· Forecast identifies threats and opportunities
· Rising demands putting pressure on habitats
Artificial life forms, robots that mimic natural processes, and even people who spend all day in front of the computer and rarely experience the real outdoors, may all fundamentally affect the quality of nature in Britain over the next 45 years.
According to 35 environmental scientists, drawn from the government as well as colleges and charities, a host of new threats and opportunities for UK biodiversity is gathering pace as technologies develop, social habits alter and the possibility of large-scale responses to phenomena like climate change grows.
The scientists have drawn up a list of 25 factors, including the rising demand for food and biofuels, thought to be having an immediate effect. These, say the scientists, are already putting worse pressure on the habitats of birds and mammals.
Others factors, such as sea-level rise, extra fire risk and extreme weather events, are looming with climate change.
But many more challenges, identified in the "horizon-scanning" report, come from what now appears science fiction. Environmental manipulation could be a quick-fix way to mitigate climate change, scientists say. Putting trillions of lenses in orbit to deflect the sun's energy, building giant mirrors in space, fertilising oceans with iron filings and laying reflective covers on deserts, have all been suggested, says the paper in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.
The paper's authors do not try to judge the ideas or even predict any follow-up. However, they say the public reaction to GM food, in particular, has taught them to look ahead to what society is likely to consider important.
Bill Sutherland, lead author and chair in conservation biology at Cambridge University, said studies were needed in emerging areas. "We need to have the science ready before policies are made and products are on the market ... the necessary science was not done before the introduction of biofuels. In terms of the environmental consequences and societal concerns, we should have thought of all these things before."
High on the list of new technologies that may profoundly affect nature are revolutionary nanotechnology processes involving minute particles. These also have biological properties and the scientists think it will be a huge challenge to predict their impact.
One potentially positive development could be large-scale restoration of habitats to encourage wildlife seen as iconic. In a Dutch experiment, a 13,800-acre reserve was created with populations of animals that were common in medieval times. The paper says comparable schemes are likely to occur in places such as East Anglia and the Scottish Highlands where creatures such as the lynx might be introduced.
The paper's authors are concerned about new pathogens, from overseas or developed through biotechnology.
"A series of fungal pathogens have devastated north American forests. One has recently appeared in the UK and could have similar impacts on native woodlands," says the paper. "New pathogens [affecting] people and livestock are likely to become established in the UK in future as climate change allows them to survive. But this could increase the use of insecticides. If, for instance, malaria established itself in Britain because of climate change, widespread drainage of wetlands and ponds could be recommended."
Other human factors are also acknowledged. Were bird flu or rabies to get established in British wildlife, the authors say, public attitudes to biodiversity might alter profoundly.
"This could lead to reduced political and financial support for conservation, and higher rates of killing wildlife." Equally, while the internet informs, there is a danger that sedentary lives will erode engagement with nature and care for the environment. "Young people spend about half the time outdoors compared to 20 years ago. This leads to a fall in knowledge of biodiversity."
· Politics: policies may be unable to keep pace with the environmental changes of the future
· Extreme weather: local wildlife extinctions are likely
· More food demand: habitat loss and intensification of farming
· New genetically modified pathogens: likely reduction of
· Sea level rise: some new habitats, but great damage from salt
· River flow: climate change will greatly alter river ecology
· More biofuels: possibly more pesticides, loss of habitat
· Increased fire risk: some new habitats, but big potential impact
· Invasions: alien species can move in from abroad
· Nanotechnologies: can help with pollution cleanup but could be toxic
· Artificial lifeforms and bio-robots: possibly invasive
· Renewable energy: new safe havens, but also damage possible
· Internet: no substitute for people experiencing nature for themselves