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The RLE process for diagnosing risks to ecosystems

The RLE process for diagnosing risks to ecosystems
The Red List of ecosystems protocol involves at its core a diagnostic process much like when a doctor sees a patient. That process involves engaging a number of experts and scientific research to try and understand the key processes that are really important in sustaining the functionality of the ecosystem, as well as sustaining all of the species that are part of those systems. So doing a Red List of Ecosystems assessment is a very strategic way of going about developing a management plan for the sustainability of that system. Because it helps to identify what those key processes are, and also, what may be going wrong with them in order to address that through management actions and policy actions.
There’s a range of different scientific theories that were brought together to synthesise this approach that we have in assessing risks to ecosystems. It’s really focused on the notion that there’s a lot of different things that can go wrong with ecosystems, but there are common symptoms that we may be able to detect that will help us understand the level of risk that any individual ecosystem faces. So we used elements of ecological assembly theory and also, population theory, so that we could put together a simple set of four major symptoms and develop ways of measuring those to assess risk.
So two of those four symptoms relate to the spatial characteristics of ecosystems, and two of them relate to functional aspects of ecosystem behaviour because there’s a lot that can go wrong with an ecosystem without necessarily any change in its distribution. so those four elements kind of work together as an ensemble. They’re complementary in detecting different symptoms, and different processes, and different threats that apply to ecosystems. And we have a fifth criterion in the suite that is designed to bring all of those things together into a single assessment, and usually, that requires quite a lot of understanding and data to apply. But we do have that kind of data for some ecosystems.
And as time goes on, we’ll get a better understanding of more and more, so that can be applied as well.
One of the key challenges in assessing risk to ecosystems is finding the right data and enough data. Information knowledge is always limiting, but the Red List of Ecosystems is structured in a way that accommodates varying levels of knowledge. And I think that’s a really important flexibility to have. Because in many parts of the world, our knowledge is not developing as rapidly as it is in some other areas. So having a system that can accommodate very large volumes of data and understanding, as well as still operate and provide some meaningful output with fairly minimal information is an important quality of the system.
Another issue is that it often comes down to where you look and how hard you look for this knowledge. And often, people see initially a deficit of understanding and a lack of data. But if you start thinking creatively and looking in a range of different sources and places, different cultures, and work that’s been lying around for a very long time and perhaps forgotten, much of that information turns out to be very useful in a Red List assessment.

This interview with Professor David Keith provides an overview of the assessment process and what it aims to achieve.

We’ll be looking at each of the criteria in more detail in the next few steps, followed by case studies that illustrate how the criteria are applied in practice. First a quick overview.

The Red List of Ecosystems risk categories - Click to download image
The Red List of Ecosystems risk categories (Nicholson, 2020)

Criteria A and B analyse spatial characteristics. Are the ecosystems declining in area? How big are the ecosystems, and how are they distributed across the landscape or seascape?

Criteria C and D measure change in ecosystem function, divided into change in the abiotic environment (criterion C), and change in the living parts of the ecosystem – its species and their interactions (criterion D).

Criterion E allows a quantitative estimate of the probability of collapse, usually using an ecosystem model. Application of this criterion requires large amounts of data so is rarely done.

The criteria work as an ensemble, representing different pathways to collapse. Therefore each of the criteria should be assessed as far as possible, given the data available.

One of the core themes you’ll see over the next part of the course is that assessments require some rigorous research, creative thinking and inference from available data.

Your task

Now that you know more about the Red List of Ecosystems approach, think back to your home ecosystem. What insights have you gained about your home ecosystem, as you developed your description, conceptual model and identified potential indicators? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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IUCN Red List of Ecosystems: The Global Standard for Assessing Risks to Ecosystems

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