Study suggests active restoration of damaged ecosystems not always better than nature

February 28, 2018 by Bob Yirka, report
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

An international team of researchers has found evidence that suggests human efforts to restore damaged ecosystems are not always better than simply letting nature take its course. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group describes analyzing over 400 studies documenting ecosystem recovery efforts and reports their findings.

As humans have realized that on the planet are a limited resource, attempts have be made to repair the damage. Forests are replanted, for example, or dams are demolished—such efforts often include the reintroduction of plants and animals threatened by . But the researchers with this effort wanted to know, whether or not such efforts are better than simply allowing nature to take its course. To find out, they pored over papers and other documentation materials created by others who studied individual ecosystem recovery efforts.

The researchers conclude that ecosystem recovery efforts are a mixed bag—some do appear to restore areas to their natural states in a relatively short amount of time. But others seemed to do no better than nature—and some did not seem to succeed at all. Planting trees in areas where they have been cut down is clearly faster, they note, than letting seedlings find their way across vast stretches of barren land. But simply removing a dam may not be enough to return a river system to its prior state—in some cases, animals may have gone extinct, for example.

The team also used data from the documentation to produce statistics on ecosystem recovery, such as the speed at which different types of systems recover. They found, for example, that on average, recovery rates ran from 1 to 10 percent per year, and that marine systems and wetlands tended to recover faster than lakes and forests. They also noted multiple instances in which ecosystems never recovered completely.

The researchers conclude their analysis by suggesting that rather than dash in with a plan for ecosystem restoration, planners should take more time to study the unique areas they are dealing with and then decide if their efforts will reap the desired rewards.

Explore further: What it takes to recover from drought

More information: Holly P. Jones et al. Restoration and repair of Earth's damaged ecosystems, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2577


We collated information on how fast and how completely ecosystems recovered from large-scale disturbances (agriculture, nutrient pollution, hydrologic disruption, logging, mining, and oil spills) and compared measures of recovery in ecosystems recovering without extra human assistance and in ecosystems that were actively restored. We find ecosystems are headed toward recovery in all cases but almost never recover completely. Active restoration does not speed or result in more complete recovery than letting ecosystems recover on their own. We encourage innovative partnerships between local communities, governments, and stakeholders to develop restoration techniques that are economically, socially, and ecologically sound.

Related Stories

What it takes to recover from drought

August 9, 2017

Drought-stricken areas anxiously await the arrival of rain. Full recovery of the ecosystem, however, can extend long past the first rain drops on thirsty ground.

Recovering predators and prey

February 27, 2017

If you build it, they will come. That's historically been a common approach to species recovery: Grow the prey population first and predators will quickly return. As it turns out, that's not quite the case. A new study has ...

Middle Earth preserved in giant bird dung

February 12, 2018

While the giant birds that once dominated New Zealand are all extinct, a study of their preserved dung (coprolites) has revealed many aspects of their ancient ecosystem, with important insights for ongoing conservation efforts.

Most polluted ecosystems recoverable, study says

May 27, 2009

Most polluted or damaged ecosystems worldwide can recover within a lifetime if societies commit to their cleanup or restoration, according to an analysis of 240 independent studies by researchers at the Yale School of Forestry ...

Recommended for you

Observation of quantized heating in quantum matter

February 19, 2019

Shaking a physical system typically heats it up, in the sense that the system continuously absorbs energy. When considering a circular shaking pattern, the amount of energy that is absorbed can potentially depend on the orientation ...

Sound waves let quantum systems 'talk' to one another

February 18, 2019

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory have invented an innovative way for different types of quantum technology to "talk" to each other using sound. The study, published Feb. 11 in Nature ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Feb 28, 2018
The conclusions of this research are not good news for those dreaming of terraforming Dead Worlds.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.