About this Research Topic
Much of our existing theory, methods and data in ecology assume that ecological systems are at equilibrium with their space and/or time; that is, the underlying properties of ecological systems are not functions of space and/or time. The lasting success of these endeavors may have resulted, at least in part, from the fact that most of human history has occurred throughout a remarkably stable time in Earth's history.
Yet, evidence of biotic changes from both the fossil and recent records indicate that ecological systems rarely, if ever, approach such perceived states of equilibrium. As we prepare to manage for change in the Anthropocene – an era characterized by the large-scale spatial and temporal modification of ecological systems at the hand of humans – assumptions of ecological equilibrium hinder our ability to predict likely ecological responses. For instance, the primary approaches used to project species’ geographic ranges into the future have been shown to often provide unreliable predictions, partly because they assume that species are currently at equilibrium with their environments and will quickly return to a new steady state after experiencing changing environments. Similarly, applications of species-area relationships to estimate extinction are biased by extinction debt, itself a fundamentally non-equilibrium process.
Incorporating non-equilibrium in ecology is fundamentally an issue of scale: it requires understanding how ecological processes generate observed patterns across spatial and temporal scales. Such detailed understanding can only be built by answering questions such as how species and communities respond to the same drivers in different places or times, or how processes of different rates and magnitudes interact with each other. Addressing these questions has proved a challenge for ecologists, as it rests upon the availability of extremely rare datasets that extend across spatial and temporal scales far larger than a single field study.
Fortunately, recent progress in this direction has been enabled by another hallmark of the Anthropocene: the unprecedented rise in technological advances, information sharing and big data. The increasing availability of large quantities of data spanning continents and centuries (e.g. from digitization of museum specimens, citizen science surveys, next-generation sequencing, and remote sensing), coupled with fundamental advances in the analytical ability to harness such data and account for their unique biases, has enabled us to better address the question of non-equilibrium in ecology.
In this Research Topic, we will provide an overview of novel theory, methods and data – enabled by recent technological advances – which will better equip us to face the key challenges presented by the non-equilibrium Earth systems of the Anthropocene.
Keywords: Non-equilibrium dynamics, Scale, Global Change, Big Data, Ecological Informatics
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