Over the last thirty years or more it has become clear that global and regional climate changes are increasingly impacting the functioning of ecosystems and possibly their long-term behaviour. It has also become evident that in turn such perturbations can affect a wide range of processes and the associated human activities reliant on these natural systems for the production of services and products. It has been realized that certain services provided can often be critical to local or regional community well-being (eg. mangroves, coastal lagoons) while others are important at regional or larger scales (eg. plant fertilization by insects). Others can be shown to be indicators of very large scale changes (such as coral reefs, weather systems) whose long-term impact is still difficult to foresee due to the complexity of the natural structures and their interaction with the global environment.
Effective conservation and sustainable ecosystem administration requires the development of an understanding of how such systems function, their responses to human pressures (including political and economic pressures) as well as other long-term impacts such as climate variations in order to develop viable management proposals. Resource management has also become an issue for equitable social development.
The currently known and potential future services of ecosystems are the object of research in the European Union in the context of increasing uncertainty as to the sustainability of present economic models. Five areas have been presently identified as of special interest to the Foundation, although other types of ecosystem themes may be considered. Four of the areas are ecosystems while the fifth concerns energy transition to a low carbon economy.
1: Coastal lagoons (European and Mediterranean), their bio-geo-chemical behavior and implications for sustainable management. Human pressure on the surrounding watershed and coastal areas can produce significant short to medium term effects that may mask underlying long-term regional impacts. The Water Framework Directive requires the application of a range of indicators to assess long-term trends in water quality within the European Union.
2: Coral reef systems, their functioning under present and probable future environmental changes. These ecosystems deliver a wide variety of services among others tourism, fisheries, shoreline protection, and interest is growing in possible pharmaceutical applications. What are the implications of ocean acidification, increasing temperature and UV radiation on their reproduction and survival?
3: Shelf Seas, while continental shelf seas make up only about 7% of the area of the world ocean they have a disproportionate importance, both for the functioning of the global ocean system and for the social and economic value which are derived from them. Biologically shelf seas are much more productive than the deep ocean and provide more than 90% of the fish eaten. They are also increasingly affected by continental processes linked to human activities whose long-term impacts need to be assessed.
4: Desertification and Agriculture: dryland areas in southern Europe and countries to the south of the Mediterranean Sea are progressively being impacted by changes in climate conditions. Observations over time show that terrestrial biomes adjust to these variations – through changes in their range and species composition. Understanding these processes is also crucial for long-term agricultural development in support of local and national populations as well as export products to regional or world markets.
5: Transition to a low carbon economy focuses on the likely continued use of carbon based fuels due to the continued availability of such significant resources for the foreseeable future. Technologies for de-carbonisation of fossil fuels and storage of carbon dioxide to counter its release to the atmosphere while making available energy will continue to be a major technical and political concern during transition to cheap and reliable energy alternatives.
Increasingly during the transition to non-fossil energy sources (wind, solar, other etc.) the need to store energy produced by none base-line sources will require new technologies probably including geological sequestration of products that can subsequently be recovered and transformed into energy depending on demand requirements. It may be possible that the two technical requirements described (de-carbonisation and energy storage) will lead to converging technologies.