ICSU Dark Nature

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Aims, scope and workplan

IGCP 490


The main goal of our project is to:

Refine the record of rapid (<100 years) environmental changes affecting physical environments and ecosystems during the last 11,500 years (the Holocene)

In working to achieve this, the project will also:

While recognizing that there are many interactions with anthropogenic stresses and biological processes, we will concentrate on earth processes that are dominantly abiotic (physical and chemical), whether climate-driven or not. The geographic focus will cover all major terrestrial and coastal biomes. The scope will deal with the effect of rapid natural change on communities, societies, ecosystems and the biosphere in general[1].

The project will consider the direct effects of both abiotic and biotic factors on society. We will explore the broad context in which incidences of environmentally-driven societal change have occurred, so as to identify the natural pressures involved. Recognizing these stresses will contribute to a better understanding of the effects of environmental disturbances. Are there acute societal responses to a single landscape change, or do communities respond to cumulative or convergent disturbances as in a volcanic eruption that affects a climatically-stressed landscape? Alternatively, where we have environmental evidence for rapid natural disturbance can we detect archaeological or anthropological 'imprints' of human adaptation to it.

The timescale of these environmental changes may well exceed that of political and economic planning (typically 3-5 years). Nevertheless, there are important implications in the policy arena, most especially for ecology (including the restoration and management of landscapes) and resource management. A main goal is to share and communicate the significance of what science is revealing about the character and effects of harmful rapid environmental change.

The project builds on the foundation provided by the highly successful 2002 London Conference on Environmental Catastrophes and Recovery in the Holocene (convened by Prof. S. Leroy and Dr I. Stewart at Brunel University). This conference highlighted a number of case studies of rapid landscape change in the late Holocene that would benefit from further international cross-disciplinary investigation.


This is a 2-year project. In year 1, the project will focus on a set of environmental 'hot spots' where previous research has already established a history of environmental change and where significant natural change can be effected within the span of a normal human lifetime (<100 years). In these areas, specially targeted workshops will draw together the researchers working on relevant issues. The series of scientific and technical workshops will each have a training component.

In year 2, the results of these workshops will feed into a final synthesis meeting where we will be ready to consider the over-arching theoretical, philosophical and social dimensions of 'dark nature' and to address its policy implications.

Year 1 (2004) Workshops:

The workshops will examine the human responses to specific rapid natural changes across a range of environments, with climate considerations (e.g. global warming, El Niņo) running throughout. At the core of each workshop will be the following question:

How can we unravel the environmental consequences of natural change from those induced by human actions?

The workshops will foster interaction between different scientific disciplines and facilitate participation from young scientists and women scientists. The workshop locations have been selected to facilitate interactions between scientists from 'Developing' and 'Developed' countries. Technical sessions will provide a strong training element, both in generic topics such as the planning and organization of projects and meetings, and science communication initiatives, and in more specialist scientific practices such as the range of methods and techniques in palaeoenvironmental science.

Year 2 (2005) Synthesis:

The final meeting will synthesise the scientific results from the feeder workshops and their implications for environmental policy and sustainability, including such questions as:

The project will be managed by a steering committee comprising representatives from the main cooperating bodies (IUGS, INQUA, IUGG, IGU, IGBP).

Work Plan

The activities of the project will be organized around a series of scientific workshops (and allied technical sessions) held in areas of the developing world in which there are good case studies of human and ecosystem responses to rapid environmental change. Our work plan is as follows:
Location Theme Indicative Topics With
Mauritania Drylands, Drought, and Dust Desertification (6000 yrs to present); cultural collapse (Garamantes); groundwater changes; dust transport; sea-level change Joint with IGCP 490, IUGS Geoindicators Initiative
Caspian sea Sea and lake level change Natural and man-made causes and consequences of sea-level change joint with IGCP 490, IUGS Geoindicators Initiative
Mozambique Rivers, Coasts and Island Ecosystems Palaeohydrological and modern flood studies; sea-level change and coastal zone adjustment; ecosystem response to extreme environmental events Joint with IGCP 490, IUGS Geoindicators
Arctic Canada Cryosphere Contemporary landscape adjustment to climate change; Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Joint with IUGS Geoindicators,
Argentina Mountains and Plateaux Natural hazards and Andean cultural collapses; Little Ice Age in South America; Andean wildfires and dust storms; modern settlement adjustment to watershed changes Joint with IUGS Geoindicators
Italy Final Synthesis Policy and Social Implications of Rapid Environmental Change Joint with IGCP 490, Geoindicator Initiative

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