How many species will remain, if we use land in a certain way and climate change continues to progress? Iwona Dullinger addresses this question in her research for her doctoral thesis at the Institute of Social Ecology. We now know that land use and climate change are the two main drivers of biodiversity loss. Yet, to date, research has rarely considered them jointly. Dullinger hopes to close this research gap.
Iwona Dullinger is motivated by the protection of nature, i.e. “the outrage over the way that we as humans, being one single species, treat the other species”, as she explains. Land use and climate change are man-made and have an impact on the diversity of the species that can survive in nature. She wants to explore their effects by examining a section of the Eisenwurzen, a narrow region which straddles parts of Upper Austria and Styria, ranging from Enns to Admont, and including around 20 municipalities. “What is great about this region is that it covers a wide range of different types of land use: the upper part encompasses some very level areas with rather intensive agriculture focusing on arable farming. Moving south, the region becomes increasingly mountainous, precipitation levels rise, vegetation periods are shorter, and there are more forestry operations and livestock farms.” The Eisenwurzen is part of a research cluster, and as such it has been involved in long-term socio-ecological studies for some time now. Consequently, cooperation partners such as the Chamber of Agriculture, schools, or regional managers are already on board when it comes to conducting joint participatory research. In Iwona Dullinger’s opinion, the inclusion of the region in the research efforts is absolutely crucial: “This is the only way to ensure that the insights we generate can also be put to effective practical use. We hope to open up new scope for opportunities for the region.”
Specifically, she works with an integrated socio-ecological model that consists of two parts: one part is an agent-based model, which is used to model the decisions made by actors in the region. Farmers, forest owners, forest managers, national parks, and the like are examples of actors whose behaviour is to be modelled through the use of data from the region and from interviews. “The behaviour of farmers, for instance, depends on many factors: What do they themselves want? What serves to earn money? What opportunities does the climate offer?” The second part is a model for the distribution of species: Using this, the team hopes to calculate which plants will survive in which quantity under a given manner of land use. Existing vegetation surveys and own field work form the basis for this approach.
Together with her colleagues, Iwona Dullinger is currently intent on building the agent-based model: farmers and experts have been interviewed, and this information is now being processed. By the end of the year, they aim to be in a position to calculate the model of the future. When asked about the overriding hypothesis that underpins her work, she responds: “Of course, we assume that a sustainability scenario that encompasses regional development, direct marketing, and biological, gentle agriculture is better for species diversity. However, we want to pose the question: To what extent are the effects of climate change already so severe that not much can be done now?” Discussions held so far have revealed that climate change plays a very insignificant role for farmers, unlike extreme weather events. “The vegetation periods are getting longer. The harvest yields are greater. Many people consider themselves to be the winners of climate change.” As climate has a long-term effect, it proves hard to grasp.
Iwona Dullinger works at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Having received a warm welcome there, the ecologist also appreciates other benefits of conducting research in the region, such as the practical relevance, the hands-on approach, spending time in nature, and making a direct contribution. Once she has completed her local studies as well as her doctoral thesis in Vienna, she would dearly like to continue working scientifically. And yet, as a realistic person she also acknowledges: “That is something that I cannot strive for. I would like to remain in Vienna, but that does not align smoothly with the classical requirements of the scientific world. Nevertheless, maybe I will be lucky.” In any case, as a part-time editor of biology textbooks for schools, she definitely wants to stick to this field. Biology is her life and her life is biological: “I am careful about what I eat, what I wear and how I travel. Nobody is perfect, but I do try very hard.”