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Between the data and the deep blue sea

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by Sarah Wild

With around 70% of the planet’s surface covered by ocean, the EU Mission to restore our ocean and waters focuses on positive actions to restore marine ecosystems, eliminate pollution, and make our blue economy carbon neutral and circular. To mark World Ocean Day on 8 June, Horizon Magazine takes a dive into two collaborative projects working to deliver on the first of these ambitious goals.

Beneath the ocean’s silky waters, ecosystems as we know them are disappearing. From overfishing and deep-sea mining to climate change, human activity is degrading the vital ecosystems that allow our oceans to function. On World Ocean Day, the United Nations is calling for collaborative action to protect the world’s oceans and ultimately our planet.

Around the world, countries, communities and researchers are already working to undo the damage human activity has wreaked upon our seas and oceans. But, first, they need to come to grips with the extent of the problem.

This is what Mission Atlantic sets out to do. The project is mapping, modelling and assessing Atlantic Ocean ecosystems and identifying the major threats to them, together with 34 partners in multiple countries and around 150 principal investigators.

Humongous diversity

Patrizio Mariani is the project coordinator at Mission Atlantic and an ocean technology specialist at the Technical University of Denmark. ‘The diversity we have in the Atlantic is just humongous,’ he said, ‘And the unknowns that we have are also very, very big.’

The Atlantic Ocean covers about a fifth of the Earth’s surface, brushing against four continents with millions of people who directly rely on it for their livelihood.

‘There has been a lot of talk about holistic or systematic approaches to marine ecosystems, and having all the pieces that impact an ecosystem considered together,’ said Mariani. But there are few examples of such approaches being implemented. Mission Atlantic aims to ‘Put things together and understand the feedbacks and the complexity of the system.’

Scientists, managers and stakeholders come from Brazil, South Africa, North America and the European Union. The project brings them together to map out the pressures of human activity and their consequences on the Atlantic ecosystem.

The research applies a framework called Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEA) to seven different sites in the Atlantic. First adopted by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), IEAs are an approach to ecosystem based management of marine environments. Scientists are conducting IEAs in the Atlantic to identify different human behaviours and link these activities to their consequences for ecosystems. IEAs are designed to answer certain questions, according to Mariani, such as “What are the pressures we generate in a region and what are the ecosystem components that are affected?”

For some of the sites, such as the Norwegian Sea in the north or the Benguela Current just off the coast of South Africa, it is relatively easy to connect human activities to a particular nation or group of countries. But two of the project’s case studies are in the open ocean, which creates interesting opportunities for advancing science but also challenges, said Mariani.
 
‘(In the open ocean), we’re dealing mostly with international waters. There is not always a good mapping of human activities and there are not always clear regulations. But they are very important areas because typically they are hotspots of biodiversity and they are really exposed to the ocean conditions,’ he said.

Oceans of data

Scientists need to understand how the ocean conditions change with time. To create a comprehensive picture, the project uses numerical models to generate this data, running from 1980 through to 2030. But there are many gaps, so the team is collecting ocean data to validate their models.
 
‘We are now introducing data, analysing the time series, and mapping many of the ecosystem components at the scale of the entire Atlantic Ocean,’ he said. Using the latest technology, scientists are surveying biodiversity hotspots, sending autonomous wave gliders (a type of ocean robot) out into the deep reaches of the Atlantic to gather data, and even listening to the whispers of the ocean with acoustic surveys at different frequencies. 
 
While the scientists are eager to investigate the mysteries of the Atlantic, the ultimate goal of Mission Atlantic is to support countries, industries and people to treat the ocean in a sustainable way. At project’s end in 2025, the team plans to offer policymakers a summary of their findings as well as tools to help them make decisions. 
 
These tools will help countries decide “If I (make) this area a protected area, what will happen to the (fish), or if I start exploiting this region for energy, what will happen to dependent communities”, said Mariani. Preliminary findings of Mission Atlantic are already supporting authorities in Brazil in deciding where to locate their marine reserves. 

Once researchers have assessed the environmental damage underwater, the next step is to restore degraded ecosystems and halt their decline.

Marine forests

Under the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, for example, a brown forest canopy sustains a world of biodiversity. Made of brown seaweed called Cystoseira, these forests provide food and nutrients to plants and animals, absorb carbon and create safe nurseries for juvenile sea species. The danger is real, because human activities have destroyed more than 80% of the Mediterranean’s normally productive macroalgal forests. It is almost impossible for these forests to rejuvenate when their populations become locally extinct.

‘The degree of damage to marine ecosystems is expanding and is now reaching huge dimensions,’ said Professor Roberto Danovaro, an ecologist at Polytechnic University of Marche in Italy.

But Danovaro and a team of researchers are finding ways to restore these vital habitats. The AFRIMED project works to seed new forests and resuscitate these marine ecosystems, having emerged from the €6.7-million MERCES project to restore marine ecosystems, which assessed different degraded European marine ecosystems.

AFRIMED looks to identify areas for algal forest restoration, trial technologies to restore these locations, and ultimately develop a step-by-step guide on how to rebuild these valuable ecosystems.

‘The basic work starts from understanding how much of these habitats have been lost, when and why,’ said Danovaro, who is project coordinator. ‘Second, you need to understand if there has been a species shift. For example, there may be macroalgae there, but they are not the same. A third issue is, how to practically do restoration.’

Tricky restoration

Restoration is tricky – simply transplanting algae can denude other vulnerable habitats and not all of the algae (there are dozens of species of Cystoseira) may survive living in another location. ‘Finding a good place for restoration is (also) essential,’ he said. ‘If you find a place that is still under pressure, the restoration may fail.’

In some places, researchers have been able to grow new algal recruits on rocks and other surfaces which they can then move to the bare habitat. In other cases, AFRIMED members have grown the algae in the laboratory and transplanted it to its new home.

‘It’s real interdisciplinary work,’ said Dr Silvia Bianchelli, a researcher at Polytechnic University of Marche. ‘We need an expert on the algae, an expert on the ecosystem, an expert on the environmental conditions, and also a technician for the lab.’

It goes beyond working between disciplines, though. Nations, their industries and citizens will have to work together to preserve their shared resources – and the Mediterranean itself.

‘Restoration is not only a scientific or ecological process,’ Bianchelli said. ‘It involves socioeconomic components. So (while) scientific teams work on ecological restoration, they need to also involve a lot of stakeholders. Successful restoration needs first to stop the anthropogenic pressure.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Environment

Big lessons about biodiversity loss from a little French river

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BY SARAH WILD

Even while drought is bringing many of Europe’s rivers to record lows and damaging biodiversity, the threat of catastrophic flooding following a dry spell lurks in the background.

Some of Europe’s most famous rivers such as the Rhine, Danube and Po, have been making headline news thanks to summer droughts. With water levels plummeting to record lows and the rivers drying out, many kinds of economic activities from shipping to farming have been disrupted.

But one little river in Europe that has avoided the media spotlight may offer valuable lessons about the worsening effects of global warming. It is the Albarine, located in south-eastern France and it is the focus of an EU-backed research project about the effects of drought on river ecosystems.

Worldwide, rivers are under stress from climate change. The research will help conservationists to understand the ways drought leads to the loss of biodiversity and respond appropriately.

Rising near the sleepy French town of Brénod near the Jura mountains, the Albarine flows almost 60 kilometres before its crystal-clear waters join the larger Ain River northeast of Lyon. However, there are a number of points during its course at which the Albarine river runs dry. This is something likely to happen to more waterways as global warming intensifies.

Extreme event

‘Drying is an event and drought is an extreme event,’ said Romain Sarremejane, a freshwater ecologist and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) post-doctoral research fellow at the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE).

‘You need to understand drying to understand drought. The issue might be in the future that, if you have big droughts, you will lose all the refuges where species might survive during a drying event.’

Sarremejane is part of the MetaDryNet research project, which is assessing how drying affects organisms in the Albarine and their ability to consume carbon-rich organic matter. At its lush headwaters near Brénod, many leaves fall into the Albarine – and this leaf litter provides food and nutrients along the river’s length.

Drying everywhere

Insects and other creatures nibble at them, and ‘little by little they decompose as you go downstream and then it’s very small particles that end up in the sea,’ Sarremejane said. ‘But when there is drying everywhere in the network, you have these leaves that accumulate in the dry riverbed and are not processed.’

This leaf build-up could result in creatures downstream going hungry and the river processing less carbon.

Sarremejane and his colleagues set out to investigate what happens in the Albarine’s dry patches. They sampled 20 sites, each about 100 metres long, to see how much organic matter passed through, how quickly it decomposed, how much carbon and methane each site emitted, and the diversity of invertebrates, bacteria and fungi present.

Half the sites were in areas where the river sometimes runs dry and the rest were in places where the river flows all year long.

As more places are dry for longer, this could also compromise the ability of creatures to move between parts of the river –– which could ultimately lead to a decrease in biodiversity as well as extinction.

About 60% of rivers worldwide are intermittent –– which means that they are dry for at least one day a year –– and that share is set to rise, according to Sarremejane. Many such waterways usually flow for six to eight months of the year and then dry during the summer.

Intermittency

‘This intermittency is becoming more and more common, and extending in time and space,’ he said.

If a river’s dry patches increase and expand for longer periods of time, these oases in the river where life weathers the drying may disappear too. ‘There is a big tipping point at which you might lose a lot of diversity,’ he said.

His future research will focus on how extreme weather events affect communities of creatures and their diversity in Europe’s rivers, and whether it is possible to quantify these tipping points.

Heavy rain

For all the difficulties triggered by droughts, rain itself poses challenges. When drought-hit areas eventually get rain, it tends to be heavier and harder to absorb, leading to floods which is one of the most catastrophic effects of climate change in European cities.

Benjamin Renard, principal investigator on the Hydrologic Extremes at the Global Scale (HEGS) project, is trying to understand what more precipitation means for river systems and whether it leads to more flooding.

River floods are among the most damaging extreme climate events in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). If carbon emissions continue to increase, climate change could triple the direct damages from river floods.

In cities, more rain leads to flooding in the streets, but with rivers it’s not so simple.

‘You have river catchments, which act as a strong filter, so many things could happen,’ Renard said. ‘Flooding is not a direct translation of what’s happening in terms of precipitation.’

He and his collaborators created a statistical framework to assess the probability of rivers in an area flooding. Using data from about 2 000 rain-gauge and hydrometric stations, which measure river flow, their framework can determine the likelihood of a flood in a given region. The data, taken from stations around the world, spans the last hundred years.

‘The data sets we use for both precipitation and floods are from every single continent except Antarctica,’ he said.

The framework links climate variables – such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and wind speed – to the probability of extreme weather events including heavy rainfall or flooding.

Heavier precipitation

‘We confirmed, indeed, that precipitation was getting heavier worldwide, but for floods the signal is much more complicated,’ Renard said. ‘You have some geographic areas where you don’t see much change, some areas where you see increasing floods, and some where you see decreasing floods.’

Renard plans to use the framework for seasonal forecasting or even for different extreme weather events.

‘There is nothing in the framework that is specific to flooding,’ he said. Researchers could configure the framework to other events such as heat waves, droughts and wildfires.

In any case, deploying it for seasonal forecasting would form part of a useful early-warning system. This would allow people to prepare, for example, for nearby river floods and help prevent the loss of life and destruction of property.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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How countries can tackle devastating peatland wildfires

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Today, a major wildfire in France has destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and forced many people to flee their homes. Meanwhile, dry weather, extreme heat and strong winds have combined to fan wildfires across Europe, the United States and other parts of the world over the last few weeks.                                                                      

Extreme wildfires are devastating to people, biodiversity and ecosystems. They also exacerbate climate change by contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

While Europe and North America are in the crosshairs now, earlier this year, large parts of Chile and Argentina were engulfed in flames. That includes vast tracts of peatlands, key stores of carbon which, when released, feed planetary warming.

We asked Jacqueline Alvarez, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, to tell us more about the drivers of peatland wildfires and what can be done to limit their spread next year.

A recent report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, by UNEP and GRID-Arendal, finds that climate change and land-use changes, like deforestation, are making wildfires worse. Are those problems contributing to fires in Argentina and Chile?

Jacqueline Alvarez (JA): Yes. The changing climate has created a troubling reality, yet we shouldn’t undervalue the fact that people cause most wildfires. Beyond natural causes, there is evidence that the fires are being intentionally set to deforest and clear land for speculative businesses. In Argentina, the National Fire Management Service shows in its daily reports that since August 2021, 95 per cent of fires have been due to human intervention.

However, climate change is certainly increasing the vulnerability of peatlands to fire, which is problematic as when peatlands burn, they release more carbon dioxide than many other ecosystems and can be extremely difficult to extinguish. Land use changes due to human activity also have profound impacts on peatlands, which can greatly increase their vulnerability to more frequent and intense wildfires.

Which areas are most at risk in Chile?

JA: The areas where human populations and plant ecosystems coexist are those with the highest risk of wildfires. About 60 per cent of wildfires are in these areas, mainly in central Chile around Valparaíso and La Araucanía, which comprise about 5 per cent of national territory but accommodate around 80 per cent of the population. For this reason, these are priority areas when establishing strategies for the management and design of less risky landscapes. From 2010 to 2020, the central-southern zone of Chile, home to much of Chile’s peatland area, experienced a mega-drought that has had a strong impact on the wildfire regime by drying out biomass and peat soils.

Earlier this year, peatland wildfires in Chilean Tierra del Fuego burned for over a month and destroyed 1,200 hectares of native forest. The blazes killed plants and animals, and spewed carbon into the air. It has been suggested that faster action at the central level could have prevented the fire from reaching such a scale. What do you think Latin America and the Caribbean can do as a region to foster coordinated and rapid responses to wildfires?

JA: A coordinated approach requires planned, permanent, systematic and joint work, with special focus on communities directly exposed to this threat. In this context, the prevention of wildfires should be aimed at the population that lives in risk areas. However, appropriate funding is needed for such efforts. Effective fire response also requires an understanding of the ecosystem in question, its vulnerability or adaptation to fire, the amount of available fuel, the assets, infrastructure and lives at risk, and the likelihood of a fire outbreak developing  into a wildfire. It’s important to promote regional networks for collaboration, especially among countries with similar ecosystems and threats.

What kinds of legal protection do peatlands have in Argentina, Chile and Peru?

JA: There is no specific legal protection for peatlands in these countries. In the case of Peru, which has extensive peatlands, an important advance has been made within a recent decree on the protection of wetlands, where special mention is made of peatlands, prohibiting the extraction of peat for commercial purposes. In Chile there is a draft law on peatlands prohibiting the extraction of pompón, the Chilean name for sphagnum moss, currently in the final phase of approval. In July 2021, lawmakers in Argentina began debating the creation of a law to regulate human interventions in wetlands. In South America, there is an urgent need for countries to enact strong, dedicated environmental protection laws for wetlands.  

What are the key knowledge gaps that need to be filled to inform policymaking better?

JA: One of the problems is that many policymakers are unaware of the significant socioeconomic benefits that peatlands offer. They are a habitat for many unique and threatened species, they regulate water cycles, they control pollution and sediments, they serve as a source of water and locally harvested products, and they are an inspiration for art, religion and cultural values. A lack of information means that political decisions on land use are leading to the degradation and conversion of these high-carbon ecosystems. Peatlands need to be recognized across levels of governance as a high-priority ecosystem for urgent action by policymakers given that they benefit the climate, people and biodiversity.

UNEP

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How sustainable living can help counter the climate crisis

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To combat the climate crisis and secure a safe future below 1.5°C, the world needs to cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gasses by 50 per cent within the decade.

For many, ambitious targets such as this can induce a sense of dread and paralysis. But experts say there is a lot we can do as individuals to counter climate change.

Research shows that lifestyle changes could help the planet slash emissions by up to 70 per cent by 2050.

We sat down with Garrette Clark, an expert in sustainable living with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to learn more about what people and policymakers can do to make sustainable choices to help secure a healthier planet.  

Why is it important for people to consider their individual impact on the planet?

Garrette Clark (GC):  We’re facing a triple planetary crisis that threatens our survival, so our impact on the natural world is an obvious concern. An increasing number of people know this but tend to avoid acting on it as the problem can seem abstract, they don’t know what to do, and they have more immediate priorities.

How do our choices as consumers impact the planet?

GC: First, we need to understand that consumers are not only individuals. Great drivers of consumption are businesses and governments, who structure and influence the systems that meet our needs. So, it’s important that people make more informed decisions and ask governments and business to take action. UNEP recently launched Act Now: Speak Up, a campaign that showcases how citizens can compel governments and businesses to up their climate game.

What does a sustainable lifestyle look like in 2022?

GC: I think we hear the word sustainable everywhere these days. We think of sustainable living as the positive things we can do in our daily lives to live better. But given the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies, we need to be clear on what those actions are and ensure that everyone needs to be taking them.

If someone wants to live more sustainably, where can they start?

GC: UNEP has made this super easy with the Anatomy of Action, an online media tool which translates the science into action. It all comes down to five domains: food, mobility, stuff, money and fun. In each of those areas, the top three things people could do are highlighted. Now they can be different depending on where and how they live and resources available, but within these three priority actions, there are opportunities for people to take action.

People around the world are talking about what’s known as the 1.5°C lifestyle, a way of living that aims to keep alive the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC, considered a red line for the planet. Can you tell us more about that ethos?

GC: The 1.5°C lifestyles idea is tied to evidence and what we know about how individuals, governments and business consume. We know we have to change our consumption in the areas of food, mobility, housing and leisure, and we need to change quickly and drastically. 1.5°C living is a guide for change.

How do you convince someone to change the way they live?

GC: In general, people don’t think about how they impact the planet – positively or negatively – and will tend to act if something is easy, accessible, affordable and attractive. That’s why government and business, who are better placed to make systemic changes, are critical to making sustainable living the default option.

What will it take for sustainable living to become the norm?

GC: In addition to the affordability, accessibility and attractiveness of sustainable goods and services, there must be a broader integration of sustainable living into cultural norms so that people don’t think about it as being special but just as the way it goes. If sustainable living practices were featured more in the media stories we’re exposed to, they would become the standard.

What’s one example of that?

GC: If in TV series and movies we saw more vegetarian protagonists eating right-sized meals of tasty, plant-based dishes, swapping proteins would be normalized and desirable. Making sustainable living the new normal means looking at the forces that influence and shape our aspirations and behaviors and integrating sustainability into them.

Some people might wonder: Why should I make sacrifices if my neighbour isn’t?

GC. To counteract the others-don’t-act-why should-I? attitude, all the actors involved — businesses, governments and civil society —should be aligned on the impactful actions to be taken. The evidence is there. The challenge is to enhance understanding and weave together the multitude of actions in a concerted fashion to harness the power of people for change.  

UNEP

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