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Novel ecosystems Concept: Synthesis of existing currents of thoughts, and when to consider it.

By Jeff Balland

The recent concept of novel ecosystems has aroused many debates. Novel ecosystems can be defined as new systems where new species combinations and functions that have never interacted historically, occur irreversibly and sustainably (Morse et al. 2014), due to anthropogenic activities, species introduction and climate change (Hobbs et al. 2006; Hobbs et al. 2009). The stage between an ecosystem and a novel ecosystem is called “hybrid ecosystem”, and can be defined by a changing system where a return to previous conditions is still possible before it reaches a tipping point (see Hobbs et al. 2013). Almost 12 years after its introduction (see also Chapin & Starfield 2005), two sides are opposed, whether restoration ecologists should integrate the concept of novel ecosystems into practice or not. I attempt to expose and criticize both of them to see what should be retained about this issue.

Embracing the concept

The proponents of this approach argue that it is more relevant to adapt to climate change, and help ecosystems to keep their functions and services when their communities are unbalanced by changing conditions.  As most of existing ecosystems are concerned by changes, “novel ecosystems constitute the new normal” (Marris 2010).

As climate change affects species ranges, migrations and invasions (Parmesan 2006) and because non-indigenous species introduction is one of the biggest causes of native communities changes (natives can be excluded by losing competition) (Clavero & Garcia-Berthou 2005), promoting novel ecosystem management is to say tolerating invasive species (Rodriguez  2006). Indeed, invasive species removal has a real cost for governances. For instance, the removal costs to USA more than 22 billion dollars per year for all invasive species (Pimentel et al. 2005). Is Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) removal compulsory? Many studies showed that sometimes, removing those species could have unexpected negative impacts on native species and ecosystems so that recovery of native species after their removal is not allowed (see Zavaleta et al. 2001; Ewel & Putz 2004): some INNS have even been described as keystone and engineer species (species playing a crucial role in the ecosystem) (Rodriguez 2006; Sousa & Gutiérrez 2009). For example, an invasive tree in Puerto Rico allows some native plants to settle where there were not able before (Lugo 2004). Considering this, exotic species should not be neglected just because they are non-native (Davis et al. 2011).

Figure 1. The Hamunara springs in New Zealand, where the Coastal Redwood is naturalized and provides useful ecosystem services in what can be considered as a a novel ecosystem. Credits: N.Y. Chan

By the way, the new concept of assisted migration (translocation of species threatened by climate change into more suitable locations), emerging as a solution to face environmental changes, will permit the creation of novel ecosystems in the areas where species are voluntary introduced (Minteer & Collins, 2010).

Finally, the novel ecosystems approach may allow improving quality of ecosystem services in exploited ecosystems such as plantation forestry or agriculture. In their study, Smaill et al.(2014) showed that the Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens matched all the considerations of New-Zealand foresters and could deliver better ecosystem services than the actual most exploited species (Pinus radiata). By the way, the Coastal Redwood is already naturalized in some part of the country (Figure 1).


Yet, many scientists strongly disagree with the novel ecosystems concept. In their critique, Murcia et al.(2014) pointed several oversights of such an approach. First, assuming novel ecosystems are “the new normal” is denying successful stories of restoration and ignoring that many ecosystems are well-preserved. Secondly, it is argued that species responses to climate change are unpredictable on a local or regional scale (the usual restoration scales). Furthermore the thresholds of irreversibility in species combination, namely the tipping points determining whether a hybrid ecosystem may recover to the ancestral one or evolve toward a novel ecosystem, are still difficult if not impossible  to identify (Aronson et al. 2014). According to the detractors, such a concept could provide a “license to disturb” for resource exploitation companies, and may reduce the investment in research and restoration projects because they may become unnecessary, as transformation of ecosystems may be accepted. At last, introducing or managing new species combinations, often including INNS, is not worth taking the risk and the precautionary principle should be applied to avoid any aggravation of ecosystems perturbations.

Integration in management

According to Hobbs et al.(2014), novel ecosystem approach in conservation can also be an alternative to classical restoration. In this paper, the authors made a framework on how decisions about ecosystem management should be taken (Figure 2), struggling between different limitations the managers could have in regards of management goals.

Figure 2. Framework for decision-making in ecosystem management, integrating the novel ecosystems concept. From Hobbs et al. (2014)

However, according to the authors, this framework is theoretic and crucially need further implementation. By the way, decision-making processes may be influenced by the degree of sympathy managers have towards novel ecosystems.


The novel ecosystem concept is a new way of looking at the environment. Integrating it in management practices may allow to use what were threats (for example invasive species) as advantages (ecosystem functioning). It may help to preserve species that are jeopardized by climate change though assisted migration, and ecosystem services of exploited lands may be enhanced by selecting species in regards of their ecological functions.  In my opinion, the concept is not ignoring successful stories of restoration, nor it will provide “licence to disturb”, because novel ecosystems are not worth studying to replace conservation but to provide alternative management. However, I agree some new approaches such as assisted migration are uncertain because of unpredictable species responses (to climate change, to new community compositions, etc.). Likewise, the difficulty of identifying the tipping points in hybrid ecosystem is an obstacle to management decisions. But it is definitely worth putting energy in further investigations, because of all the knowledge about ecosystem functioning the discovery of these thresholds would bring. The concept crucially needs implementation even if the principle of precaution regarding the risks should be considered. That is why I strongly believe the concept should be embraced only as an ultimate alternative, when neither sufficient protection (reserves, protection status for species, conservation programs…) nor classical restoration can be done. In that way, the novel ecosystem approach will only provide good overcomes and exciting discoveries.



Aronson, J., Murcia, C., Kattan, G.H., Moreno-Mateos, D., Dixon, K., Simberloff, D., 2014. The road to confusion is paved with novel ecosystem labels: a reply to Hobbs et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29, 646–647. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.09.011

Murcia, C., Aronson,  J., Kattan, G.H., Moreno-Mateos, D., Dixon, K., Simberloff ,D., 2014. A critique of the “novel ecosystem” concept. Trends Ecol Evol 29, 548–553. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.07.006

Chapin, F.S., Starfield, A.M., 1997. TIME LAGS AND NOVEL ECOSYSTEMS IN RESPONSE TO TRANSIENT CLIMATIC CHANGE IN ARCTIC ALASKA. Climatic Change 35, 449–461. doi:10.1023/A:1005337705025

Clavero, M., García-Berthou, E., 2005. Invasive species are a leading cause of animal extinctions. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20, 110. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2005.01.003

Davis, M.A., Chew, M.K., Hobbs, R.J., Lugo, A.E., Ewel, J.J., Vermeij, G.J., Brown, J.H., Rosenzweig, M.L., Gardener, M.R., Carroll, S.P., Thompson, K., Pickett, S.T.A., Stromberg, J.C., Tredici, P.D., Suding, K.N., Ehrenfeld, J.G., Philip Grime, J., Mascaro, J., Briggs, J.C., 2011. Don’t judge species on their origins. Nature 474, 153–154. doi:10.1038/474153a

Ewel, J.J., Putz, F.E., 2004. A place for alien species in ecosystem restoration. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2, 354–360. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2004)002[0354:APFASI]2.0.CO;2

Hobbs, R.J., Arico, S., Aronson, J., Baron, J.S., Bridgewater, P., Cramer, V.A., Epstein, P.R., Ewel, J.J., Klink, C.A., Lugo, A.E., Norton, D., Ojima, D., Richardson, D.M., Sanderson, E.W., Valladares, F., Vilà, M., Zamora, R., Zobel, M., 2006. Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global Ecology and Biogeography 15, 1–7. doi:10.1111/j.1466-822X.2006.00212.x

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E., Hall, C.M., Bridgewater, P., Chapin, F.S., Ellis, E.C., Ewel, J.J., Hallett, L.M., Harris, J., Hulvey, K.B., Jackson, S.T., Kennedy, P.L., Kueffer, C., Lach, L., Lantz, T.C., Lugo, A.E., Mascaro, J., Murphy, S.D., Nelson, C.R., Perring, M.P., Richardson, D.M., Seastedt, T.R., Standish, R.J., Starzomski, B.M., Suding, K.N., Tognetti, P.M., Yakob, L., Yung, L., 2014. Managing the whole landscape: historical, hybrid, and novel ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12, 557–564. doi:10.1890/130300

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E., Harris, J.A., 2009. Novel ecosystems: implications for conservation and restoration. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24, 599–605. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.05.012

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S., Harris, J.A., 2014. Novel ecosystems: concept or inconvenient reality? A response to Murcia et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29, 645–646. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.09.006

Lugo, A.E., 2004. The outcome of alien tree invasions in Puerto Rico. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2, 265–273. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2004)002[0265:TOOATI]2.0.CO;2

Marris, E., 2006. Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Recent Climate Change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37, 637–669. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.37.091305.110100

Marris, E., 2010. The new normal. Conserv. Mag. 11, 13–17

Morse, N.B., Pellissier, P.A., Cianciola, E.N., Brereton, R.L., Sullivan, M.M., Shonka, N.K., Wheeler, T.B., McDowell, W.H., 2014. Novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene: a revision of the novel ecosystem concept for pragmatic applications. Ecology & Society 19, 85–94. doi:10.5751/ES-06192-190212

Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., Morrison, D., 2005. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological Economics, Integrating Ecology and Economics in Control BioinvasionsIEECB S.I. 52, 273–288. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.10.002

Smaill, S.J., Bayne, K.M., Coker, G.W.R., Paul, T.S.H., Clinton, P.W., 2014. The Right Tree for the Job? Perceptions of Species Suitability for the Provision of Ecosystem Services. Environmental Management 53, 783–799. doi:10.1007/s00267-014-0239-5

Sousa, R., Gutiérrez, J.L., Aldridge, D.C., 2009. Non-indigenous invasive bivalves as ecosystem engineers. Biol Invasions 11, 2367–2385. doi:10.1007/s10530-009-9422-7

Truitt, A.M., Granek, E.F., Duveneck, M.J., Goldsmith, K.A., Jordan, M.P., Yazzie, K.C., 2015. What is Novel About Novel Ecosystems: Managing Change in an Ever-Changing World. Environmental Management 55, 1217–1226. doi:10.1007/s00267-015-0465-5

Will climate change make our current system of nature reserves redundant?

By Amanda Healy

Ecological reservation is currently used as a primary technique for preserving species or ecosystems.  By disallowing the exploitation of an ecosystem, it is assumed that the area will be protected, and will therefore be able to exist into perpetuity. However, due to the rapidly increasing temperatures caused by anthropogenic climate change, many different species are moving away from their previous ranges into more climatically suitable locations (Chen et al., 2011; Loarie et al., 2009). This essay will look at how that may affect ecological reserves, and what we may need to do to keep up with the ever-changing climate.

Images showing predictions for global climate change in the coming years. From express.co.uk

Climate-change induced range shifts are occurring in a vast number of species (Shoo et al.,2006). One study found that on average, species are moving to higher latitudes and altitudes at rates of 16km and 11m per decade, respectively (Chen et al., 2011). These rates obviously vary, depending on the intensity of climate change in any given area and the ranging ability of the species in question; migratory species are able to shift their ranges quickly, but sedentary species (such as trees) take much longer (Parmesan et al., 1999).


Because of the movement of species out of their original ranges, our current system of protected reserves may become redundant in the future. One estimate states that in 100 years, only 8% of our reserves will still have the same climate as they have today (Loarie et al., 2009). This means that many of the species that we are aiming to protect will no longer be able to live within these reserves. They will either move outside of the reserve’s borders, or even worse, barriers will inhibit their movement and they will go locally extinct.

The protection of these reserved species will likely require assisted colonisation in the future (Lunt et al., 2013).  The barriers that inhibit the movement of species, such as habitat fragmentation or the fencing around reservations, mean that these species will need help to move to a habitat that is suitable in the changing climate. The same applies to species that are slow moving or sedentary, as they are unlikely to be able to keep pace with the rate of climate change (Parmesan et al., 1999). This concept goes against traditional ideas of conservation and reservation, as it would often mean introducing a species to a geographical area that they have never occupied previously (Hoegh-Gulberg et al., 2008). Most reservations work to preserve only species that are native to the area. However, in order to save many of these species, it will likely be the best option in the coming years.

For these reasons, it is likely that nature reserves, for the purpose of species or ecosystem preservation, have a limited lifespan. At some point, as temperatures continue to rise and climates continue to move, we will have to reconsider our concepts of reservation ecology. Alternative solutions will need to be considered in order to protect the organisms that these reserves are currently housing.


Chen, I. C., Hill, J. K., Ohlemüller, R., Roy, D. B., & Thomas, C. D. (2011). Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science333(6045), 1024-1026.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Hughes, L., McIntyre, S., Lindenmayer, D. B., Parmesan, C., Possingham, H. P., & Thomas, C. D. (2008). Assisted colonization and rapid climate change. Science (Washington)321(5887), 345-346.

Loarie, S. R., Duffy, P. B., Hamilton, H., Asner, G. P., Field, C. B., & Ackerly, D. D. (2009). The velocity of climate change. Nature462(7276), 1052-1055.

Lunt, I. D., Byrne, M., Hellmann, J. J., Mitchell, N. J., Garnett, S. T., Hayward, M. W., … & Zander, K. K. (2013). Using assisted colonisation to conserve biodiversity and restore ecosystem function under climate change.Biological conservation157, 172-177.

Parmesan, C., Ryrholm, N., Stefanescu, C., Hill, J. K., Thomas, C. D., Descimon, H., … & Tennent, W. J. (1999). Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming. Nature,399(6736), 579-583.

Shoo, L. P., Williams, S. E., & Hero, J. (2006). Detecting climate change induced range shifts: Where and how should we be looking? Austral Ecology31(1), 22-29.

Willis, S. G., Hill, J. K., Thomas, C. D., Roy, D. B., Fox, R., Blakeley, D. S., & Huntley, B. (2009). Assisted colonization in a changing climate: a test‐study using two UK butterflies. Conservation Letters2(1), 46-52.

Restoring resilience: Can restoring coasts with ecosystem-based solutions protect social-ecological systems from the impacts of climate change?

By Anni Brumby

Victoria University of Wellington



The destruction of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 (Photo 1), extreme flooding on the east coast of Australia in 2007, and last year, my local train station in Porirua completely underwater. Welcome to the stormy and wet world of global climate change.

Photo 1. Two men paddle in high water in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Getty Images.

Many of the threats caused by climate change are especially severe in coastal and low lying areas (Nicholls et al., 2007). This is a major concern, as coasts all over the planet are densely populated. Coastal areas less than 10 metres above sea level cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, but contain 13% of the world’s urban population (McGranahan, Balk, & Anderson, 2007). Often coasts are highly modified for human purposes, and crucial for economic stability (Martínez et al., 2007).

The observed and predicted coastal hazards include sea level rise and the resulting inundation; erosion and salinization of land (Gornitz, 1991); increased precipitation intensity and run-off; and storm flooding (Nicholls & Lowe, 2004). Climate change will also increase the frequency and intensity of weather extremes, such as hurricanes (Emanuel, 2005; Seabloom, Ruggiero, Hacker, Mull, & Zarnetske, 2013).

The existence of Homo sapiens rely on ecosystem services – “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005, p. 1), such as food production, raw materials, waste treatment, disturbance and climate regulation, water supply and regulation…The list goes on. Coastal ecosystems contribute 77% of global ecosystem-services value (Martínez et al., 2007), thus any coastal threats affect have major impacts for humans both economically and socially.

It is unlikely that we can stop global warming (Peters et al., 2013), but is there any way to mitigate the risks? Even if we cannot prevent the sea levels from rising or storms raging, maybe we can protect our coastal ecosystems and cities by restoring resilience in social-ecological systems with ecosystem based defence strategies.


Concept of resilience

Resilience was first introduced as an ecological concept by Holling in 1973, the idea mainly referring to dynamic ecosystems that can persist in the face of disturbances. High ecological resilience is closely linked to high biodiversity of ecosystems (e.g. Oliver et al., 2015; Worm et al., 2006). As people are increasingly seen as an integral part of the biophysical world (Egan, Hjerpe & Abrams, 2011), our current understanding of resilience now also includes the human dimension. According to one definition, resilience is the capacity of social-ecological system to sustain a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of disturbance and ongoing evolution and change (Biggs et al., 2012, p. 423).


From human-engineered to ecosystem based defences

For a long time, coastal hazard prevention relied solely on so called  “hard solutions”, such as building of sea walls and dykes (Slobbe et al., 2013). Recently there has been a shift towards “softer” approaches. These so called ecosystem-based adaptation or defence strategies aim to conserve or restore naturally resilient coastal ecosystems, such as marshes and mangroves, in order to protect human population from natural hazards (Temmerman et al., 2013). Restoring shores for protection is not a new idea, but it has gained momentum in recent years. Many volunteer groups are focused on restoring coastal ecosystems, such as the Dune Restoration Trust in New Zealand. Globally, the influential Nature Conservancy funds a project called Coastal Resilience, which aims to reduce coastal risks to communities with nature-based solutions (Coastal Resilience, 2016).

Restoring dune vegetation can help reduce erosion, while increasing and maintaining the resilience of coastal zones (Silva, Martínez, Odériz, Mendoza, & Feagin, 2016). Coastal ecosystems, for example forested wetlands and marshes, can play a significant role in reducing the influence of waves (Fig. 1) and floods (Danielsen et al., 2005; Hey & Philippi, 1995; Mitsch & Gosselink, 2000; Seabloom et al., 2013). In southeast India coastal zones with intact mangrove forests and tree shelterbelts were significantly less affected by the catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, than the areas where coastal vegetation had been removed (Danielsen et al., 2005). Coastal vegetation can also buffer gradual phenomena such as sea-level rise or tidal changes (Feagin et al., 2009).


Figure 1. A simple figure showing how the wave impact is reduced in healthy coastal habitats due to the buffering effect of different coastal ecosystems, such as marshes. The Nature Conservancy.

One of the benefits of ecosystem-based strategies compared to traditional human-engineered solutions is that they are more cost-efficient. For example, investment of US$1.1 million on mangrove restoration to protect rice fields in coastal Vietnam has been estimated to save US$7.3 million per year in dyke maintenance (Reid & Huq, 2005). In addition, almost 8,000 local families have been able to improve their livelihoods and thus their resilience by harvesting marine products in the replanted mangrove areas (Reid & Huq, 2005).

It has been argued that healthy natural ecosystems are more effective than man-made structures in coastal protection (Costanza, Mitsch, & Day, 2006). For example, the devastating effects of the 2005 flood in New Orleans could partially have been avoided, if the wetlands surrounding the city had not been modified by humans, thus preventing the delta system absorbing changes in water flows (Costanza et al., 2006). The problem is, due to anthropogenic stressors, not many coastal habitats are healthy or in a natural state. This is something that restoration aims to change, but to really make a difference, we have a long road ahead.



Significant mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is the most crucial action that can be taken to reduce the effects of climate change, but we also need to adapt to the predicted changes by increasing ecosystem management methods sensitive to resilience (Tompkins & Adger, 2004). Traditionally, ecological restoration is based on the idea that we want to return something to its former condition. But ecosystems are not stable or static, never have been, and never will be (Willis & Birks, 2006). The increased risk of climate change induced coastal hazards possesses a major challenge to New Zealand economically, socially and environmentally. We have approximately 18,200 kilometres of shoreline, and one of the highest coast to land area ratios in the world. Most of New Zealand’s towns and cities, including our capital city Wellington, are located by the sea. In order to survive, we need to embrace ecosystem-based solutions and aim to restore for resilience.



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