, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 151-159

First online:

El Niño as a Window of Opportunity for the Restoration of Degraded Arid Ecosystems

  • Milena HolmgrenAffiliated withSilviculture and Forest Ecology Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 342, 6700 AH Wageningen, The Netherlands; and
  • , Marten SchefferAffiliated withAquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 8080, 6700 DD Wageningen, The Netherlands.

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Most arid ecosystems have suffered from severe overexploitation by excessive wood harvesting, overgrazing, and agriculture, resulting in depletion of vegetation biomass and soil erosion. These changes are often difficult to reverse due to positive feedbacks that tend to stabilize the new situation. In this paper, we briefly review evidence for the idea that different states in these ecosystems might represent alternative equilibria and present a graphic model that summarizes the implications for their response to changing environmental conditions. We show how, in the light of this theoretical framework, climatic oscillations such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) could be used in combination with grazer control to restore degraded arid ecosystems. We also present evidence that, depending on grazing pressure, ENSO episodes can trigger structural and long-lasting changes in these ecosystems.

Key words: arid ecosystems; semiarid ecosystems; rangelands; alternative stable states; vegetation shifts; land degradation; desertification; El Niño; ENSO; climatic oscillation; ecosystem restoration.