Scientists are beginning to define ecological changes happening at continental scales that result from the globalization of transportation and trade.
Some have long seen globalization as a threat to the world's ecological systems, since it invites the wholesale transformation of formerly pristine, if poor, regions into factories, farms and other land uses that produce goods for richer nations around the world.
The concern of scientists writing in June 2008 Special Issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is different.
Here, the concern is "greenlash," a term that refers to dramatic and widespread changes that can result from seemingly small or localized alterations to the environment. Globalization, which invites the invasion of alien species and pathogens into new environments, could be a catalyst for greenlash. Not only invasive species, but also gases and minerals, can be introduced into new environments, altering existing cycles of nutrients and materials.
The example of greenlash scientists cite is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when a local drought led farmers to abandon their land, and the resulting lack of crop cover led to an expansion of the drought, as topsoil blew away. As a result, mass migrations of people, and public health problems from inhaled dust, resulted far from the origins of the drought.
We know that the world has always been connected via a common atmosphere and the movement of water, says Debra Peters, an author in the issue and a scientist with the United States Department of Agricultures Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). The world is also becoming highly interconnected through the movement of people and the transport of goods locally to globally. Among ecologists, there is an increasing realization that these connections can have profound influences on the long-term dynamics of ecological systems.
Scientists say they aren't equipped to detect, measure or prevent this from happening. They argue that there's a need to invest in "networks of large-scale experiments to predict long-term ecological change."
Scientists have long argued that long-term monitoring provides valuable information, but is often underfunded because studies can take years to yield results. The National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research network and its National Ecological Observatory Network are seen as important pillars in this field that need further investments.
To draw conclusions about the consequences of increasing connectivity, we need to provide information about processes that span a vast scale of space and time, says David Schimel, an author in the issue and the chief executive officer of the NEON project. Our observations will characterize ecological processes from the genomic to the continental and document changes from seconds to decades.
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