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Keeping Ecosystems Afloat in a 'Sea of Tipping Points'

Nov 24, 2014 05:37 PM EST
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In a triage of new studies, scientists describe the steps that need to be taken in order to keep precious ecosystems afloat while submerged in a "sea of tipping points."
(Photo : Pakhnyushchyy / Fotolia)

In a triage of new studies, scientists describe the steps that need to be taken in order to keep precious ecosystems afloat while submerged in a "sea of tipping points."

From coral reefs to prairie grasslands, some of the world's most iconic habitats are on the verge of collapse. Degraded habitats, economic losses, and social upheaval can be caused by seemingly insignificant factors. For example, kelp forests are being decimated due to a decline in otter populations, since these playful critters normally keep local urchin populations in check. But with a surge of these sea urchins, kelp are consequently suffering.

"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," co-author Phil Levin, an NOAA biologist, said in a press release.

The findings of our study can help resource managers focus and prioritize their efforts," added co- author Ashley Erickson.

Scientists from the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University and the Environmental Defense Fund evaluated 51 case studies around the globe. Based on their findings, they determined that consistent monitoring, incorporation of tipping points data into management practices, and management at small geographic scales were the three most important factors when it came to preserving ecosystems.

In addition, areas of approximately 6,500 square miles (17,000 square km) or less are the easiest to understand, monitor, and manage at the local scale. These are ecosystems roughly twice the area of Yellowstone National Park.

In another part of the study, a team of researchers paid special attention to coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii. Their assessments indicate that increasing the number of herbivores in the region, combined with a decline in human stressors such as land run-off, could help algae grow and reefs blossom once more.

"By quantifying tipping points this study offers tangible targets for just how much those stressors need to be reduced to avoid regime shifts in healthy reefs and restore those already in decline," said the study's lead author Jean-Baptiste Jouffray.

All three studies were published in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Science.

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