Science and caution

‘Ignorance is not an option’ declared the title of a recent Editorial in the journal, Science.  The Editorial starts with a hypothetical scenario where one country’s action, implemented in the face of seemingly insurmountable crises, puts other countries’ people and economies in jeopardy.  The author (Chair of the Geoengineering Climate Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, and also the Editor-in-Chief of Science), cautions against premature attempts at artificially increasing the fraction of solar radiation reflected back into space (by spraying particles into the stratosphere, inspired by what naturally happens during volcanic eruption), as a quick-fix for global warming. It is a local action that can have global impacts: impacts that we cannot entirely foresee because we do not understand enough of the complex interlinked mesh of interactions of climate and the geophysical and biological world; and of science with politics, economics, society and law.

The same issue of Science carried a News Feature on the celebrated Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.  Twenty years back, gray wolves, Yellowstone’s key predators that were hunted down to zero about a century ago, were reintroduced.  The effects of the reintroduction were rapid and immense: The population of elk that had taken over the ecosystem plummeted.  Willows that had been grazed to the ground by the elk resprouted.  With the willows, the beavers came back, with the beavers their dams, and the dams changed the hydrology of the region…  But before the reintroduction, all that was known was, as a scientist quoted in the Feature says, ‘ecological theory and how the bits and pieces are supposed to work’.  In other words, not much was known about the ‘complex interlinked mesh of interactions’ before the gray wolves were brought back to Yellowstone – the same situation as we are when we contemplate artificial cooling of the earth.  In fact, ecologists disagree about what exactly is happening even after the consequences of the reintroduction have played out, or indeed, if the ‘consequences’ were the result of the reintroduction!  One might argue that ignorance in this case was all right, because the wolf reintroduction affects just Yellowstone.  But even as scientists argue about ‘just how restored Yellowstone actually is’, predator reintroductions a la Yellowstone are being planned in other parts of the globe.

Early last month, there was a talk at NCBS by Arian Wallach, the Director of the Dingo for Biodiversity Project.  Dingoes in Australia have been persecuted for very long, very much like Yellowstone’s gray wolves.  Like the native elks in the US, Australia suffers from the impacts of introduced foxes and cats that are threatening populations of several native animals.  Currently, there is large scale killing of foxes and cats in a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of Australia’s native fauna.  Arian advocates an alternative method of reintroducing the dingo, like the wolves were in Yellowstone.  The hope is that the dingo will control fox and cat populations, and the native species will come back, like the willows and beavers did in Yellowstone.

It is amazing how much of an impact a good story can have.

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