A global ecosystem risk assessment

TERN has enabled Australian researchers to take a leading international role in the development of the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, positioning Australia to be a global leader with this significant initiative.

TERN has been centrally engaged with the development of the first global standard for assessing risks to ecosystems. TERN’s infrastructure, data, ecosystem processes, expertise, and synthesis capability have all played a role in the development of a new scientifically-robust assessment framework to support the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems, helping place Australia at the forefront of this important global innovation. 

Professor David Keith of the University of New South Wales and TERN’s expert network, helped to spearhead the development of the new framework, which won the 2015 Eureka Prize for Environmental Research. The Red List of Ecosystems was developed to complement and extend current approaches that focus on individual species (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), improving overall conservation effectiveness. The new protocol provides an adaptable framework for risk assessment across terrestrial, subterranean, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The TERN enabled IUCN Red List of Ecosystems framework has been used to complete a number of ecosystem risk assessments, including of the Georgina gidgee woodland ecosystem in central Australia (image courtesy of Aaron Greenville)

A number of ecosystem risk assessments using the protocol have now been undertaken thanks to TERN infrastructure. A special issue of Austral Ecology journal showcases the application of TERN’s expertise and data in enabling detailed risk assessments to be done for a diverse selection of Australian ecosystems from the coast to the central deserts, the tropics to the temperate regions and from the mountains to the sea.

In applying the IUCN criteria to these ecosystems, researchers: (1) identified the defining features of the ecosystems and the processes that threaten them, (2) evaluated trends in key variables relevant to the persistence of the ecosystems, and (3) assessed the risk of ecosystem collapse in the 21st century.

Much of the research contained in the publication was undertaken at TERN’s research sites using our national network of research infrastructure and open data streams. Through TERN’s synthesis capability, David and his team were brought together with a wider group of researchers to examine applications of the IUCN Ecosystems Red List criteria in the Oceania region.

An ecosystem risk assessment for the Cumberland Plain Woodland in New South Wales—home to TERN’s Cumberland Plain SuperSite and the Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) experiment (above)—has been completed and published in Austral Ecology

Critically, the workflow for one ecosystem assessment—Victoria’s Mountain Ash ecosystem—has been preserved using TERN’s Collaborative Environment for Ecosystem Science Research and Analysis (CoESRA), a cloud-based platform for re-usable, repeatable and reproducible scientific analyses.

CoESRA brings together the data and analyses used to apply the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems protocol to the forest ecosystem and make a repeatable workflow—enabling future re-runs with updated time windows and updated ecological parameters. The results from this assessment were influential in the decision to list the Leadbeater’s possum as critically endangered and result in an Industry Taskforce to inform the Victorian Government.

Already used to assess risks to numerous terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems in Australia and overseas, the Red List of Ecosystems method will be critical for Australia’s reporting on the status of biodiversity globally under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Ecosystem Red List assessments are becoming more crucial to regulatory processes under environmental legislation in Australia and other countries.

Additionally, Ecosystem Red List assessments are vital to help identify environmental change, trends and causes, and assist in the development of management strategies and monitoring tools for evaluating management performance.

The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is now being applied globally, with risk assessments underway in northern Europe, China and the Americas and a target to assess all ecosystems by 2025. By contributing advanced scientific methods, data and expertise, TERN has placed Australia at the forefront of this major global conservation effort.

It is initiatives such as these, and the infrastructure and time-series data that enable them, that help to position Australia to meet emerging environmental challenges. Effectively adaptating to environmental change is critical to a healthy, sustainable and prosperous Australia.

  • TERN’s leadership and influence in the development of an international system for evidence-based scientific assessments of the risk of ecosystem collapse is also documented in TERN’s landmark book Biodiversity and Environmental Change: Monitoring, Challenges and DirectionTERN’s Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN) has enabled the most complete and comprehensive synthesis of environmental change in Australia to be captured in a single product. This data-rich book from TERN demonstrates the value of existing long-term ecological research in Australia for monitoring environmental change and biodiversity.
  • For more information on this project please contact TERN’s Dr Emma Burns

The flame robin (above) was almost the only bird species seen in the most severely burnt areas of Victoria’s Mountain Ash forests following the Black Saturday fires of 2009, which also severely reduced the number of critical large, habitat supporting trees (right) (images courtesy of David Blair). The workflow for the ecosystem risk assessment of Victoria’s Mountain Ash ecosystem has been preserved using TERN’s Collaborative Environment for Ecosystem Science Research and Analysis (CoESRA), a cloud-based platform for re-usable, repeatable and reproducible scientific analyses.


Published in TERN newsletter September 2016

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