Marine and Freshwater Research Marine and Freshwater Research Society
Advances in the aquatic sciences

Statistical power and design requirements for environmental monitoring

PG Fairweather

Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 42(5) 555 - 567
Published: 1991


This paper discusses, from a philosophical perspective, the reasons for considering the power of any statistical test used in environmental biomonitoring. Power is inversely related to the probability of making a Type II error (i.e. low power indicates a high probability of Type II error). In the context of environmental monitoring, a Type II error is made when it is concluded that no environmental impact has occurred even though one has. Type II errors have been ignored relative to Type I errors (the mistake of concluding that there is an impact when one has not occurred), the rates of which are stipulated by the a values of the test. In contrast, power depends on the value of α, the sample size used in the test, the effect size to be detected, and the variability inherent in the data. Although power ideas have been known for years, only recently have these issues attracted the attention of ecologists and have methods been available for calculating power easily.

Understanding statistical power gives three ways to improve environmental monitoring and to inform decisions about actions arising from monitoring. First, it allows the most sensitive tests to be chosen from among those applicable to the data. Second, preliminary power analysis can be used to indicate the sample sizes necessary to detect an environmental change. Third, power analysis should be used after any nonsignificant result is obtained in order to judge whether that result can be interpreted with confidence or the test was too weak to examine the null hypothesis properly. Power procedures are concerned with the statistical significance of tests of the null hypothesis, and they lend little insight, on their own, into the workings of nature. Power analyses are, however, essential to designing sensitive tests and correctly interpreting their results. The biological or environmental significance of any result, including whether the impact is beneficial or harmful, is a separate issue.

The most compelling reason for considering power is that Type II errors can be more costly than Type I errors for environmental management. This is because the commitment of time, energy and people to fighting a false alarm (a Type I error) may continue only in the short term until the mistake is discovered. In contrast, the cost of not doing something when in fact it should be done (a Type II error) will have both short- and long-term costs (e.g. ensuing environmental degradation and the eventual cost of its rectification). Low power can be disastrous for environmental monitoring programmes.

© CSIRO 1991

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