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UW Professor Part of Ecosystem Disturbance and Recovery Debt Research

January 25, 2017
man with arms crossed standing outside
Ed Barbier

For years, ecological restoration has been seen as a key tool for building back biodiversity and resilience in ecosystems that have been disturbed.

But, now, new research -- which includes a University of Wyoming professor -- has found that even if complete ecosystem recovery is eventually reached, disturbed ecosystems typically incur decades of lost biodiversity and ecosystem function such as carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Ed Barbier, the John S. Bugas Professor of Economics and chair of the Department of Economics and Finance, was among researchers on a paper, titled “Anthropogenic ecosystem disturbance and the recovery debt,” that appears in this month’s Nature Communications. The publication is an open-access journal that publishes high-quality research from all areas of the natural sciences. Papers published by the journal represent important advances of significance to specialists within each field.

The findings by Barbier and his colleagues indicate that restoration is crucial to regaining ecosystem function, and protecting ecosystems against human disturbance is ultimately the best way to ensure no interruption in these services. However, because of the long “recovery debt” incurred before restored ecosystems completely recover their full functioning and biodiversity, protecting ecosystems may be the better option for ensuring that they provide ongoing benefits for humans.

“If restored ecosystems take a very long time to recover their full functioning and their full range of species, then some important goods and services provided by ecosystems -- such as recreation, flood control, beneficial habitats and pollution abatement -- may be lost or severely impaired for a very long time,” Barbier says. “So, the recovery debt really represents an indicator of the loss of potential benefits that individuals increasingly consider to be important and valuable.”

The study cautions against pursuing ecosystem management strategies, particularly compensation policies that exclusively rely on restoration or recovery to reverse biodiversity and functional loss, because they will increase the quantity of less-functional and diverse ecosystems, according to the study.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland supported the multidisciplinary team of researchers to conduct the study.

The team analyzed data from 3,035 sampling plots worldwide to quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and functions occurring during the recovery process, according to the SESYNC’s release. Researchers found that recovering ecosystems had, on average, half the amount of plants and animals; were one third less diverse; and had 40 percent lower cycling of carbon and nitrogen than undisturbed ecosystems.

The researchers included data across a variety of ecosystems that have experienced different kinds of disturbance. Ecosystems formerly mined for resource extraction had the greatest loss in species diversity -- 32 to 45 percent -- and carbon cycling -- 39 to 62 percent -- 11 years after disturbance. The effect of time may be restrictive in many, if not all cases, researchers say.

David Moreno-Mateos, an Ikerbasque research fellow at the Basque Center for Climate Change, who led the science team at SESYNC, says that he and his colleagues expect recovery to happen in a few years or decades but, in many cases, they believe that recovery of certain species or interactions may take centuries or more.

Billions of dollars are spent on ecosystem recovery every year. The findings of the research team could be of interest to policymakers and decision-makers who are developing and applying restoration strategies at national and international levels.


SESYNC’s mission is to support synthetic, actionable team science on the structure, functioning and sustainability of socio-environmental systems. The center’s five core objectives are to: enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinary collaborations among natural and social science research teams focused on environmental problems; build capacity and new communities of socio-environmental researchers; provide education programs to enhance interdisciplinary and understanding of socio-environmental synthesis; enhance computational capacity to promote socio-environmental synthesis; and enhance relevance of socio-environmental research to decisions and behaviors via actionable scholarship.

For more information on SESYNC, visit

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