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Broader perspective on ecosystem sustainability: Consequences for decision making

Sidle, Roy C., Benson, William H., Carriger, John F., Kamai, Toshitaka
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2013 v.110 no.23 pp. 9201-9208
coasts, decision making, disasters, earthquakes, ecological resilience, ecosystem services, ecosystems, geophysics, habitats, rivers, tsunamis, urban development, vegetation, China, Japan, Papua New Guinea, United States
Although the concept of ecosystem sustainability has a long-term focus, it is often viewed from a static system perspective. Because most ecosystems are dynamic, we explore sustainability assessments from three additional perspectives: resilient systems; systems where tipping points occur; and systems subject to episodic resetting. Whereas foundations of ecosystem resilience originated in ecology, recent discussions have focused on geophysical attributes, and it is recognized that dynamic system components may not return to their former state following perturbations. Tipping points emerge when chronic changes (typically anthropogenic, but sometimes natural) push ecosystems to thresholds that cause collapse of process and function and may become permanent. Ecosystem resetting occurs when episodic natural disasters breach thresholds with little or no warning, resulting in long-term changes to environmental attributes or ecosystem function. An example of sustainability assessment of ecosystem goods and services along the Gulf Coast (USA) demonstrates the need to include both the resilient and dynamic nature of biogeomorphic components. Mountain road development in northwest Yunnan, China, makes rivers and related habitat vulnerable to tipping points. Ecosystems reset by natural disasters are also presented, emphasizing the need to understand the magnitude frequency and interrelationships among major disturbances, as shown by (i) the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting tsunami, including how unsustainable urban development exacerbates geodisaster propagation, and (ii) repeated major earthquakes and associated geomorphic and vegetation disturbances in Papua New Guinea. Although all of these ecosystem perturbations and shifts are individually recognized, they are not embraced in contemporary sustainable decision making.