What Makes Ecosystem Resilience a Critical Factor in Sustainability?

published Apr 22, 2024
2 min read

Ecosystem resilience concerns maintaining normal processes or quickly recovering despite external disturbances. How does this topic relate to sustainability in the changing climate, and what should you know about it?

Uncovering New Insights About Critical Pollinators

Scientists have long urged people to preserve and attract pollinators for ecosystem resilience. However, a 2024 study of the rusty-patched bumblebee revealed some startling findings. One was that the bee was once common throughout the United States but is now 90% less common across its typical geographic range. The decline began rapidly in the late 1990s, driven by climate change, pesticides and habitat loss, among other threats.

After collecting samples of the bees from all states where they reside, researchers also found inbreeding evidence in 15% of the specimens. That lack of genetic diversity can accelerate the bees’ extinction.

The rusty-patched bumblebee is now on the endangered species list. However, researchers say it supports ecosystem resilience and food production. They also found three distinct population groups, each requiring different conservation strategies. Fortunately, bumblebee restoration projects generally benefit landscape and wildlife health.

Confirming How Animals’ Actions Promote Ecosystem Resilience

Humans undoubtedly influence ecosystem resilience. They can and should take decisive steps to promote it whenever possible. People who maintain local vegetation by following industry-leading best practices can reduce environmental impacts while protecting a valuable natural resource.

Scientists are also learning more about how animals support an ecosystem’s resilience. One group turned their attention to how otters affected Elkhorn Slough, a salt marsh-dominated coastal estuary in central California. Sea otters lived here until fur traders hunted them to virtual extinction, and other human-linked activities caused further disruption. Otters must eat up to 25% of their body weight daily, and crabs are a favourite food.

With the otters gone, the crab population exploded, causing decades’ worth of damage to the salt marsh’s roots and soil. Once the otters recolonised the area, models indicated the animals had slowed erosion by up to 90%, with some marshes even expanding.

Elsewhere, a 2022 University of Oxford study examined the extent to which large animals could mitigate climate change. The results varied based on animal and landscape types. For example, herbivores in tundra ecosystems can reduce the proliferation of woody plants, encouraging local flowering grasses and plants to grow. Animals in some tropical and subtropical grasslands can promote carbon retention in the soil and vegetation.

These takeaways show that animals can promote an ecosystem’s sustainability or restore its former resilience through natural feeding methods. Further research could allow researchers to learn more about the effects of specific species introduced to or removed from an ecosystem.

Quantifying the Factors Threatening Forests’ Ecosystem Resilience

Forests offer numerous sustainability benefits to ecosystems, including supporting soil, air, and water quality while providing wildlife havens and fostering plant growth. However, when a team of experts from across Europe studied threats to ecosystems in United Kingdom forests, they found plenty of dangers. Their work resulted in a list of 15 overlooked and emerging issues likely to cause problems over the next five decades.

The 42 researchers working on this project initially developed a 180-item list. Then, thanks to reviews and a final workshop, the group reduced the list of entries to 30 and finally halved the total.

One finding was that 64% of participants ranked the catastrophic collapse of the forest ecosystem as their top concern. About 88% of the researchers had ranked that issue as one of their top three threats.

When those involved discussed other dangers, they mentioned how extreme weather driven by climate change could shorten the viable time frame for handling forestry management tasks. Climate change and globalisation have also increased the number of viruses and pests harming trees.

However, scientists have more to learn about how these issues could impact a forest’s overall ecosystem resilience. Conversely, the research illuminated exciting opportunities for people to capitalise on in their upcoming projects.

The issue list developed during this study can indicate where experts should focus first and which actions should occur to promote sustainability. The progress made now could affect forest life for years into the future.

Connections Between Sustainability and Resilience

These examples show how many discussions of an ecosystem’s resilience also mention sustainability. The presence of one makes the other more common. Relatedly, when someone brings up one of these topics to improve an ecosystem, they’ll probably target the other ideal as well.