15 biggest emerging trends and threats to biodiversity in 2018 - New report

5 December 2017

Gene editing to eradicate unwanted animal populations, deep water lasers for trawling the sea, radiation threats from next-generation mobile phone networks and how to protect the 44% of the Earth's surface covered by no-mans-land oceans.

Earth from space

These are among the 15 environmental challenges and trends cited by a diverse group of 24 researchers and experts tasked with identifying the as yet little-understood issues that could have a big impact on our natural world in the coming year.

This was the ninth NERC-funded Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation & Biological Diversity, led by William Sutherland, Professor of Conservation Biology at Cambridge University, and published today in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

The annual report looks at new developments and threats that authors believe could present risks and opportunities in the coming year. The international team reviewed 117 potential emerging issues, whittling down to the 15 they believe may have the biggest impact - positive or negative - but are the least well-known.

Dr Caroline Culshaw, an author on the paper and Head of Environment & Health at NERC, said:

"We need to identify early signs of future threats and trends to ensure UK environmental science can focus on solutions to major challenges and make the most of opportunities."

The emerging issues identified for 2018 are:

  • Vitamin deficiency in fish and birds linked to population decline
    Low vitamin B1 in some species of fish and birds can impair their immune system and change reproductive behaviour. It may be caused by low intake due to changes to thiamine-producing algae, or exposure to pollution impairing vitamin uptake. The extent of deficiencies and the impact on population decline are currently unknown.

  • Chronic wasting disease epidemic risk
    Chronic wasting disease - a contagious degenerative brain disease which kills around 10% of white tailed deer and is found in 23 US states and two Canadian provinces - could become epidemic on other continents with drastic knock-on consequences to ecosystems. Following its first emergence in Europe, a herd of 2,000 reindeer were culled in Norway, and its continued prevalence in the region could have substantial effects on Arctic herds.

  • Risk of infection from thawing ice
    Some viruses and bacteria can survive freezing for thousands of years. Climate change is causing large bodies of millennia-old ice to melt, releasing organisms with potential to cause harm to animals and humans. In 2016, anthrax from a reindeer corpse, thawed after 75 years preserved in Siberian ice, led to the death of one person and left a further 20 in hospital. Scientists have found microbes frozen in permafrost 30,000 years ago remained able to infect living things.

  • New RNA pesticides
    Laboratory tests have shown that topical application of RNA could be a new way of controlling plant pests, including viruses and insects, by silencing genes that affect survival and reproduction. It is thought this method could be more publicly acceptable than other forms of genetic modification because its effects will not be passed on to offspring. However, the impact of widespread use of the method as a pesticide on non-target species is not yet known.

  • Gene-editing to eradicate pest animal populations
    New gene editing technologies could be used to control animal populations, including invasive species, within the coming decade. At a cost of more than £3 million a year, New Zealand aims to rid itself of rats, possums and stoats by 2050. The method raises both ethical and ecological questions, from repercussions on wider ecosystems to the potential for gene traits to spread and wipe-out species in unintended areas.

  • Use of lasers in deep water fishing
    New technology using lasers could be an alternative to bottom trawling the sea for high volumes of wild seafood. Trawling has a high carbon footprint, damages marine environments and gathers up unintended animals and plants. If the technology proves feasible, a targeted approach using wider nets and precision lasers could deliver a bigger catch with minimal damage and lower carbon. But questions remain around paving the way for unsustainable fishing levels.

  • Capturing water from the air
    Using porous metals or solar power to capture water from the air could help the livelihoods of people living in the world's driest climates. A new technique currently uses expensive metals but cheaper alternatives are in the pipeline. While this could create new opportunities for people, agriculture and wildlife preservation, its impact on land use, environments and atmospheric conditions have not been widely explored.

  • Increasing plant salt tolerance
    Increasingly salty soil is threatening crops across the globe. By studying plants with natural salt tolerance, researchers have identified a type of protein - aquaporins - which could be genetically engineered or selectively bred in other plants to help them thrive in saltier soil. The method's success on a commercial scale remains unclear, as does its potentially big impact on biodiversity.

  • Culturomics: Analysing texts for insights
    Technology able to analyse how words are used in large volumes of digital text - such as social media - could be used by conservation science, policy and action groups to identify interest or concern for issues, for example in a given UK constituency, and tailor campaigns, policies or action in response. Of course, the same technology could be used by groups at odds with these aims.

  • Changes in the global iron cycle
    In response to worldwide climatic and ocean changes, including ocean acidification, warming and glacial melting, the global iron cycle is changing with knock-on consequences that may affect entire ocean ecosystems.

  • Underestimation of soil carbon emissions
    Recent research suggests current predictions underestimate how much carbon will be released from soil as the Earth warms due to climate change. Loss of carbon in shallow soil is well-understood, but the effect of warming deeper down is less clear. One experiment in deeper soil showed significantly increased carbon dioxide production at higher temperatures. If a substantial amount of soil carbon is missing from our projections, global warming could be more rapid than expected, with serious impacts on humans and our environment.

  • Rapid climate changes on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau
    Dramatic changes on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in Asia - home to the world's third largest reservoir of ice - have been seen since the 1980s. Rising temperatures and melting permafrost are changing ecosystems and affecting biodiversity in the area and may be affecting global climate systems such as the El Niño effect and the East Asian monsoon. As the plateau continues to warm, we could see more pronounced effects on climate in Asia and Europe, with major effects on species and ecosystems.

  • Working together to protect the ocean's no-mans-lands
    Areas beyond any national jurisdiction - the high seas - cover 44% of the Earth's surface and less than 1% of these are protected. But thanks to new developments in international policy, legal protection of these areas could be possible through the expansion of internationally-agreed marine protected areas, boosting high seas conservation efforts.

  • China's belt and road initiative
    This huge investment to build trade links between China and the rest of Asia and Europe was announced by president Xi Jinping in 2013, with the support of more than 70 countries. The £1·25 trillion infrastructure programme presents opportunities for environmentally-sustainable development, but questions remain around China's commitment to this and the potential consequences of large-scale building work on protected species such as snow leopards.

  • Potential effects on wildlife of increases in electromagnetic radiation
    5G networks will soon be rolled out for mobile phone and smart device users. How exposure to electromagnetic fields could affect humans remains a controversial area, and studies have not yielded clear evidence of impacts on mammals, birds or insects. The lack of clear evidence to inform the development of exposure guidelines to 5G technology leaves open the possibility of unintended biological consequences.

Read the paper - external link, A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation & Biological Diversity, for full details of each issue, as well as methodology and a full list of authors.

To read the 2017 Horizon scan, visit the Trends in Ecology & Evolution website - external link.


Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC News & Media Officer
01793 411939
07710 147485


Notes

1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.