Science for all
Dr. Meg Lowman is a world authority on forest canopy ecology, and a passionate communicator of science. She sits on the Earthwatch Board of Directors, and was recently appointed as Director of the Nature Research Center, North Carolina State University.
A fierce supporter of ‘citizen science’, and the first scientist that Earthwatch supported in Australia, here Meg reflects on the rapidly accelerating rate of loss of species in the world, and the importance of enthusing and involving non-scientists in research and conservation efforts.
Discovering and identifying all of the species that live on this planet is not an easy task. Finding a beetle in a tree is akin to locating the proverbial needle in the haystack - 90 percent perspiration and ten percent luck. The ‘biodiversity crisis’ - the rapid decline in the number of species on Earth, frequently looms large in media headlines.
But what does biodiversity really mean to us, and should we be concerned about losing it? In a word, yes! Over the past few decades it has become widely acknowledged that natural systems around the world are in decline, along with the biodiversity that enables them to function.
Biodiversity represents the cogs of nature’s machinery that allow us humans to survive on this planet. Biodiversity is the term for the variety of species on Earth. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin estimated that there may be 800,000 species inhabiting our planet. Nearly 100 years later, scientists revised his original estimates to several million, based on discoveries since Darwin’s time. In the early 1980s, Dr. Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution counted beetles in tropical rain forest canopies, and his calculations based on that research raised the estimates of biodiversity again to 30 million species. Since then, Professor Edward O. Wilson at Harvard University calculated that the combination of biodiversity in tree canopies plus all the critters in the soil may tally close to 100 million species on Earth. The mind boggles!
What does 100 million species look like? Is there a way to make that enormous number meaningful for students? If 180 Earthwatch volunteers discovered and identified one new species every day for the rest of their lives, they would need over 1500 years including weekends and holidays to complete the task of identifying the estimated biodiversity on Earth. That is a lot of time and effort! And that is a lot of species!
Almost 35 years ago, when I was in tenth grade, the first Earth Day was held. Almost 30 years ago, when I was in college studying biology, the Endangered Species Act was brought into legislation. Since then, an estimated 800 million or more acres of tropical rain forest have disappeared with thousands of as-yet-unnamed new species. That acreage does not include other disappearing ecosystems such as Florida’s coastline, North American old growth forests, or the enormous loss of coral reefs and melting Antarctic ice floes.
We lose enormous amounts of our natural world every year. We have not studied the natural ecosystems on Earth long enough to predict the impact of the loss of certain species, and the knock-on effect on human life if some of them disappear. A well-known agricultural scientist, Aldo Leopold, said in 1945, “To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Another scientist, Paul Ehrlich, considered biodiversity analogous to the mechanical parts of an airplane. He speculated that, if an airplane mechanic continued to remove nuts and bolts from a plane, the machine will eventually cease to fly. Similarly, as species disappear, we may find that our ecosystems can no longer “fly”, i.e. support human life.
The critical question is, when will such extinctions reach a critical threshold beyond which humans cannot survive with some quality of life?
The Earth is full of exciting discoveries - new medicines from tropical rain forest canopies, innovative engineering solutions from coral reefs; and it also provide us with a great many important economic products such as chocolate, corn, oranges, coffee and rubber, to name but a few. The next decade is critical. We must seek policies for economic development that are compatible with biodiversity conservation. And, the next generation needs to train ecological mechanics to maintain the cogs and wheels of the planet’s natural systems that sustain us.
Earthwatch, by providing ordinary people from all walks of life with opportunities to experience science and engage in research and discovery, provides a critical service to the planet. Through a mission to advance science literacy, Earthwatch can inspire the next generation of leaders to make decisions that conserve the biological machinery of our planet. But we need to hurry!
Find out more about Meg's work at canopymeg.com