Horizon Scanning: Peering into the Future

What’s around the corner for conservation?

How about: using drones for forest protection, detecting invasive aquatic species by their environmental DNA (eDNA) and growing corals in ‘nurseries.’

Horizon scanning is a systematic search for potential threats, opportunities and developments that are not yet widely recognized. It’s used in all kinds of fields, from business to policy. So why not try it for the benefit of nature?

That’s what a team of  “horizon scanners” has been doing for the past 4 years. The group—which includes Conservancy marine scientist Mark Spalding—digs through hundreds of potential issues and opportunities that could have an impact on the planet and are not yet on the general conservation radar yet. Their findings—a list of 15 top areas to watch in 2013—have just been published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

“We think about everything,” explains Spalding. “From social trends to technology, from ecological shifts to diets, from medicine to transport. In each case we ask, ‘Could this be important for nature in some ways that we haven’t properly considered?’”

Some of the issues identified hold great possibility for conservation—such as eDNA and coral gardens. Others represent threats or concerns—how will the rapid growth of concentrated solar power (CSP) impact land use? And some don’t seem like they belong on a conservation list at all—this year’s list includes the commercial use of antimicrobrial peptides, 3D printing and vegetarian aquaculture feed.

“Some of it is not new, but we recognize a step change,” says Spalding. “For instance, 3D printing is on the list because we think we’re about to see a shift to widespread use, with likely impacts on materials, transport and waste.”

As Spalding emphasizes, it’s not about newness as much as it’s about potential for great harm or good. One item on the list—using coral nurseries to restore reefs—is an area where The Nature Conservancy is already experimenting and leading efforts.

Coral Nurseries: Hope for the Future?

Coral gardening is a method of propagating Acropora coral species in underwater nurseries and transplanting them back to the reef. It’s a promising effort that could help restore staghorn and elkorn corals, which have seen widespread degradation across the Caribbean. In 2006, they became the first corals to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The work has been successful in the Florida Keys and Virgin Islands so far. Next, the Conservancy hopes to scale it up to other locations as part of larger efforts to protect and restore coastal habitats.

While restoration is de rigueur for many habitats—from forests to wetlands—the field of coral restoration is a new and rapidly growing field. This rise is in part due to the dire situation corals face. Since the 1980s, Acropora species have declined 80-90% across the Caribbean and western Atlantic—and these numbers are not unique among other coral species. Many scientists fear corals may not be able to recover without human intervention.

In addition to on-the-ground projects, the Conservancy recently published a guide to restoring Acropora species. It includes “best practices” for nursery techniques and highlights the role of coral nurseries in broader coastal protection plans to restore fisheries and protect against coastal hazards.

“Coral gardening, combined with better management and restoration of reefs, may play a critical role in bringing corals back to the Caribbean,” says Mike Beck, lead scientist for the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team.

About the Horizons Paper

The full list of 15 issues on the horizon for nature in 2013 includes:

  • Rapid growth of concentrated solar power
  • Widespread development of thorium-fuelled nuclear power
  • Seabed located oil drilling and processing
  • Accelerating water cycle
  • Proliferation of hydropower in the Andean Amazon
  • Species loss as a driver of global environmental change
  • Vegetarian aquaculture feed
  • Rapid rise in global demand for coconut water
  • Detecting aquatic species with environmental DNA
  • Use of coral nurseries for reef restoration
  • Forest conservation and restoration by micro unmanned aerial vehicles
  • The 3D printing revolution
  • A link between biodiversity, allergy and autoimmune disease
  • The commercial use of antimicrobial peptides
  • Synthetic genetics

Read the full paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

(Image: ships on the horizon seen through binoculars. Source: Flickr user rumpleteaser via a Creative Commons license.)

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