aqua Mar Menor publications research socio-ecology

Why uncertainty matters in environmental degradation?

Our latest paper analyzes the narratives and uncertainty surrounding the dispute over the overfertilization of the Mar Menor lagoon in Spain. Harmful algal blooms, dead zones, and fish kills are the results of eutrophication – a process that occurs when the environment becomes enriched with nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorous, increasing the amount of plant and algae growth to estuaries and coastal waters.

The Mar Menor lagoon is a protected aquatic area in Southeastern Spain that has been receiving nutrients from poor sewage systems and fertilizers over the last five decades. Early in the 2000s, scientists started warning that the lagoon could become eutrophicized. In 2016, its waters turned green when algal blooms killed off 85% of the vegetation on its seabed. Later in 2019, an event of anoxia – depletion of oxigen in the water – produced tons of death aquatic biota.

In this study, we explored the narratives that explain the causes and potential solutions to the lagoon’s crisis. Results show two increasingly polarized narratives that deviate in the causes for nutrient enrichment and the type of solutions seen as effective: (1) intensive agriculture is the main driver for the Mar Menor eutrophication; and (2) the lagoon has many and complex pressures, agriculture is only one of them.

We further analysed the role of uncertainty in this polarization dynamics. Findings revealed how different uncertainties are mobilized to dispute the centrality of agriculture, like the lack of data on water and fertilizer use or a scientific controversy over the contribution of groundwater to nutrient discharges to the lagoon.

This research contributes to understand eutrophication as an intertwined social-ecological phenomena and how knowledge generation can contribute to sharp polarization. We conclude that different inter- and transdisciplinary approaches may be needed to collectively unpack existing uncertainties.

Cabello, V., Brugnach, M. Whose waters, whose nutrients? Knowledge, uncertainty, and controversy over eutrophication in the Mar Menor. Ambio 52, 1112–1124 (2023).

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