Human use of the Earth’s resources has created a myriad of problems that threaten essential ecological processes, and in doing so jeopardizes the long-term welfare of society. Five of the greatest global anthropogenic threats to natural ecosystems are habitat loss/degradation, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change. These threats alter ecosystems in ways that impact their functioning, and contribute to rates of extinction of species that are up to 1,000 times higher than before human dominance. Such loss of species diversity destabilizes ecological processes resulting in cascading effects through ecosystems.
Although there is considerable research on each of these individual global threats, much less is known regarding how these factors interact with one another. For example, how can deforestation and urbanization affect the distribution and abundance of important vectors of disease? How can climate change influence the invasiveness of introduced species and our ability to control their invasions? And, how do organisms respond to the simultaneous insults of environmental pollutants and more frequent extreme weather events associated with climate change? These types of interactions are critical because all habitats are subjected to the simultaneous pressure of two or more of these threats.
Looking to the future, a more interdisciplinary understanding of these human-induced changes is necessary to inform public policy, minimize further environmental degradation, and to promote sustainable solutions to the greatest environmental challenges of the 21st century.
The interaction of these five global threats represents the next frontier in global-change science. This emerging frontier has been recognized in recent literature (e.g., numerous scientific review papers; NRC Report on Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences), and has been a focus of major international assessments (e.g., Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; 2012 Pellston Workshop). In addition, recent major initiatives by funding agencies (e.g., NSF, NIH, DOD) have highlighted this area.
Clearly, interdisciplinary research will be necessary to tackle the new frontier of global environmental challenges. Now is the time to act– it is evident that these are among society’s greatest challenges. The goal of the new Global Change Center at Virginia Tech is to explicitly address these threats and their interactions.