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Ecology at the heart of the 21st Century

Posted by Alice Milner at Oct 18, 2013 09:50 AM |

UCL Geography researchers at 11th International Ecology Association Congress

by Luca Marazzi, Arnaud Duranel and Emily Lines

We all know how wide-ranging Geography topics are in our Department, with the long-standing division between Physical and Human Geography, and within each field, e.g. Ecology and Palaeoecology, Climatology and Palaeoceanography, Urban studies and Migration studies, and so on. Considering ourselves both biogeographers and ecologists, we were excited to attend the INTECOL Congress “Ecology: Into the next 100 years” held here in London on 18-23 August, involving over 2,500 scientist from 67 countries and coinciding with the Centenary of the British Ecological Society.

23 oral sessions, 43 symposia, 38 workshops and 11 plenary lectures took place on a vast range of topics, including biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate change, conservation, biogeography, evolution, but also parasites, light pollution and urban ecosystems, among others (see full programme). The Congress was overwhelming, loaded with inspiring science, discussions and networking opportunities. The global community of Ecologists was well represented (although it would have been good to see more participants from developing nations), and it was brilliant to meet and speak with top scientists such as Robert May (author of Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government), Simon Levin (author of Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems), Steve Hubbell (author of The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography), Ilkka Hanski (who helped develop the Metapopulation Theory) and David Tilman (who conducted crucial research on resource competition and biodiversity).

Luca Marazzi, Professor Lord May and Karolina Petkovic

Luca Marazzi with Professor Lord May of Oxford (Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government and mathematical ecology legend) and Karolina Petrovic, Charles Sturt University (Australia).

In the Aquatic Ecology session, Luca Marazzi gave a well-attended oral presentation of his PhD research about the 495 species of algae he observed in over 130 samples from the Okavango Delta (Botswana). In this wetland, the algal biomass and diversity are influenced by annual flood-pulse, habitat diversity and key environmental variables such as conductivity and nutrient concentrations.

UCL Geography’s Arnaud Duranel, who presented a poster on his work on the eco-hydrology of acidic mires in Central France, said the Congress was humbling due to the high quality of speakers and the range of pressing issues discussed. He explains that it was alarming to hear about the current rate of climate change (higher than during any of the preceding mass extinctions), and listen to a former US chief scientist’s story of his fruitless attempts at engaging debate with decision-making republican congressmen dismissing centuries of scientific progress on religious grounds. However, there is hope; Arnaud’s highlights were the two resolutely positive plenary talks by Bill Sutherland and David Tilman and the following debates. “It was inspiring to hear a highly recognised expert such as David Tilman arguing that it was possible to reconcile food production for 9 billion people and biodiversity conservation, and that preserving biodiversity would actually help with the former”.

Emily Lines presented her post-doc work on remote sensing of vegetation using satellite data and the impact of canopy structural heterogeneity on optical reflectance. Many vegetation ecologists are using more and more remote sensing data such as optical reflectance, LIDAR and radar, and her poster generated lots of interesting discussions about ecological applications of these types of data. The recent trend of increasing interest in advanced computational and mathematical methods in ecology continued within the conference sessions, and there were very well attended workshops on building better code and managing large data.

In a workshop on how to secure funding, senior scientists advised Ph.D. students and other scholars on how to make the most of networking opportunities, find the right grant and be resilient versus failures. Personal stories were uplifting, but a Zoology Professor admitted that “these days you would not get a post-doc without having published papers from your thesis” like he did some time ago. Competition for research posts has massively increased, but funding provision is not keeping pace with demand. Robert May had some good advice for aspiring scientists: to pick a solvable problem, surround yourself with good people and be lucky!

Luca’s thoughts during the Congress went to its slogan “Advancing ecology and making it count”. What about enhancing the lobbying power of ecologists for the sake of humanity and planet Earth? Why not ask the government and other players more vocally to better fund basic and applied research in order to understand and solve the very problems that we study with our brains, but we have at heart, such as climate change, species loss and food insecurity?

In this respect, one thing that we would really like to see in future Ecology conferences is more media presence and laypeople. What about having open days for the general public in which “normal” (especially young) people are invited in the audience? Yes, there are increasing public engagement activities and citizen science all over the world, but the issues discussed at INTECOL are so important for humanity that having (more) policy makers, stakeholders, journalists and members of the public could constitute a valid experiment. We will see. There are eminent scientists like Ecologist Paul Ehrlich who, in the face of a possible climate catastrophe, even suggested the formation of a “popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, “foresight intelligence” to provide the long term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply”.

Beliefs and practices are changing. In her Presidential address, Georgina Mace, Director of the new UCL Centre for Biodiversity and Environment research, highlighted how attitudes towards “what nature conservation is for” changed over the decades, from “Nature for itself” to today’s “People and Nature” via “Nature despite People” and “Nature for People”. Encouragingly, alliances between scientists and the public for “Nature and People” do take place and hopefully policies will increasingly follow evidence-based societal demands for sustainability.

Professor Boije Fu and Professor Georgina Mace

Professor Boije Fu presenting the Ecological Society of China’s gift plaque to BES President Professor Georgina Mace for the BES Centenary.

In four years’ time much will have happened to the Earth and its inhabitants. Ecologists will meet at the 12th INTECOL Congress “Ecology and civilization in a changing world”, hosted in Beijing by the Ecological Society of China (20-25 August 2017). Before then the next Ecosummit in 2016 and the Joint Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society & Société Française d'Ecologie (December 2014) will happen in France. There is a lot to look forward to in the rest of the century for Ecologists, Physical and Human Geographers and academics at large, especially in an era when, hopefully, disciplinary barriers will be overcome to solve the severe social and environmental challenges we face.

 

Luca Marazzi is a part-time PhD candidate at UCL Geography studying the ecology of algae in the Okavango Delta, key primary producers in the food webs of this unique subtropical wetland. More details can be found here.

Arnaud Duranel is a PhD candidate at UCL Geography studying peatlands in central France, with a particular interest in their hydrology and vegetation ecology.

Emily Lines is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at UCL Geography interested in Remote Sensing of vegetation and forest ecology. More details can be found here.

 

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