New Framework to Mitigate Irreversible Global Damage

Renowned researchers have warned that major ecosystems around Antarctica and Australia are disintegrating, and have recommended a three-step framework to mitigate the permanent global damage.

Ecosystems are in varying states of collapse from the tropics to Antarctica. Image Credit: University of Exeter.

The researchers’ report, penned by 38 scientists from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States from government agencies and universities, was recently published in the international journal, Global Change Biology.

According to the team, if action is not taken soon, it will signal a distinct warning for ecosystem collapse across the world.

Dana Bergstrom, the lead author of the study from the Australian Antarctic Division, stated that the new study emerged from a conference motivated by her ecological studies on polar surroundings.

I was seeing unbelievably rapid, widespread dieback in the alpine tundra of World Heritage-listed Macquarie Island and started wondering if this was happening elsewhere.

Dr Dana Bergstrom, Study Lead Author, Australian Antarctic Division

Dr Bergstrom added, “With my colleagues from the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Queensland we organised a national conference and workshop on ‘Ecological Surprises and Rapid Collapse of Ecosystems in a Changing World’, with support from the Australian Academy of Sciences.”

The resulting article and elaborate case studies analyzed the present state and the latest trajectories of a total of 19 terrestrial and marine ecosystems across all the states of Australia, covering 58° of latitude from coral reefs to Antarctica. The outcomes include:

  • The collapse of ecosystems (defined as a possible permanent change to the structure, function, and composition of the ecosystem) is now taking place in 19 case studies. This inference is supported by empirical proof, instead of modeled predictions.
  • While no ecosystems have disintegrated across their entire range, there is proof of local collapse for all the case studies.
  • All the 19 ecosystems comprise the mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Great Barrier Reef, the Mediterranean woodlands and forests, Shark Bay seagrass beds in Western Australia, the arid zone of central Australia, moss beds of East Antarctica, Mountain Ash forest in Victoria, Gondwanan conifer forests of Tasmania, and Great Southern Reef kelp forests.
  • Key drivers of ecosystem disintegration are pressures from regional human impacts and global climate change, categorized as chronic “presses” (for example, land clearing and variations in precipitation and temperatures) or acute “pulses” (for example, heatwaves, fires, storms, and pollution following heavy storms).

According to Michael Depledge CBE, an Emeritus Professor from the University of Exeter and a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Environment Agency of England and Wales, the study has specific importance after the Dasgupta Review was commissioned by the UK Government. This review had recently emphasized the cataclysmic economic damage related to biodiversity loss.

Our paper is a further wake-up call that shows ecosystems are in varying states of collapse from the tropics to Antarctica. These findings from Australia are a stark warning of what is happening everywhere, and will continue without urgent action. The implications for human health and wellbeing are serious. Fortunately, as we show, by raising awareness, and anticipating risks there is still time to take action to address these changes.

Michael Depledge CBE, Emeritus Professor, University of Exeter

Professor Depledge added “Our paper will hopefully increase awareness that our ecosystems are collapsing around us. We can already observe the damaging consequences for the health and wellbeing of some communities and anticipate threats to others. Taking stronger action now will avoid heaping further misery on a global population that is already bearing the scars of the global pandemic.”

The article has proposed a new “3As” framework to support decision-making about actions to overcome the permanent global damage:

  1. Awareness of the significance of the ecosystem and the necessity for its protection
  2. Anticipation of the risks from both present and upcoming pressures
  3. Action on decreasing the pressures to prevent or reduce their effects


Guarding pencil pines from a fire in the Southwest Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area: by plotting vegetation values against fire sensitivity (to detect Gondwanan conifer communities that are prone to fires), preserving a region-specific awareness of the shifting causation of bushfires (raising frequency of dry lightning strikes), and creating new action plans to reduce the pressure of uncontrolled fire (setting up sprinkler systems), conservation managers have now established and utilized Awareness and Anticipation to develop a positive action.

The researchers concluded that in the very near future, even seemingly resilient ecosystems will probably collapse as the frequency and intensity of pressures increase.

Anticipating and preparing for future change is necessary for most ecosystems, unless we are willing to accept a high risk of loss. While the environmental change we see can be disturbing, I’m pleased to be part of a team sharing information that can guide decision-making to future-proof the ecological wealth that underpins our society.

Dr Dana Bergstrom, Study Lead Author, Australian Antarctic Division

Journal Reference:

Bergstrom, D. M., et al. (2021) Combating ecosystem collapse from the tropics to the Antarctic. Global Change Biology.

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