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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What are Environmental Indicators and why are they important?

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A substance, factor, change, living being or a system that quantifies and simplifies phenomena and helps in understanding complex realities, is called as indicator. It tells us something about changes in a system. There are many types of indicators some of which are- Financial Indicators, Poverty Indicators, Health Indicators, Environmental Indicators, and Indicators of Sustainable Development. Financial Indicators describe changes in the state of individual, local and national economies. Poverty Indicators describe poverty whereas health indicators describe changes in the health conditions.


Environmental Indicators expose realities relating to good or bad health of environment of a particular area and status of interactions among its components. These are selected to provide information about the functioning of a specific system to support decision making and management. Indicators quantify and aggregate data that can be measured and monitored to determine whether some changes are taking place. The indicators need to help the decision makers understand why the change is taking place so as to make the environmental managers able to understand the actual process of changes. Here we are principally concerned with the indicators of environment. These indicators show the condition of environment, for example the level of pollution, health of ecosystem etc.


A number of factors are considered for the assessment and prediction of the health of environment and balance among its various components that are feared to be affected due to anthropogenic activities. The effective and reliable monitoring systems that are required for assessing, recognizing and predicting adverse impacts of anthropogenic activities on the health of environment are called as environmental indicators.


There are a number of environmental indicators. These may be bio-indicators or Ecological indicators. Some of the indicators of this type may be the Indicators of Land Productivity, Agriculture, Climate, soil type, fire, petroleum deposits, concentration of gases, pollutions etc., micro-organisms, plants, animals, cell organelles, organs, individuals, populations, biotic communities and ecosystems that show different levels of sensitivities towards impacts of anthropogenic origin are some indicators. These can be considered and impacts can be analyzed to asses and predict environmental changes in periodic manner.


Functions of Environmental Indicators

The Environmental Indicators have some basic functions like – simplification, quantification and communication. The environmental indicators indicate environmental conditions in simple ways that remain easy to understand. They should show the extent of the environmental conditions in clear terms and they must communicate the message or the indication of particular environmental conditions.

The environmental indicators should meet the following criteria-

(i) These should be sound scientifically,

(ii) These should be easy to understand,

(iii) These should show trends overtime,

(iv) These should be sensitive to the changes that these are intended to measure,

(v) These should be measurable and capable of being updated regularly, and

(vi) The data and information from environmental indicators should be easily available.

Important facts about indicators

While making use of indicators, the environmental managers should bear following facts in mind –

(i) It is not possible to develop indicators without the stock of sufficient information and accurate data,

(ii) Appropriate targets should be set to measure performance,

(iii) Indicators should take into account different locations, communities, cultures and institutions etc. because different people living in different locations have different values.

(iv) Different sets of indicators are evolved overtime, and these are seldom, if ever complete,

(v) The measurement of indicators have tendencies to eliminate the conditions of uncertainty, but it does not eliminate these conditions,

(vi) Making changes in indicators can change the system.


The Global Bio-indicator Programme


A Worldwide Programme for identifying and applying biological indicators in environmental monitoring was formulated in the XXI General Assembly of International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), Ottawa in 1982. This programme was initiated across the globe to evaluate the effects of hazardous substances on ecosystems. The objectives of the Bio-indicator Programme are listed below-

(i).to encourage researchers to develop methods that indicate the presence of hazardous substances in the environment,

(ii). to collect information on available bio-indicators, and

(iii). to promote the exchange of new knowledge across the globe,

(iv).to provide detailed information and lists of references to institutions interested to have knowledge regarding the same,

(v). to promote interdisciplinary co-operation and standardization.


How do bio-indicators help us?


Indicators provide information about the functioning of any system for scientific purposes like decision making and management. It quantifies and aggregates data that can be measured and monitored to determine whether change is taking place. It helps the decision makers in understanding the causes of changes that take place. Indicators can assist with overall analysis in many areas of environmental management. Some of these are mentioned below-


· Performance Evaluation: Indicators can be applied in the evaluation of performance by comparing with a target specified in the policy process.

· Threshold: The point just before a new situation in the environment is called as threshold. It is most important basis for the assessment of the situation. If a sustainability threshold is clearly defined, the policy makers and even the society can make assessment about the success of management system or the status of environment whatsoever, on the basis of threshold.

· Causal Loops: There is a link between pressures and environmental conditions. The environmental conditions exert pressures on its components. On the other hand pressures on the components of environment (like overuse or exploitation of resources) can cause damages to the environment and thus can alter the environmental conditions. The observation of indicators can help in understanding causes of pressures on environment and the altered environmental conditions due to these causes. The indicators support the claim for fixing causes of the extent of environmental damage, or the health of components of environment.

· Modal Construction and Scenario Analysis: Real data can be obtained by the help of indicators. These can support field testing of modals and possible future scenarios.


The disastrous impacts of human activities are marked by a number of local, regional and global problems emerging here and there. These problems are intensified green house effect leading to the global warming; and the climate change; the depletion of ozone layer; pollution of air and water including pollution of seas and oceans; desertification of vast areas of land and so on.


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