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Anthropogenic ecosystem disturbance and the recovery debt


  • David Moreno-Mateos

    (Basque Center for Climate Change–BC3
    IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science
    Fundación Internacional para la Restauración de Ecosistemas)

  • Edward B. Barbier

    (University of Wyoming)

  • Peter C. Jones

    (Northern Illinois University)

  • Holly P. Jones

    (Northern Illinois University
    Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, Northern Illinois University)

  • James Aronson

    (Missouri Botanical Garden
    Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive (UMR 5175, Campus CNRS))

  • José A. López-López

    (School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol)

  • Michelle L. McCrackin

    (Baltic Sea Centre, Stockholm University)

  • Paula Meli

    (Fundación Internacional para la Restauración de Ecosistemas
    Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos A.C.)

  • Daniel Montoya

    (Centre for Biodiversity Theory and Modeling, Station D’Ecologie Experimentale du CNRS
    Centre INRA de Dijon)

  • José M. Rey Benayas

    (Fundación Internacional para la Restauración de Ecosistemas
    Universidad de Alcalá)


Ecosystem recovery from anthropogenic disturbances, either without human intervention or assisted by ecological restoration, is increasingly occurring worldwide. As ecosystems progress through recovery, it is important to estimate any resulting deficit in biodiversity and functions. Here we use data from 3,035 sampling plots worldwide, to quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and functions occurring during the recovery process (that is, the ‘recovery debt’). Compared with reference levels, recovering ecosystems run annual deficits of 46–51% for organism abundance, 27–33% for species diversity, 32–42% for carbon cycling and 31–41% for nitrogen cycling. Our results are consistent across biomes but not across degrading factors. Our results suggest that recovering and restored ecosystems have less abundance, diversity and cycling of carbon and nitrogen than ‘undisturbed’ ecosystems, and that even if complete recovery is reached, an interim recovery debt will accumulate. Under such circumstances, increasing the quantity of less-functional ecosystems through ecological restoration and offsetting are inadequate alternatives to ecosystem protection.

Suggested Citation

  • David Moreno-Mateos & Edward B. Barbier & Peter C. Jones & Holly P. Jones & James Aronson & José A. López-López & Michelle L. McCrackin & Paula Meli & Daniel Montoya & José M. Rey Benayas, 2017. "Anthropogenic ecosystem disturbance and the recovery debt," Nature Communications, Nature, vol. 8(1), pages 1-6, April.
  • Handle: RePEc:nat:natcom:v:8:y:2017:i:1:d:10.1038_ncomms14163
    DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14163

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    Cited by:

    1. Chunming Li & Jianshe Chen & Xiaolin Liao & Aaron P. Ramus & Christine Angelini & Lingli Liu & Brian R. Silliman & Mark D. Bertness & Qiang He, 2023. "Shorebirds-driven trophic cascade helps restore coastal wetland multifunctionality," Nature Communications, Nature, vol. 14(1), pages 1-14, December.
    2. Pierre Desrochers & Vincent Geloso & Joanna Szurmak, 2021. "Care to Wager Again? An Appraisal of Paul Ehrlich's Counterbet Offer to Julian Simon, Part 2: Critical Analysis," Social Science Quarterly, Southwestern Social Science Association, vol. 102(2), pages 808-829, March.
    3. Clinton Carbutt & Kevin Kirkman, 2022. "Ecological Grassland Restoration—A South African Perspective," Land, MDPI, vol. 11(4), pages 1-25, April.
    4. Robert Beyer & Tim Rademacher, 2021. "Species Richness and Carbon Footprints of Vegetable Oils: Can High Yields Outweigh Palm Oil’s Environmental Impact?," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 13(4), pages 1-10, February.
    5. Edward B. Barbier, 2017. "Editorial — The Economics of Aquatic Ecosystems: An Introduction to the Special Issue," Water Economics and Policy (WEP), World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., vol. 3(02), pages 1-6, April.
    6. Baodi Sun & Yinru Lei & Lijuan Cui & Wei Li & Xiaoming Kang & Manyin Zhang, 2018. "Addressing the Modelling Precision in Evaluating the Ecosystem Services of Coastal Wetlands," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 10(4), pages 1-15, April.
    7. Manh-Toan Ho & Thanh-Huyen T. Nguyen & Minh-Hoang Nguyen & Viet-Phuong La & Quan-Hoang Vuong, 2022. "Virtual tree, real impact: how simulated worlds associate with the perception of limited resources," Palgrave Communications, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 9(1), pages 1-12, December.
    8. Diana Turrión & Luna Morcillo & José Antonio Alloza & Alberto Vilagrosa, 2021. "Innovative Techniques for Landscape Recovery after Clay Mining under Mediterranean Conditions," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 13(6), pages 1-18, March.

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