Each year more than a score of futurists, researchers and others from around the world put their heads together to identify top “under-the-radar” trends that have the potential to dramatically alter for better or worse our ability to protect biological diversity.

The team of two dozen researchers is led by William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “We hope,” they write, “that our annual scans not only highlight topics of potential relevance to biological conservation but also to the wider environment and, by extension, to human well-being.” In other words, the list gives us the opportunity to get out in front of issues before they become problems or maximize the benefits (and minimize downsides) of emerging technologies.

This year’s report, published yesterday in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, identifies 15 potentially hot topics lurking in the wings.

The top issues for 2018:

Trouble With Thiamine

Researchers have been observing a deficiency in thiamine, an essential vitamin, in fish, birds and bivalve mollusks in the northern hemisphere. The nutrient, also known as Vitamin B1, is important for proper metabolism and nervous system function, and insufficient thiamine even for a few days could make wildlife more vulnerable to diseases or less able to reproduce. The culprit is unknown, but scientists suspect a change in availability of algae that make thiamine and/or pollutants that make it harder for animals to absorb the vitamin.

Chronic Wasting Disease on the Move

Chronic wasting disease, a deadly brain disease that infects members of the deer family, was first found in the United Sates in 1967 and has since been found in 23 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. More recently CWD was diagnosed in deer relatives in South Korea and Norway, raising concerns that it could soon spread to other countries. The disease not only kills animals directly, it also has huge implications for ecosystems such as the Scandinavian tundra, which face disruption if large numbers of plant-eaters die.

Diseases From the Deep Freeze

Other diseases are raising concerns this year as well — primary among them, those caused by pathogens that have been trapped in frozen soils for decades, centuries or millennia. A heat wave in Siberia in 2016 caused the release of anthrax bacteria from thawing ground, resulting in the death of one person and 2,000 reindeer. As global warming and increased economic activity in the northern latitudes causes permafrost to thaw, other bacteria and viruses may reactivate and begin to infect living things as well, altering ecosystems and potentially threatening species already living on the edge.

Genetic Pesticide Control

Scientists are experimenting with a possible gene-based approach to control viruses and insects that attack plants. The approach involves spraying plants with a specific configuration of double-stranded ribonucleic acid (dsRNA) designed to disrupt production of a particular protein in the pest. When the insect or virus of concern attacks the plant, it can encounter the dsRNA and eventually be killed by, or have its reproduction disrupted by, the absence of the protein whose construction it blocks. The approach, which can extend beyond plant applications to include protecting animals from pests, could help plants stay healthy and reduce the need for other pesticides. However, there is concern that it also could harbor unintended consequences for nontarget species.

Editing Out Invaders

CRISPR gene editing has taken the world by storm in recent years. Among the applications drawing the most interest is the use of the technology to cause population declines in undesirable organisms, such as nonnative invasive species that compete for habitat or outright eat native plants and animals. Deployment of the technology in this way could provide a big boost to native species. However, concerns remain about keeping it under control to avoid spread to unintended locations or species.

Laser-Focus Fishing

Bottom trawling, a common way to catch ocean fish that involves dragging nets along the ocean floor, is tough on seabed ecosystems, harms nontarget organisms and is energy intensive. Icelandic innovators have introduced a variation on the theme that uses automated controls to keep the device from bumping the bottom and herds desired fish into it using laser beams. Widespread adoption of this technology could be good news for the ocean floor and the organisms that frequent them — but also raises concerns about making it easier to harvest fish faster than they can replenish their populations.

Metals That Capture Water

Human demand for water is growing at the same time a changing climate is making conventional supplies less certain. Now, researchers are working to perfect a technique to literally produce water from thin air using metal-based crystals and energy from the sun. Implications for conservation are mixed: The technology could reduce our need to disrupt ecosystems to obtain surface or groundwater for human use, but it also could make it easier for us to extend agriculture into natural spaces and alter the water cycle to the detriment of plants and animals.

Boosting Salt Tolerance in Plants

Withdrawal of groundwater and sea-level rise are increasing the salinity of soils in various locations around the world, making it hard for crops to thrive. However, scientists are studying strategies for improving the salt tolerance of plants, including genetically engineering molecules that transport sodium and administering silicon, which boosts such molecules’ capacity to protect the plant from being harmed by salt. Introduction of such technologies could benefit or harm native ecosystems, depending on how they’re applied: If used to improve productivity of degraded agricultural soils they could reduce pressure to plow new lands, but they also could make it easier for modified plants to outcompete native ones, reducing wild populations.

Finger on the Pulse

A solid understanding of people’s awareness, knowledge, interest and understanding of conservation topics is critical for designing and carrying out effective policies and practices. But how to get that “finger on the pulse”? An emerging resource is culturomics, the analysis of words — and, increasingly, images and sounds — in various media. Policy-makers and planners can use culturomics for help understanding predispositions and existing knowledge as a first step toward such things as showing how people value nature, understanding what makes people appreciate conservation, and identifying the effectiveness of conservation activities. Culturomics can also be used, however, to counter conservation initiatives by those with a vested interest in seeing them not succeed.

Iron, Redistributed

Iron, an essential component of living things, is continuously moving among land, water and organisms. As oceans acidify and warm, this cycling is changing, altering iron’s ability to support life. Models suggest that initially iron may be more available to life forms as floating ice gouges the seafloor, but long-term predictions are for an overall decrease in availability. Of particular concern is the extent to which iron is available to phytoplankton, the foundation of the ocean’s food web. This limitation may increase pressure to fertilize the ocean as a strategy to maintain or increase its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Soil Carbon Wake-up

Most of Earth’s carbon is found in soil, but it’s not trapped there forever. As microbes degrade organic matter, carbon moves into the atmosphere, where it can contribute to climate change. And as climate changes, soil may release more and more carbon, faster and faster, in an ominous feedback loop. Current climate models consider this movement, but there is evidence they may underestimate release from deep layers of soil. If so, the release of carbon from soils could result in faster planetary warming than current models predict.

Quick Change Qinghai

The climate of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Asia is changing rapidly, with temperatures and precipitation both noticeably increasing in the past several decades. In the coming years, scientists anticipate that further climatic changes will not only cause lakes to overflow and soils to release more carbon on the plateau itself, but also create domino-effect impacts on weather systems across Europe and Asia with implications for plants, animals and ecosystems far beyond the plateau.

Ocean Collaboration

The world’s largest marine protected area, the Ross Sea MPA, was established in late 2017, leading conservationists to hope that momentum is building for designating additional sites around the world. In addition, legislation being managed by the international Convention on the Law of the Sea is being considered that would provide new protection to plants and animals living in the ocean and allow for new approaches to setting up MPAs. Even though the Ross Sea MPA agreement sunsets in 35 years, together these advances are seen as bringing fresh hope for ocean conservation.

Belt and Road Meets Environment

China’s US$1.25 trillion proposal to build six transportation corridors linking Asia and Europe, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, offers tremendous opportunity for incorporating sustainable design into a massive new infrastructure — or unprecedented potential for environmental disaster if done wrong. Big cats, in particular, could be under threat, with the proposed routes crossing territories for snow leopards, Amur tigers and Far Eastern leopards. Initial signs are that The Chinese government has expressed commitment generally to protect the environment, but documents related to the Belt and Road Initiative do not currently reflect this. Whether it makes environmental protection a priority on this massive initiative, only time — and, perhaps, international vigilance — will tell.

New Phones, New Concerns

The nature of 5G, the next wave of cellphone technology, is such that antennas may likely be scattered densely throughout communities, increasing the exposure of animals to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. Because only limited research has been conducted exploring the impacts of such radiation on wildlife, we risk potential unintended harm to living things exposed to the fields as 5G systems are set into place. View Ensia homepage