Hidden collapse is driven by fire and logging in a socioecological forest ecosystem

Date: 27, Mar, 2019
Author(s):   David Lindenmayer
Publisher: National Academy of Sciences

Increasing numbers of ecosystems globally are at risk of collapse. However, most descriptions of terrestrial ecosystem collapse are post hoc with few empirically based examples of ecosystems in the process of collapse. This limits learning about collapse and impedes development of effective early-warning indicators. Based on multidecadal and multifaceted monitoring, we present evidence that the Australian mainland Mountain Ash ecosystem is collapsing. Collapse is indicated by marked changes in ecosystem condition, particularly the rapid decline in populations of keystone ecosystem structures. There also has been significant decline in biodiversity strongly associated with these structures and disruptions of key ecosystem processes. In documenting the decline of the Mountain Ash ecosystem, we uncovered evidence of hidden collapse. This is where an ecosystem superficially appears to be relatively intact, but a prolonged period of decline coupled with long lag times for recovery of dominant ecosystem components mean that collapse is almost inevitable. In ecosystems susceptible to hidden collapse, management interventions will be required decades earlier than currently perceived by policy makers. Responding to hidden collapse is further complicated by our finding that different drivers produce different pathways to collapse, but these drivers can interact in ways that exacerbate and perpetuate collapse. Management must focus not only on reducing the number of critical stressors influencing an ecosystem but also on breaking feedbacks between stressors. We demonstrate the importance of multidecadal monitoring programs in measuring state variables that can inform quantitative predictions of collapse as well as help identify management responses that can avert system-wide collapse.