Don Monteith, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
Long-term changes in species abundance and community structure are often difficult to attribute to specific drivers, as data on the latter are rarely available at comparable temporal and spatial resolution. Our limited understanding of the mechanisms determining changes in biodiversity restricts our ability to respond through mitigation or adaptive management, and our ability to assess the significance of observed changes for the wider ecosystem. The Environmental Change Network (ECN) (http://www.ecn.ac.uk) attempts to improve national capability in this area by providing a range of terrestrial and freshwater sites where co-located measurements are made of the main drivers of change (e.g. climate, atmospheric chemistry, land use) and ecosystem responses (e.g. soil, flora, fauna and water quality) according to a clearly defined set of protocols.
After more than 15 years of monitoring, the data emphasise the substantial inter-annual variation in driver and response variables, but records are now sufficiently long for long-term trends to begin to emerge, particularly with respect to air pollution and air temperature. Links between physico-chemical change and various biodiversity measures are becoming apparent, and emerging hypotheses may now be tested in field or laboratory experiments. Increasingly, ECN data are being used in conjunction with studies on different temporal and spatial scales, such as the UK Countryside Survey, to provide a clearer temporal context for occasional but more spatially intensive surveys, and thus provide a more holistic assessment of changes to biodiversity. The extensive datasets, unusually stable land management of ECN sites, and the active involvement of site managers provide exceptional opportunities for the development of field-based experimental work to assess the impact of various pressures and types of management for biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services. Concurrently efforts are being made to increase the visibility of ECN activities and make data and its interpretation more accessible to research, education and policy makers and the wider public.
Ref: Environmental Change Network: Emerging trends in the composition of plant and animal communities and the physical environment. Biological Conservation, 142/12: 2814 – 2832