Despite our burgeoning datasets and increasingly sophisticated monitoring capabilities (such as earth-observation satellites), large gaps remain in our data and our understanding of many key environmental issues. Many specific uncertainties are presented in the analysis of indicators and datasets throughout the Almanac of Environmental Trends, but here are the top five environmental areas where our knowledge and understanding are inadequate:
1. The oceans—especially the deep oceans. The United States spends vastly more on space research than on ocean research, even though surprising discoveries from the deep oceans continue to roll in whenever we look closely. NASA’s 2010 budget is $18.3 billion, while the 2010 budget of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is $4.7 billion. Part of this difference occurs because satellites cost much more than ocean-exploration equipment, but part of it is due to the neglect of our own unexplored frontier.
2. Biodiversity. No one doubts that species extinction—along with its main drivers, such as habitat fragmentation—is occurring on a scale larger than some “natural” or background rate of extinction. Scientists are making rapid progress is cataloguing species, but large uncertainties remain about how biodiversity works on the ground, and even how to define ecosystems.
3. Arctic conditions. Everyone knows about retreating ice sheets and melting tundra, but it is not clear that these changes are the result of human-caused global warming. Several peer-reviewed studies have identified long-wave changes in upper-air wind patterns, deep ocean currents, and minor pollutants such as “black carbon” as likely factors in the observed changes. Underneath the ice cap is another realm of mystery, made more important by the likelihood of large mineral resources (especially oil and gas) that several nations are now rushing to claim and exploit.
4. Chemical exposure. We use thousands of synthetic chemicals in our daily lives, but many compounds have never been thoroughly tested or examined for potential harm to humans or ecosystems. And even for chemicals tested and monitored, there are large ranges of uncertainty about what level of exposure might be harmful. However, we do have a good understanding of basic chemical families that are hazardous. Meanwhile, chemical anxiety—chemophobia—is often whipped up by activist groups.
5. Invasive species. Non-native species introduced through human trade or migration are considered a priori to be ecologically harmful. This assumption requires more thought. Science writer Ronald Bailey points to evidence that many non-native or “exotic” species appear to have increased overall biodiversity in the areas where they were introduced. Some species, such as the zebra mussels that have proliferated in the Great Lakes, are obviously pests, but the blanket condemnation of invasive species should be reconsidered.