In ecology, resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Such perturbations and disturbances can include stochastic events such as fires, flooding, windstorms, insect population explosions, and human activities such as deforestation and the introduction of exotic plant or animal species. Disturbances of sufficient magnitude or duration can profoundly affect an ecosystem and may force an ecosystem to reach a threshold beyond which a different regime of processes and structures predominates. Human activities that adversely affect ecosystem resilience such as reduction of biodiversity, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, land-use, and anthropogenic climate change are increasingly causing regime shifts in ecosystems, often to less desirable and degraded conditions. Interdisciplinary discourse on resilience now includes consideration of the interactions of humans and ecosystems via socio-ecological systems, and the need for shift from the maximum sustainable yield paradigm to environmental management which aims to build ecological resilience through "resilience analysis, adaptive resource management, and adaptive governance".
The concept of resilience in ecological systems was first introduced by the Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling  in order to describe the persistence of natural systems in the face of changes in ecosystem variables due to natural or anthropogenic causes. Resilience has been defined in two ways in ecological literature:
The second definition has been termed ‘ecological resilience’, and it presumes the existence of multiple stable states or regimes.
Some shallow temperate lakes can exist within either clear water regime, which provides many ecosystem services, or a turbid water regime, which provides reduced ecosystem services and can produce toxic algae blooms. The regime or state is dependent upon lake phosphorus cycles, and either regime can be resilient dependent upon the lake's ecology and management.
Mulga woodlands of Australia can exist in a grass-rich regime that supports sheep herding, or a shrub-dominated regime of no value for sheep grazing. Regime shifts are driven by the interaction of fire, herbivory, and variable rainfall. Either state can be resilient dependent upon management.
The first three can apply both to a whole system or the sub-systems that make it up.
Closely linked to resilience is adaptive capacity, which is the property of an ecosystem that describes change in stability landscapes and resilience. Adaptive capacity in socio-ecological systems refers to the ability of humans to deal with change in their environment by observation, learning and altering their interactions.
Resilience refers to ecosystem's stability and capability of tolerating disturbance and restoring itself. If the disturbance is of sufficient magnitude or duration, a threshold may be reached where the ecosystem undergoes a regime shift, possibly permanently. Sustainable use of environmental goods and services requires understanding and consideration of the resilience of the ecosystem and its limits. However, the elements which influence ecosystem resilience are complicated. For example various elements such as the water cycle, fertility, biodiversity, plant diversity and climate, interact fiercely and affect different systems.
There are many areas where human activity impacts upon and is also dependent upon the resilience of terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems. These include agriculture, deforestation, pollution, mining, recreation, overfishing, dumping of waste into the sea and climate change.
Agriculture can be seen as a significant example which the resilience of terrestrial ecosystems should be considered. The organic matter (elements carbon and nitrogen) in soil, which is supposed to be recharged by multiple plants, is the main source of nutrients for crop growth. At the same time, intensive agriculture practices in response to global food demand and shortages involves the removal of weeds and the application of fertilisers to increase food production. However as a result of agricultural intensification and the application of herbicides to control weeds, fertilisers to accelerate and increase crop growth and pesticides to control insects, plant biodiversity is reduced as is the supply of organic matter to replenish soil nutrients and prevent run-off. This leads to a reduction in soil fertility and productivity. More sustainable agricultural practices would take into account and estimate the resilience of the land and monitor and balance the input and output of organic matter.
The term deforestation has a meaning that covers crossing the threshold of forest's resilience and losing its ability to return its originally stable state. To recover itself, a forest ecosystem needs suitable interactions among climate conditions and bio-actions, and enough area. In addition, generally, the resilience of a forest system allows recovery from a relatively small scale of damage (such as lightning or landslide) of up to 10 per cent of its area. The larger the scale of damage, the more difficult it is for the forest ecosystem to restore and maintain its balance.
Deforestation also decreases biodiversity of both plant and animal life and can lead to an alteration of the climatic conditions of an entire area. Deforestation can also lead to species extinction, which can have a domino effect particularly when keystone species are removed or when a significant number of species is removed and their ecological function is lost.
Climate change is threatening coastal communities in a variety of ways such as rising sea levels, increasingly frequent large storms, tidal surges and flooding damage. One of the main results of climate change is rising sea water temperature which has a serious effect on coral reefs, through thermal-stress related coral bleaching. Between 1997-1998 the most significant worldwide coral bleaching event was recorded which corresponded with the El Nino Southern Oscillation, with significant damage to the coral reefs of the Western Indian Ocean.
It has been estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that over 70% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or depleted which means overfishing threatens marine ecosystem resilience and this is mostly by rapid growth of fishing technology. One of the negative effects on marine ecosystems is that over the last half-century the stocks of coastal fish have had a huge reduction as a result of overfishing for its economic benefits. Blue fin tuna is at particular risk of extinction. Depletion of fish stocks results in lowered biodiversity and consequently imbalance in the food chain, and increased vulnerability to disease.
In addition to overfishing, coastal communities are suffering the impacts of growing numbers of large commercial fishing vessels in causing reductions of small local fishing fleets. Many local lowland rivers which are sources of fresh water have become degraded because of the inflows of pollutants and sediments.
Dumping both depends upon ecosystem resilience whilst threatening it. Dumping of sewage and other contaminants into the ocean is often undertaken for the dispersive nature of the oceans and adaptive nature and ability for marine life to process the marine debris and contaminants. However, waste dumping threatens marine ecosystems by poisoning marine life and eutrophication.
According to the International Maritime Organisation oil spills can have serious effects on marine life. The OILPOL Convention recognized that most oil pollution resulted from routine shipboard operations such as the cleaning of cargo tanks. In the 1950s, the normal practice was simply to wash the tanks out with water and then pump the resulting mixture of oil and water into the sea. OILPOL 54 prohibited the dumping of oily wastes within a certain distance from land and in 'special areas' where the danger to the environment was especially acute. In 1962 the limits were extended by means of an amendment adopted at a conference organized by IMO. Meanwhile, IMO in 1965 set up a Subcommittee on Oil Pollution, under the auspices of its Maritime Safety committee, to address oil pollution issues.
The threat of oil spills to marine life is recognised by those likely to be responsible for the pollution, such as the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation:
The marine ecosystem is highly complex and natural fluctuations in species composition, abundance and distribution are a basic feature of its normal function. The extent of damage can therefore be difficult to detect against this background variability. Nevertheless, the key to understanding damage and its importance is whether spill effects result in a downturn in breeding success, productivity, diversity and the overall functioning of the system. Spills are not the only pressure on marine habitats; chronic urban and industrial contamination or the exploitation of the resources they provide are also serious threats.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution calls nutrient pollution the most widespread, chronic environmental problem in the coastal ocean. The discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients come from agriculture, waste disposal, coastal development, and fossil fuel use. Once nutrient pollution reaches the coastal zone, it stimulates harmful overgrowths of algae, which can have direct toxic effects and ultimately result in low-oxygen conditions. Certain types of algae are toxic. Overgrowths of these algae result in harmful algal blooms, which are more colloquially referred to as "red tides" or "brown tides". Zooplankton eat the toxic algae and begin passing the toxins up the food chain, affecting edibles like clams, and ultimately working their way up to seabirds, marine mammals, and humans. The result can be illness and sometimes death.
There is increasing awareness that a greater understanding and emphasis of ecosystem resilience is required to reach the goal of sustainable development. A similar conclusion is drawn by Perman et al. who use resilience to describe one of 6 concepts of sustainability; "A sustainable state is one which satisfies minimum conditions for ecosystem resilience through time". Resilience science has been evolving over the past decade, expanding beyond ecology to reflect systems of thinking in fields such as economics and political science. And, as more and more people move into densely populated cities, using massive amounts of water, energy, and other resources, the need to combine these disciplines to consider the resilience of urban ecosystems and cities is of paramount importance.
The interdependence of ecological and social systems has gained renewed recognition since the late 1990s by academics including Berkes and Folke and developed further in 2002 by Folke et al. as the concept of sustainable development has evolved beyond the 3 pillars of sustainable development to place greater political emphasis on economic development. This is a movement which causes wide concern in environmental and social forums and which Clive Hamilton describes as "the growth fetish".
The purpose of ecological resilience that is proposed is ultimately about averting our extinction as Walker cites Holling in his paper: "[..] "resilience is concerned with [measuring] the probabilities of extinction” (1973, p. 20)". Becoming more apparent in academic writing is the significance of the environment and resilience in sustainable development. Folke et al state that the likelihood of sustaining development is raised by "Managing for resilience" whilst Perman et al. propose that safeguarding the environment to "deliver a set of services" should be a "necessary condition for an economy to be sustainable".
The challenge of applying the concept of ecological resilience to the context of sustainable development is that it sits at odds with conventional economic ideology and policy making. Resilience questions the free market model within which global markets operate. Inherent to the successful operation of a free market is specialisation which is required to achieve efficiency and increase productivity. This very act of specialisation weakens resilience by permitting systems to become accustomed to and dependent upon their prevailing conditions. In the event of unanticipated shocks; this dependency reduces the ability of the system to adapt to these changes. Correspondingly; Perman et al. note that; "Some economic activities appear to reduce resilience, so that the level of disturbance to which the ecosystem can be subjected to without parametric change taking place is reduced".
Berkes and Folke table a set of principles to assist with "building resilience and sustainability" which consolidate approaches of adaptive management, local knowledge-based management practices and conditions for institutional learning and self-organisation.
More recently, it has been suggested by Andrea Ross that the concept of sustainable development is no longer adequate in assisting policy development fit for today’s global challenges and objectives. This is because the concept of sustainable development is "based on weak sustainability" which doesn’t take account of the reality of "limits to earth's resilience". Ross draws on the impact of climate change on the global agenda as a fundamental factor in the "shift towards ecological sustainability" as an alternative approach to that of sustainable development. The conclusion that is reached therefore requires that resilience should be a "legal principle underpinning the concept of sustainable development".
Scientific research associated with resilience is beginning to play a role in influencing policy-making and subsequent environmental decision making.
This occurs in a number of ways:
Ecological resilience and the thresholds by which resilience is defined are closely interrelated in the way that they influence environmental policy-making, legislation and subsequently environmental management. The ability of ecosystems to recover from certain levels of environmental impact is not explicitly noted in legislation, however, because of ecosystem resilience, some levels of environmental impact associated with development are made permissible by environmental policy-making and ensuing legislation.
Some examples of the consideration of ecosystem resilience within legislation include:
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