Editorial: Perceptive Visions: Using Environmental Indicators to See into the Future
Volume 5 Editorial by Nick Ralston.
This is the inaugural issue of the online edition of Environmental Indicators, the official journal of the International Society of Environmental Indicators (ISEI). As the ISEI (pronounced “I see”) name suggests, the society’s intention is to serve as the “eyes” that recognize, explore, and clearly perceive the health of the environment. To support the objectives of the society, the intention of this journal is to provide a conduit for delivering the most accurate and up-to-date scientific information about environmental health to concerned scientists, managers, government agencies, and the public. Ecological indicators and biomarkers included in reports published in Environmental Indicators need to be well understood. Relationships between environmental impacts and how they affect measurable endpoints of environmental health also need to be properly interpreted and clearly described. Since a comprehensive understanding of ecosystem health is an essential precondition for development of effective regulatory policies intended to protect and improve environmental quality, the membership of the ISEI and authors submitting to Environmental Indicators take their professional responsibilities very seriously.
Although diverse in form, all environmental indicators involve objective measurements that are reliably related to meaningful aspects of ecosystem health. These indicators reflect a wide range of scientific endeavor, ranging from analytical assessments of molecular and genetic effects to ecosystem/population studies, landscape-level evaluations, and geospatial measurements that provide accurate indications of environmental conditions. As with all forms of scientific study, these measurements must be reproducible so that concurrent, parallel, or subsequent studies will be able to recognize differences and trends that indicate declining or improving conditions. Useful indicators of current environmental health status must demonstrate adequate analytical precision and provide reliably consistent data that can be readily interpreted. Identification, development, and monitoring of indicators require multidisciplinary skills of insightful scientists with broad training and deep understanding of the relevant issues. These characteristics are evident in the ISEI editorial board, members, and contributing authors. Manuscripts from prospective authors and applications for society membership from scientists with similarly admirable credentials are sincerely welcomed.
The intention of studies performed by ISEI scientists and researchers contributing to our journal has been to recognize relationships between defined criteria and the environmental health or harms that their measurements portend. The goal of Environmental Indicators is to provide empirically derived data and descriptions of the use of objective indicators that accurately reflect environmental health. Well-designed, cost-effective, and reliably accurate indicators will provide criteria of the quality required by regulatory agencies tasked with recognizing and emphasizing needs for environmental protection or restoration. Ideally, such criteria will also make it possible for these regulatory agencies to establish programs with clearly defined objectives and easily measured endpoints for tracking progress.
The public, government agencies, environmental scientists, and managers are all interested in maintaining and improving the health of the world’s ecosystems. Scientific progress has resulted in rapid advances in technologies for assessing ecosystem health and improvements in analytical approaches. Ecologists that initially concentrated on assessing the condition, reproductive success, and survival of individual species have broadened their approaches to include consideration of the overall health and interactions of floral and faunal communities and the dynamics of their respective contributions to ecosystem stability. Although there is often a tendency to consider humans as somehow operating outside of nature, we are extraordinarily active participants of the rural or urban ecosystems we live within. Failing to consider human activities as dynamic aspects of the ecosystems we live within does nothing to promote environmental health. Instead, these outmoded perceptions perpetuate the common assumption that humans can subjugate natural resources without having to face adverse, and in some cases, severe consequences. Increased public awareness of results from time-tested and trusted suites of biologically, methodologically, and societally relevant indicators of environmental health can be used to provide early warning of potentially adverse trends. A well informed public will be more capable of supporting environmental policies that correspond with a properly formed scientific consensus about vitally important issues that increasingly confront our decision makers.
Environmental indicators will continue to be developed to assess ecosystem health and determine the potential impact of human interventions. Ideally, environmental indicators should be capable of measuring a continuum of health effects in relatively pristine environments as well as under a wide concentration range of natural or anthropogenic stressors. Indicators need to be useful in assessing the health of individual species but also need to account for the additional dimensions of influences that commonly affect entire ecosystems. Indicators that are able to track changing trends over time, the effects of human or other impacts on ecosystems, and the efficacy of management/remediation on environmental restoration will enjoy the broadest application. Indicators that encompass multiple categories have the greatest chance of being implemented over the long term, and the usefulness of indicators is enhanced if they can be used to assess a wide variety of ecosystems and provide comparable data.
Biological, biochemical, and chemical indicators and biomarkers have become well established as a means for assessing relationships between exposures to environmental stressors and effects on ecological (both floral and faunal) and human health. Environmental indicators that can be reliably related to specific adverse effects observed at the molecular, cellular, organism, or population level need to be properly identified and examined before they are applied in risk assessments. The dose-dependent degree of harm needs an empirically derived foundation to help define environmental health. Inherent in this approach is the objective of providing a scientific basis for assessing the needs for adequate environmental protection, management, or restoration, and from which responsible action, including informed and cost-effective regulatory endpoints, can be developed.
The remarkable variety of tools that have been identified and reported by ISEI scientists have substantially improved recognition, understanding, and quantitation of effects of pollutants, toxicants, and other sources of environmental disturbance. Recently reported applications of environmental indicators have included direct assessments of environmental concentrations or exposures to various pollutants and environmental contaminants. However, this represents only a fraction of the exciting work that has been performed. Studies that have been described in past issues of this journal include a remarkably broad range of investigations. Scientific advances presented at ISEI meetings and described in articles published by our journal have included recognition of the pivotal nature of interactions between toxicants and essential biomolecules; examinations of pollutant effects on various genetic, neuroreceptor, and enzyme response activities impacted in exposed populations; and a number of studies of various effects of environmental exposures on wildlife population dynamics in ecosystems from across the nation and around the world.
At the time of this writing, the ISEI is currently holding its annual meeting in Hefei, China. With a record-breaking number of participants attending this meeting, the growth of the society seems assured. Further encouragement comes from knowing that upcoming special issues of Environmental Indicators will be dedicated to addressing a series of urgent environmental problems and current environmental topics. These special issues are also expected to enhance the rapid growth of the society and increase the number of readers of the journal. The Environmental Indicators session at the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Meeting in Portland, Oregon, at the end of October 2010 and plans for next year’s annual meeting to be held in Haifa, Israel, both serve to indicate the level of interest in this area of research is already substantial and continually growing.
Articles from Environmental Bioindicators, the printed edition of our journal for the first 4 years of the society, are currently available online. The change in the name of our journal does not indicate a change in our mission. Instead, the new online edition blends the best aspects of our print format with the convenience of live linking and freedom for authors to use high-quality color images without concerns regarding increased publication costs that normally accompany their inclusion in a publication. To introduce this journal to the broadest swath of environmental scientists and potential future members of the society, we will be offering free access to the past 5 years of our issues. We invite our readers to enjoy the articles presented in our current issue and to be certain to review articles of interest that have been published in our previous issues.
We cordially invite all environmental scientists and other interested readers among our guests to consider joining the ISEI and submitting articles for inclusion in future issues of Environmental Indicators.
NICHOLAS V.C. RALSTON
Energy & Environmental Research Center
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202