Restoration and repair of Earth's damaged ecosystems

Holly P. Jones, Peter C. Jones, Edward B. Barbier, Ryan C. Blackburn, Jose M. Rey Benayas, Karen D. Holl, Michelle McCrackin, Paula Meli, Daniel Montoya, David Moreno Mateos
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences, February 2018, Royal Society Publishing
  • DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2577

Sometimes it is better to let damaged ecosystems recover on their own than to restore them actively

What is it about?

In this collaborative effort, we analyzed studies of over 400 ecosystems that had been damaged by oil spills, farming, mining, logging, eutrophication, and other disturbances. We wanted to understand the extent to which and how quickly ecosystems could recover. We also compared the effect of "active restoration", which includes actions such as planting trees after logging, to "passive restoration", which is letting the ecosystem recover on its own after the disturbance has ended. We found that of all ecosystems and disturbances, lakes and coastal ecosystems recovered the slowest from eutrophication and that forests recovered the quickest from logging. Surprisingly, we found that passive restoration, such as ending farming or mining, did not lead to better results than active restoration. But we caution that few of the studies we examined directly compared different restoration actions in the same location after the same disturbance.

Why is it important?

We know that human activity can have negative effects on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Billions of dollars are spent on active restoration and it is a critical tool for improving biodiversity and rehabilitating damaged ecosystems. Our work shows that In some cases, letting an area recover on its own could be a cost-effective approach.


Dr Michelle L McCrackin
Stockholm University

I wrote a companion paper that used a portion of dataset in this work, but just examined recovery of lakes and coastal areas from eutrophication. I was surprised that these ecosystems recovered slower from eutrophication than other ecosystems did from mining, for example. I think our work makes a strong case for better protecting ecosystems because restoration can be costly and is not always successful. Additionally, society needs to discuss what level of recovery is "good enough" when recovery can take years to decades (or never be fully complete).

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Michelle L McCrackin