Carl Folke Discusses Ecosystem Management

Emerging Research Front Commentary, October 2010

Carl Folke

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Article: Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management

Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management
Authors: Folke, C;Carpenter, S;Walker, B;Scheffer, M;Elmqvist, T;Gunderson, L;Holling, CS
Journal: ANNU REV ECOL EVOL SYST, 35: 557-581, 2004
Addresses: Stockholm Univ, Dept Syst Ecol, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden.
Stockholm Univ, Dept Syst Ecol, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden.
Royal Swedish Acad Sci, Beijer Int Inst Ecol Econ, Stockholm, Sweden.
Univ Wisconsin, Ctr Limnol, Madison, WI 53706 USA.
(Addresses have been truncated)

Carl Folke talks with and answers a few questions about this month's Emerging Research Front paper in the field of Environment/Ecology.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

The paper is a major synthesis of observed regime shifts from multiple field studies in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, like lakes, wetlands, savannas, grassland, steppe and tundra, temperate and tropical forests, coral reefs, kelp forests, and ocean foodwebs. We describe the range of factors that led to loss of resilience prior to the shift to a new state. We also link loss of resilience with functional roles of biological diversity.

The evidence reveals that the likelihood of regime shifts increases when humans reduce resilience by such actions as removing response diversity, removing whole functional groups of species, or removing whole trophic levels; impacting on ecosystems via emissions of waste and pollutants and climate change; and altering the magnitude, frequency, and duration of disturbance regimes.

Photo 1:
Regime shifts from a coral reef to an algae reef and from a tropical forest to a grassland.
Regime shifts from a coral reef to an algae reef and from a tropical forest to a grassland.

View larger image in tab below.

The combined and often synergistic effects of those pressures can make ecosystems more vulnerable to changes that previously could be absorbed. As a consequence, ecosystems may suddenly shift from desired to less-desired states in their capacity to generate ecosystem services on which social and economic development ultimately depends.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Tipping points and regimes shifts are real phenomena and present major challenges for management and governance of natural resources and ecosystem services. These shifts are driven by human actions that deplete resilience, i.e. the capacity to continue to develop on the same trajectory in the face of change. For example, resilient coral reefs subject to hurricanes will regenerate into new coral reefs, but reefs with low resilience have shifted into algae reefs when subject to disturbance.

Hence, depletion of resilience makes ecosystems vulnerable to disturbances. Biological diversity plays a major role in ecosystem resilience as an insurance in securing ecosystem services for human wellbeing.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

Work on resilience has been a central feature of the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since the early 1990s. Buzz Holling's classical publication on resilience in 1973 in the same journal as our paper has been a major source of inspiration, and the interdisciplinary collaboration led to the start of the Resilience Alliance, a consortium of leading research groups and centers worldwide, and, more recently, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in which regime shifts of integrated social and ecological systems is of major concern.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

The great acceleration of human actions, particularly since the Second World War, now influence and shape ecosystem dynamics everywhere, not only local and regional environments but also the biosphere as a whole.

We have recently started to work on tipping points, thresholds, and regime shifts also at global scales and the governance challenges that it implies with publications in Science on looming global-scale failures and missing institutions (Walker et al., 2009) and in Nature on planetary boundaries and the safe operating space for humanity (Rockström et al., 2009).

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The work on thresholds, biodiversity, and regime shifts is gaining interest from policy makers and national governments worldwide and in major science-policy processes like the UN International Year of Biodiversity, with the upcoming COP 10 meeting in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently started a new high-level panel on global sustainability as part of the preparations for the Rio +20 event in 2010. The planetary boundaries (with potential thresholds and regime shifts) are part of the challenge in the terms of reference for the panel.End

Professor Carl Folke
Science Director
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University
Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Stockholm, Sweden


Click the tab above to view larger photo from above.

Photo 1:

Figure 1: Regime shifts from a coral reef to an algae reef and from a tropical forest to a grassland.


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