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Anthropogenic Ecosystem Disturbance & the Recovery Debt

January 23, 2017 |


This article was originally published on Nature

“Abstract: Ecosystem recovery from anthropogenic disturbances, either without human intervention or assisted by ecological restoration, is increasingly occurring worldwide. As ecosystems progress through recovery, it is important to estimate any resulting deficit in biodiversity and functions. Here we use data from 3,035 sampling plots worldwide, to quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and functions occurring during the recovery process (that is, the ‘recovery debt’). Compared with reference levels, recovering ecosystems run annual deficits of 46–51% for organism abundance, 27–33% for species diversity, 32–42% for carbon cycling and 31–41% for nitrogen cycling. Our results are consistent across biomes but not across degrading factors. Our results suggest that recovering and restored ecosystems have less abundance, diversity and cycling of carbon and nitrogen than ‘undisturbed’ ecosystems, and that even if complete recovery is reached, an interim recovery debt will accumulate. Under such circumstances, increasing the quantity of less-functional ecosystems through ecological restoration and offsetting are inadequate alternatives to ecosystem protection.

Introduction: Few ecosystems on Earth are undisturbed by people1 and many degraded ecosystems are in the process of recovering worldwide2,3,4. Although in most cases the recovery process is without human intervention, societies spend billions of dollars annually to restore ecosystems5,6,7. Supporting recovery without intervention and repairing disturbed ecosystems are crucial to regain lost biodiversity, ecosystem functions and services provided to society8,9,10. Assessments of anthropogenic disturbances have shown global losses11 in biodiversity, whereas the disturbance is still active and time lags exist in its response12,13 (Fig. 1). However, as ecosystems recover after the disturbance ceases, it is less clear to what extent they continue to endure deficits in biodiversity and functionality.

Here we quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and biogeochemical functions occurring during ecosystem recovery, which we call the ‘recovery debt’. This metric measures the per annum amount that an ecosystem function or biodiversity is reduced during the recovery process after disturbance ceases (Fig. 1). The recovery debt is a useful indicator of the magnitude of ecosystem degradation, because even if ecosystems eventually recover their biodiversity and functions, there may be a long period of time until complete recovery is achieved. During the recovery debt period, shortfalls in biodiversity and ecosystem functionality will affect the quantity and quality of ecosystem services provided by the recovering systems…”

Read on and access the full results at Nature.


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