The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number Two                           Late Fall 2001

Ecosystem Collapse Can Result from Gradual Changes

The sky is falling! Around the world ecosystems are collapsing -threatening the existence of productive ecological systems and all the World's species - including humans. A shocking and groundbreaking new scientific study in the journal "Nature" concludes that many of the World's ecosystems are moving rapidly from their natural condition and seeming stability to very different and diminished conditions. Conventional scientific and conservation thinking has been that ecosystems - be they lakes, oceans, coral reefs, woodlands or deserts - respond slowly and steadily to climate, nutrient, habitat and other environmental shifts.

This new study shatters this paradigm - indicating that after decades of continuous change imposed by human activity - many of the world's natural ecosystems appear susceptible to sudden catastrophic change. In ecosystems around the World, "gradual changes in vulnerability accumulate and eventually you get a shock to the system - a flood or a drought - and boom, you're over into another regime. It becomes a self-sustaining collapse." These cataclysmic alterations result from the breakdown of resilience of an ecosystem relentlessly pushed away from its natural origins.

This has important implications for conservationists and policymakers who may base decisions on the misconception that ecosystems change gradually. "Ecosystems may go on for years exposed to pollution or climate changes without showing any change at all and then suddenly they may flip into an entirely different condition, with little warning or none at all." The study concludes that coral reefs and tropical forests are vulnerable, as are northern lakes and forests. Global warming is now adding another destabilizing factor. The authors recommend rebuilding ecosystem resilience, rather than controlling an individual disturbance to a given ecosystem.

"We should not be complacent about the response of ecosystems to ongoing global changes in environment... What may seem gradual and unimportant could produce big, undesirable changes in ecosystems and the productivity of food and forestry systems upon which we all depend." Indeed, the sky is falling.

Further details on this story and other forest and environmental isues can be found at

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