BioTip - Exploring the limits of the resilience of ecosystems

Most biological and social systems have complex dynamics, marked by interdependencies, feedback loops as well as delayed effects, which can lead to abrupt and possibly irreversible changes of a system (tipping point) linked to exponential losses of biodiversity and social welfare. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding seven international joint projects which startet in spring 2019.

Durch Borkenkäferbefall zerstörter Fichtenwald (Pixabay/O12)

Possibly irreversible changes in states of ecosystems can lead to exponential loss of biodiversity and social welfare.

photo: Pixabay/O12

It is highly likely, that for many social-ecological systems at all levels of organisms (species, populations, plant and animal communities, ecosystems) a tipping point will be reached within the coming centuries. The consequence: The functions of the concerned ecosystems weaken or collapse. Globally we observe that e.g. forests and bogs vanish and therefore sinks for greenhouse gases, erosion endangers farming soils and food security and oceans are systematically overfished. Up to half a billion of people depend on fishing. Small farmers are producing the bulk of our food. Climate change as well as adaption and mitigation measures put further strain on most ecosystems. This leads to a downward spiral. Sometime changes exceed the adaption potential of organisms or whole ecosystems, provoking accelerated vulnerability of societies. The threat is not always apparent and the limits of resilience of ecosystems are hard to predict.

Consequently, effects which occur with a time lag can consequently only be detected after a shift has already been reached. Decisions taken today may have long term effects and entail dependencies in several sectors (i. e. agriculture, water management, forestry, building construction, nature conservation, urban management etc.) there is considerable uncertainty regarding the future development and the needed course of actions. This is valid for governance as well as ecological aspects.

Scientifically there are still big knowledge gaps and uncertainties regarding the interaction of human-economic acting and its induced implications to the ecosystems. Therefore strategies and course of actions is needed to stop or reverse the downward spiral. New findings are indispensable to detect critical transitions and for the safeguarding of societies.

The BMBF takes up this topic within the frame of its ‘research initiative for the conservation of biodiversity’ with a new international and interdisciplinary funding programme "Tipping Points, Dynamics and Interdependencies of Social-ecological Systems (BioTip)".

Research goals comprise a better understanding of socio-economic processes and drivers, as well as interaction between the socio-ecological systems. Another question that needs answering is if and how systems can be re-stabilized and how to recognize critical transitions in order to initiate prevention measures.

Another important aspect of the funding measure is the development of course of actions. Crucial is the detection of triggers to transform societies and economies in a sustainable way in order to support ecosystem stability and to secure biodiversity. Research is undertaken in close dialogue with people living in the examined areas. In the projects, focussing on Germany as well as on other countries, researchers work together with stakeholders from politics, economy, and society to identify and initiate processes accelerating ecological resilience, prevent state changes with negative effects and foster resilient societal systems.

After a preliminary phase from 2017-2018 the projects have started the main phase in March 2019 and will identify social-ecological mechanisms of tipping points in a wide range of habitats. The examined ecosystems range from fish stocks in the German North and Baltic Sea, the Pacific outside Peru and in the East African Lake Victoria to the threatened Mongolian Steppe-ecosystem as well as from the grazing pastures of Namibia to the soil ecosystems in the border triangle between Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

The kick-off event of the funding measure takes place on 14th and 15th May 2019 as a Side Event of the 15th BMBF-Forum on Sustainability (FONA).

Last update: 13.05.2019