioxide today is higher than it has been in 800,000 years. This is measured via information drawn from Antarctic ice cores. Looking at other geological evidence such as data from rock samples, the carbon dioxide rates are higher than they have been in 20 million years. Noah is using mathematical modelling to run experiments on the physics and chemistry of the climate system, which he maps against observations of climate trends around the world. He is studying, amongst other things, the increase in the risk and severity of increased thunderstorm events. Noah reports that severe thunderstorms created 11 billion dollars’ worth of damage in 2012 for the USA alone. This includes severe rain that can cause flooding as well as severe hail and wind (including tornadoes) that cause catastrophic damage.

Noah notes that there are many uncertainties with climate change, but the biggest issue for the rest of this century is the human dimension. How high will human population climb in the near future? What might be the per capita energy access of populations in different parts of the world? There is a great gap between the minority of countries that are technologically advanced and can easily access reliable energy, and the vast majority of the world, namely developing nations who lack reliable energy. Noah reports that there are 1.7 billion people who lack basic access to light, transportation to retrieve clean water and other basic energy technologies. Noah’s research poses the question: what source of energy should we invest in globally for our future? Should it be carbon-based or some other type of energy? The world is currently overly dependent on carbon energy, which will increase climate change adversely. What can be done about this?

Like Gustavo and Tommy’s empirical evidence, Noah’s research shows that it’s paramount to be proactive about measuring environmental changes and preventing ecological disasters.

Participating in Ecological Change

I commend the presenters for demonstrating the dynamic ways in which scientists are thinking about and measuring ecological and environmental patterns. Although the talks sometimes veered towards technical aspects about data collection and analysis (this was a Science Hangout after all!) the presenters and moderators did a great job on communicating their research as clearly as possible. The three talks had the common theme of anticipating ecological and environmental disasters through empirical tests. The news may focus on large observable events such as a big tornado, but the mainstream media does not pay attention to the smaller patterns leading up to such cataclysmic events. Nor does the media pay heed of other environmental disasters such as the rate of fish outbreaks and what this may mean for broader society. In or out of the spotlight, ecological and environmental science research act as a vanguard against future disasters, some of which can be prevented by listening to, and engaging with, the research being done today. 

As an aside, the moderators from Science on Google+ called out the presenters on their academic jargon from time to time. This is so important in public communication of science! I saw the benefits of holding this Hangout with an interdisciplinary panel, where not everyone speaks the same scientific language. The jokes about “cute” graphics were both funny and necessary. This phrase refers to putting up graphs and images that are complicated to read and hard understand by a lay audience . Even when speaking to a science audience, the moderators reminded us of the importance of keeping scientific language and visual aids as simple and straight forward as possible. Why is this essential? Public outreach is one of the key goals of our community. We aim to provide a space where practising scientists can share their research and insights, given that the media either sensationalise science or otherwise ignore research findings. It is important that we demonstrate the social value of research, which all the presenters did with great finesse.

I’ve been enjoying the Posterside Hangouts which I am not always able to attend. Luckily they’re all available online, so revisit them and don’t forget to comment and pose questions! Keep looking for ways that  you might use your knowledge and experience to advance the scientific discussion in new ways!

Visit the Hangout Event page to read the abstracts to the talks, links to the published research and Gustavo has shared his presentation slides. You can also see the questions posed live by the audience: http://goo.gl/xo9SuO

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