Damaged ecosystems can repair themselves faster than we thought

Illustration for article titled Damaged ecosystems can repair themselves faster than we thought

In the nineteenth century, farmers in New England completely destroyed the region's forests. Thick woods were cut down to make way for farms, driving out deer, beavers, owls and bears. But today, just a little over a century later, the forests are back — and the animal populations are recovering too.


Above, you can compare a nineteenth century lithograph of a farming community in Vermont with today's view of the same region. Even in areas with cities, tree coverage is so thick that a once-rare hawks and woodpeckers are roosting in them. There's a great article at the Boston Globe about an environmental recovery that local scientists call nothing short of miraculous. Writes Colin Nickerson:

Today, 80 percent of New England is covered by forest or thick woods. That is a far cry from the mere 30 to 40 percent that remained forested in most parts of the region in the mid-1800s, after early waves of settlers got done with their vast logging, farming, and leveling operations.

According to Harvard research, New England is now the most heavily forested region in the United States . . .

“New England is undoing many excesses of the industrial age,’’ [Penobscot Nation natural resources director John Banks] said in an interview. “Stagnant waters aren’t just stirring — they are finally starting to flow fast. Fish are swimming freely to their ancient spawning places. Great birds are again bold in the sky.’’

Wetlands throb and slither with rejuvenated life. Rivers are quickening even in notoriously compromised corners of the region — the herring run on the Acushnet River in southeastern Massachusetts, for example, has rocketed from a few hundred fish to many thousands.

And bald eagles are soaring in skies that have not borne eagles for decades.

“Until 10 years ago, there were zero bald eagles — none — nesting in Vermont,’’ said John Buck, migratory bird project leader for the Vermont Wildlife Department. “Now there are 14 nesting pairs, hatching about 24 chicks. That sounds small, but it’s a big jump.’’

Chalk it up to taller trees, cleaner water, and plenty of prey, according to biologists.

Read the rest of the article at the Boston Globe


The rate at which ecosystems might recover would be highly variable, based on things like rainfall, and soil fertility.

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond contents that Iceland is the most environmentally damaged country in Europe. When the Norse arrived, it was forested. They just started clear cutting the way they did in Scandinavia or in the British Isles. Problem was, the soil in Iceland was light weight volcanic soil, and the topsoil all just washed away. The lack of topsoil has slowed the regeneration of the original forests. (Grazing probably hasn't helped either.)