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Alchemists of Catastrophe: How Disasters Deliver Data

Scientists could never have justified dumping more than 500,000 tonnes of methane into the ocean to study the effects of climate change on deep-sea habitats, but they didn’t have to – Deepwater Horizon did it for them.

Scientists could never have justified dumping more than 500,000 tonnes of methane into the ocean to study the effects of climate change on deep-sea habitats, but they didn’t have to – Deepwater Horizon did it for them.

By Shanta Barley & Jessica Meeuwig

Ecologists are treating oil spills, species invasions and other environmental calamities as natural experiments on a scale that could never be attained by normal laboratory or field studies.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Since the 1940s humans have detonated more than 2000 atomic bombs. We have cut down more than one-third of our tropical forests. We have transformed the humble chicken into an unlikely avian superstar: its bones may become the “type fossil” for future geologists studying the Anthropocene. We have effortlessly wiped out the apex predators that we once worshipped, and conferred on ourselves alarming names such as “superpredator” to underline our strange superpowers when it comes to eating other animals to extinction.

We have nevertheless failed spectacularly to anticipate how our ecological meddling has altered the planet. The 1985 discovery that ozone levels over Antarctica had halved due to our dependence on chlorofluorocarbons came as an unpleasant jolt, just as few predicted that the “wonder” pesticide DDT would ultimately cause the egg shells of birds of prey to thin and crumble.

In a new paper published in Ecosystems (http://tinyurl.com/z78ucyf) we argue that humanity will continue to receive unpleasant ecological shocks unless it begins to conduct experiments at the planetary, or at least ecosystem, scale.

But should scientists be allowed to experiment with our planet, given that we only have one? The answer is, of course, no but in many cases we are already using...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.