Human activities in the Anthropocene are influencing the twin processes of biodiversity generation and loss in complex ways that threaten the maintenance of biodiversity levels that underpin human well-being. Yet many scientists and practitioners still present a simplistic view of biodiversity as a static stock rather than one determined by a dynamic interplay of feedback processes that are affected by anthropogenic drivers. Biodiversity describes the variety of life on Earth, from the genes within an organism to the ecosystem level. However, this article focuses on variation among living organisms, both within and between species. Within species, biodiversity is reflected in genetic, and consequent phenotypic, variations among individuals. Genetic diversity is generated by germ line mutations, genetic recombination during sexual reproduction, and immigration of new genotypes into populations. Across species, biodiversity is reflected in the number of different species present and also, by some metrics, in the evenness of their relative abundance. At this level, biodiversity is generated by processes of speciation and immigration of new species into an area. Anthropogenic drivers affect all these biodiversity generation processes, while the levels of genetic diversity can feed back and affect the level of species diversity, and vice versa. Therefore, biodiversity maintenance is a complex balance of processes and the biodiversity levels at any point in time may not be at equilibrium.
A major concern for humans is that our activities are driving rapid losses of biodiversity, which outweigh by orders of magnitude the processes of biodiversity generation. A wide range of species and genetic diversity could be necessary for the provision of ecosystem functions and services (e.g., in maintaining the nutrient cycling, plant productivity, pollination, and pest control that underpin crop production). The importance of biodiversity becomes particularly marked over longer time periods, and especially under varying environmental conditions.
In terms of biodiversity losses, there are natural processes that cause roughly continuous, low-level losses, but there is also strong evidence from fossil records for transient events in which exceptionally large loss of biodiversity has occurred. These major extinction episodes are thought to have been caused by various large-scale environmental perturbations, such as volcanic eruptions, sea-level falls, climatic changes, and asteroid impacts. From all these events, biodiversity has shown recovery over subsequent calmer periods, although the composition of higher-level evolutionary taxa can be significantly altered.
In the modern era, biodiversity appears to be undergoing another mass extinction event, driven by large-scale human impacts. The primary mechanisms of biodiversity loss caused by humans vary over time and by geographic region, but they include overexploitation, habitat loss, climate change, pollution (e.g., nitrogen deposition), and the introduction of non-native species. It is worth noting that human activities may also lead to increases in biodiversity in some areas through species introductions and climatic changes, although these overall increases in species richness may come at the cost of loss of native species, and with uncertain effects on ecosystem service delivery. Genetic diversity is also affected by human activities, with many examples of erosion of diversity through crop and livestock breeding or through the decline in abundance of wild species populations. Significant future challenges are to develop better ways to monitor the drivers of biodiversity loss and biodiversity levels themselves, making use of new technologies, and improving coverage across geographic regions and taxonomic scope. Rather than treating biodiversity as a simple stock at equilibrium, developing a deeper understanding of the complex interactions—both between environmental drivers and between genetic and species diversity—is essential to manage and maintain the benefits that biodiversity delivers to humans, as well as to safeguard the intrinsic value of the Earth’s biodiversity for future generations.
Brent M. Haddad
Watersheds are physical regions from which all arriving water flows to a single exit point. The shared hydrology means that other biophysical systems are linked, typically with upper-gradient regions influencing lower-gradient ones. This situation frames the challenge of managing economic and other uses of watersheds both in terms of individual activities and their influence on other connected processes and activities. Economics provides concepts and methods that help managers with decision making in the complex physical, biological, and institutional environment of a watershed. Among the important concepts and methods that help characterize watershed processes are externalities, impacts of economic activity that fall upon individuals not party to the activity, and third parties, individuals impacted without consent. Public goods and common pool resources describe categories of things or processes that by their nature are not amenable to regular market transactions. Their regulation requires special consideration and alternative approaches to markets. Benefit-cost analysis and valuation are related methods that provide a means to compare alternative uses of the same system. Each is based on the normative argument that the best use provides the greatest net benefits to society. And intergenerational equity is a value orientation that argues for preservation of watershed processes for the benefit of future generations. The need for effective watershed management methods pushed 20th-century economists to adapt their discipline to the complexity of watersheds, from which emerged subdisciplines of natural resource economics, environmental economics, and ecological economics. The field is still evolving with a growing interest in data gathering through land-based low-cost data collection systems and remote sensing, and in emerging data analysis techniques to improve management decisions.
Matti Nummelin and Niko Urho
Conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity have been in the center of policy creation for half a century. The main international biodiversity conventions and processes include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its protocols, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention), the World Heritage Convention (WHC), the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), and the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). The governance of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) is also discussed, as political focus has shifted to the protection of the oceans and is expected to culminate in the adoption of a new international convention under the United Nations Convention on Law of Seas (UNCLOS). Other conventions and processes with links to biodiversity include the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).
Despite the multitude of instruments, governments are faced with the fact that biodiversity loss is spiraling and international targets are not being met. The Earth’s sixth mass extinction event has led to various initiatives to fortify the relevance of biodiversity in the UN system and beyond to accelerate action on the ground. In face of an ever more complex international policy landscape on biodiversity, country delegates are seeking to enhance efficiency and reduce fragmentation by enhancing synergies among multilateral environmental agreements and strengthening their science−policy interface. Furthermore, biodiversity has been reflected throughout the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and is gradually gaining more ground in the human rights context. The Global Pact for the Environment, a new international initiative that is aiming to reinforce soft law commitments and increase coherence among environmental treaties, holds the potential to influence and strengthen the way biodiversity conventions function, but extensive discussions are still needed before concrete action is agreed upon.
Margarete Kalin, William N. Wheeler, Michael P. Sudbury, and Bryn Harris
The first treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy, published by Georgius Agricola in 1556, was also the first to highlight the destructive environmental side effects of mining and metals extraction, namely dead fish and poisoned water. These effects, unfortunately, are still with us. Since 1556, mining methods, knowledge of metal extraction, and chemical and microbial processes leading to the environmental deterioration have grown tremendously. Man’s insatiable appetite for metals and energy has resulted in mines vastly larger than those envisioned in 1556, compounding the deterioration. The annual amount of mined ore and waste rock is estimated to be 20 billion tons, covering 1,000 km2. The industry also annually consumes 80 km3 of freshwater, which becomes contaminated.
Since metals are essential in modern society, cost-effective, sustainable remediation measures need to be developed. Engineered covers and dams enclose wastes and slow the weathering process, but, with time, become permeable. Neutralization of acid mine drainage produces metal-laden sludges that, in time, release the metals again. These measures are stopgaps at best, and are not sustainable. Focus should be on inhibiting or reducing the weathering rate, recycling, and curtailing water usage. The extraction of only the principal economic mineral or metal generally drives the economics, with scant attention being paid to other potential commodities contained in the deposit. Technology exists for recovering more valuable products and enhancing the project economics, resulting in a reduction of wastes and water consumption of up to 80% compared to “conventional processing.”
Implementation of such improvements requires a drastic change, a paradigm shift, in the way that the industry approaches metals extraction. Combining new extraction approaches, more efficient water usage, and ecological engineering methods to deal with wastes will increase the sustainability of the industry and reduce the pressure on water and land resources.
From an ecological perspective, waste rock and tailings need to be thought of as primitive ecosystems. These habitats are populated by heat-, acid- and saline-loving microbes (extremophiles). Ecological engineering utilizes geomicrobiological, physical, and chemical processes to change the mineral surface to encourage biofilm growth (the microbial growth form) within wastes by enhancing the growth of oxygen-consuming microbes. This reduces oxygen available for oxidation, leading to improved drainage quality. At the water–sediment interface, microbes assist in the neutralization of acid water (Acid Reduction Using Microbiology). To remove metals from the waste water column, indigenous biota are promoted (Biological Polishing) with inorganic particulate matter as flocculation agents. This ecological approach generates organic matter, which upon death settles with the adsorbed metals to the sediment. Once the metals reach the deeper, reducing zones of the sediments, microbial biomineralization processes convert the metals to relatively stable secondary minerals, forming biogenic ores for future generations.
The mining industry has developed and thrived in an age when resources, space, and water appeared limitless. With the widely accepted rise of the Anthropocene global land and water shortages, the mining industry must become more sustainable. Not only is a paradigm shift in thinking needed, but also the will to implement such a shift is required for the future of the industry.
Growing a cover crop between main crops imitates natural ecosystems where the soil is continuously covered with vegetation. This is an important management practice in preserving soil nutrient resources and reducing nitrogen (N) losses to waters. Cover crops also provide other functions that are important for the resilience and long-term stability of cropping systems, such as reduced erosion, increased soil fertility, carbon sequestration, increased soil phosphorus (P) availability, and suppression of weeds and pathogens.
Much is known about how to use cover crops to reduce N leaching, for climates where there is a water surplus outside the growing season. Non-legume cover crops reduce N leaching by 20%–80% and legumes reduce it by, on average, 23%. There are both synergies and possible conflicts between different environmental and production aspects that should be considered when developing efficient and multifunctional cover crop systems, but contradictions about different functions provided by cover crops can sometimes be overcome with site-specific adaptation of measures. One example is cover crop effects on P losses. Cover crops reduce losses of total P, but extract soil P to available forms and may increase losses of dissolved P. How to use this effect to increase soil P availability on subtropical soils needs further studies. Knowledge and examples of how to maximize the positive effects of cover crops on cropping systems are improving, thereby increasing the sustainability of agriculture. One example is combined weed suppression in order to reduce dependence on herbicides or intensive mechanical treatment.
Mark V. Barrow
The prospect of extinction, the complete loss of a species or other group of organisms, has long provoked strong responses. Until the turn of the 18th century, deeply held and widely shared beliefs about the order of nature led to a firm rejection of the possibility that species could entirely vanish. During the 19th century, however, resistance to the idea of extinction gave way to widespread acceptance following the discovery of the fossil remains of numerous previously unknown forms and direct experience with contemporary human-driven decline and the destruction of several species. In an effort to stem continued loss, at the turn of the 19th century, naturalists, conservationists, and sportsmen developed arguments for preventing extinction, created wildlife conservation organizations, lobbied for early protective laws and treaties, pushed for the first government-sponsored parks and refuges, and experimented with captive breeding. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists began systematically gathering more data about the problem through global inventories of endangered species and the first life-history and ecological studies of those species.
The second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have been characterized both by accelerating threats to the world’s biota and greater attention to the problem of extinction. Powerful new laws, like the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, have been enacted and numerous international agreements negotiated in an attempt to address the issue. Despite considerable effort, scientists remain fearful that the current rate of species loss is similar to that experienced during the five great mass extinction events identified in the fossil record, leading to declarations that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Responding to this crisis, often referred to as the sixth extinction, scientists have launched a new interdisciplinary, mission-oriented discipline, conservation biology, that seeks not just to understand but also to reverse biota loss. Scientists and conservationists have also developed controversial new approaches to the growing problem of extinction: rewilding, which involves establishing expansive core reserves that are connected with migratory corridors and that include populations of apex predators, and de-extinction, which uses genetic engineering techniques in a bid to resurrect lost species. Even with the development of new knowledge and new tools that seek to reverse large-scale species decline, a new and particularly imposing danger, climate change, looms on the horizon, threatening to undermine those efforts.
Elisabeth N. Bui
Driving forces for natural soil salinity and alkalinity are climate, rock weathering, ion exchange, and mineral equilibria reactions that ultimately control the chemical composition of soil and water. The major weathering reactions that produce soluble ions are tabled. Where evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation, downward water movement is insufficient to leach solutes out of the soil profile and salts can precipitate. Microbes involved in organic matter mineralization and thus the carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur biogeochemical cycles are also implicated. Seasonal contrast and evaporative concentration during dry periods accelerate short-term oxidation-reduction reactions and local and regional accumulation of carbonate and sulfur minerals. The presence of salts and alkaline conditions, together with the occurrence of drought and seasonal waterlogging, creates some of the most extreme soil environments where only specially adapted organisms are able to survive. Sodic soils are alkaline, rich in sodium carbonates, with an exchange complex dominated by sodium ions. Such sodic soils, when low in other salts, exhibit dispersive behavior, and they are difficult to manage for cropping. Maintaining the productivity of sodic soils requires control of the flocculation-dispersion behavior of the soil. Poor land management can also lead to anthropogenically induced secondary salinity. New developments in physical chemistry are providing insights into ion exchange and how it controls flocculation-dispersion in soil. New water and solute transport models are enabling better options of remediation of saline and/or sodic soils.
Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia destroys environmental services that are important for the whole world, and especially for Brazil itself. These services include maintaining biodiversity, avoiding global warming, and recycling water that provides rainfall to Amazonia, to other parts of Brazil, such as São Paulo, and to neighboring countries, such as Argentina. The forest also maintains the human populations and cultures that depend on it. Deforestation rates have gone up and down over the years with major economic cycles. A peak of 27,772 km2/year was reached in 2004, followed by a major decline to 4571 km2/year in 2012, after which the rate trended upward, reaching 7989 km2/year in 2016 (equivalent to about 1.5 hectares per minute). Most (70%) of the decline occurred by 2007, and the slowing in this period is almost entirely explained by declining prices of export commodities such as soy and beef. Government repression measures explain the continued decline from 2008 to 2012, but an important part of the effect of the repression program hinges on a fragile base: a 2008 decision that makes the absence of pending fines a prerequisite for obtaining credit for agriculture and ranching. This could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, and this is a priority for the powerful “ruralist” voting bloc in the National Congress. Massive plans for highways, dams, and other infrastructure in Amazonia, if carried out, will add to forces in the direction of increased deforestation.
Deforestation occurs for a wide variety of reasons that vary in different historical periods, in different locations, and in different phases of the process at any given location. Economic cycles, such as recessions and the ups and downs of commodity markets, are one influence. The traditional economic logic, where people deforest to make a profit by producing products from agriculture and ranching, is important but only a part of the story. Ulterior motives also drive deforestation. Land speculation is critical in many circumstances, where the increase in land values (bid up, for example, as a safe haven to protect money from hyperinflation) can yield much higher returns than anything produced by the land. Even without the hyperinflation that came under control in 1994, highway projects can yield speculative fortunes to those who are lucky or shrewd enough to have holdings along the highway route. The practical way to secure land holdings is to deforest for cattle pasture. This is also critical to obtaining and defending legal title to the land. In the past, it has also been the key to large ranches gaining generous fiscal incentives from the government. Money laundering also makes deforestation attractive, allowing funds from drug trafficking, tax evasion, and corruption to be converted to “legal” money. Deforestation receives impulses from logging, mining, and, especially, road construction. Soybeans and cattle ranching are the main replacements for forest, and recently expanded export markets are giving strength to these drivers. Population growth and household dynamics are important for areas dominated by small farmers. Extreme degradation, where tree mortality from logging and successive droughts and forest fires replace forest with open nonforest vegetation, is increasing as a kind of deforestation, and is likely to increase much more in the future.
Controlling deforestation requires addressing its multiple causes. Repression through fines and other command-and-control measures is essential to avoid a presumption of impunity, but these controls must be part of a broader program that addresses underlying causes. The many forms of government subsidies for deforestation must be removed or redirected, and the various ulterior motives must be combated. Industry agreements restricting commodity purchases from properties with illegal deforestation (or from areas cleared after a specified cutoff) have a place in efforts to contain forest loss, despite some problems. A “soy moratorium” has been in effect since 2006, and a “cattle agreement” since 2009. Creation and defense of protected areas is an important part of deforestation control, including both indigenous lands and a variety of kinds of “conservation units.” Containing infrastructure projects is essential if deforestation is to be held in check: once roads are built, much of what happens is outside the government’s control. The notion that the 2005–2012 deforestation slowdown means that the process is under control and that infrastructure projects can be built at will is extremely dangerous. One must also abandon myths that divert efforts to contain deforestation; these include “sustainable logging” and the use of “green” funds for expensive programs to reforest degraded lands rather than retain areas of remaining natural forests. Finally, one must provide alternatives to support the rural population of small farmers. Large investors, on the other hand, can fend for themselves. Tapping the value of the environmental services of the forest has been proposed as an alternative basis for sustaining both the rural population and the forest. Despite some progress, a variety of challenges remain. One thing is clear: most of Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation is not “development.” Trading the forest for a vast expanse of extensive cattle pasture does little to secure the well-being of the region’s rural population, is not sustainable, and sacrifices Amazonia’s most valuable resources.
The Mississippi River, the longest in North America, is really two rivers geophysically. The volume is less, the slope steeper, the velocity greater, and the channel straighter in its upper portion than in its lower portion. Below the mouth of the Ohio River, the Mississippi meanders through a continental depression that it has slowly filled with sediment over many millennia. Some limnologists and hydrologists consider the transitional middle portion of the Mississippi, where the waters of its two greatest tributaries, the Missouri and Ohio rivers, join it, to comprise a third river, in terms of its behavioral patterns and stream and floodplain ecologies.
The Mississippi River humans have known, with its two or three distinct sections, is a relatively recent formation. The lower Mississippi only settled into its current formation following the last ice age and the dissipation of water released by receding glaciers. Much of the current river delta is newer still, having taken shape over the last three to five hundred years.
Within the lower section of the Mississippi are two subsections, the meander zone and the delta. Below Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the river passes through Crowley’s Ridge and enters the wide and flat alluvial plain. Here the river meanders in great loops, often doubling back on itself, forming cut offs that, if abandoned by the river, forming lakes. Until modern times, most of the plain, approximately 35,000 square miles, comprised a vast and rich—rich in terms of biomass production—ecological wetland sustained by annual Mississippi River floods that brought not just water, but fertile sediment—topsoil—gathered from across much of the continent. People thrived in the Mississippi River meander zone. Some of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures of North America emerged here. Between Natchez, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Old River Control, the Mississippi begins to fork into distributary channels, the largest of which is the Atchafalaya River. The Mississippi River delta begins here, formed of river sediment accrued upon the continental shelf. In the delta the land is wetter, the ground water table is shallower. Closer to the sea, the water becomes brackish and patterns of river sediment distribution are shaped by ocean tides and waves. The delta is frequently buffeted by hurricanes.
Over the last century and a half people have transformed the lower Mississippi River, principally through the construction of levees and drainage canals that have effectively disconnected the river from the floodplain. The intention has been to dry the land adjacent to the river, to make it useful for agriculture and urban development. However, an unintended effect of flood control and wetland drainage has been to interfere with the flood-pulse process that sustained the lower valley ecology, and with the process of sediment distribution that built the delta and much of the Louisiana coastline. The seriousness of the delta’s deterioration has become especially apparent since Hurricane Katrina, and has moved conservation groups to action. They are pushing politicians and engineers to reconsider their approach to Mississippi River management.
Enuvie G. Akpokodje
Deltas have played a significant role in the growth of human civilization because of their unique economic and ecological importance. However, deltas are becoming increasingly vulnerable because of the impact of intensive human developmental activities, high population and urban growth, subsidence, climate change, and the associated rise in sea level. The trapping of sediments by dams is another major threat to the long-term stability and sustainability of deltas. The emergence and global acceptance of the concept of sustainable development in the 1980s led to the advent of several multidisciplinary and applied fields of research, including environmental science, environmental geology, and sustainability science. Environmental geology focuses on the application of geologic knowledge and principles to broad-ranging environmental and socioeconomic issues, including the specific problems confronting deltas. The key environmental geologic challenges in deltas (especially urban delta areas) are: increasing exposure and vulnerability to geologic hazards (flooding, cyclones, etc.), rise in sea level, decreasing sediment load supply, contamination of soil and water resources, provision of adequate drinking water, and safe waste disposal. The application of geologic knowledge and principles to these challenges requires consideration of the critical geologic controls, such as the geological history, stratigraphy, depositional environment, and the properties of the alluvial sediments. Until recently, most of the traditional engineered solutions in the management of deltas were designed to keep out water (fighting nature), typically without adequate geological/hydrological input, rather than building with nature. Recent innovative approaches to delta management involve a paradigm shift from the traditional approach to a more integrated, holistic, adaptive, and ecologically based philosophy that incorporates some critical geological and hydrological perspectives, for instance, widening and deepening rivers and flood plains as well as constructing secondary channels (i.e., making more room for water). A key challenge, however, is the establishment of a close and functional communication between environmental geologists and all other stakeholders involved in delta management. In addition, there is growing global consensus regarding the need for international cooperation that cuts across disciplines, sectors, and regions in addressing the challenges facing deltas. Integrating good policy and governance is also essential.