IUCN Develops New Red List For Endangered Ecosystems
May 9, 2013

IUCN Develops New Red List For Endangered Ecosystems

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is widely considered to be the most comprehensive inventory of endangered and threatened species and the international organization is currently developing a similar list for the world´s fragile ecosystems.

A new study in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, lays out a foundation of criteria for the list and applies these criteria to 20 ecosystems around the world.

According to study co-author David Keith, of the University of New South Wales´ (UNSW) Office of Environment, the new list aims to assess ecosystems at high risk for degradation and the threats facing these ecosystems.

"This is one of the world's most significant conservation challenges and we really need a better system for understanding the risks to the world's ecosystems, so that we can make more informed decisions about sustainable environmental management,” Keith said in a statement. “Now, for the first time, we have a consistent method for identifying the most threatened ecosystems across land, freshwater and ocean environments.”

Keith and his colleagues used five criteria to determine the threat level of these environments: how fast the ecosystem was declining, the size of the ecosystem, its physical environment, the biological processes occurring there, and the culmination of these factors.

Using the criteria, the team attempted to determine the level of threat facing each of the 20 ecosystems in the study: critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. They determined the most endangered site in the study to be the Aral Sea, located on the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. A massive irrigation project and devastating drought has caused the inland sea's ecosystem to collapse. The study equated this collapse to a species becoming extinct.

The granite gravel fields and sand plains in New Zealand were the least endangered ecosystem in the study. The giant kelp forests off the coast of Alaska were considered to be the most endangered North American ecosystem to be considered in the study.

“Look, we're just experiencing at the moment unprecedented biodiversity loss - loss of plants and animal species across that world,” Keith said in an interview with Australia´s ABC News. “And what we're seeing is really big impacts on ecosystems - deserts, oceans, rivers, wetlands.”

“And I guess one of the big challenges is that we need some sort of framework that doesn't just focus on species,” he added.

The team of researchers that developed the Red List criteria said they plan to formally propose their outline to IUCN later this year. According to several reports, research has been funded for listing ecosystems in the Americas, and the IUCN said it hopes to have a global list in place by 2025.

“This is all about evidence-based environmental management,” Keith said. “And a system like this provides a fairly clear and simple message about the relative status of different ecosystems and that's going to be very useful for governments and industries and also community groups to direct their efforts in places where it's going to make the most difference.”