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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Bee pollinating a purple flower

Feedbacks are an important dynamic for explaining the relationships between biodiversity, ecosystems, and human well-being. Their influences can be indirect and unpredictable, but play a significant role in determining the stability of species’ populations, ecosystems, and the benefits people get from nature now and into the future.

But a new paper has identified a problem: feedbacks have been largely overlooked at the science-policy interface, where monitoring and modeling-based analyses inform policies aimed at improving and sustaining biodiversity and human well-being. This oversight could be undermining the accuracy of the analyses and, thus, the ability to reach sustainability goals.

The paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, represents synthesis research conducted by a working group through the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, whose Office operated out of NCEAS. This international team also proposes an agenda for how science-policy platforms can incorporate feedbacks between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human well-being into analyses and, subsequently, improve the accuracy of their results and recommendations.

According to lead author Mary O’Connor, including these feedbacks in science-policy frameworks, such as the scenarios and models used by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), would capture a more coherent and balanced perspective on biodiversity change and give policymakers a fuller story on which to base decisions.

“Feedbacks are important because they create surprising outcomes,” said O’Connor, who is a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia. “At the coarsest level, being aware of feedbacks means we will be at less risk of surprises. If we're making policies based on modeled scenarios, and we're including feedbacks in these models, we might actually be working with a more-likely set of predictions.”

A feedback is essentially a reverberating effect of a change within a system – a change to one component affects another component, which in turn affects that original component. In nature, changes in biodiversity can influence future biodiversity and how ecosystems function; in turn, ecosystem change can affect biodiversity and human lives and livelihoods.

The dynamic connections between pollinators, plants, and people provide a good example. Research has shown that greater pollinator diversity supports greater plant and crop diversity, which then begets greater pollinator diversity and better crop production for people, while lower crop diversity decreases pollinator diversity and, consequently, crop yields…which has in turn spurred conservation efforts to protect pollinators.

O’Connor acknowledges that feedbacks are not easy to consider in ecosystem modelling and assessments, and the team is aware that researchers involved in efforts like IPBES are thinking about biodiversity feedbacks. Their hope is that their message boosts action and investment to ensure a stronger emphasis on including feedbacks in science-policy platforms.

“It requires large investment. It requires large collaboration and, importantly, collaboration by diverse contributors. One reason for that is traditional, non-Western views of nature are based in feedbacks. So, including researchers from those traditions will enrich this effort as we go forward,” said O’Connor.

In the paper, the team identifies seven knowledge gaps in biodiversity science that a more intentional consideration of feedbacks could address. For example, those gaps occur in understanding feedbacks’ influence at different spatial scales, how they influence future trajectories of biodiversity change, experiments meant to tease out relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and interpretations of observational data.

According to co-author Akira Mori, who was also a lead author on the scenarios and models assessment by IPBES, much of the focus in scenarios assessments has been on tracking how biodiversity changes, but largely ignoring the two-way interactions that occur between biodiversity and human activities and between biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“We are really encouraging people to carefully consider how people can alter biodiversity, but at the same time how biodiversity changes can alter people’s lives,” said Mori, who is a professor of ecology at Yokohama National University in Japan.

For example, in another paper the same working group published recently, they show how climate change could result in a loss of tree biodiversity and, in turn, a loss of capacity for ecosystems to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. This double whammy could then cause the feedback of amplifying climate change – but, on the flip side, their findings also mean climate mitigation could help maintain tree biodiversity, which would in turn help stabilize the climate.

“We have to consider feedback processes, otherwise we cannot predict potential consequences of ecosystem changes,” said Mori. 

Mori suggests the need for coordinated, global experimental and monitoring schemes to be able to properly capture the influences of feedbacks on biodiversity, ecosystems, and people. This would also mean robust support for developing countries to install and maintain such infrastructure, where resources are often too limited.  

The following is the five-point agenda for research that the research team proposes to advance knowledge about feedbacks and guide policy decisions with more complete understandings of the relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and people.

  • Convene collaborations that reflect a broader diversity of knowledge systems around biodiversity-human connections
  • Develop scenarios of biosphere change that can be updated more easily, look at multiple scales, and account for feedbacks
  • Build and sustain a global observation system for biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human activities that includes developing countries and community involvement
  • Invest in experimental and modelling research programs led by multi-disciplinary, multi-sector teams that can iterate and re-evaluate understanding
  • Assemble an organizational structure that can ensure the implementation of a strategy to realize this agenda

According to LTER Network Office director Marty Downs, this paper culminates from a long line of synthesis working groups focused on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

“So, it is not another ‘this is what we think might matter’ kind of paper. It's grounded in deep knowledge of how the relationship works,” said Downs.

Category: Research News

Tags: Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, Ecosystem Health, Long Term Ecological Research Network