Surprise, collapse, hope and the seeds of renewal

The 2018 Boden Conference:  Ecological Surprises and Rapid Collapse of Ecosystems in a Changing World

A diver witnessing bleached coral at Heron Island.  (Photo by XL Catlin Seaview Survey)

A diver witnessing bleached coral at Heron Island. (Photo by XL Catlin Seaview Survey)

In recent years the world has witnessed the ‘collapse’ of a range of ecosystems including the mass bleaching of coral reefs, the sudden disappearance of giant kelp forests and the withering of subantarctic alpine tundra (to name a few systems that have been studied in the southern hemisphere). To many people these events have come as a shock and a surprise, highly valued places and ecosystems that have been dramatically transformed. However, to the scientists who have been most closely associated with these systems, such transformations have usually been anticipated so they aren’t really ‘surprises’; though the actual timing and scale is rarely predicted.

To date, these incidents of rapidly changing ecosystems have been examined in isolation but as the number of these transformed systems increase there is growing interest in understanding their commonalities. What can we learn if we brought together a range of experts who have first-hand experience of these different systems? That’s the question explored at the 2018 Boden Conference on Ecological Surprises and Rapid Collapse of Ecosystems in a Changing World. The conference took place in mid May in Canberra and was organised by Dr Justine Shaw, a research fellow from CEED at the University of Queensland, and Dr Dana Bergstrom, from the Australian Antarctic Division. It was sponsored by CEED (in conjunction with the NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub and the Australian Antarctic Division) and featured many CEED CIs including David Lindenmayer, Iadine Chadès and Eve McDonald-Madden.

“There’s a large literature on ecosystems collapse but what made our conference different was we brought together many of the scientists who have been experiencing it first hand, measuring it, understanding it; and who have been distressed over the loss of something unique and often irreplaceable,” says Justine Shaw. “In this meeting we explored the commonalities, shared the insights and discussed what are the consequences and next steps.”

The conference will generate a range of outputs including the development of a conceptual framework for characterising and understanding these ecosystem changes. It is critical to Australia’s future to understand the underlying patterns and cumulative impacts of climate change. The organisers also aim to develop an understanding of the needs of environmental managers and to inform future policy.

CEED CI Iadine Chadès takes part in the final group discussion at the Boden Conference)

CEED CI Iadine Chadès takes part in the final group discussion at the Boden Conference)

“During the conference we explored the relationships between stress build-up, critical transitions, tipping points and collapse, and searched for lessons on what these collapses can teach when taken together,” explains Dana Bergstrom. “We sought to better understand our capacity to predict and manage such events by integrating insights from a broad range of disciplines including ecology, ecophysiology, population biology, art, human health, disaster science, physics, the humanities, mathematics and economics.

“As a side note, we also set out to include a lot of early career researchers in this conversation and ensure a good gender balance in the audience, both of which I think we achieved.”

The first day of the conference saw a series of case studies being presented on collapsed ecosystems including Antarctic moss beds, coral reefs, ash forests, mangroves, woodlands and deserts. The second day involved work on how you monitor, model and manage these systems around and through these massive changes.

“We’ve all seen the news stories around these individual case studies of collapse, be it the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef or the devastation of Tasmania’s kelp beds,” comments Shaw. “But when you see an array of these stories, one after the other, occurring simultaneously, it starts to become very concerning.

“And yet, as was raised many times during the conference, invoking despair is not helping. Scaring the broader public with stories of doom and collapse, a tactic often used when communicating climate change, only serves to switch more people off or leaves them feeling helpless.

Following the Boden Conference a two day workshop was run exploring the information, insights and commonalities coming out to the conference, and how these might feed into a range of communication products. Long time CEED associate Emily Nicholson is pictured here commenting on a matrix of collapsed ecosystems.

Following the Boden Conference a two day workshop was run exploring the information, insights and commonalities coming out to the conference, and how these might feed into a range of communication products. Long time CEED associate Emily Nicholson is pictured here commenting on a matrix of collapsed ecosystems.

“We need to convey the significance of these events while still providing hope. And there is hope to be found in some of the stories shared at the conference. For example, Fern Hames from the Arthur Rylah Institute in Victoria, presented a story about saving populations of a threatened species of native freshwater fish in the regions devastated by the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The work was critical for the survival of the fish species but the conservation managers decided to involve local people in the process to help with community healing and renewal.

“There were many other discussions during the conference on the importance of engaging the broader community with ecosystem collapse, and specifically those people living in close proximity to those systems.

“We are currently working with a range of the conference delegates to produce materials to continue this engagement with mass ecosystem change. Of course, there will be a science paper, but we also hope to put together information materials on a range of other platforms that will have broader reach. We plan to use a variety of social media, short videos, summary documents and even collaborations with indigenous artists.”

More info: Justine Shaw j.shaw6@uq.edu.au

And see in interview with Justine on the conference at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBxMFMBWO7E


Boden Conferences

The 2018 Boden Conference on ecosystem collapse was run at the Shine Dome in Canberra in May. It was organized by Dana Bergstrom (on the left) and Justine Shaw.

The 2018 Boden Conference on ecosystem collapse was run at the Shine Dome in Canberra in May. It was organized by Dana Bergstrom (on the left) and Justine Shaw.

With the generous support of the late Dr Alex Boden, a Fellow of the Academy, the Australian Academy of Science has established a series of small specialist conferences – Boden Research Conferences – in the biological sciences to enable active research workers in rapidly advancing fields to discuss current advances and problems. The theme for the 2018 conference was on ecosystems collapse.


Renewal ecology

Professor Lesley Hughes from Macquarie University gave the closing address at the conference and spoke of the dangers of pronouncing doom and gloom in regards to collapsing ecosystems. It’s easy to shock people but that can lead to them becoming disengaged rather than galvanized for action. She reflected on a recent paper she co-authored (along with several CEED researchers) that proposed the need for new innovative approach to biodiversity conservation around rapidly transforming ecosystems. They called it ‘renewal ecology’ (Bowman et al, 2017). Their paper says: “By accepting environmental change as inevitable and irrevocable, renewal ecology provides those practicing conservation management greater social license to innovate. Irretrievably degraded land and seascapes can provide opportunities to renew biological function and diversity, in places where attempts to recreate the former natural state would fail. Urban and agricultural landscapes largely written off as sites for effective conservation can be reimagined as species habitat with enhanced ecological functionality, while delivering co-benefits for human well‐being.”

Reference

Bowman DM, ST Garnett, S Barlow, SA Bekessy, SM Bellairs, MJ Bishop, RA Bradstock, DN Jones, SL Maxwell, J Pittock, MV Toral‐Granda, JE Watson, TWilson, KK Zander & L Hughes (2017). Renewal ecology: conservation for the Anthropocene. Restoration Ecology 25: 674-680. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rec.12560


Recognising ecosystems at risk

Attempting to classify the threat level to ecosystems is a truly daunting task given the range of factors involved and things that can be measured. However, just as the Red List of Species has helped the basic framing of the problem of biodiversity decline and enabled a robust comparison of the various solutions, the conservation world desperately needs a framing for ecosystems, too. And now it has one with the development of the Red List of Ecosystems, developed by conservation scientists from around the world with the IUCN (including several CEED researchers and with support from CEED). See Decision Point #72

The Aral Sea, pictured above, has collapsed. It has been transformed from a large and thriving ecosystem to a dry and toxic wasteland. If it was a ‘species’ it would be a good example of what ‘extinction’ looks like because this ecosystem is not coming back, it’s lost forever. However, while ecosystem collapse might be obvious (especially when viewed in hindsight), what does an ‘endangered’ ecosystem look like? And at what point might you transfer an ‘endangered’ ecosystem into a category of ‘vulnerable’? The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is grappling with these questions.

The Aral Sea, pictured above, has collapsed. It has been transformed from a large and thriving ecosystem to a dry and toxic wasteland. If it was a ‘species’ it would be a good example of what ‘extinction’ looks like because this ecosystem is not coming back, it’s lost forever. However, while ecosystem collapse might be obvious (especially when viewed in hindsight), what does an ‘endangered’ ecosystem look like? And at what point might you transfer an ‘endangered’ ecosystem into a category of ‘vulnerable’? The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is grappling with these questions.


 

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