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Scientists propose ecology for a crowded planet


As the planet's population swells and increases demands on natural resources, ecological scientists should work with other experts to make sure our basic survival needs are met.

That's the conclusion of a group of researchers who have been pondering ways for ecological science to tackle the big scientific challenges of the future. The group, which includes U-M ecologist Mercedes Pascual, summarized its position in the May 28 issue of Science.

While it's important to continue studying rare and rapidly shrinking undisturbed ecosystems, ecological research needs to reflect the reality that Earth will be overpopulated and increasingly affected by human activities for the foreseeable future, the scientists assert. They propose a new research agenda centered on finding ways to maintain the benefits that natural ecosystems provide humans, such as clean drinking water, stabilized soil and the buffering of infectious disease outbreaks. Specific research projects might look, for instance, at how to protect habitats to make sure that the most important benefits to people are not compromised.

Restoration has been a focus of ecological research for some time, but restoring an altered ecosystem to its original state may not always be possible, the researchers note. In some cases, the best alternative may be "designed ecological solutions" that combine ecological approaches with technological innovations.

In the Netherlands, for example, groundwater has been extracted from under coastal dunes for many years to provide drinking water for cities, but over-extraction has caused environmental damage. The designed ecological solution was to build artificial lakes that were filled with river water piped into the dune subsoil.

Developing such approaches will require ecologists to work with other experts, such as wastewater engineers, with whom they've had little contact in the past. Social scientists also may get involved, studying the tension between human needs and ecosystem needs.

Particularly pressing are solutions for problems related to three issues: urbanization, the degradation of fresh water and the movement of materials between ecosystems, according to the authors, who are members of the Ecological Visions committee of the Ecological Society of America.

The Science article summarizes the committee's full report.

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