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- Environmental Science x
Regimes of environmental stress are exceedingly complex. Particular stressors exist within continua of intensity of environmental factors. Those factors interact with each other, and their detrimental effects on organisms are manifest only at relatively high or low strengths of exposure—in fact, many of them are beneficial at intermediate levels of intensity. Although a diversity of environmental factors is manifest at any time and place, only one or a few of them tend to be dominant as stressors. It is useful to distinguish between stressors that occur as severe events (disturbances) and those that are chronic in their exposure, and to aggregate the kinds of stressors into categories (while noting some degree of overlap among them).
Climatic stressors are associated with extremes of temperature, solar radiation, wind, moisture, and combinations of these factors. They act as stressors if their condition is either insufficient or excessive, in comparison with the needs and comfort zones of organisms or ecosystem processes. Chemical stressors involve environments in which the availability of certain substances is too low to satisfy biological needs, or high enough to cause toxicity or another physiological detriment to organisms or to higher-level attributes of ecosystems. Wildfire is a disturbance that involves the combustion of much of the biomass of an ecosystem, affecting organisms by heat, physical damage, and toxic substances. Physical stress is a disturbance in which an exposure to kinetic energy is intense enough to damage organisms and ecosystems (such as a volcanic blast, seismic sea wave, ice scouring, or anthropogenic explosion or trampling).
Biological stressors are associated with interactions occurring among organisms. They may be directly caused by such trophic interactions as herbivory, predation, and parasitism. They may also indirectly affect the intensity of physical or chemical stressors, as when competition affects the availability of nutrients, moisture, or space.
Extreme environments are characterized by severe regimes of stressors, which result in relatively impoverished ecosystem development. This may be a consequence of either natural or anthropogenic stressors. If a regime of environmental stress intensifies, the resulting responses include a degradation of the structure and function of affected ecosystems and of ecological integrity more generally. In contrast, a relaxation of environmental stress allows some degree of ecosystem recovery.
Margarete Kalin and William N. Wheeler
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The first treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy, published in 1556, mentioned the side effects of mining, namely dead fish and poisoned water. These same side effects are still with us today, even though our knowledge of extractive techniques and chemical processes has grown tremendously. The dead fish and poisoned water, we now know, are caused by oxidative weathering of minerals, resulting in acidic and metal-laden water. The weathering is exacerbated by microbes that break chemical bonds in pyrite to derive their energy.
To compound the problem, our insatiable appetite for metals and energy, combined with our development of industrial tools, has allowed us to dig mines vastly larger than those envisioned in 1556. This exponentially increases the weathering area available in waste rock and finely ground rock (tailings). Through infiltration of atmospheric precipitation, severely polluted seepages emerge from these mining wastes to surface and ground water.
Since metals are essential products needed in society, cost-effective remediation measures need to be developed. New sustainable approaches to mining need to be established. Currently, engineered covers and dams contain and reduce the infiltration of atmospheric precipitation, slowing the weathering process. However, weathering will continue for millennia. With this much time, covers will break down and dams will leak. Currently accepted practice is to integrate basic neutralizing agents (lime) to wastes or seeps in perpetuity. These and other stop-gap measures do not show any resemblance to sustainable mine development and reclamation.
What is needed is a paradigm shift in thinking about mine waste management. Waste rock and tailings need to be thought of as primitive ecosystems, characterized by harsh physical and chemical conditions. These harsh environments are similar to those encountered in the vicinity of hot springs characterized by highly acidic, or alkaline and saline conditions. These ecosystems are populated by thermophilic, acidophilic, and halophilic microbes (as a group called extremophiles), all of which can modify their surroundings. If managed properly, based on ecological principles, mines and these ecosystems will provide the resources of the future.
Ecological engineering utilizes ecological, geo-microbiological, and physical processes to change the conditions within the wastes to favor microbial remediation. To counter oxidative conditions, reductive environments and their microbes are supported with the ecological measures introduced. Reducing conditions can be generated in sediments and on the water-rock or water-sediment interphases through microbial growth. Gradually, contaminated acidic or alkaline water is cleansed by indigenous biota. These organisms sequester metal ions on or inside their cells and neutralize aquatic waste streams. Eventually, biomass (and metals) are relegated to the sediment, where they are bio-mineralized - forming new biogenic ore bodies. Re-oxidation of bio-mineralized metals is prevented by the introduction of underwater and emerging vegetation, which reduce mixing and consume oxygen above and at the sediment-water interphase. Natural cycles of oxidation and reduction have been operating on the planet for millennia, producing biogenic ore bodies, and are ecologically sound, sustainable approaches.
Dominic Moran and Jorie Knook
Climate change is already having a significant impact on agriculture through greater weather variability and the increasing frequency of extreme events. International policy is rightly focused on adapting and transforming agricultural and food production systems to reduce vulnerability. But agriculture also has a role in terms of climate change mitigation. The agricultural sector accounts for approximately a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, including related emissions from land-use change and deforestation. Farmers and land managers have a significant role to play because emissions reduction measures can be taken to increase soil carbon sequestration, manage fertilizer application, and improve ruminant nutrition and waste. There is also potential to improve overall productivity in some systems, thereby reducing emissions per unit of product. The global significance of such actions should not be underestimated. Existing research shows that some of these measures are low cost relative to the costs of reducing emissions in other sectors such as energy or heavy industry. Some measures are apparently cost-negative or win–win, in that they have the potential to reduce emissions and save production costs. However, the mitigation potential is also hindered by the biophysical complexity of agricultural systems and institutional and behavioral barriers limiting the adoption of these measures in developed and developing countries. This includes formal agreement on how agricultural mitigation should be treated in national obligations, commitments or targets, and the nature of policy incentives that can be deployed in different farming systems and along food chains beyond the farm gate. These challenges also overlap growing concern about global food security, which highlights additional stressors, including demographic change, natural resource scarcity, and economic convergence in consumption preferences, particularly for livestock products. The focus on reducing emissions through modified food consumption and reduced waste is a recent agenda that is proving more controversial than dealing with emissions related to production.
Maria L. Loureiro and Maria Alló
Vessel oil spills are very serious natural hazards that have affected coasts worldwide for many decades. Although oil spills from tankers are highly publicized, very little is known about the role played by the incentives and regulatory instruments in place to prevent them. In order to shed some light on these issues, data were collected worldwide on large oil spills from multiple databases, starting in the 1970s, and merged with other socioeconomic records. A crucial concern is that that large oil spills have been undercompensated over time with respect to the damages caused. A meta-analysis was estimated in order to assess relevant factors affecting the damage claimed in oil spills and the compensations received by the affected parties. Meta-regression results show that the legislation applied (strict unlimited liability versus limited liability) played a crucial role in both the amount claimed and the final compensation received. Also, time-trend variables are shown as determining factors for both the damages and claims that are finally paid. To correct the large gap between damage claimed and compensation scenarios, it is recommended to strengthen compensation funds, while carrying out more comprehensive assessment studies which apply valuation methods comparable with those proposed by green capital initiatives for marine ecosystem services, and which could be used successfully during the litigation process.
Reforestation is the natural or intentional restocking of existing forests and woodlands that have been harvested or depleted, and afforestation is the establishing of a forest in an area where there were no trees. For economic and practical purposes, reforestation and afforestation have similar goals and processes and thus can be treated as identical activities. Although reforestation and afforestation have a long history, large-scale reforestation and afforestation activities started with industrialization, which caused scarcity in timber and forest-based ecosystem services. In a unified economic model of reforestation and afforestation, factors influencing investments in reforestation and in afforestation on private and public lands include timber prices, unit reforestation cost, interest rate, the responsiveness of tree growth to silviculture, and the value of nontimber benefits, such as ecosystem services. Market and public policies may facilitate, enhance, or hinder reforestation and afforestation activities, and nontimber benefits are an increasingly important motive for reforestation and, especially, afforestation efforts around the world.
Boreal countries are rich in forest resources, and for their area, they produce a disproportionally large share of the lumber, pulp, and paper bound for the global market. These countries have long-standing strong traditions in forestry education and institutions, as well as in timber-oriented forest management. However, global change, together with evolving societal values and demands, are challenging traditional forest management approaches. In particular, plantation-type management, where wood is harvested with short cutting cycles relative to the natural time span of stand development, has been criticized. Such management practices create landscapes composed of mosaics of young, even-aged, and structurally homogeneous stands, with scarcity of old trees and deadwood. In contrast, natural forest landscapes are characterized by the presence of old large trees, uneven-aged stand structures, abundant deadwood, and high overall structural diversity. The differences between managed and unmanaged forests result from the fundamental differences in the disturbance regimes of managed versus unmanaged forests. Declines in managed forest biodiversity and structural complexity, combined with rapidly changing climatic conditions, pose a risk to forest health, and hence, to the long-term maintenance of biodiversity and provisioning of important ecosystem goods and services. The application of ecosystem management in boreal forestry calls for a transition from plantation-type forestry toward more diversified management inspired by natural forest structure and dynamics.
Leon C. Braat
The concept of ecosystem services considers the usefulness of nature for human society. The economic importance of nature was described and analyzed in the 18th century, but the term ecosystem services was introduced only in 1981. Since then it has spurred an increasing number of academic publications, international research projects, and policy studies. Now a subject of intense debate in the global scientific community, from the natural to social science domains, it is also used, developed, and customized in policy arenas and considered, if in a still somewhat skeptical and apprehensive way, in the “practice” domain—by nature management agencies, farmers, foresters, and corporate business. This process of bridging evident gaps between ecology and economics, and between nature conservation and economic development, has also been felt in the political arena, including in the United Nations and the European Union (which have placed it at the center of their nature conservation and sustainable use strategies).
The concept involves the utilitarian framing of those functions of nature that are used by humans and considered beneficial to society as economic and social services. In this light, for example, the disappearance of biodiversity directly affects ecosystem functions that underpin critical services for human well-being. More generally, the concept can be defined in this manner: Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems, in interaction with contributions from human society, to human well-being.
The concept underpins four major discussions: (1) Academic: the ecological versus the economic dimensions of the goods and services that flow from ecosystems to the human economy; the challenge of integrating concepts and models across this paradigmatic divide; (2) Social: the risks versus benefits of bringing the utilitarian argument into political debates about nature conservation (Are ecosystem services good or bad for biodiversity and vice versa?); (3) Policy and planning: how to value the benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services (Will this improve decision-making on topics ranging from poverty alleviation via subsidies to farmers to planning of grey with green infrastructure to combining economic growth with nature conservation?); and (4) Practice: Can revenue come from smart management and sustainable use of ecosystems? Are there markets to be discovered and can businesses be created? How do taxes figure in an ecosystem-based economy? The outcomes of these discussions will both help to shape policy and planning of economies at global, national, and regional scales and contribute to the long-term survival and well-being of humanity.
Elisabet Lindgren and Thomas Elmqvist
Ecosystem services refer to benefits for human societies and well-being obtained from ecosystems. Research on health effects of ecosystem services have until recently mostly focused on beneficial effects on physical and mental health from spending time in nature or having access to urban green space. However, nearly all of the different ecosystem services may have impacts on health, either directly or indirectly. Ecosystem services can be divided into provisioning services that provide food and water; regulating services that provide, for example, clean air, moderate extreme events, and regulate the local climate; supporting services that help maintain biodiversity and infectious disease control; and cultural services.
With a rapidly growing global population, the demand for food and water will increase. Knowledge about ecosystems will provide opportunities for sustainable agriculture production in both terrestrial and marine environments. Diarrheal diseases and associated childhood deaths are strongly linked to poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. Even though improvements are being made, nearly 750 million people still lack access to reliable water sources. Ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and lakes capture, filter, and store water used for drinking, irrigation, and other human purposes. Wetlands also store and treat solid waste and wastewater, and such ecosystem services could become of increasing use for sustainable development.
Ecosystems contribute to local climate regulation and are of importance for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove and coral reefs, act as natural barriers against storm surges and flooding. Flooding is associated with increased risk of deaths, epidemic outbreaks, and negative health impacts from destroyed infrastructure. Vegetation reduces the risk of flooding, also in cities, by increasing permeability and reducing surface runoff following precipitation events.
The urban heat island effect will increase city-center temperatures during heatwaves. The elderly, people with chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and outdoor workers in cities where temperatures soar during heatwaves are in particular vulnerable to heat. Vegetation and especially trees help in different ways to reduce temperatures by shading and evapotranspiration. Air pollution increases the mortality and morbidity risks during heatwaves. Vegetation has been shown also to contribute to improved air quality by, depending on plant species, filtering out gases and airborne particulates. Greenery also has a noise-reducing effect, thereby decreasing noise-related illnesses and annoyances. Biological control uses the knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity to help control human and animal diseases.
Natural surroundings and urban parks and gardens have direct beneficial effects on people’s physical and mental health and well-being. Increased physical activities have well-known health benefits. Spending time in natural environments has also been linked to aesthetic benefits, life enrichments, social cohesion, and spiritual experience. Even living close to or with a view of nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.
Giles Jackson and Megan Epler Wood
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Ecotourism is an evolving field that originated in the 1980s, when leading conservationists explored and wrote seminal papers on how tourism could contribute to the conservation of natural areas. Hector Ceballos Lascurain coined the first definition, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy all undertook research and documentation of the benefits and potential risks of ecotourism in the 1990s. The International Ecotourism Society, founded in 1990, brought together conservation organizations and businesses to create the first definition that was globally accepted in short form: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.
Small group tour operators flourished during the 1990s, bringing travelers to a growing number of natural areas worldwide, together with top guiding, high-caliber interpretation, and strong ethical contributions to local wellbeing. Many important micro, small, and medium sized enterprises were founded in high biodiversity regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and throughout the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean, offering life-changing experiences while helping build conservation economies and inspiring positive action.
In 2015, nature-based tourism was estimated to have an economic value worldwide of hundreds of billions of dollars annually in protected areas alone, driven by the growing need of a rapidly urbanizing world to experience and reconnect with wild nature. However, this growth has not resulted in growing budgets to safeguard and manage natural areas, which are increasingly under threat. Scientific concerns that poor business practices under the guise of ecotourism might irreversibly damage fragile natural areas have led the conservation community to de-emphasize ecotourism as a conservation tool in favor of business certification. But these efforts have reached only a small percentage of the corporate sector of the eight trillion dollar global tourism industry.
Although the net economic, social, and environmental contributions of ecotourism have not been fully accounted for, the research to date has confirmed the conservation value of ecotourism—among the first examples of social enterprise. One well-documented case is Wilderness Safaris, an $89 million company operating in 58 destinations in Southern Africa in 2015, which reinvests at least 5% of its gross profit (before taxation and depreciation) to help protect the natural assets and support local communities on which the business depends. This example suggests that ecotourism can yield benefits for the conservation of biodiversity and can benefit local communities on a large scale. To increase ecotourism’s role in sustainable development, more businesses will need to scale up, and government management of tourism will require improved impact measurements, updated regulatory strategies, and effective policy mechanisms to garner a greater portion of tourism revenue.
Soil erosion by water is a natural process that cannot be avoided. Soil erosion depends on many factors, and a distinction should be made between humanly unchangeable (e.g., rainfall) and modifiable (e.g., length of the field) soil erosion factors. Soil erosion has both on-site and off-site effects. Soil conservation tries to combine modifiable factors so as to maintain erosion in an area of interest to an acceptable level. Strategies to control soil erosion have to be adapted to the desired land use. Knowledge of soil loss tolerance, T, i.e., the maximum admissible erosion from a given field, allows technicians or farmers to establish whether soil conservation practices need to be applied to a certain area or not. Accurate evaluation of the tolerable soil erosion level for an area of interest is crucial for choosing effective practices to mitigate this phenomenon. Excessively stringent standards for T would imply over expenditure of natural, financial, and labor resources. Excessively high T values may lead to excessive soil erosion and hence decline of soil fertility and productivity and to soil degradation. In this last case, less money is probably spent for soil conservation, but ineffectively. Basic principles to control erosion for different land uses include maintaining vegetative and ground cover, incorporating biomass into the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing infiltration, and avoiding long field lengths. Preference is generally given to agronomic measures as compared with mechanical measures since the former ones reduce raindrop impact, increase infiltration, and reduce runoff volumes and water velocities. Agronomic measures for soil erosion control include choice of crops and crop rotation, applied tillage practices, and use of fertilizers and amendments. Mechanical measures include contour, ridging, and terracing. These measures cannot prevent detachment of soil particles, but they counter sediment transport downhill and can be unavoidable in certain circumstances, at least to supplement agronomic measures. Simple methods can be applied to approximately predict the effect of a given soil conservation measure on soil loss for an area of interest. In particular, the simplest way to quantitatively predict mitigation of soil erosion due to a particular conservation method makes use of the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE). Despite its empirical nature, this model still appears to represent the best compromise between reliability of the predictions and simplicity in terms of input data, which are generally very difficult to obtain for other soil erosion prediction models. Soil erosion must be controlled soon after burning.