Fifty Years of LTER in Northeast Asia: Looking Back from 2050


Wuk-Hee Hong

Research Institute of Sustainable Environment, Korea





In many aspects, Northeast Asia is a unique region in the world. It boasts longest history of human dwellings - the earliest human skeleton was found in China - and prospering culture. With long tradition of agriculture in the region, more than five thousand years, we may safely say that people in Northeast Asia have practiced sustainable development in their everyday lives ever since their settlement in the region. For example, history of rice production for more than three thousand years in the region would serve as a concrete example of practicing agriculture in the way of sustainable development. Rice production is being regarded one of the most efficient way of agricultural land use not only because it produces the highest yield of cereals per unit land area with highest nutritional values, but also because only this agricultural business permits year-after-year  cultivation in the same crop land.


Considering recent history in the region, we also find out many differences with other parts of the world. Most of all, Northeast Asia as a whole has been very dynamic in economic development during the latter half of last century even though each country in the region has followed somewhat different pathway with others. As a result, however, this region in general has been experienced serious environmental degradation which has been and is still being commonly regarded as the byproducts of economic development; air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, desertification, shortage of water resources, top soil loss, etc. Hence, from now on continuing economic development in parallel with  enhancing environmental preservation would be the great challenge laid to the people in this region. And probably this is the main reason why the UNEP, UNDP, World Bank and many other international institutions have been closely watching Northeast Asia.


In terms of environmental management, however, Northeast Asia seems to have many weak points. With one fourth of world population concentrated in the land area smaller than the whole USA, soil composition and climate condition would not be as favorable as in the other region of the world such as Europe and North America in preserving environmental qualities. Hence, if we must find out one reason why we should put more efforts in long-term ecological research(LTER) in this region, it would be that we, the people in the region, have to keep continuing our economic development without giving any serious constraints to our valuable ecosystem. Regarding this goal  of LTER in this region, it is my personal belief that LTER must provide necessary information and knowledge on such questions; how to avoid adverse impacts to this region's fragile ecosystem, how to better manage our natural resources, and how to utilize ecosystem responses as early warning of certain disastrous events such as climate change.


Thinking such goal that LTER in Northeast Asia should pursue in the 21st century, I recognize that assuming we are in 2050 and look back the past 50 years may would  provide us some eye-opening visions on what we should do at this moment. The following is the description of my vision on the Northeast Asia LTER, which I got from the perspective of 2050.



Chronicle of Sustainable Development for the Next 50 Years


Another unique characteristic of Northeast Asia is that most countries in the region are quite different each other in terms of economic development and environmental conservation. Initially, this difference would generate some difficulties in establishing sound regional cooperative relationships such as what we are pursuing now. But as we may notice here at this gathering, it also would serve as a strong motivation for such regional cooperation because we can learn some useful lessons from other countries' experiences.


It has been shown that significant progress has been made in the last two decades  in confronting environmental challenges in both developing and developed countries. World-wide, the greatest progress has been in the realm of institutional developments, international co-operation, public participation, and the emergence of private-sector action. Legal frameworks, economic instruments, environmentally sound technologies, and cleaner production processes have been developed and applied. Environmental impact assessments have become standard tools for the initiation, implementation, and evaluation of major development and investment projects in many countries around the world.


As consequence, Figure 1 dramatically shows how the rate of environmental degradation in developing countries could be slower than that experienced by industrial countries when they were at a similar stage of economic development. Hence, if we are willing to learn something from each other, we, all the countries in the region, will report marked progress in curbing environmental pollution and slowing the rate of resource degradation as well as reducing the intensity of resource use within near future.


Considering the message from Figure 1 in mind, we may have the hope that the 21st century of Northeast Asia would be rather promising in economic development as well as in environmental preservation. From now until 2050, however, we probably would experience a series of major events which are closely related to our environment and natural ecosystem. The following is the chronicle of such events which I by myself assembled, but I am sure that there must be wide range of variation on each event.


Let's assume that we are in 2050 and look back the last fifty years.


During 2000s, in Northeast Asia, there has been more concern on domestic environmental problems than on international issues. For example, Korea has been  eager in preserving natural environment and saving biodiversity, such as conservation of certain wetlands, national parks and other natural habitats. Later in 2000s, the issue of greening North Korea was surfaced and the ways of reforestation were actively sought by the scientists, land planners, policy makers, and government officials from both sides of South and North Koreas. In China, the decade of 2000s had been critical period in reducing pollution emissions, particularly air and water pollutants, and there was limited success. With such pollution  reduction efforts, China's future in terms of sustainable development has been assured thereafter. Ecosystem conservation and soil preservation were other important issues China put emphasis in 2000s.        




Figure 1.  Environmental transitions


Sometime in 2010s, acid rain issue was put on the table of international negotiation in Northeast Asia. This issue combined with climate change issue has been a major topic in regional environmental agenda for the next two decades. Emission of acid rain precursors and their transport have been intensively monitored by the international research teams mainly composed of scientists from China, Japan and Korea since early 2000s, but until late 2020s only limited evidences on the accusation that air pollutants from other countries in the region caused acid rain and hence affected natural ecosystem in Japan were collected. Later 2020s, this issue was finally resolved by the international treaty signed by the involved countries in the region.


Sustainable development has been emphasized ever since early 2000s in the region. With evident success of developing sustainable agriculture and preserving natural ecosystem in China, significant improvement has been achieved in such areas of anti-desertification, biodiversity preservation, reforestation and water resource preservation. However, coastal water quality in China has been successively deteriorated and in consequence fishing has been prohibited in yellow sea since late 2020s.


Introduction of GMOs(genetically modified organisms) technology into agriculture was  started in early 2000s in Northeast Asia, however, its adverse impacts to natural environment was observed for the first time later in 2000s. Mutant species of fruitfly having strong pesticide resistant genes were overwhelmed southern part of Korea and some areas of East China. In consequence, fruit production in the region has been significantly reduced until new effective pesticides were introduced into the market in the middle of 2010s. This species also affected some natural ecosystems and significant damages, particularly in the well-preserved fine forests in Korea, Japan and Northern China, have been reported. Since then, GMOs introduced into the environment have been occasional problems in Northeast Asia, particularly in crop production.


In later 2030s, keeping biodiversity finally became one of the most important national goal throughout the world. As biotechnology has become more and more sophisticated, genomes of most plant and animal species having commercial values were revealed and many countries have declared them as national assets. Now, ecologists' role of preserving natural ecosystems and providing appropriate knowledge needed for environmental and natural resource management became highly regarded and suddenly they found they were standing in the front lines for keeping their nations' biodiversity.



Challenges and Contribution of LTER



Above discussed are some examples which I am thinking we, the ecologists in Northeast Asia, have to deal with during the next 50 years. Considering such chronicle of possible environment-related events in the region, I believe our roles and responsibilities as ecologists and environmental scientists will be greatly expanded in the 21st century and we must prepare in advance to take such important duties.


Most of those challenges we are facing now and will face in the near future require enormous knowledge on ecosystem, which I assume we are still significantly lacking. Also, I find out that those ecological knowledge and information can only be obtained from LTER in our region. As one of such examples showing the importance of regional long-term ecological research, we may think about acid rain issue which is already discussed above.


In Europe and North America, acid rain issue was surfaced as early as 1960s when researchers first found that fish populations in some lakes diminished and forest trees suddenly died. Not later long they revealed the relationships between the long distance transported pollutants and their impacts to the lakes and forests and this issue had been developed into international disputes among involved countries. In early 1980s, it was finally found its way through three decades of extensive research and international negotiation.


In Northeast Asia, acid rain phenomena were observed since late 1960s, firstly in Japan and later in Korea and China. However, unlike the cases of Europe and North America, typical effects of acid rain caused by long distance transport of air pollutants, like fish disappearing in the lakes and forest dying in remote sites from cities and industrial complexes, have been rarely found in the region. In spite of that, many people in the region, particularly in Japan, believe that acid rain caused by the air pollutants transported from China and Korea is affecting their natural ecosystem even without any obvious evidences.


It is very possible in Northeast Asia, however, that in near future acid rain issue would  develop as a theme of international  dispute as experienced in other continents. For preparing such event to come, I believe the ecologists in China, Korea, and Japan should develop research strategies to the way that can effectively assess whether such acid rain caused ecosystem impacts would exist or not in the affected areas. Future long term ecological research(LTER) in Northeast Asia should be planned in such consideration of how to meet this task.


Table 1 is some description on the future environmental events which I think we must prepare to face during the next half century. The LTER researchers in our region, I believe, would take such events as strong challenges and would contribute greatly in resolving every problems caused by such events.     



Our Research Strategies


If we admit that there are great challenges ahead in our profession, the next logical step would be to develop appropriate LTER strategies in order to better meet such challenges. The followings are my own view on such strategy development.


From their early development of the LTER program, Taiwan and China adopted so-called the "top-down" approach which means all of the units of LTER networks should follow the unified principals, and the major activities including research and monitoring would be supported by the central funds. This top-down approach would be very effective in collecting and analyzing data and extracting findings from it, and be particularly useful in comparing the outputs of research and monitoring between the LTER stations.


The top-down approach may provide further advantage when it is applied in the countries where still the appropriate manpower, facilities, and funding are significantly limited. Admitting that most countries in the Northeast Asia are in such situation, it is my suggestion that our regional LTER networks should be developed with such philosophy in mind.


Next, in Northeast Asia currently there exist 38 LTER sites including 29 sites in China, 3 in Korea, 5 in Taiwan, and 1 in Mongolia. Considering the potential sites in these countries and in Japan which hasn't applied yet to ILTER networks, the number of LTER sites in the region will be increased well beyond 50. This number may be or may not be sufficient if the region's size is considered, however, I believe that there is a strong need that more LTER sites of other ecosystems except forest should be added. The Northeast Asia is a unique region sitting in and around the western continent with the peninsula and island countries incorporated. Sea area covers much of its region and rivers, lakes, and wetland systems which are of great values for sustainable development are well developed. The importance of these ecosystems will be sharply increased in the 21st century as a food resource, biodiversity conservation, and pollution sinks and that should explain why we have to designate more of those ecosystems as the LTER sites.


Finally, the LTER program in this region should be designed to promote international cooperation in ecosystem monitoring and research. As discussed above, there will exist a fair chance in the near future that certain regional environmental issues be developed to the themes of international conflicts. Acid rain issue would sit at the first place in the list followed by marine pollution, desertification, and GMO releases into the environment at the next places. If we really wish the LTER program in Northeast Asia contribute in resolving such unwanted international disputes to come, I think the best way we can do is to make this regional LTER networks more strong and more cooperative. Japan's and North Korea's participation into our networks should be highly encouraged, and the regional cooperative research in any forms should be launched as early as possible. Only with this cooperation, we shall better serve for our people in our nation and in our region.