Creating a safe operating space for iconic ecosystems

Author(s): Scheffer, M., S. Barrett, S.R. Carpenter, C. Folke, A.J. Green, M. Holmgren, T.P. Hughes, S. Kosten, I.A. van de Leemput, D.C. Nepstad, E.H. van Nes, E.T.H.M. Peeters, B. Walker
In: Science 347: 1317–1319
Year: 2015
Type: Journal / article
Theme affiliation: Stewardship
Link to centre authors: Folke, Carl, Walker, Brian
Full reference: Scheffer, M., S. Barrett, S.R. Carpenter, C. Folke, A.J. Green, M. Holmgren, T.P. Hughes, S. Kosten, I.A. van de Leemput, D.C. Nepstad, E.H. van Nes, E.T.H.M. Peeters, B. Walker. 2015. Creating a safe operating space for iconic ecosystems. Science 347: 1317–1319.

Summary

Although some ecosystem responses to climate change are gradual, many ecosystems react in highly non-linear ways. They show little response until a threshold or tipping point isreached where even a small perturbation may trigger collapse into a state from which recovery is difficult. Increasing evidence shows that the critical climate level for such collapse may be altered by conditions that can be managed locally. These synergies between local stressors and climate change provide potential opportunities for pro-active management.

Although their clarity and scale make such local approaches more conducive to action than global greenhouse gas management, crises in iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites illustrate that such stewardship is at risk of failing. The term “safe operating space” frames the problem of managing our planet in terms of staying within acceptable levels or “boundaries” for global stressors.

Uncertainty is accounted for by keeping on the safe side of such boundaries. The safe levels of different stressors at global scales are mostly considered independently. However, in ecosystems a safe level for one stressor is often strongly dependent of the level of other stressors. This implies that if such synergies are understood, local stressors may be effectively managed to enhance tolerance to global climate change.

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