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A river of new ecological data – An Interview with the Guest Editors of our Freshwater Ecosystems Call for Papers

Freshwater ecosystems provide important services to human societies, such as water, food, regulation of hydrological extremes, pollutant attenuation, and carbon sequestration. As freshwater systems are under pressure from human activity and climate change, a more complete understanding of these systems is needed to respond to the environmental changes associated with these processes.

Here Prof Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen and Dr Ben Abbott, Guest Editors of PLOS ONE Call for Papers on Freshwater Ecosystems, share their thoughts on the present and future of freshwater science research.

What are the most interesting scientific advances in freshwater science recently?

KSC: I would say it is the enormous amount of data that is becoming available as we apply more and more continuous recording data loggers with sensitive sensors, drones, unmanned vehicles, all sort of cameras, fast running analytic instruments – and that these great things are also becoming more and more affordable. Because of these advances, it is possible to get data, photos and live videos for almost any part of the World, from the deepest lakes and the permanently ice-covered lakes to boiling mud-holes. And then, it follows from these advances mentioned above that these great challenges require computer power to handle, analyse and store these large amounts of data. So, it is no longer a question of how to get enough data but rather how to manage the wealth of data that we can produce.

BA: Our capacity to measure parameters in more ways has greatly expanded over the past two decades. This opens up the possibility for new spatiotemporal analyses to move beyond just calculating concentrations and loads to understanding the mechanisms driving ecosystem function across the terrestrial-aquatic gradient. The combination of traditional physicochemical parameters with metrics of ecological community and remotely-sensed watershed characteristics is really exciting.

And, on the other hand, what are the main challenges freshwater ecosystems will face in the near future?

KSC: Here I would say all the “usual challenges”: climate change, biodiversity crisis, eutrophication (still an issue despite it has been a problem for many years now). One thing that we really need to do is to establish what the baseline conditions are especially for freshwater ecosystems that have not yet been affected too much – like the freshwaters in the Arctic and alpine regions.

BA: This flood of new data represents a challenge in itself. More numbers do not automatically translate into greater understanding. We need new approaches to extract meaningful patterns and attribute those signals to ecological processes, especially human disturbance. Another challenge is that many of our long-term monitoring stations are at risk because of changes in funding priorities. We need to leverage these long-term data sources and figure out ways to better integrate across sites.

What new approaches are needed to respond to these challenges?

KSC: Awareness, political will and resources.

BA: See my last two responses.

What are your main research interests? What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment in your career so far?

KSC: My main interests these years are understanding how Arctic freshwater ecosystems are organised under different (natural) environmental conditions and identifying the drivers and stressors that rule the biota. This might be the key elements to understand the uniqueness of pristine ecosystems and also to be able to predict their changes.

BA: There are still two million people who die every year from polluted water. Many more than that are affected by chronic or acute disease associated with exposure to pollutants. At the same time, aquatic ecosystems around the world are experiencing huge declines in biomass and biodiversity. We need to improve global water governance and ensure access to clean water for all people and ecosystems. The biggest accomplishment of my career has been the privilege of working with students, researchers, and water managers who are striving to address these global water crises.

What advice would you give to early-career freshwater researchers that want to make a difference?

KSC: It will be to follow your interests and go for the things that you think is important; if you can’t really get yourself into an enthusiastic mode when doing your research, you should maybe change horse. In other words, don’t necessary follow the main stream and where the money is often good – but follow your sense for what really matters. Another go advice is to talk with other scientists but not only those that are close to you (physically and thematically)!

BA: The distinction between basic and applied research is really counterproductive. Any good research has applications, and we should be seeking to share the relevant information we discover with all interested parties. As an early-career researcher myself, I frequently ask myself, how relevant and important is the work I am doing? Are there other issues or problems that I could be contributing to in a meaningful way? In this time of accelerating consumption and restructuring of human activity, the world needs high-quality information more than ever.

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PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on Freshwater Ecosystems. Researchers working on freshwater ecology are encouraged to submit their work before January 8, 2021.

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About our Guest Editors:

Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen

Kirsten Seestern Christoffersen is Professor of Freshwater Ecology at the University of Copenhagen

Ben Abbott

Ben Abbott is an Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University

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