Cascading effects, including domino effects and hidden feedbacks, could wreak far worse havoc around the planet.
The effects of climate change on fragile ecosystems may well prove worse than previously thought. Cascading effects, including domino effects and hidden feedbacks, lead to worse havoc around the planet sooner than expected.
So surmise the authors of a new study who say that the results of their analyses of so-called regime shifts (large, abrupt and long-lasting changes in the structure and functions of ecosystems) indicate that as many as 45% of would-be collapses will be interrelated and exacerbate one another.
“The risks are greater than assumed because the interactions are more dynamic,” stresses Juan Rocha, the lead author of the paper who is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “The important message is to recognise the wickedness of the problem that humanity faces.”
Because nature abhors a vacuum the death or dying of one ecosystem routinely leads to a mass replacement of species within it with new species, whose presence in turn can impact other ecosystems. For instance, dying coral reefs is often colonized by algae or seaweeds, which leads to the establishment of different food chains in these marine environments. Deforestation in the Amazon, meanwhile, has been known to trigger several side-effects, including permanent changes to rain patterns, increased aridity, and frequent crop failures.
The researchers examined 30 types of such shifts worldwide to see how they affected one another and the people who depended on these ecosystems. They found that less than a fifth (19%) remained isolated in their effects while another third (36%) showed limited impacts on other systems. Yet the rest (or 45%) are likely to create domino effects or reinforce feedback loops with grave consequences for other ecosystems.
This close interconnectedness could have cataclysmic consequences, the scientists warn. “We are amazed at the speed with which the Earth system is changing, and at the same time and with a higher speed as much as we had imagined 20 years ago, that’s a real concern,” notes Garry Peterson, a co-author of the paper. “We are moving faster and faster to the edge of a cliff.”