A new book has explored ecosystem collapse and recovery in order to learn lessons about how ecosystems can be managed to avoid future disaster events.
Professor Adrian Newton has explored the available evidence on past ecosystem collapse, and has found that the risks of current ecosystem collapse are being greatly underestimated.
Professor Newton explains, “Partly this is because previous research has primarily focused on those examples of collapse that are driven by feedback loops, which can magnify the effects of a small disturbance. However, most ecosystems collapse because they are being subjected to multiple pressures simultaneously, such as harvesting of species, pollution and land use change. Collapse can also result from a rapid increase in any of these pressures, or from interactions between them.”
The book highlights risks of ecosystem collapse are also being under-reported, because the condition of the world’s ecosystems is not being adequately monitored. Professor Newton continues, “Some global environmental assessments fail to consider ecosystem collapse, or even actively obscure it. Others fail to address local scales, where most collapse is happening. Collapse can also be cryptic or difficult to detect, such as in the ocean depths. This means that any of the world’s ecosystems could potentially collapse in the near future, at least at a local scale, and these risks are currently being underestimated. The situation is much worse than we thought.”
One of the books main conclusions is that climate change has greater potential to cause ecosystem collapse than any other factor. Professor Newton continues, “Climate change is a consistent element of the previous collapse events that have occurred in Earth's history. It can affect ecosystems in a more profound way than the other pressures that they are being exposed to, and it can also interact with all other threats.”
The book provides the first scientific account of ecosystem collapse and recovery, and reviews evidence from prehistory as well as the contemporary world. Recent examples include the mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, and the unprecedented fires that have occurred in California, Australia, Indonesia and the Amazon in the past few years.
In the UK, examples include the dieback of ancient woodlands in the New Forest, and the loss of chalk grassland owing to agricultural intensification. The latter examples have been the focus of research by Professor Newton and colleagues at Bournemouth University. The aim of this research is to understand the mechanisms underlying both ecosystem collapse and recovery, to help inform how ecosystems can be managed more effectively in future. While approaches such as rewilding can potentially play a very positive role in supporting ecological recovery, one of the main lessons from the book is that ecosystem recovery always takes longer than collapse.
With the UK government bringing forward its climate change targets and President Joe Biden pledging to cut carbon emissions by over 50%, Professor Newton’s book sheds light on the scale of the issue and why urgently tackling climate change is so important for protecting ecosystems across the globe, together with the other human pressures affecting ecosystems.
The book, Ecosystem Collapse and Recovery, can be found on the Cambridge University Press website.