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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

A pronghorn antelope standing in green sage grassland
Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

A warmer world will be a sicker world. That may be a dire prediction, and it does more than just underscore the need for climate solutions: It also shines light on the value of collaborative, synthesis research for revealing the scale of global risks that are important to address.

That prediction arose from a working group of 30 researchers from a variety of disciplines, who conducted the first study to get a big-picture perspective on how climate change will affect disease risks for plants and wildlife across the world.

Their study, published in 2002 in the journal Science, revealed the alarming connection between a warming world and the spread of pathogens, which favor milder temperatures. This global-scale revelation contributes to the evidence that fuels efforts to protect valuable species – from coral reefs to oysters and plants to birds – and the benefits they provide people. Information like this can help inform conservation managers and policy makers about why outbreaks might occur and how they can plan for them or even avoid them.

The study has since been itself a vector, influencing how scientists think about disease on a warming planet. It has been cited over 2400 times and has provided important baselines for subsequent studies about climate-related disease risks for ecosystems and people.

“People always think pollution is the problem, not climate change. The framework for associating disease to climate change began with this synthesis work,” said working group member John Bruno, a professor and marine ecologist at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

According to the study's lead author and Cornell professor Drew Harvell, NCEAS provided them all the right ingredients to be able to conduct a study at this scope and scale.

“This really was the perfect NCEAS project. We had everyone we needed in the room with us, and we were given the time and space to do it. We were sharing ideas and data sets while having the right people to put numbers across all different ecosystems,” said Harvell.

Harvell recently released a book called Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease, which has roots in the working group and demonstrates the long trails of influence the synthesis process can have on science.