New 'Red List' Identifies at Risk Ecosystems, Protecting Endangered Environments

First Posted: May 09, 2013 10:12 AM EDT

Most people are familiar with the Red List that helps identify threatened species across the globe. Now, a team of scientists has helped develop a new Red List system that details ecosystems at high risk for degradation. The new listing could allow for better environmental management and could also allow for better conservation methods for existing species.

Ecosystems around the globe are facing unprecedented threats. Warming temperatures, changing climates and invasive species are drastically impacting areas and the organisms that live there. As these environments decline, biodiversity is affected and this, in turn, can affect human populations. This makes it more crucial than ever to identify areas than need a little extra help.

In order to actually identify these at-risk areas, though, researchers had to assess quite a few environments. So far, they've examined 20 ecosystems around the world, including seagrass meadows, coastal sandstone upland swamps, red gum forests and semi-evergreen vine thickets.

The scientists then used five criteria to determine whether these environments were critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. These criteria included how fast the ecosystem was declining, the size of the area involved, the characteristics of the physical environment, biological processes and how they interact and how all of these factors come together.

"For the first time we've really been able to put together a system of risk assessment for ecosystems at a much broader level than the species one," said lead study author David Keith in an interview with ABC News.

After assessing the 20 different ecosystems, the researchers gave each a listing. It turned out that the Coorong lagoons, Karst rising springs, coastal sandstone upland swamps and marshes and lakes in the Murray-Darling Basin were all critically endangered.

"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," said Keith in a news release. "Now, for the first time, we have a consistent method for identifying the most threatened ecosystems across land, freshwater and ocean environments."

The findings are a major breakthrough for managing ecosystems more sustainably. Eventually, the researchers hope to apply their findings across the globe as they assess more major ecosystems.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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