Ecosystems are closely connected; environmental research, policy and management should be too

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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Rebecca Gladstone-Gallagher, Lecturer in Marine Science, University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau

Shutterstock/S Curtis

Why are we crossing ecological boundaries that affect the Earth’s basic life-support capacity? Is it because we don’t have enough information about how ecosystems respond to change? Or are we unable, even unwilling, to make better use of that information?

We still have much to learn, but as our research shows, more effective use of current ecological knowledge can deliver significant environmental benefits.

Our work focuses on improving the links between research and ecosystem management to identify key trigger points for action in a framework that links terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

In particular, we investigate solutions to environmental and social problems that arise from the differences between scientific research, policy and management responses to environmental problems.

We need managers and policymakers to consider ecological tipping points and how they can flow through ecosystems from land to rivers and lakes and ultimately to the ocean.

A graph showing the divide between social, political, environmental and management approaches.
Gaps between social, political, ecological and management approaches among ecosystems contribute to problems in ecosystem management.
Author provided, CC BY-SA

Our work’s position in global research aimed at halting ecosystem collapse has been recognized as one of 23 national champions in this year’s Frontiers Planet Prize.

Read more:
Our oceans are in big trouble – a ‘mountains to sea’ approach could make a real difference

More holistic solutions

This issue came into focus a decade ago when New Zealand established research collaborations known as national science challenges to solve ‘wicked’ social and environmental problems.

The challenges focusing on environmental issues have been deliberately created to focus on separate ecosystem and management domains (marine, freshwater and land). But they all included research groups concerned with ecological tipping points.

This was our inspiring spark. Our research highlights the implications of managing terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems in socially constructed bubbles. We focus on solutions that put social and environmental connections at the forefront of environmental management practices and decisions.

Small pieces of plastic on a sandy beach
Microplastic pollution is a recognized threat to marine ecosystems.

An example is the movement of pollutants such as microplastics from land to the sea. Most microplastics found along coastlines and in ports are blown off land or washed away. Although this pollution is a well-recognized ecological threat to the marine environment, we have not yet focused on strategies to reduce its burden.

Our work highlights the ignored but crucial problem that human impacts on land accumulate in the sea, but land management and resulting actions are not based on these far-field effects.

This leads to delays in decision-making, creating undesirable environmental outcomes that are difficult to recover from. But if we act on these connections, the environmental benefits can be significant.

Cyclones as a practical example

Due to massive soil erosion on the east coast of the North Island during Cyclone Bola in 1988, steep slopes were no longer grazed and converted to pine plantations to help stabilize the land.

Fast forward three decades and much of the forest reached harvest at the same time. The exposed ground associated with clear-cutting was covered with woody debris to protect it from rain.

But in February last year, Cyclone Gabrielle struck, with extreme rainfall washing both soil and wood waste into streams.

An upside-down tractor in a flooded field
Cyclone Gabrielle washed tons of silt onto farms and orchards.
Getty Images/STR/AFP

This destroyed habitats, transported enormous amounts of silt and destroyed farms, orchards and critical infrastructure in the lowlands. The debris also clogged ports and coastal beaches, smothered seabed habitats, destroyed fisheries and damaged cultural and recreational values.

This real-world example shows the serious consequences of delays in the flow of information and management responses. If land use management decisions had taken into account impacts on other connected ecosystems and the possibility that climate change would intensify these connections, outcomes could have been different.

We could have implemented more diverse land use strategies and emphasized the restoration of native forests and coastal wetlands.

Read more:
Cyclone Gabrielle caused even more destructive forestry ‘slash’ – NZ must change the way it grows trees on vulnerable land

Living with nature, not outside of it

Our vision is one in which social and ecological connections between ecosystem domains are at the forefront of the transition to a more sustainable future.

Living within planetary boundaries requires a paradigm shift in behavior, including the way we link science and management to action on the ground. Critically, we must increase the speed at which new research is taken up and quickly translate it into action that improves environmental outcomes at a local scale.

This behavioral change supports the path to a more integrated, broad-scale ability to act and stay within planetary boundaries.

Our research shows that with confidence and an open mind we can transcend disciplinary silos and support new forms of research organization. The challenge now is to extend holistic approaches to new practices.

Read more:
New Zealand’s vital kelp forests are at risk from ocean warming, threatening the important species that depend on them

This means identifying opportunities where connected research can change behavior across society, from individuals to global finance and governance. Central to this transition is the recognition that we are part of complex social and ecological systems and that our actions have indirect and long-term impacts.

To provide this proof we need new research. It will inevitably lead to new questions about fundamental ecological and integrated processes on Earth.

We believe that these holistic approaches will make it possible to more easily integrate science into decision-making and ensure that environmental perspectives are captured. This will lead to relevant, locally appropriate, integrated and robust environmental management actions.

The conversation

Rebecca Gladstone-Gallagher receives funding from philanthropy, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), including from the National Science Challenges, the Marsden Fund and the Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships.

Conrad Pilditch receives funding from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), including the National Science Challenge Sustainable Seas, the Marsden Fund and regional councils. He is a member of the Sustainable Seas Challenge Leadership Team.

Simon Francis Thrush receives funding from MBIE, government agencies, international organizations and philanthropy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

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