Ecology and Engineering – a perfect match?

If ecology and engineering would meet at an evening speed-dating event, they might not immediately fall in love with each other. On a quick glance, they seem to be too different. However, later at night, when lying in bed back at home and trying to catch some sleep, chances are that both would start pondering about the other.

Engineering offers a long experience in problem solving and the rigor and power of the methods used for it. Ecology offers deep insights into natural processes and the methods to analyze and quantify them. The application of engineering methods often affects the subjects of study of ecology, while changes in ecology may in turn affect engineered systems. If these two would marry, both fields could benefit from each other.

This  becomes obvious in cases where both of the fields meet directly. Decommissioned mining sites – a left-behind of engineering activities – illustrate how difficult it can be to restore ecosystems. Often the hydrological cycle was fundamentally altered by the mining acivities. The migration routes of large animals were interrupted. The original fauna and flora were removed, together with the humus. In addition, abandoned mine tailings release acidic water into the environment – an almost unstoppable microbiological process. Engineers tend to be overstrained with this problem, because they may lack ecological understanding. On the other hand, even if ecologists knew what could be done, they often wouldn’t know how to do it. Both of them need each other.

The same phenomenon, just a little less obvious, can be observed in cities. Cities keep growing rapidly in almost all parts of the globe. Their urban water management practice is usually heavily built on an old invention, the sewer. Sewers allow to quickly drain away water from human infrastructures, carrying with them human fecal matter, industrial and hospital effluents, road runoff and a lot of other unwanted things. This is beneficial for the cities but causes a lot of problems dowstream. In many places on the world, the wastewater is just discharged directly to natural waters. This practice produces a lot of harm in these environments. Even if treatment exists, nutrients are usually not recovered.

Ecology offers some fundamental opportunities to engineering: A profound understanding of ecosystems, natural cycles, their functions and their properties; the capability to think in different scales; and system’s thinking, together with the tools to support it. In turn, engineering offers, e.g., the tools and practices to conceptualize, design and build infrastructures, the skills to develop new practices and devices needed for low- or zero energy cities and a closed-loop circular society.

I think, ecology and engineering are a perfect match! However, it’s a long way from nightly considerations to a wedding. Let’s have a closer look at this sprouting relationship in the next weeks. Stay tuned 😉

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