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Scientist Natasha Barbolini backs climate awareness campaigns

Natasha Barbolini
"Natasha Barbolini spent a month on the Tibetan Plateau collecting plant and pollen fossils to piece together the evolutionary history of the Central Asian region".

Born in Johannesburg, Dr Natasha Barbolini has always been passionate about the natural world. That spurred her to attain her Doctorate of Science in Palynology at Wits University.

Three years ago she left South Africa to research palaeoecology in Europe with an international team. Between 2017 and 2018, she worked in China and Tibet to analyse past ecological changes and desertification in the region.

On the 9th October 2020, Dr Barbolini published a paper in the scientific journal “Science Advances”. She is the Lead author of a study entitled “Cenozoic evolution of the steppe-desert biome in Central Asia”.

Natasha Barbolini: Sudden Climate Changes Looming in Asia

It’s all very well for youngsters to demonstrate against climate change, but we have to look to scientists for the real answers to convince world leaders to take it seriously.

The findings of the international team of researchers involved in the paper, from the University of Amsterdam, Stockholm University, and the CNRS (France) show that the conditions for a similar catastrophe are now present in Asia.

This puts the biological diversity in the region at risk, and in doing so would have major negative implications for almost half a billion people!

Climate Change affected the ecosystem

The study integrated fossil pollen from Asia with geological, faunal and climate datasets, revealing an ecological breakdown around 34 million years ago.

Rapid changes in climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide caused large areas of Mongolia, Tibet, and northwestern China to become hyperarid deserts with little vegetation cover. Deserts spread across the lowlands, and biological diversity was permanently affected.

Larger animals were mainly replaced by small mammals like rodents.

History repeats itself

Now, deserts are once again expanding rapidly across the region, possibly signalling new ecological devastation of unique biological diversity.

“The results have major implications for future biodiversity, agriculture, and human wellbeing”, said Dr Natasha Barbolini, lead author and researcher in palaeoecology at the University of Amsterdam (now at Stockholm University). “Evidence from the past shows us that the Central Asian region will never recover its unique biological diversity if desertification continues”.

Based on past behaviour, there are signs of impending ecosystem breakdown. The study follows the model predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and recent climate records which show that unique biodiversity will be lost, rain will become more unpredictable, and widespread deserts and erosion will generate higher dust emissions.

It is fitting that the study is being published in this, the International Year of Plant Health. The authors emphasise the need to preserve one of the most endangered terrestrial biomes in the world before it’s too late.

What future for Africa?

While Dr Barbolini’s study focuses on Asian ecology, the looming threat of a climate catastrophe is global.

“The coronavirus pandemic taught us that we are more interlinked than we thought”, explained the author to La Voce. “There are currently different changes in different regions. Some of the most fragile ecosystems are in the areas with low precipitation levels, where a growing incidence of droughts may cause a crop collapse”.

“People in Asia and Africa are very vulnerable to poverty”, she furthered. “We are talking about the potential of devastation for billions of people if we don’t act immediately”.

A drastic change, now

Evidence from the past shows that an ecological catastrophe can happen quite quickly.

“The concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing. The most important thing now is for us to erase emissions”, advocated Dr Barbolini. “Average global temperatures rose by 1 degree in the last century. It has never happened that quickly. It is possible to interrupt this process, by moving subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energies. Some governments are already doing it, it’s a process which can and must happen. Our future, and the future of our children, depends on it”.

We thank the Barbolini family for contributing to the drafting of this article.