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The Need for Ecological Restoration in Difficult Terrain

Tune into the news on any given day and you may find a report on the latest ecological disaster. The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a classic example of a man-made disaster. Another recent example is the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. But ecological disasters can also be caused by Mother Nature in cases such as an earthquake, volcano or tsunami devastating a large region. In some cases, a combination of the two can occur, as when an earthquake triggered a tsunami that subsequently devastated the nuclear reactors of Japan.

Such disasters have always been with us for centuries, of course, but the specific field of Restoration Ecology only began to form in the late 1900s. By the 1980s advances in science, tools, methods, resources and engineering enabled Restoration Ecology to become a recognized and discrete discipline. It’s worth noting that there is a distinction between the terms “restoration ecology” and “ecological restoration.” The former identifies the science and practice, while the latter defines the process. The Society for Ecological Restoration defines ecological recovery as “an activity that accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability.”

Ecological restoration in difficult terrain makes the challenge of rebuilding an area back to a state of ecological health even more difficult. The oceans surrounding Japan, for example, are deep, vast and nearly impossible to clean up directly. Other regions are mountainous and often poor in resources and public infrastructure. An area where disaster strikes may be bitter cold or sweltering hot. For example, an oil spill in the Arctic region poses many daunting challenges for clean-up. A volcanic eruption in a remote, mountainous region is complicated by rough terrain, high altitude and steep declines.

It could be said that any region which experiences a large-scale ecological disaster becomes “difficult terrain.” For example, the city of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was transformed into an urban nightmare of dangerous damaged buildings, toxic waters filled with oil and chemicals, live electrical wires, and even crime.

Scientists and ecologists say that the need for the best and advanced methods of restoration ecology has never been more important than it has been today. That’s because the world’s population is made up of more than seven billion people, which is stressing natural resources. Additionally, our ability to affect the environment in a negative way has never been greater.

Examples of disasters resulting in ecological restoration in difficult terrain are many, including the aforementioned BP oil spill and Japanese nuclear disaster, and even large-scale regions of the planet turning into desert due to a combination of climate change, overpopulation and poor farming practices. When one considers the many complex challenges of cleaning up after ecological disasters in difficult terrain, it’s not surprising that scientists and academics have decided to make an exact science of Restoration Ecology. The many demands posed by an ever more dangerous planet requires a disciplined approach based on experience and well-formulated methodology, rather than a trial and error method which struggles to reinvent the wheel every time.

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