Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) have concluded that early humans left a bigger footprint on the ecosystem than previously thought. Analysis shows how human action has brought about changes in nature that still continue to reverberate through our ecosystem.
One of the lead authors of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences at the “Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Art and Science”, Daniel Bain, explains that the study of the effects of the legacy of our ancestors is important because it provides a vision of how today's actions can affect the ecological systems of the future.
For Bain, those who have to learn are those responsible for making decisions that affect the ecosystem: “Increasingly, sophisticated and complicated strategies are being proposed to manage our ecosystems. However, the design of these strategies tends to address the most recent impact, rather than the entire history of impacts. This can lead to wasted effort and a misuse of limited resources”.
Bain alerts that the inherited effects of human activities are constantly around us and that few people care about it. For example, urban systems accumulate a large amount of artificial materials, some of which are capable of leaving a significant ecological footprint.
This is the case of lead, which has been excluded from gasoline and paint in the United States for several decades, but can remain in the ground for much longer periods of time, implying that you have to be careful with growing food near the roads or old houses.
The researcher comments that without a systematic collection of data by the LTER network, the broader geographic patterns of the effects of inheritance from the past it would be much more difficult to detect. For example, scientists have found that areas of recent ice age have much less mud than areas that did not.
When the Europeans first arrived on the east coast of the United States and they radically changed local agricultural practices, eroding soil made its way into waterways. But nevertheless, glacier areas produced less mud, leaving fewer signs of the presence of erosion. On the other hand, the areas that did not suffer an ice age, formed large amounts of mud, leaving as a legacy as buried valleys.
However, Bain states that, «although LTER sites have decades of data to access”, they don't always reflect those changes: “It is difficult to know that we might have been able to understand if LTER had been created six or nine decades ago, instead of three”.
Another important advantage of the LTER approach is the network of scientists that is created and that together they can design a study, analyze the data and produce a synthetic work efficiently. If this kind of historical analysis was done by a small team of scientists, it would take much longer and perhaps be limited to a smaller geographic scale.
University of Pittsburgh
Passionate about History, he has a degree in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. Since he was little he loved history and ended up exploring the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries above all.