The Policy & Practice of Climate Change & Water

Cresting Research: May 2015 Selected AGWA Reading

Finding “now” in “then”: Using the past to inform our knowledge of the future

Why do we find a particular species (or group of species) in a particular place? How do manage that species (or set of species) if where we find them will change with climate shifts? The first AGWA research spotlight focuses on how our understanding of ecological communities is itself shifting over time.

Community ecology in a changing environment: Perspectives from the Quaternary
Stephen T. Jackson and Jessica L. Blois
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
2015. Volume 112 (16): 4915–4921

The modern discipline of ecology is relatively young and very much a product of the twentieth century; it has become one of the key disciplines defining what “sustainability” means. Community ecologists have tended to focus on either existing communities or on past communities that differed significantly from current conditions, often more than 10,000 years ago. In effect, these groups of ecologists have different definitions of sustainability.

Paleoecologists are relatively rare, but they produce evidence that history is important, and that ecological change is uneven and difficult to predict. The processes that are necessary for understanding what is happening now and today are probably not the same drivers at a decadal or century scale. In effect, these ecological drivers of change are analogous to the differences between climate and weather.

The current period of climate change makes these issues especially salient. As the authors write, “The environment, too, is far more dynamic than envisioned even a decade ago.… Novel communities and ecosystems are already widespread and will only increase with global change in coming decades.” Ecological has an important role in how we define sustainability, even as its sophistication grows.


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