Global change endangers the stability of the earth – how we keep it is being researched by the BMBF funding measure "Tipping Points, Dynamics and Interactions of Social and Ecological Systems"
How can we preserve ecosystem services? For example, the Amazon rainforest's performance as a global oxygen producer and carbon dioxide reservoir is being significantly reduced. The BMBF is funding research into the causal chains of action.
Many ecological and social systems are suffering the same fate as the Amazon rainforest: climate change and the overexploitation of resources are creating dynamics that are leading to an increasing loss of ecosystem services, such as the declining production of oxygen. The BMBF is funding research into the social and ecological impact chains that are drastically changing people's living conditions.
Researchers around the world are observing that the ecosystem services of forests are declining, that oceans are being systematically overfished, and that climate change is causing oceans to become increasingly acidic. With up to half a billion people worldwide dependent on fishing, complex causes, effects and countermeasures need to be explored. Likewise, increasing erosion and over-intensive use of agricultural soils threaten long-term food security (see also call for proposals Sustainable Land Management in Sub-Saharan Africa). Intensive agriculture is turning former forest soils into arable land, often overused and increasingly degraded.
Tipping points are difficult to identify and can no longer be reversed
Complex interactions play a major role in these developments, which further reinforce each other. This can lead to abrupt changes of state that are difficult to reverse, so-called tipping points. These tipping points lead to the loss of ecosystem services for humans, both locally and globally, such as producing oxygen, binding carbon dioxide or renewing soil fertility through humus formation. Correspondingly, natural capacities for human food production are also reduced, and threats to our health and societal well-being.
Global research, local action recommendations: BioTip funding measure
The BMBF is taking up this issue with an international and interdisciplinary research program: "Tipping Points, Dynamics and Interactions of Social and Ecological Systems (BioTip)" and is providing around 20 million euros for this purpose from 2017 to 2022. As part of this program, global research is conducted into how critical thresholds can be identified at an early stage and thus how countermeasures can be initiated in time. The focus here is on the performance of ecosystems and on the question of which socio-economic developments can have negative impacts on ecosystems. Finally, the knowledge gained on the social drivers of tipping points is used to derive necessary action strategies for better sustainability.
Identifying and stopping tipping point dynamics early on
There are still large knowledge gaps about the development of tipping points, for example, about the interaction of human and economic activities and the special dynamics of ecosystems. New findings in this regard are important to detect critical developments in time and taking precautions.
A major challenge is to identify a tipping point timely. Last but not least, time-delayed effects can occur, resulting in detection of thresholds only after overrun.
Decisions made today may have irreversible effects for decades to come, such as destroyed forests or lost fishing grounds. Governance issues can have a critical impact on development. A better understanding of the socio-economic processes and drivers affecting ecological systems, as well as the interactions between ecological, economic and social systems, is an important prerequisite for developing effective action strategies.
Researching new action strategies to avoid tipping points
An important goal of the BioTip funding priority is to develop strategies for action. It is crucial to work out so-called "adjusting screws", i.e. measures that enable a transformation towards sustainable societies and thus counteract the negative impacts on ecosystems. These measures essentially concern local economies. This requires a dialogue with the people who use ecosystems as a direct source of livelihood. The international and national projects of BioTip are therefore closely co-working with local policy, business, and societal actors to identify and initiate the critical processes that will increase the resilience of our environment, avoid state changes with negative consequences, and promote resilient societal systems.
After a preparatory phase from 2017 to 2018, the projects started the research and development phase in March 2019.
Projects of the BioTip funding measure
Study of historical 'regime shifts' in the southern Baltic Sea to elaborate ecosystem change for sustainable fisheries management.
Time-spatial analysis of tipping points of social-ecological systems of the German North Sea considering different management scenarios.
Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda
Study of the causes of a possible irreversible collapse of the Lake Victoria Nile perch fishery and preconditions for a better acceptance and implementation of legal regulations.
Determination of the ecological tipping point of the world's largest social-ecological steppe ecosystem in Mongolia, most of which is still intact but threatened by climate change.
Understanding and managing desertification tipping points in dryland social-ecological systems. The research here emerges from a Namibian perspective.
Peru, Brazil, Bolivia
Interdisciplinary exploration of a potential biodiversity-dependent cascade of ecosystem, climatic, and social tipping elements in the Amazon.
Assess the risk of reduced productivity of a marine ecosystem within the Humboldt Current upwelling system off the west coast of Peru.