2001 to be international biodiversity year

The first year in the (real) new millennium is being celebrated as International Biodiversity Observation Year (IBOY). The move will see an international team of researchers from the Natural Resource Ecology laboratory at Colorado State University in the US and other global organisations masterminding a wide range of projects to study biodiversity across the world.

To launch the project, a group of prominent biologists and ecologists have written a paper, published in the January issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, claiming that the limited awareness of biodiversity and its connections to everyday lives undermines the ability of the public and policymakers to make decisions on sustainable development.

The scientists have committed to ensuring both 2001 and 2002 are breakthrough years, vowing to dramatically increase communication of their findings about the status of biodiversity and its connection to human welfare. The IBOY team is not providing funding for the projects, but will publicise them and provide opportunities for contact and collaboration between science, education and the media.

The inspiration for the IBOY project is the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, in which scientists collaborated across disciplinary and national boundaries to advance knowledge about the Earth, oceans and atmosphere.

Diana Wall, a biologist at Colorado State University, and chair of the IBOY, stressed how little we know about biodiversity. “Scientists have described about 1.75 million species, but we estimate that there are over 12 million species still to be described,” she said. “For 99% of species we simply don’t have good information on their distribution, abundance, whether they are plentiful or endangered, or their role in providing goods and services that we get from ecosystems, such as renewal of soil fertility, decomposition of waste and purification of water.”

She predicts that “exploring biodiversity will unlock many benefits, through discovery of new genes and chemicals that can be used for drugs, to improve crops, or to restore polluted land. Perhaps even more importantly, learning where species are, their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and how we can conserve them will be vital for making more informed decisions about our land, rivers and oceans”.

The project team says that new technologies such as molecular techniques, which rapidly measure genetic diversity, satellites monitoring changes in forests and oceans, and the internet, which enables global data-sharing, make understanding and conserving biodiversity an attainable goal. But scientists fear that much global biodiversity may be lost before these efforts reach fruition.

Stuart Pimm, a biologist at Columbia University, and member of the IBOY Advisory Board, says that “extinction rates are now 100 to 1000 times the background rate expected without human influence and they are accelerating. If current land use changes continue, the total loss of biodiversity will compare to those during the previous five mass extinction events in Earth’s geological history”. According to the scientists taking part in the IBOY programme, a third or more of all species could be on a path to extinction within the next few decades.

“The IBOY in 2001 and 2002 is a window in time in which to pull together to integrate what is known about biodiversity, gather important new data and share this information with the public and policymakers, added Wall.

IBOY activities will focus on over 40 international research projects designed to make available important new information on biodiversity. These will range from surveys of life in the canopies of tropical forests to the production of the first atlas of marine life.

Other projects include a Harvard University plan to assemble existing knowledge of phylogenetic relationships and display it in the form of a ‘supertree’ of all life. Phylogeny is the study of the evolution of life forms.

Frogwatch USA will also provide a springboard for a further project. A long-term monitoring programme to encourage wetland conservation and efforts to monitor amphibians across the US, will be extended to Central and Southern America during IBOY, assisting an international monitoring exercise.

Another key project is Biosphere Resource Integrated Monitoring (BRIM), which aims to compile and maintain a comprehensive database of plant and animal species in an internationally co-ordinated network of sites representative of the world’s major ecosystems.

Educational projects will include an exhibition, which will travel across Europe and America; an IMAX film explaining links between people and biodiversity; and a digital web-based library, which will save images and sounds of extinct and endangered species for the future.

A special education web page for children will be launched this month, later on this year the website will stage an internet chat session with IBOY’s biodiversity experts. As key biodiversity activities and findings occur throughout 2001 and 2002, information packs explaining why and how the latest science is being applied to understand and conserve biodiversity will be published and posted on-line. A World Biodiversity Summit is also planned for late 2002, to provide a showcase for the new information generated in IBOY, and opportunities to learn about biodiversity.

The scientists hope that IBOY will convey their optimism that by acting now we can learn to conserve biodiversity and enjoy its benefits in a sustainable way. “Every day scientists around the world are learning more about biodiversity,” said Wall. “There is much being done but much more that can be done. We want the IBOY to raise awareness of this opportunity, and provide new ways for people to get involved and find the information on biodiversity that they need.”

Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist at the World Conservation Union and a member of the IBOY advisory board, describes biodiversity loss as “the quintessential global issue”. He argues that unsustainable consumption of resources typically occurs far from the habitats and species lost in producing the resources. “Given the global roots of the problem, international co-operation is needed to solve it,” he says. “IBOY is meeting a real need at a critical time in the relationship between people and the rest of nature, helping to promote international collaborative research programs to address some of the most important issues facing society today.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie