An international team of researchers recently published a large scale scientific study in the journal Nature, warning that a global collapse in biodiversity is likely to occur unless immediate action is taken to prevent damage to tropical ecosystems.
The paper, titled “The Future of Hyperdiverse Tropical Ecosystems”, warns that if swift action isn’t taken to prevent damage to tropical regions, the result will be an irrevocable and unprecedented loss of species in some of the planet’s most diverse regions. The new study is the first ever macro-level analysis on the current state of the most diverse tropical ecosystems in the world.
The analysis looked and tropical forests, coral reefs, rivers and lakes, and savannas. The authors of the study discovered that while tropical ecosystems account for only around 40% of the planet’s surface, they provide homes to an astonishing array of species. Almost all shallow-water coral is found in tropical regions, as are more than 90% of the species of birds on the entire planet.
Dr. Benoit Guenard, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, explains that millions of species found only in tropical regions are still unknown to scientists. The level of diversity in tropical regions is so high that at the current rate of species cataloging, approximately 20,000 new species are cataloged every year, it would take over 300 years to create a full catalog of the biodiversity in tropical regions.
…Under Multiple Threats
The reason many tropical ecosystems are in danger of being irrevocably damaged is that they are being hit hard by two different threats. One pressure is human activity like logging and overfishing, while the other pressure is intense heatwaves or droughts created by climate change. These dual pressures hit highly visible species and lesser known species alike. According to Dr. Alexander Lees, from the Metropolitan University in Manchester, over-harvesting of wildlife population affects species like pangolins, which are highly trafficked. Yet the harvesting also affects smaller, less visible species. Lees says that many tiny songbirds are in danger of extinction because of the pet trade that has blown up in South East Asia.
Not only does the damage to tropical ecosystems harm the plants and animals that live within them, it also poses a substantial risk to the health of people. People depend upon tropical ecosystems for food, shelter, and a livable climate. The authors of the study note that while coral reefs cover only about 0.1% of the oceans, they provide coastal protection as well as fish for around 200 million people around the world. More than that, savannas and moist tropical rainforests are responsible for storing around 40% of the carbon that exists in the biosphere on land. They also support precipitation in some of the globe’s most vital regions of agriculture.
What Can Be Done?
Though the study provided a dire warning, it also outlined steps that could be taken to defend remaining tropical ecosystems from damage and assist in their recovery. The researchers have called for much more focus on effective conversation tactics and sustainable development practices, which are necessary to restore the tropical regions of the world.
The study also notes that while sustainable development and agricultural practices are good, a concerted effort will need to be made to address climate change and human emissions of greenhouse gases. Jo Barlow, a professor at Lancaster University and lead author on the study, explains:
The fate of the tropics will be largely determined by what happens elsewhere in the planet. While most of us are familiar with the impact of climate change on the polar regions, it is also having devastating consequences across the tropics — and without urgent action could undermine local conservation interventions.
The study’s authors noted that while much of the attention should be focused on developing nations, as they can implement more sustainable practices as they grow, the role of developed nations can’t be ignored. The authors say that conservation strategies must find a way to tackle environmental change while avoiding the exacerbation of current inequalities, noting that environmental aid levels haven’t grown in recent years, and are extremely small when compared to the income resource extraction from developing countries generates.
Technological innovation was also singled out as an important investment when seeking ways to preserve ecological systems under stress. While the past few decades have seen many new proposals from researchers, engineers, and government agencies for strategies to manage tropical ecosystems, many of these proposals still haven’t been tested. Proposed strategies include remote sensing and the use of big data to inform environmental policies. The researchers noted that the “clock is ticking for these proposals and insights to be properly tested”.
Finally, the research team stressed that a large part of the solution should be supporting research institutions based in the tropics with more funding and political support that can increase their research capacity, particularly when it comes to establishing new research stations/projects in developing countries and tropical regions. Despite a few notable exceptions, most of the available data and research on biodiversity comes from projects carried out in non-tropical, high-income countries. A wider, more holistic, international approach to research is necessary if the loss of much of the world’s biodiversity is to be prevented. “
Fifty years ago biologists expected to be the first to find a species, now they hope not to be the last,” said Barlow.
The new study published in Nature wasn’t the only bit of analysis involving disruption of ecosystems to be released during the past week. As ecologists and environmental scientists warn that rapid action must be taken to save tropical ecosystems, a new study examining the possible effects of the proposed US-Mexico border wall finds that it could cripple the ecosystem as it currently exists at the border.
The study examined how populations of flora and fauna native to the region would be impacted, and reported that around 1500 species would be eradicated if the border wall were to be built. At present, over 2800 scientists have signed a petition announcing the environmental devastation that would occur were the wall to be built, noting that sections of the wall which have already been constructed are reducing the quality and range of connected plant regions and interrupting animal habitats.