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Impacts of Climate Change on the Ecosystem of the Baltic Sea  

Markku Viitasalo

Climate change influences the Baltic Sea ecosystem via its effects on oceanography and biogeochemistry. Sea surface temperature has been projected to increase by 2 to 4 °C until 2100 due to global warming; the changes will be more significant in the northern areas and less so in the south. The warming up will also diminish the annual sea ice cover by 57% to 71%, and ice season will be one to three months shorter than in the early 21st century, depending on latitude. A significant decrease in sea surface salinity has been projected because of an increase in rainfall and decrease of saline inflows into the Baltic Sea. The increasing surface flow has, in turn, been projected to increase leaching of nutrients from the soil to the watershed and eventually into the Baltic Sea. Also, acidification of the seawater and sea-level rise have been predicted. Increasing seawater temperature speeds up metabolic processes and increases growth rates of many secondary producers. Species associated with sea ice, from salt brine microbes to seals, will suffer. Due to the specific salinity tolerances, species’ geographical ranges may shift by tens or hundreds of kilometres with decreasing salinity. A decrease in pH will slow down calcification of bivalve shells, and higher temperatures also alleviate establishment of non-indigenous species originating from more southern sea areas. Many uncertainties still remain in predicting the couplings between atmosphere, oceanography and ecosystem. Especially projections of many oceanographic parameters, such as wind speeds and directions, the mean salinity level, and density stratification, are still ambiguous. Also, the effects of simultaneous changes in multiple environmental factors on species with variable preferences to temperature, salinity, and nutrient conditions are difficult to project. There is, however, enough evidence to claim that due to increasing runoff of nutrients from land and warming up of water, primary production and sedimentation of organic matter will increase; this will probably enhance anoxia and release of phosphorus from sediments. Such changes may keep the Baltic Sea in an eutrophicated state for a long time, unless strong measures to decrease nutrient runoff from land are taken. Changes in the pelagic and benthic communities are anticipated. Benthic communities will change from marine to relatively more euryhaline communities and will suffer from hypoxic events. The projected temperature increase and salinity decline will contribute to maintain the pelagic ecosystem of the Central Baltic and the Gulf of Finland in a state dominated by cyanobacteria, flagellates, small-sized zooplankton and sprat, instead of diatoms, large marine copepods, herring, and cod. Effects vary from area to area, however. In particular the Bothnian Sea, where hypoxia is less common and rivers carry a lot of dissolved organic carbon, primary production will probably not increase as much as in the other basins. The coupled oceanography-biogeochemistry ecosystem models have greatly advanced our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. Also, studies on climate associated “regime shifts” and cascading effects from top predators to plankton have been fundamental for understanding of the response of the Baltic Sea ecosystem to anthropogenic and climatic stress. In the future, modeling efforts should be focusing on coupling of biogeochemical processes and lower trophic levels to the top predators. Also, fine resolution species distribution models should be developed and combined with 3-D modelling, to describe how the species and communities are responding to climate-induced changes in environmental variables.

Article

Extinction  

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.

Article

Rewilding  

Jozef Keulartz

Rewilding aims at maintaining or even increasing biodiversity through the restoration of ecological and evolutionary processes using extant keystone species or ecological replacements of extinct keystone species that drive these processes. It is hailed by some as the most exciting and promising conservation strategy to slow down or stop what is considered to be the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Others have raised serious concerns about the many scientific and societal uncertainties and risks of rewilding. Moreover, despite its growing popularity, rewilding has made only limited inroads within the conservation mainstream and still has to prove itself in practice. Rewilding differs from traditional restoration in at least two important respects. Whereas restoration has typically focused on the recovery of plants communities, rewilding has drawn attention to animals, particularly large carnivores and large herbivores. Whereas restoration aims to return an ecosystem back to some historical condition, rewilding is forward-looking rather than backward-looking: it examines the past not so much to recreate it, but to learn from the past how to activate and maintain the natural processes that are crucial for biodiversity conservation. Rewilding makes use of a variety of techniques to re-establish these natural processes. Besides the familiar method of reintroducing animals in areas where populations have decreased dramatically or even gone extinct, rewilders also employ some more controversial methods, including back breeding to restore wild traits in domesticated species, taxon substitution to replace extinct species by closely related species with similar roles within an ecosystem, and de-extinction to bring extinct species back to life again using advanced biotechnological technologies such as cloning and gene editing. Rewilding has clearly gained the most traction in North America and Europe, which have several key features in common. Both regions have recently experienced a spontaneous return of wildlife. Rewilders on both sides of the Atlantic are aware, however, that this wildlife resurgence is not that impressive, given that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, which is characterized by the loss of large-bodied animals known as megafauna. The common goal is to bring back such megafaunal species because of their importance for maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Last, both North American and European rewilders perceive the extinction crisis through the lens of the island theory, which shows that the number of species in an area depends on its size and degree of isolation—hence their special attention to the spatial aspects of rewilding. But rewilding projects on both sides of the Atlantic not only have much in common, they also differ in certain aspects. North American rewilders have adopted the late Pleistocene as a reference period and have emphasized the role of predation by large carnivores, while European rewilders have opted for the mid-Holocene and put more focus on naturalistic grazing by large herbivores.