The role for history in ecology can be tough to generalize. For a neo-ecologist, 5 years may be a long time scale, for a restoration ecologists, 50 years might be, for a paleoecologists, millions of years could matter. But multiple talks today argued that without considering history we are lost. Whether it is using climate history to understand how the effects of past climate change are still being felt today (from Jens Christian-Svenning), or the oft-mentioned debate about whether local biodiversity is truly in decline, the past is necessary to understand our changing planet. [The various papers on this debate came up in at least 3 of talks I saw]. Regardless of which way the diversity relationship goes, Frederic De Laender pointed out that loss of functioning due to increased environmental stress meant that local communities were changing anyways.
Related to this is the question of how ecologists should incorporate and understand the role of human history in their studies. Are humans simply a disturbance? A covariate in a statistical analysis? Or an intrinsic component of ecology across the globe? What is a baseline for ‘naturalness’ in the absence of humans anyways? Further, human records can be potentially misleading as ecological research tools. For example, P. Szabo showed that the popular conception in the Czech Republic (based on archival data) is that beech forests are the true ‘natural’ forest, and coniferous forests were simply the result of forestry plantations. Policy reflects this and promotes preservation of broad leafed forests. However, analysis of paleo-pollen data showed that in fact spruce and other conifers appeared to have dominated for thousands of years in some regions. What then is the true ‘natural’ forest? From Emily Southgate’s fascinating talk showing how the development of an oil refinery in the 1800s and its impacts could be investigated using historical land surveys, to maps showing the still-unfilled ranges of European tree species, the legacy of the past is clear in present day data.