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Resilience and Restoration: A Path Forward in a Changing Climate

This month, we are taking a closer look at some of the articles chosen as part of the PLOS Ecological Impacts of Climate Change Collection. This collection highlights recent articles that specifically address how changing climate is impacting our environment. PLOS journals recognize the importance in publishing and highlighting climate change research, and we thank our authors for their significant contributions to this field.


Resilience is broadly understood to be the ability of a system to resist change or to recover from disturbance. And, it is an incredibly hot research topic in ecology and the environmental sciences. Given the increasing pressure and threats from climate change, understanding what ecological attributes confer resilience to an ecosystem is vitally important from both a management and conservation standpoint. What about a system makes it resist change or bounce back? This is also an important consideration for ecological restoration, where management efforts are used to restore an ecosystem back to some base level of functioning following degradation, damage, or lose of function.


These marsh ponds are part of a wetland restoration project in Magnuson Park, Seattle, Washington, USA. These artificial ponds were created during the winter of 2008-2009; this photo was taken approximately three years after construction. Magnuson Park is the former location of Naval Station Puget Sound, which included runways, hangars, and other buildings.


Ecological restoration is a big deal. In the US, the “restoration economy” contributes over $24 billion dollars and 221,000 jobs annually. However, a criticism of some ecological restoration approaches has been a lack of appropriate evaluation metrics and sufficient monitoring. How do we know what we did worked? A useful way to think of this in light of climate change is to identify ecological attributes that are related to resilience. Restoring ecosystems to a more resilient state is a win-win—not only are goals of restoring function met, but the need for future interventions may be avoided. In their 2016 article, “ A systematic review of ecological attributes that confer resilience to climate change in environmental restoration,” Britta Timpane-Padgham and co-authors Tim Beechie and Terrie Klinger tackle this question head-on.


Looking at scientific research papers published from 2009 to 2013, the researchers found 170 articles related to investigating ecological attributes of resilience. To qualify as an attribute, the characteristic in question needed to be typical of more than one ecosystem or species, be distinct in some way from other attributes, and importantly, must be measurable–an important, but often underappreciated consideration.


Due to ocean acidification and warming, many coral reefs are losing the ability to buffer against degradation. This loss of adaptive capacity leads to decreased resilience, which leads to coral reef death and habitat loss.


One interesting aspect of this research that makes it unique and potentially really useful, was the use of a “climate change filter” to address whether the individual attributes directly considered climate. Since the attributes were pulled from other research, the authors included the attribute only if climate change or climate related variables were actively considered in the original research. While excluded attributes such as beta diversity may have a climate change component, they were excluded from this work. Using these framework, the authors come to some interesting conclusions that could inform restoration efforts.


If resilience is made to be an explicit objective of restoration, rather than just a component of some other objective, the overall effectiveness of restoration efforts can be improved. The authors attribute this to the fact that by intentionally selecting to monitor and manage for resilience, it is necessary to consider and identify the ability of natural and restored systems to adapt to change, or what is termed adaptive capacity. If you plan for resilience, resilience will come. That is, if you know what to look for.


This is where the focus and scale of any restoration effort must be considered. To best use this framework, it is important to choose the appropriate attributes. This is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all checklist, but a starting point. Further, restoring for more natural sources of resilience, will be more successful. Often, ecological attributes such as diversity or connectivity are chosen resilience targets as they confer resilience across a wide range of species or ecosystems, but there are other, additional metrics that may be of further utility that are better for the system of interest. Work like this pushes towards considering what we can manage for, what we can monitor, and perhaps most importantly, what those attributes are telling us about a system.

Read more about this and related work in the PLOS Ecological Impacts of Climate Change Collection.


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