For the ninth year running, an international team of experts has conducted a horizon-scanning exercise and identified 15 emerging issues that could affect global conservation. This year the team included Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Dr Abigail Entwistle and the results were published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Horizon scanning aims to highlight topics that are not yet widely known but could have significant effects on global biodiversity – either positive or negative. Several issues highlighted in previous scans gained public attention and subsequently resulted in policy action; for example, microplastics were identified as a concern in 2010, and in the UK microbeads have now been banned in rinse-off cosmetic products.

This year, the identified topics range from thiamine deficiency in wild animals, the release of pathogens due to thawing permafrost and the effect of increased electromagnetic radiation.

Here are the 15 emerging issues…

1) Thiamine deficiency as a possible driver of wildlife population declines

There is growing evidence of thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency in a range of taxonomic groups, including bivalve molluscs, ray-finned fish and birds across the northern hemisphere. Thiamine deficiency can lead to behavioural and reproductive problems, which could cause population declines.

2) Geographic expansion of chronic wasting disease

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease found in some deer species, and there is a risk the disease will become epidemic in more continents. It could have a substantial impact on deer populations and knock-on effects on predators who rely on deer as a vital food source.

3) Breaks in the dormancy of pathogenic bacteria and viruses in thawing permafrost

Some viruses and bacteria can survive freezing for thousands of years. However, as some permafrosts (frozen soils usually held together by ice) thaw due to climate changes, the release of embedded pathogens could result in population-threatening epidemics.

4) RNA-based, gene-silencing pesticides

The development of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) as a new method to control plant pests such as insects and viruses could be more publicly acceptable than other techniques that use genetic modification, whereas gene silencing does not result in a heritable change. However, little is known about the potential effects of gene silencing on non-target organisms with the same gene sequences.

5) Genetic control of mammal populations

Gene editing and self-replicating gene drive technologies could help to control invasive mammals on islands, by spreading a deleterious allele to provoke a population crash. This could help save native species threatened by invasive mammals, such as black rats, but also raises ethical and ecological questions.

6) Use of lasers in commercial deep-water fishing

A fishing method using laser beams to herd target species could be an alternative to bottom trawling. The new technology could reduce accidental bycatch, seabed damage and carbon emissions, but ensuring that catch levels are sustainable might prove problematic.

7) Use of Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) for harvesting atmospheric water

A new technique is being developed to capture atmospheric water involving MOFs (a form of porous crystals) or use of solar power. MOFs could reduce displacement of humans or wildlife from dry ecosystems or during periods of drought. While this creates new opportunities, it could also lead to major land-use changes with potentially widespread effects.

8) Aquaporins engineered to increase plant salt tolerance

Increasing salt levels in agricultural soils threatens crop production worldwide. Genetic engineering of aquaporins (proteins in the plasma membrane that transport water) could increase salt tolerance in plants, as certain aquaporins may transport sodium ions. If this becomes commercially viable, the positive or negative effects on biological diversity could be considerable – food shortages could be reduced but an increase in arable land could lead to habitat loss and fragmentation for native species.

9) Effect of culturomics on conservation science, policy and action

Culturomics analyses word frequencies and associations to improve understanding of human culture and behaviour. Applying this to conservation is novel and could be used to quantify public perceptions and changes in public interest in biodiversity over time. The results could help improve conservation and guide decision-making, but they could also be used by organisations to undermine conservation policy and actions.

10) Changes in the global iron cycle

Changes in the global iron cycle in response to accelerating ocean acidification, among other factors, are constraining phytoplankton productivity, which may affect entire ocean ecosystems.

11) Underestimation of soil carbon emissions

Most of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon is found in soil organic carbon. While the loss of carbon from the upper soil layer in response to global warming is well recognised, the emissions from deeper soil layers have not yet been systemically considered. This may mean global warming could be more rapid than expected.

12) Rapid climatic changes on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau

As temperatures on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau continue to increase and snow cover decreases or becomes more variable, its effects on climate and hydrology in Asia and Europe may become more pronounced, with potentially major effects on species and ecosystems.

13) International collaborations to encourage marine protected area expansion in the high seas

Areas beyond any national jurisdiction (the high seas) cover 44% of the Earth’s surface, and less than 1% is protected. New designations and advances in international policy frameworks suggest that the expansion of marine protected areas in the open ocean is increasingly possible.

14) Belt and road initiative in China

The development of corridors linking China to Europe (the belt) and linking Chinese ports to Indonesia, to ports around the Indian Ocean, and – through the Red Sea –  to Southern Europe (the road) could have disastrous environmental impacts, as well as increase the risk of trade in endangered species and transport of invasive species.

15) Potential effects on wildlife of increases in electromagnetic radiation

Understanding the potential effects of non-ionising radiation on wildlife could become more relevant with new mobile network technology (5G), which could connect 100 billion devices by 2025. An increase in electromagnetic radiation could potentially result in increased tumour risk in animals.

Read about last year’s projections here.