Avoiding ecosystem collapse

Kelp forest-blue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Kelp forest-blue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From coral reefs to prairie grasslands, some of the world’s most iconic habitats are susceptible to sudden collapse due to seemingly minor events.

A classic example: the decimation of kelp forests when a decline of otter predation unleashes urchin population explosions. Three studies published in the Nov. 24 special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Science hold the promise of helping resource managers predict, avoid, and reverse the tipping points that lead to degraded habitats, economic losses, and social upheaval.

The studies are the initial findings of the Ocean Tipping Points Project, an international research collaboration.

“In a sea of tipping points, identifying, anticipating, and reacting to sudden ecosystem changes will be critical as we seek to maintain the delivery of the goods and services from our oceans,” says co-author Phil Levin, a fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the first study, scientists from the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University and the Environmental Defense Fund evaluated 51 case studies around the globe. They found that successful management of systems with known tipping points depends strongly on three factors: consistent monitoring, explicit incorporation of tipping points data into management actions, and management at small geographic scales. The authors conclude that areas of approximately 6,500 mi2 (17,000 km2, roughly twice the area of Yellowstone National Park) or less are easier to understand, monitor, and manage at the local scale.

“Managers who use tipping points science are achieving positive results for virtually every kind of ecosystem,” said co- author Ashley Erickson, policy and education manager with the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford. “The findings of our study can help resource managers focus and prioritize their efforts.”

The second study, authored by researchers from NOAA and the University of Hamburg, provides additional guidance for marine managers on how to incorporate the risk of reaching a tipping point into current ecosystem-based management frameworks.

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