Large ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest will collapse ‘alarmingly quickly’ once a crucial tipping point is reached, according to researchers at Bangor and Southampton University, the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of London.
The research which was published in Nature Communications today (March 10) uses real-world data to calculate the speed at which ecosystems of different sizes will disappear once they have reached certain tipping points.
According to the calculations, once a point of no return is reached in the Amazon rainforest, it could shift to a savanna-type ecosystem in 50 years.
Some scientists have argued that many ecosystems are already on the edge of this tipping point, with fires and deforestation already destroyed much of the Amazon.
According to the researchers, ecosystems that are made up of a number of interacting species, rather than those dominated by one single species may be more stable and take longer to shift.
For example, elephants are a ‘keystone’ species because they have a disproportionately large impact on the landscape.
The researchers have said that a loss of a keystone species such as the elephant would lead to a rapid and dramatic change in the ecosystem within our lifetime.
The authors have suggested that this understanding provides opportunities to mitigate and manage the worst effects.
Lead-author of the study Dr Simon Willcock from Bangor University’s School of Natural Sciences said: ‘Unfortunately, what our paper reveals is that humanity needs to prepare for changes far sooner than expected.
‘These rapid changes to the world’s largest and most iconic ecosystems would impact the benefits which they provide us with, including everything from food and materials, to the oxygen and water we need for life.’
Professor John Dearing from the department of geography and environment at Southhampton University said: ‘We intuitively knew that big systems would collapse more slowly than small ones – due to the time it takes for impacts to diffuse across large distances.
‘But what was unexpected was the finding that big systems collapse much faster than you might expect – even the largest on Earth only taking possibly a few decades.’
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