Bushfires below Stacks Bluff, Tasmania, Australia (Matt Palmer/unsplash)

Heatwaves are triggering wildfires and killing people around the globe. The climate emergency and the planet’s sixth mass extinction event have already begun.

What actions have led us here? And what do we do now? A special themed issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences addresses these questions. SFI External Professor Ricard Solé (the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain) and SFI Science Board Member Simon A. Levin (Princeton University) conceptualized the issue and invited potential authors to speak at a virtual workshop late last year. 

The workshop laid the foundation for "Ecological complexity and the biosphere: the next 30 years” — a collection of research articles, opinion pieces, and a review. "This is a crisis time, and we're facing complex-systems problems," says Levin. "So, it is essential to bring together people from many different disciplines, everything from ethics to engineering, to try to see what we can do." 

The 30-year period, Solé says, is a "timescale where things may change so much that we might really be in trouble." Climate change may lead to tipping points where ecosystems will no longer adapt to ecological disturbances, unleashing devastating consequences such as the loss of important species. "Scaling up our understanding of tipping points" highlights issues surrounding research on the topic. 

SFI External Professor Sonia Kéfi (the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France) and her co-authors argue in their contribution to the special issue that scientists need to develop more sophisticated mathematical models that factor in interactions among multiple species in an ecosystem to predict tipping points and identify endangered ecosystems. They also emphasize the need for more work on understanding early warning signs of these thresholds.

The special issue also puts a spotlight on bioengineering methods, which have attracted controversy in the past, to address environmental problems. "We are no longer going to be able to prevent climate change from happening," says Levin. "So, we've got to consider some dramatic alternatives."

The future may look gloomy, but Solé wants readers to feel hopeful: "We still have a hundred reasons to be optimistic. There are different ways of tackling the problem — if we do it right, we still have a chance."

Read the special issue, Ecological complexity and the biosphere: the next 30 years in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (June 27/August 15, 2022)