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New Article Published in "Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution " finds on-the-ground efforts that can support progress toward the SDGs and global targets seeking to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality

One of the most challenging issues in Mediterranean ecosystems to date has been to understand the emergence of discontinuous changes or catastrophic shifts. In the era of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which encompass ideas around Land Degradation Neutrality, advancing this understanding has become even more critical and urgent.

The aim of this paper is to synthesize insights into the drivers, processes and management of catastrophic shifts to highlight ways forward for the management of Mediterranean ecosystems.

The authors use a multidisciplinary approach that extends beyond the typical single site, single scale, single approach studies in the current literature. They link applied and theoretical ecology at multiple scales with analyses and modeling of human–environment–climate relations and stakeholder engagement in six field sites in Mediterranean ecosystems to address three key questions:

i) How do major degradation drivers affect ecosystem functioning and services in Mediterranean ecosystems?

ii) What processes happen in the soil and vegetation during a catastrophic shift?

iii) How can management of vulnerable ecosystems be optimized using these findings?

Drawing together the findings from the use of different approaches allows us to address the whole pipeline of changes from drivers through to action. The authors highlight ways to assess ecosystem vulnerability that can help to prevent ecosystem shifts to undesirable states; identify cost-effective management measures that align with the vision and plans of land users; and evaluate the timing of these measures to enable optimization of their application before thresholds are reached.

Such a multidisciplinary approach enables improved identification of early warning signals for discontinuous changes informing more timely and cost-effective management, allowing anticipation of, adaptation to, or even prevention of, undesirable catastrophic ecosystem shifts.

  • "Findings from this study addressing our three key research questions confirm that land degradation is occurring in various Mediterranean ecosystems. Observed changes in vegetation diversity, vegetation composition and soil quality suggest that a point may be reached where ecosystems are no longer able to provide services as they are doing now, or as they once could. Monitoring and modeling provided hints as to which changes in the plant–soil and plant–plant systems might occur during shifts. Some field experiments would benefit from observations over a greater number of seasons, but advances in modeling allowed us to examine the ecosystems, discover ways to avoid catastrophic shifts, to make ecosystems more resilient, and to educate end users in adapting to shifts that possibly have already taken place."
  • While catastrophic shifts have been observed and analyzed for a wide variety of ecological systems, including lakes (Scheffer et al., 2001), peatlands (Swindles et al., 2018), marine systems (Lees et al., 2006), mussel beds (Génin et al., 2018a) forests (Magnuszewski et al., 2015), and rangelands (Kéfi et al., 2007), using a range of different approaches and frameworks at different scales, persistent challenges remain, and different approaches and methods are rarely sufficiently brought together. In particular, there is a need to understand more clearly the thresholds or tipping points that may result in catastrophic shifts, and to identify the early warning signs and overall impacts, such that appropriate measures can be put in place to manage environmental resources more sustainably. This requires a multidisciplinary approach. In the era of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) within SDG target 15.3 [i.e., any reduction in land quality is to be balanced by restoration or rehabilitation of already degraded areas of the same land type, resulting in zero net degradation (Barkemeyer et al., 2015)], advancing this understanding becomes even more critical. Better identification of early warning signals for such changes can inform the development of better-timed and more cost-effective solutions, allowing anticipation of, adaptation to, or even prevention of, undesirable ecosystem shifts (Sietz et al., 2017a).


Overall, the authors have synthesized the findings from experiments, modeling and stakeholder engagement across six European study sites. While each component part yielded information that contributed toward answering the research questions, by taking the research as a multidisciplinary whole, and engaging stakeholders from the study sites, they were able to target our findings toward those who can use them.

This integrated study highlighted that there is still more work to be done in terms of gaining a complete picture of catastrophic shifts. However, by improving integrated understanding of:

(i) the impacts of degradation drivers on ecosystem functioning and services,

(ii) the processes that happen in the soil and plants during transition toward a catastrophic shift and

(iii) how the management of vulnerable ecosystems can be optimized through derivation of key principles, bundles of approaches and assessments of windows of opportunity, we have put forward measures that can be utilized by stakeholders including land users and policymakers, to better manage change and avoid catastrophic shifts.

Such on-the-ground efforts can, in turn, support progress toward the SDGs and global targets seeking to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality.

About: This research was conducted under the auspices of the CASCADE Project that is funded by the European Commission FP7 program, ENV.2011.2.1.4−2 – ‘Behavior of ecosystems, thresholds and tipping points,’ EU Grant agreement: 283068. This manuscript synthesizes our findings from across this project and in doing so draws heavily on our final report to the EU, which is archived at:  

Correspondence: Lindsay C. Stringer, lindsay.stringer [at] Published in "Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution "

Further reading on Land Degradation Neutrality from UNCCD LIbrary


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