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What are the 50 most important questions in paleoecology?

Paleoecology has really blossomed as a field in the last decades, due in large part to increasing concerns about climate and the environment. It’s always been a strong, dynamic field, going back almost a century ago if you start with the very first modern pollen analyst, von Post, but recently folks in other kinds of disciplines have started paying attention to the past. Want to know how fast trees can migrate to keep up with climate change? Interested in what the best restoration baseline is for your reserve? Want to know what happens when you drastically change the amount of rainfall an area receives? Paleoecology is a good place to start.

As we face the environmental challenges of the Anthropocene, paleoecology will likely be called upon more than ever, which means it’s a good time for the community to assess the state of the field. Cue Palaeo50 (spelled the British way), a workshop that seeks to identify the 50 most pressing questions in paleoecology. The workshop, to be held in December, will bring together researchers in ecology and Quaternary science to narrow down a list of dozens of questions solicited from the broader community as a whole. Participants will be broken into groups to tackle one of five main themes that the organizers have identified as being of critical concern:

  1. Human-environment interactions.
  2. Ecology over long timescales.
  3. Novel ecosystems and ecological adaptation.
  4. Measures of uncertainty within palaeoecology.
  5. Approaches to palaeoecology.

The organizers have stressed that the questions should be “answerable,” “have a factual answer that does not rely on value judgements,” (this should provoke a lot of discussion!), “address important gaps in knowledge,” “not be formulated as a general topic area,” “not be answerable” by “yes or no” or “it depends,” and “contain a subject, an intervention, and a measurable outcome if related to impact and interventions.”

I’ve applied to the workshop, and am very much hoping to attend, but in the meantime I thought it would be fun to open up a discussion about these questions. 50 questions seems like a lot at first, but when you think of the field as a whole, let alone the massive range of challenges we face in the Anthropocene that paleoecology is relevant to, well, 50 seems pretty doable.

Do you have an idea for a question? Have you submitted one yourself? I’m happy to collect questions here and submit them as well. If I do go to the workshop in December, I’ll be sure to let you know what we come up with, too.

In the hopes of sparking a little discussion, here are several broad questions I have to start with, that will ultimately get narrowed down and focused:

1) What are the spatial and temporal scales of change in paleoecological data that are most relevant to the global change we’re facing in the Anthropocene? What do those data reveal about the scale of forcings (e.g. rate of climate change over a particular timescale), versus responses (e.g. plant capacity to migrate)?

2) How can paleoecology inform our understanding of gradual versus tipping point dynamics, both for forcings and responses?

3) Can we isolate signals of terrestrial biogeochemical cycling and other ecosystem functions from sediment records?

4) How fast and how far did species migrate following the last deglaciation? (This question still hasn’t been resolved satisfactorily, and a lot of neo-ecologists are still citing now-dated work on the topic.)

5) With the last question in mind, where were cryptic refugia during the last glaciation? Can we develop new tools and techniques to identify them?

6) Can we pick up signals of human land use in paleoenvironmental proxies (thinking especially of fire here)?

7) How important were biotic interactions during the Quaternary? Can we identify them in the paleorecord?

8) What are the long-term legacies of biotic upheavals, like extinctions, pathogen outbreaks, or large-scale disturbances?

9) Can we discount the importance of micro- or macro-evolution during the Quaternary? How quickly can plants and animals adapt?

10) Are there areas where paleoecology challenges conventional wisdom in neo-ecology, and vice-versa? Can we reconcile the two?

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Categories: Conferences Ideas

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Jacquelyn Gill

9 replies

    1. I hear you, but I do think that it’s important for a field (paleoecology) being marshaled so heavily for global change research and policy (like the IPCC) to stop and assess the state of the field, and where the gaps are in our ability to address the questions being asked of us. If you look at the workshop itself, it’s very much tied to questions that are directly answerable and have an imminent relevance to the Anthropocene– and one of the sections is devoted entirely to tools and methods, which is something you do suggest in your post is important. I genuinely do think that paleoecology, which has had a couple of methodological revolutions (like radiocarbon dating!), has gone through phases in the kinds of questions we’ve been able to ask, and have worked on.

    1. Great questions! The first one also raises interesting follow-ups like, when is a species natural (which definitely doesn’t fall within the guidelines if the workshop but is, I think, an important one!)? The second one is fascinating, both because of its importance and how challenging it is to address. On the flip side, there is also the issue of interacting drivers, which we also poorly understand and are difficult to tease apart.

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