Amazon rainforest
Indigenous children in Caquetá, Colombia. (Credit: Stiven Gaviria/Unsplash)

The planet’s largest ecosystems could collapse faster than we thought

Massive, vital ecosystems that have existed for thousands of years could breakdown in just a few decades, according to a new study

If put under the kind of environmental stress increasingly seen on our planet, large ecosystems —such as the Amazon rainforest or the Caribbean coral reefs—could collapse in just a few decades, according to a study released today in Nature Communications.


In the case of Amazon forests, stressors could cause collapse in just 49 years. In Caribbean coral reefs, it could take as little as 15 years.

"The messages here are stark," said lead researcher John Dearing, a professor in physical geography at the University of Southampton, in a statement.

Those estimates come from Dearing and colleagues who examined data on how 42 natural environments—small and large, and on both land and water—have transformed. They found that larger ecosystems may take longer than small ones to collapse, but the rate of their decline is much more rapid.

Ecosystem stress can come in many forms such as climate change, deforestation, overfishing, pollution and ocean acidification.

(Credit: Francesco Ungaro/Unsplash)

"Humanity now needs to prepare for changes in ecosystems that are faster than we previously envisaged through our traditional linear view of the world, including across Earth 's largest and most iconic ecosystems, and the social–ecological systems that they support," the authors wrote.

Larger ecosystems are made up of smaller "sub-systems" of species and habitats, which provide some resilience against rapid change. However, once these smaller systems start to collapse, the new study finds the large ecosystems as a whole fall apart much faster than previously expected.

Researchers pointed to the destructive Australian and Amazon rainforest wildfires as recent examples of this dangerous fast rate of collapse.

"These findings are yet another call for halting the current damage being imposed on our natural environments that pushes ecosystems to their limits," Dearing added.

See the full study in Nature Communications.

Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Biden announces $1.7 billion to support US EV factories

The Biden administration is providing $1.7 billion to retool 11 auto factories for electric vehicle production, aiming to secure jobs and support union labor.

Maxine Joselow reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Tribes and conservationists work to save spearfishing from climate change

As climate change impacts walleye populations in Wisconsin lakes, Indigenous tribes and conservationists are striving to preserve the traditional practice of spearfishing.

Melina Walling and John Locher report for The Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

A climate-themed version of Catan sparks new conversations

A new version of the popular board game Catan, called New Energies, aims to make discussing climate change more engaging by incorporating elements of renewable energy and fossil fuels.

Sachi Kitajima Mulkey reports for Grist.

Keep reading...Show less

Opinion: Building climate resilience fails to protect human health

The Department of Health and Human Services' focus on climate resilience is insufficient to address the extensive health impacts of climate change.

David Introcaso writes for Undark Magazine.

Keep reading...Show less
Montana Youth Climate lawsuit
Credit: Douglas Fischer

Montana’s Supreme Court debates climate law's constitutionality

A landmark climate lawsuit in Montana questions whether a state law supporting fossil fuel development infringes on constitutional rights to a healthy environment.

Nicholas Kusnetz and Najifa Farhat report for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
WATCH: Enduring the “endless” expansion of the nation’s petrochemical corridor

WATCH: Enduring the “endless” expansion of the nation’s petrochemical corridor

As mounds of dredged material from the Houston Ship Channel dot their neighborhoods, residents are left without answers as to what dangers could be lurking.

US Steel pollution

Nippon Steel shareholders demand environmental accountability in light of pending U.S. Steel acquisition

“It’s a little ironic that they’re coming to the U.S. and buying a company facing all the same problems they’re facing in Japan.”

Another chemical recycling plant closure offers ‘flashing red light’ to nascent industry

Another chemical recycling plant closure offers ‘flashing red light’ to nascent industry

Fulcrum BioFuels’ shuttered “sustainable aviation fuel” plant is the latest facility to run into technical and financial challenges.

nurses climate change

Op-ed: In a warming world, nurses heal people and the planet

Nurses have the experience, motivation and public support to make an important contribution in tackling the climate crises.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.