Fragile Environments

Some ecosystems can cope with wide variations in climatic conditions and land use impacts whereas others are much more sensitive to any environmental change. The effects of small shifts in rainfall patterns or ambient temperatures can often do great harm to fragile environments and these effects can act as indicators of imminent threats elsewhere.

Natural events can also precipitate sudden changes. Increasingly, however, the anthropogenic effects of human activity - intensive agriculture, deforestation, urbanization etc. - are causing specialized habitats to change, shrink and become fragmented to the extent that they may no longer be self-sustainable. In addition, the accidental or deliberate introduction of invasive non-native species can also severely impact communities of indigenous species.

Collaborative research to understand the levels of resilience of such specialized environments is critical to protecting them and making informed policy decisions about land use planning and natural resource extraction.

Societal impact and strategic research objectives

Fragile environments are of fundamental significance in interactions between humankind and the environment. They are often an early indicator of the long-term effects of human activity; they also contribute important ecosystem functions in their own right. These can relate directly to quality of life at a local level (e.g., tourism), and at the regional and global levels (e.g., water regulation, carbon storage). Thus, they have a considerable economic value as a result of recreational activities, and a less-well measured or understood value to the environment.

Fragile environments need protection. Research focuses on understanding how ecosystem interactions all mesh together and predicting the consequences of damage caused by human activity, and on determining optimal policies for the protection of fragile environments and the minimizing of adverse effects.

Political and administrative frame

There are clear links to EU and international polices. Member states have obligations under, e.g., the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive, Natura 2000. In addition, countries that have ratified the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity are required to create Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs).

The environmental information required for such plans includes the monitoring and understanding of ecosystems. Given that fragile environments are diverse in species and habitat, research in this topic will contribute significantly to the development, implementation and improvement of such BAPs.

Main sub-fields and areas

This is a cross cutting topic that covers several research areas including:

  • water management
  • population ecology
  • invasive species
  • soil stability/erosion

This cross-cutting topic draws together the salient aspects of these research areas and considers their cumulative effect on fragile environments. It also considers the impact of climate change.

Approach

There are several key aspects to researching fragile environments:

  • Completing the research without damaging the environment; having/developing a base line dataset that allows analysis of the area before significant damage has occurred. Research could look at the use of remote sensing and new technologies to gather data more effectively and efficiently; the type and frequency of that data - in terms of species, and quality of habitat indicators.
  • The second aspect of fragile environment research is using the data for modelling. This involves validating models and then using outputs to predict trends and effects. Subsequently these outputs must be translated into policy and strategies for policy-makers to act upon.