Studying the collapse of ecosystems opens a window towards the future, towards what may happen, but also one towards the past, towards the formation of the ecosystems that we currently know.
Many of the currently threatened ecosystems have reached this situation due to anthropic pressures; deforestation, urban development, human-caused fires, agricultural effluents, introduction of exotic species, etc. Identifying what are the threats to an ecosystem and the effects they cause in it, allows finding adequate ways to mitigate and prevent or reverse the collapse.
Among the most common pathways to ecosystem collapse are loss of key species, environmental degradation and the strengthening of climate change.
Accelerated climate change is precisely the main pressure on high mountain ecosystems such as paramos, high Andean deserts and glaciers, which leads them to collapse. The collapse process that is occurring in an accelerated way in these ecosystems provides us with an opportunity both to understand the symptoms of collapse and to be able to detect them early in similar ecosystems, as well as to witness the formation processes of novel ecosystems.
Witnesses to the formation of a new ecosystem
It was recently estimated that Venezuela will become the first country in the South American region to lose all of its glaciers. Among the most prominent, the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada have lost 99% of their surface in the last 100 years. However, although it is not possible to recover these ecosystems in the country, it does represent an opportunity to understand how an ecosystem is generated from scratch, since as the last glacier in the country disappears; a new high Andean ecosystem is being generated.
|Last Venezuelan glacier at Humboldt peak. (@UltimoGlaciarVe)|
For millennia, Venezuela has had high mountain glaciers, in fact, in the 60's even ski competitions were held in the country. But from the 80's, the melting of the glaciers began to be evident and by 2018 only one remained. To date, only a small portion of that glacier remains. That is why a team of scientists is studying the process of ecosystem succession and seeking answers to key questions such as: what happens to the bacteria that inhabit the ice? Which ones disappear first? Which plants colonize first? What pollinators promote colonization? What ecosystem will replace the current ecosystem?
This is a unique moment to understand the formation of a new ecosystem and through it understand how the ecosystems that we see today were formed in lower areas, in those areas that were previously also covered by glaciers.
On the one hand, showing the collapse of an ecosystem can open a small window towards the future, towards what can happen in similar ecosystems, but it also opens a window towards the past, towards the formation of the ecosystems that we know today.
Written by: Michelle Castellanos
Style and format: Lila Garcia
Translated by: Antonieta Parilli
Provita Apr 20, 2021