“Picture the first place you thought of as nature.” asks J. B. MacKinnon in The Once and Future World, “Maybe it was nothing more than a vacant lot in the middle of a city, or a patch of scrub along a riverbank. It might have been a cottage or campground that you visited year after year, or perhaps your childhood home opened onto a forest, a beach, a mountain. Whatever your original vision of nature was, fix it in your mind… It is an illusion that has in many ways created our world.”
Each generation sees the state of the natural world that they grew up in as the norm. What looks like a healthy ecosystem today would likely have appeared very different to local people generations ago. Perhaps you have seen historical photos of loggers in Ontario, with men standing amid trees the likes of which you will never see. What we consider a large tree now would be dwarfed by the behemoths that were harvested a few generations ago. This is a concept known as shifting baselines syndrome, coined by marine biologist Daniel Pauly in 1995. He was describing how fisheries scientists starting their careers accept the contemporary condition of the fishery as the point against which further declines should be measured. We accept as the baseline the environmental conditions of our childhood – because it is our reference point, because in a world of ecological decline it is the best we have ever known. Thus, as the reference point of successive generations changes, the baseline “shifts”’. We aim to restore population levels or ecosystem health to a condition that is already severely degraded.
Think of our own forests in southern Ontario; the ghosts of the chestnuts that are no longer here, the shadows of the majestic elms that are all but forgotten. And next? The imprint of the ash trees that those voracious beetles have consumed and the beech thickets in place of the grand old trunks that once stood? The next generation will likely cling to what remains as their archetypal forest, as have generations before.
This shift can even occur within a generation through a phenomenon known as change blindness. People don’t generally notice small or gradual changes in the environment around them. But those small and gradual changes add up and the cumulative result can represent a significant shift in what is considered to be the standard.
Long-term ecological monitoring helps to combat the shifting baseline, and change blindness. It starts with baseline conditions taken at some point in time, to which future conditions can be compared. Remember that the baseline has already shifted immeasurably, but the record keeping has to start somewhere. Where possible, we compare current conditions to historical data. This can be difficult because the data may not be standardized, or the means of collecting the data may have changed, or, as is often the case, no data exists. That is not to say that we should not reach further back, to try to understand what came before we started keeping records, but monitoring provides a record of change that can help to prevent further shifting of the baseline. Instead of relying on our own ability to notice change (which as noted above, is flawed), monitoring provides quantitative and qualitative documentation of the state of the natural world over time. Through long-term monitoring we measure change, identify trends, and hopefully address declines before they become larger or irreversible, through restoration, policy, stewardship and outreach. If we do not take account now we will not know what was lost, we will accept a new status quo that is less diverse, less resilient, further degraded, and ecologically impoverished.
If we are careful to pay attention we may indeed notice changes in our environment anecdotally, but how do we quantify it? Leadership and resources are generally not mobilized or funding doled out, for anecdotes. To secure the resources we need, it helps to be able to say how much, how long, how bad, and to give facts based on reliable measurements.
Long-term monitoring is conducted on a regular basis, over a long period of time. It requires consistent, strict adherence to protocol such that the methods of gathering information are standardized. This ensures that changes that may be detected are a result of actual change on the ground and not a change in the way something is measured or by whom it is measured. Long-term monitoring helps to determine if the changes that are being observed are actually above and beyond what can be expected as a result of natural variation. The longer term the monitoring, the more ecological processes and natural variation can be understood. Many phenomena in nature are cyclical, and it is in learning about these cycles, about the maximums and minimums one should expect, that we can determine if the change is attributable to something more than natural variation. This is the kind of inquiry that helped uncover the reality of climate change, and researchers were limited by the brevity of the historical record. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called climate change, “one of the most crucial problems on Earth.” It is a major driver of ecosystem change. Long-term monitoring will hopefully help us to make sense of the changes that a mutable climate will bring.
There are groups across the globe monitoring ecological change. The Living Planet Report 2016, recently published by the World Wildlife Fund, includes a Living Planet Index, which amasses data on almost 4000 vertebrate species monitored by organizations from around the world to assess global trends in population abundance. The results showed an alarming downward trend with an average 58% decline in population abundance of monitored species in just over 40 years. The greatest declines were in freshwater environments.
While we can look to global indices for broad trends, the monitoring we do at Conservation Halton is relevant at our watershed scale. It provides us with local knowledge. There are regional differences that can be discerned at a finer scale, and that can help inform the need for on-the-ground work within our own communities, in response to our own unique opportunities and challenges. In order to assess the health of the watershed, Conservation Halton implemented a long-term environmental monitoring program in 2005. The program uses a combination of monitoring protocols to assess both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem health.
In monitoring, as in all scientific inquiry, questions are of paramount importance. We gather information in order to answer questions we have about the health of our watershed. As information is gathered, new questions often arise. At Conservation Halton, our broad, primary questions are:
- Are natural heritage features throughout the watershed affected by changes in the watershed?
- How are natural heritage features changing?
- What factors are driving change?
In order to answer these broader questions, we need specific questions about the various organisms and vegetation communities (indicators) that we study. Examples of these are:
What is the annual mortality rate of trees? Is it changing over time?
What tree species has suffered the most mortality?
What are the most common forest bird species? Is this changing over time?
Has Garlic Mustard (an invasive species) abundance changed over time?
We have been monitoring many of our indicators for 10 years or more and are starting to look at trends. The results of this work can provide evidence-based policy direction and management of ecosystems.
At Conservation Halton, long-term ecological monitoring includes:
- Forest health (includes tree mortality, growth, regeneration and ground vegetation)
- Forest birds
- Terrestrial salamanders
- Marsh monitoring (includes birds and amphibians)
- Fish Community
- Benthic Community
- Stream Temperature
- Channel Morphology
- Water Quality
The uses for the data we collect are manifold. The results can help us to anticipate future conditions and challenges, lead to recommendations for stewardship and restoration projects, help to increase habitat protection for species at risk, and provide the information needed to prioritize projects and make the most effective use of limited resources. The information collected allows us to paint a picture of our watershed so that the state of our watershed’s ecological health can be communicated to the public, so we, as a community, might know what is changing, what is being lost. Monitoring illuminates the blindspots to prevent the further shifting of the baseline.
Last modified: September 5, 2017