Cumulative effects erode resilience in coastal ecosystems
This summary gives the main points of three articles published between 2021 and 2023, which highlight how cumulative effects can induce an overarching snowball effect, and how understanding this mechanism is crucial to predicting ecological shifts.
Research from the Tipping points in ecosystem structure, function and services and Ecological responses to cumulative effects projects is helping to paint a picture of how the resilience of coastal ecosystems is vulnerable to cumulative effects.
As the number and intensity of environmental stressors increases, ecosystems lose the capacity to cope with additional stress. The research from these three articles offers a real-world demonstration of the erosion of resilience capacity within coastal ecosystems when exposed to an added stressor. Identifying the subtle shifts in resilience that occur due to added stressors helps to inform an understanding of what happens before tipping points are reached. Limiting irreversible damage to coastal ecosystems requires stronger ecological resilience, but this requires understanding the mechanisms that underpin damage, resilience, and recovery.
Globally, coastal ecosystems are heavily impacted by multiple stressors that originate from land-based activity, including agriculture, horticulture, urban development, and forestry. Dramatic changes from stressors interacting with ecosystem functions makes coastal ecosystems prone to tipping points. A tipping point can move an ecosystem between functionally different states, and once the point is reached, it’s hard to reverse. Tipping points can happen due to large external factors, like climate change, severe weather, and resource extraction, or through minor, gradual changes that impact the interactions taking place within an ecosystem.