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Modelling ecological systems under environmental change.

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The world’s environment is changing, but we have a relatively poor understanding of the scale and nature of the biological effects of this change. There is a societal imperative to improve our ability to predict the impact of environmental change on the biological world. We need the ability to forecast the likely state of ecological systems in future, novel conditions. All modelling involves making philosophical decisions about what we are doing and why. Currently, prediction in ecology is typically made using general, precise models that are good at describing the past but poor at predicting the future behaviour of a system in new conditions. We need the ability to produce robust, accurate predictions of specific systems in the novel environments of the future. The basis for the approach one might need to achieve these ends is discussed. A process-based, systems approach would seem to provide the ability to produce robust ecological forecasts and such approaches have been used successfully in the related fields of climatology and molecular biology. Adopting this approach in ecology would require a culture change but could pave the way to ecology becoming truly predictive. A systems approach to ecological prediction would be computationally difficult, but the imperative is great enough to argue for the effort equivalent to that which went into the production of climate models.

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