FORT COLLINS, COLORADO, USA - Limited awareness of biodiversity and its connections to our lives undermines the ability of public and policymakers to make decisions for sustainable development. So say prominent biologists and ecologists in a paper to be published in the January 2001 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, to mark the start of the International Biodiversity Observation Year, or IBOY for short. These and other scientists around the world have committed to making 2001 and 2002 breakthrough years in which to dramatically increase communication of their findings about the status of biodiversity and its links to human welfare. The IBOY is inspired by the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, in which scientists worked together across disciplinary and national boundaries to advance knowledge about the Earth, oceans and atmosphere.
Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. It is most often measured as the number of species of plants, animals and microbes but can also be measured in terms of the enormous diversity of genes that make up these species or the variety of different ecosystems on the planet such as deserts, rainforests and coral reefs. Diana Wall, biologist at Colorado State University, USA and Chair of the IBOY, emphasizes how little is known about biodiversity. "Scientists have described about 1.75 million species but we estimate that there are over 12 million species still to be described. 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."
The international team of researchers behind IBOY believe that improving knowledge about biodiversity may be the greatest scientific and education challenge of the twenty-first century. Wall 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".
New technologies such as molecular techniques that rapidly measure genetic diversity, satellites that monitor changes in forests and oceans, and the internet that allows global data-sharing, put the goal of understanding and conserving biodiversity within reach. However, scientists fear that much of the world's biodiversity may be lost before these efforts are successful. Stuart Pimm, biologist at Columbia University, USA and a 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 participating in the IBOY, a third or more of all species could be on a path to extinction within the next few decades.
Jeffrey McNeely, Chief Scientist at the World Conservation Union and also a member of the Advisory Board for the IBOY describes biodiversity loss as "the quintessential global issue" since the over-consumption of resources occurs far away from the habitats and species that are lost in producing the resources. "Given the global roots of the problem, international cooperation is needed to solve it," says McNeely. "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". "How much biodiversity is conserved and the benefits we derive from it will largely depend on the decisions we make in the next few years" adds Wall. "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."
At the center of IBOY activities are over 40 international projects that will make important new information on biodiversity available. Research projects range from surveys of life in the canopies of tropical forests to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. They use the latest technologies, such as genetic tools to conserve endangered species and Geographical Information Systems to produce the first atlas of marine life. Education projects include, a museum exhibit that will travel across Europe and America, an IMAX film that explains the links between people and biodiversity and a digital library, accessible on the web, that will save images and sounds of extinct and endangered species for future generations. IBOY's webpage (http://www.nrel.colostate.edu/IBOY) has details of these projects.
Throughout IBOY, scientists are reaching out to share their findings on biodiversity. A special education webpage for children will be launched in January 2001 and later in the year will host 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. Plans are underway for a World Biodiversity Summit, in late 2002, to showcase the new information on, and opportunities to learn about biodiversity generated in the IBOY.
Ultimately, participants hope that the IBOY will convey the scientists' optimism that by acting now we can learn to conserve biodiversity and reap its benefits in a sustainable manner. Wall explains that "Every day scientists around the world are learning more about biodiversity. 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".
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