- The Internet could be used as an early warning system for potential ecological disasters say researchers from Stockholm Resilience Centre and University of East Anglia.
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Despite the continuing improvement in ecosystem monitoring, early warnings of pending ecological crisis are still limited by insufficient data and by geographical gaps in official monitoring systems. Findings ways to avert regime shifts is already a key issue for other researchers at the centre.
In their newly published article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, centre researchers Victor Galaz, Beatrice Crona, Örjan Bodin, Magnus Nyström, Per Olsson as well as Tim Daw from University of East Anglia have made an initial exploration into the possibilities of using information posted on the Internet to detect ecosystems on the verge of tilt.
List servers fundamental for coral bleaching monitoring
The article, entitled Can Web Crawlers Revolutionize Ecological Monitoring?, has received uses examples from coral-reef ecosystems to explore the untapped potential of web crawlers - software programs or automated scripts that browse the World Wide Web in a methodical, automated manner - in ecosystem monitoring.
An early example of this was the use of email list servers used to disseminate and compile field observations tracking coral bleaching during the 1997-1998 El Niño event. The existence of an email-based coral list server proved fundamental for prompt assessments of the global mass bleaching event, with reports ranging from detailed and accurately measured accounts to brief anecdotal reports.
Why use web crawlers
The article, which has attracted the attention of Science Daily, Reuters and Wired, highlights the fact that analysis and response are not necessarily organized around a single government actor. On the contrary, both might take place as the result of collaborations between different state and non-state stakeholders.
- If the outputs are available more widely, analysis and responses could even be the result of autonomous actions, assumed by independent organizations and individuals, says lead author Victor Galaz. He is one of the theme leaders of the centre research theme Adaptive Governance.
The article focus on three potential approaches in using web crawlers to forewarn ecological shifts:
- Firstly, web crawlers can collect information on the drivers of ecosystem change, rather than the resultant ecological response. For example, if rapidly emerging markets for high value species lead to overexploitation and collapse of a fishery, web crawlers can be designed to collect information on rapid changes in prices, landings or investments in particular regions.
- Secondly, but less certain, future early warning systems can make use of the recent insight that shows that ecosystems sometimes “signal" a pending catastrophic shift. The variability of fish populations has for example been shown to increase in response to over-exploitation and a possible collapse.
- Thirdly, web crawlers may find information which describes ecological changes at small scales, which may forewarn of similar and larger shifts in other locations. This includes early warnings of invasive species, as well as losses of smaller ecosystems that support the resilience of larger scale ones such as for coral reef and forest ecosystems.
Further development needed
Although a promising start, Galaz and his co-authors stress the need for further research into the use of eco-monitoring web crawlers.
- We recognize that crucial challenges need to be addressed before a web crawler-based early warning system can contribute to the avoidance of abrupt ecosystem change, the authors write in their article.
Furthermore, fragmented and potentially insufficient data from several actors, can lead to information junkyards instead of robust ecological monitoring systems. Any web crawler based monitoring system would therefore need a coupled knowledge management and expert judgement system, the authors write.
- Web crawlers should be explored further in attempts to prepare for the vast ecological challenges of an uncertain future, the authors conclude.
Source: Galaz, V., B. Crona, T. Daw, Ö. Bodin, M. Nyström, P. Olsson (2009).
Can Webcrawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring, 7. In Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View/doi:10.1890/070204).