Warming waters, evolution, and the future for fisheries policy

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Lyndsie Wszola explores how human interactions with warming freshwater systems have affected the evolution of fish species through the lens of the North American walleye. 

© Justinhoffmanoutdoors | Dreamstime.com

The effects of climate change have intensified over the past few years, especially in our oceans, and human based activities contributing to it are now being taken more seriously. While the warming of our oceans is indeed troubling, many forget that freshwater systems are also being influenced, and that this is affecting the growth and evolution of the species that reside in them.

2021 YSSP participant Lyndsie Wszola wants to explore changes in freshwater systems using human-natural modeling systems at IIASA.

© Lyndsie Wszola

Growing up with a conservation officer father, Wszola is a second-generation conservationist. Knowing she wanted to enter this field at an early age, she realized that she had to get into research and academia first. Her main interests while studying at the University of Nebraska have been the interactions between humans and wildlife.

While researching the relationships between hunters and ring-necked pheasants, she discovered an affinity for quantitative research. This curiosity went even further after she discovered literature on harvest induced evolution and mathematical ecology specifically pertaining to fish populations. Together, this initial desire to explore human and wildlife interactions and her newfound interest in mathematical ecology, led Wszola to take a closer look at North American freshwater systems and how we as humans are influencing its ecology. Her research specifically delves into the growth and evolutionary changes seen in the North American walleye (Sander vitreus) – a popular fish in Canada and the United States. The reason for its fame is its palatable taste as a freshwater fish and its status among anglers, making it both a commercially and recreationally fished species.

Walleye was chosen as the subject of Wszola’s research for many reasons. First, walleye, like many fish, are ectotherms meaning that their body processes and behaviors are directly linked to their body temperature, which is in turn directly linked to the temperature of the water. Unlike other fish however, there is already plenty of research and data on the relationship between the walleye’s growth and temperature. This information makes it much easier to simulate the walleye’s eco-evolutionary growth dynamics in the context of human driven harvests in warming waters. Wszola will also be working with very large datasets spanning multiple latitudes ranging from Ontario, Canada down to Nebraska, USA. The datasets include up to six million fish with four million of those being walleye.

“My goal is to model the influence of temperature on fish harvests based on size. Due to their ectotherm nature, we can observe the changes in body size in annual harvests. As waters warm, walleye grow much faster. We also know that intensely harvested fish often evolve to reach maturation at smaller sizes. When coupled with rising temperatures, this relationship between harvest induced and temperature induced evolution can be fascinating, as we now have two sources working together to change the growth evolution of this fish,” she explains.

Due to warming temperatures, many natural resources are at stake with some of the most sensitive being aquatic in nature. Research like this is important as it allows us to look at our relationships with the environment to be able to react accordingly.

“I hope that the research I do yields fascinating enough results so that from a practical standpoint, future fisheries policies can include climate change dynamics in addition to fish and human dynamics,” Wszola concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Science across closed borders – the quest for restoring forests in North Korea

By Fanni Daniella Szakal, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Despite the political challenges, 2021 YSSP participant Eunbeen Park is researching ways to restore forests in isolated North Korea.

© Znm | Dreamstime.com

North Korea is somewhat of an enigma and getting a glimpse into what transpires behind its borders is a difficult task. Based on our limited information, it however seems that its once luscious forests have disappeared at an alarming rate in the last few decades.

Deforestation in North Korea is fueled by economic difficulties, climate change, and a lack of information for effective forest management. As forests are recognized as important carbon sinks that are invaluable when working towards the climate goals established in the Paris Agreement, finding a way to restore them is imperative. Forests are also essential in solving food insecurity and energy issues, which is especially relevant in the face of the current economic hardship in North Korea.

Neighboring South Korea serves as a benchmark for a successful reforestation campaign after having restored most of its forest cover in the last half a century. South Korean researchers and NGOs are keen to support afforestation efforts in North Korea and it seems that the North Korean government is also prioritizing this through a 10-year plan announced by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2015. The strained relationship between the two Koreas however, often hinders effective collaboration.

‘’We are close to North Korea regionally, but direct connection is difficult for political reasons. However, many researchers are interested in studying North Korea and there are currently many projects for South and North Korea collaboration supported by the Ministry of Unification,” says Eunbeen Park, a participant in the 2021 Young Scientists Summer Program and a second year PhD student in Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.

North Korean countryside © Znm|Dreamstime.com

Modeling afforestation scenarios in North Korea

Park specializes in using remote sensing data for environmental monitoring and detecting changes in land cover. During her time at IIASA, she will use the Agriculture, Forestry, and Ecosystem Services Land Modeling System (AFE-LMS) developed by IIASA to support forest restoration in North Korea.

First, Park will use land cover maps dating back to the 1980s to map the change in forest cover. She will then identify areas for potential afforestation considering land cover change, forest productivity, climate, and different environmental variables, such as soil type. She will also develop different afforestation scenarios based on forest management options and the tree species used.

According to Andrey Krasovskiy, Park’s supervisor at IIASA, when selecting tree species for afforestation we need to take into account their economic, environmental, and recreational values.

“From a set of around 10 species we need to choose those that would be the most suitable in terms of resilience to climate change and to disturbances such as fire and beetles,” he says.

Challenges in data collection

A major challenge in Park’s research is obtaining accurate information for building her models. If there is relevant research from North Korea, it is not available to foreign researchers and without being able to enter the country to collect field data in person, her research has to rely on remote sensing data or data extrapolated from South Korean studies.

Fortunately, in recent years, remote sensing technology has evolved to provide high-resolution satellite data through which we are able to take a thorough look at the land cover of the elusive country. Park will match these maps with yield tables provided by Korea University based on South Korean data. As the ecology of the two Koreas are largely similar, these maps are thought to provide accurate results.

Is there space for science diplomacy?

“Research shouldn’t have any boundaries,” notes Krasovskiy. “In reality however, the lack of scientific collaboration between research groups in South and North Korea poses a major obstacle in turning this research into policy. Luckily, some organizations, such as the Hanns Seidel Foundation in South Korea, are able to bridge the gap and organize joint activities that provide hope for a more collaborative future.”

Despite the diplomatic hurdles, Park hopes that her work will find its way to North Korean policymakers.

“I expect my research might make a contribution to help policymakers and scientific officials establish forest relevant action in North Korea,” she concludes.

Can seaweed be the solution to our land problems?

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Scott Spillias explores how the adoption of offshore seaweed farming could affect land use.

Seaweed farming in the clear coastal waters of Zanzibar island © Ecophoto | Dreamstime.com

Since the start of the industrial revolution, the Earth’s population has grown exponentially, and it is still growing every year. In addition to heavy population growth, human advances in medicine, science, and technology have allowed people to live longer lives as well. As more countries industrialize, the demand for land extensive commodities like meat and dairy have also increased. Deforestation has risen worldwide making way for cattle and other livestock grazing, and more of the food we grow is being dedicated towards livestock rather than human consumption.

With problems like unsustainable land use, climate change, and suburban sprawls in places like the United States and Australia decreasing available arable lands, this poses the question: is there any way we can feed a growing population without further damaging ecosystems and contributing to climate change? In addition to achieving this goal, we simultaneously want to promote equitable and just societies. 2021 YSSP participant Scott Spillias believes he might have a solution: seaweed.

Spillias has a background in marine biology and sailing. After years of sailing the world, he could see the alarming state of our oceans. Wanting to be part of the solution, he moved to Australia to study oceanic food systems, environmental economics, and environmental decision making at the University of Queensland.

Scott Spillias © Scott Spillias

“We live on an ocean planet, yet almost all of the food we grow comes from land. When it comes to the sea, we are essentially just unsustainably hunting and gathering from our oceans. I want to know what it would look like if instead, we tried to farm them,” Spillias explains.

Spillias says that seaweed as an agricultural product is already useful with its range of uses including food, livestock feed, fuel, fertilizer, and multiple products in the form of hydrocolloids. Hydrocolloids, more commonly known as “gums”, are extracted from plants like seaweeds and algae; they are used as setting and thickening agents in a variety of products including foods and pharmaceuticals, often increasing shelf life and quality.

A University of California, Davis study found that incorporating seaweed in cattle feed could reduce methane emissions from beef cattle by as much as 82%. Moreover, seaweed’s broad range of uses can hypothetically decrease land usage in favor of sea usage. Seaweeds also serve many ecological roles such as filtering ocean waters, serving as nurseries for small fish and crustaceans, and protecting sea floors.

There are two types of seaweed farming in use today. In parts of China, South Korea, and Japan there is floating offshore seaweed production, where the seaweed is grown and harvested while floating in deep waters. Another form of seaweed farming seen in Indonesia, Tanzania, and the Philippines involves a different approach, where the seaweed is grown and farmed closer to the coast in shallower waters, or the intertidal zone. Both provide ecosystem services, jobs, and food for local populations.

As part of his YSSP project this summer, Spillias hopes to use the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) to determine land-use changes brought about by large-scale seaweed production.

“We are going to assume that the seaweeds we are growing will be for food, feed, and fuel. We are also taking certain constraints into consideration, such as the inability to place seaweed farms in high traffic shipping areas or marine protected zones. Getting rough estimates of seaweed production can then give us an idea of land commodities we can replace, for instance, corn used for biofuel,” he says.

Spillias hopes that this research can provide results that can influence policy.

“Locally, seaweed farming will either be beneficial or destructive – it depends on where you put it and how you do it. Zooming out and understanding how these tradeoffs relate to terrestrial production will give policymakers a clearer idea of whether to promote or restrict the practice.”

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Making the Top 100 in Ecology: the story of a successful research paper

By Florian Hofhansl, researcher in the Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Research Group of the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Florian Hofhansl writes about a successful paper on which he was the lead author that was recently ranked #32 on the list of the Top 100 most downloaded ecology papers published in 2020.

Early in 2020, one of my manuscripts titled “Climatic and edaphic controls over tropical forest diversity and vegetation carbon storage” was accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Initially, I was worried about the bad timing when I was informed that the paper would be published on 19 March – right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – since it took me and my colleagues almost a decade to collect the data and publish our results on the biodiversity and functioning of tropical forest ecosystems.

However, my worries completely disappeared when I learned that our research article had received more that 3,000 downloads, placing it among the top 100 downloaded ecology papers for Scientific Reports in 2020. This is an extraordinary achievement considering that Scientific Reports published more than 500 ecology papers in 2020. Seeing our paper positioned at #32 of the top 100 most downloaded articles in the field, therefore meant that our science was of real value to the research community.

We kicked off our study in the dry-season of 2011 by selecting twenty one-hectare forest inventory plots at the beautiful Osa peninsula – one of the last remnants of continuous primary forest – located in southwestern Costa Rica. We did not expect that our project would receive this much scientific recognition as we were merely interested in describing the stunning biodiversity of this remote tropical region. Nevertheless, we were striving to understand the functioning of the area’s megadiverse ecosystem by conducting repeated measurements of forest characteristics, such as forest growth, tree mortality, and plant species composition.

After periodically revisiting the permanent inventory plots, and recording data for almost a decade, we found stark differences in the composition of tropical plant species such as trees, palms, and lianas across the landscape. Most interestingly, these different functional groups follow different strategies in their competition for light and nutrients, both limiting plant growth in the understory of a tropical rainforest. For instance, lianas – which are long-stemmed, woody vines – are relatively fast growing and try to reach the canopy to get to the sunlight, but they do not store as much carbon as a tree stem to reach the same height in the canopy. In contrast, palms share a different strategy and mostly stay in the lower sections of the forest where they collect water and nutrients with their bundles of palm leaves arranged upward to catch droplets and nutrients falling from above, thus reducing local resource limitation.

Lead author Florian Hofhansl and field botanist, Eduardo Chacon-Madrigal got stuck between roots of the walking palm (Socratea exorrhiza), while surveying one of the twenty one-hectare permanent inventory plots © Florian Hofhansl

Our results indicate that each plant functional group – that is, a collection of organisms (i.e., trees, palms, or lianas) that share the same characteristics – was associated with specific climate conditions and distinct soil properties across the landscape. Hence, this finding indicates that we would have to account for the small-scale heterogeneity of the landscape in order to understand future ecosystem responses to projected climate change, and thus to accurately predict associated tropical ecosystem services under future scenarios.

Our study and its subsequent uptake by the research community, illustrates the value of conducting on-site experiments that empower researchers to understand crucial ecosystem processes and applying these results in next-generation models. Research like this makes it possible for scientists to evaluate vegetation–atmosphere feedbacks and thus determine how much of man-made emissions will remain in the atmosphere and therefore might further heat up the climate system in the future.

Our multidisciplinary research project furthermore highlighted that it is crucial to gather knowledge from multiple disciplines, such as botany (identifying species), plant ecology (identifying functional strategies), and geology (identifying differences in parent material and soil types) – since all of these factors need to be considered in concert to capture the complexity of any given system, when aiming to understand the systematic response to climate change.

Read more about the research here: https://tropicalbio.me/blog

Reference:

Hofhansl F, Chacón-Madrigal E, Fuchslueger L, Jenking D, Morera A, Plutzar C, Silla F, Andersen K, et al. (2020). Climatic and edaphic controls over tropical forest diversity and vegetation carbon storage. Scientific Reports DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-61868-5 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16360]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Why we need basic sciences for sustainable development more than ever

By Michel Spiro, President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and President of the Steering Committee for the proclamation of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development in 2022 (IYBSSD 2022)

A consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations’ plans to declare 2022 the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development are underway. Michael Spiro makes the case for why the world needs this now more than at any time in the past.

© Dmytro Tolokonov | Dreamstime.com

For almost a year and a half now, the world has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But how much worse could the situation have been without the progress and results produced for decades, even centuries, by curiosity-driven scientific research?

We deplore the many deaths due to COVID-19, and the future is still very uncertain, especially with the detection of new variants, some of which are spreading more quickly. But how could we have known that the infection was caused by a virus, what this virus looks like and what its genetic sequence and variations are without basic research?

Viruses were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the work of Frederick Twort, Félix d’Hérelle, and many others. The first electron microscope was built in the 1930s by Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll; and DNA sequencing began in the mid-1970s, notably with research by the groups of Frederick Sanger and Walter Gilbert.

Such a list could of course go on and on, with basic research at the root of countless tests, treatments, vaccines, and epidemiological modeling exercises. We even owe high-speed, long-distance communications, which allow us to coordinate the fight against the pandemic and reduce interruptions in education, economic activities, and even the practice of science, to the discovery and study of electromagnetic waves and optic fibers during the 19th century, and the development of algorithms and computers codes during the 20th century. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder (so harsh and brutal that we would have preferred to have been spared) of how much we rely on the continuous development of basic sciences for a balanced, sustainable, and inclusive development of the planet.

On many other issues, basic sciences have an important contribution to make to progress towards a sustainable world for all, as outlined in Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. They provide the essential means to address major challenges such as universal access to food, energy, and sanitation. They enable us to understand the impacts of the nearly eight billion people currently living on the planet, on the climate, life on Earth, and on aquatic environments, and to act to limit and reduce these impacts.

Indeed, unlike our use of natural resources, the development of the basic sciences is sustainable par excellence. From generation to generation, it builds up a reservoir of knowledge that subsequent generations can use to apply to the problems they will face, which we may not even know about today.

The International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) will focus on these links between basic sciences and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is proposed to be organized in 2022 by a consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations* led by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IIUPAP) with the recommendation of a resolution voted by the UNESCO General Conference during its 40th session in 2019. Over 50 national and international science academies and learned societies and around 30 Nobel Prize laureates and Fields Medalists also support this initiative. The Dominican Republic has agreed to propose a resolution for the promulgation of the IYBSSD during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, beginning in September 2021.

We very much hope that scientists, and all people interested in basic science, will mobilize around the planet and take this opportunity to convince all stakeholders – the general public, teachers, company managers, and policymakers – that through a basic understanding of nature, inclusive (especially by empowering more women) and collaborative well-informed actions will be more effective for the global common interest. As IIASA is one of the consortium’s founding partners, we especially invite all IIASA scientists, alumni, and colleagues they are collaborating with to create or join national IYBSSD 2022 committees to organize events and activities during this international year.

More information, as well as communication material, can be found at www.iybssd2022.org. This will also be shared through social media accounts (look for @iybssd2022 on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram). You are also invited to subscribe to the Newsletter here.

* Consortium members

The International Union of Crystallography (IUCr); the International Mineralogical Association (IMA); the International Mathematical Union (IMU); the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS); the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG); the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC); the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST); the International Union of Materials Research Societies (IUMRS); the International Union for Vacuum Science, Technique, and Applications (IUVSTA); the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); the French Research Institute for Development (IRD); the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); the European Physical Society (EPS); the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR); the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee (NuPECC); the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP); the International Science Council (ISC); Rencontres du Vietnam; the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR); the Square Kilometre Array Organization (SKAO); and  SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.