How do ecosystems respond to human action? Is it possible to predict their behavior? Ecologists Gene E. Likens and Marten Scheffer, recent BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award winners in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category, have produced work that tackles one of the main challenges this scientific discipline faces.
The jury’s comments highlighted that these researchers, although working separately, have contributed together to understanding and providing solutions for “the gradual, abrupt and potentially irreversible changes which are taking place in ecosystems.” These changes are brought on by pollutant emissions and other situations threatening the environment.
Gene E. Likens, from the USA, has discovered the catastrophic impact that acid rain has in his country whilst Marten Scheffer, from Holland, has shown how human action can trigger a sudden collapse in ecosystems, having irreversible effects. Thanks to both of them, today their research is a guide in decision-making when dealing with the dangers of pollution and in managing ecosystems in a safe way, or repairing them if they have suffered serious damage.
Effects of acid rain
Likens has carried out long-term experimental studies spanning an entire ecosystem and has taken measurements over decades, rather than the two or three years standard in much research. His finding in relation to acid rain in the United States came about coincidentally in 1963 while he was researching the lakes in a forest in New Hampshire with his team. They found acidity levels a hundred times higher than expected in the rainwater samples and consequently linked it, albeit almost ten years later, to pollutant emissions resulting in the most part from burning fossil fuels. His research continues today, proving that acid rain has very negative and long-term effects on the environment.
Scheffer’s work helps to predict the risk that an ecosystem faces of suffering an abrupt change (referred to as a tipping point) and seeks a way to avoid it. His research suggests that when a specific place has deteriorated, it reaches a point where it needs “shock therapy.” His work has helped repair lakes, tropical forests and coral reefs. Scheffer has shown that it is possible to benefit from certain natural phenomena, such as El Niño, to recover deforested rainforests as the current brings humidity and its arrival is the best moment to pull back livestock and achieve successful reforestation.