In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stability and Ecosystem Resilience, A Below-Ground Perspective

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Methodology
  • Stability to Environmental Disturbance
  • Stability to Anthropogenic (Management) Disturbance
  • Tolerance and Adaptation of Soil Microorganisms
  • Resistance, Resilience and the Biodiversity–Ecosystem Functioning Debate
  • Ecological Networks
  • Effects of Previous Disturbance
  • Role of Soil Properties
  • Drivers of Soil Stability

Ecology Stability and Ecosystem Resilience, A Below-Ground Perspective
Bryan Griffiths, Laurent Philippot
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0140


Renewed interest in soil stability in terms of resistance and resilience seems to have been sparked by two processes, the development of studies concerned with climatic or environmental change and the continuing exploration of the relationship between biological diversity and ecosystem functioning (BEF relationship). As changes in environment become more extreme, the stability of soil processes in general and crop productivity specifically is an increasingly practical issue. This is linked with the BEF relationship by models, and now experimental data, indicating that more diverse systems are more resistant and resilient to perturbation.

General Overview and Methodology

Resistance and resilience are ecological concepts of increasing policy relevance, generating questions such as “How can we increase the resilience of habitats and species to cope with climate change?” (Sutherland, et al. 2006, p. 622, question 60). Resistance is commonly defined as the ability of a system to withstand a disturbance, while definitions of resilience fall into two categories, engineering or ecological resilience. Engineering resilience is where the behavior of the system is treated like an engineering material that will show initial displacement and then recovery toward its pre-disturbance state or toward a new stable state. Resistance to disturbance and the speed of recovery (resilience) are the two components of ecosystem stability as described by Loreau, et al. 2002. This approach predominates in studies of soil biology and also in the study of soil physical parameters and soil quality, as seen in Seybold, et al. 1999. Ecological resilience considers how much disturbance is required to move the system from one stable state to another alternate stable state, using the “ball and cup” model shown in Gunderson, et al. 2002. In a soil-related example of ecological resilience, Gao, et al. 2011 notes a degradation threshold, or tipping point, for soil services at about 20 percent vegetation cover. As explained by Van Nes and Scheffer 2007, ecological and engineering resilience are linked by the theory of “critical slowing down.” This proposes that recovery rates from small disturbances (i.e., engineering resilience) get slower and slower as a system approaches the tipping point between one stable state and another (i.e., ecological resilience). This bibliography will use the engineering definition of resilience—the response and recovery of a population or function to a perturbation—and refer to stability as the combination of resistance and resilience, as reviewed by Griffiths and Philippot 2013 and Shade, et al. 2012. Measuring resistance and resilience in soil microbial communities is generally determined as a laboratory assay in which soil is perturbed experimentally and the changes in microbial populations or processes followed over time as suggested by Hodgson, et al. 2015. The experimental details vary from study to study and can be found in reviews by Griffiths and Philippot 2013 and Shade, et al. 2012, or in the studies cited in this bibliography.

  • Gao, Y., B. L. Zhong, H. Yue, B. Wu, and S. X. Cao. 2011. A degradation threshold for irreversible loss of soil productivity: A long-term case study in China. Journal of Applied Ecology 48:1145–1154.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.02011.x

    Identified a threshold of 20 percent vegetation cover, below which there was irreversible loss of soil services.

  • Griffiths, B. S., and L. Philippot. 2013. Insights into the resistance and resilience of the soil microbial community. FEMS Microbiology Reviews 37:112–129.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1574-6976.2012.00343.x

    Provides the first systematic review of soil biological resilience, specifically of soil processes.

  • Gunderson, L. H., C. S. Holling, L. Pritchard Jr., and G. D. Peterson. 2002. Resilience of large-scale resource systems. In Resilience and the Behavior of Large-Scale Systems. Edited by L. H. Gunderson, and L. Pritchard Jr., 3–20. The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) 60. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Explains and provides background on and examples of the ecological resilience concept.

  • Hodgson, D., J. L. McDonald, and D. J. Hosken. 2015. What do you mean, resilient? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 30.9: 503–506.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.06.010

    The authors argue that with increasing interest in stability and resilience, our understanding and measurement is hampered by the multiple processes contributing to stability and that a bivariate analysis will allow better comparison between systems.

  • Loreau, M., A. Downing, M. Emmerson, et al. 2002. A new look at the relationship between diversity and stability. In Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning. Edited by M. Loreau, S. Naeem, and P. Inchausti, 79–91. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The book contains articles by the leading experts in biological diversity–ecosystem functioning research, and this specific chapter provides a theoretical background to biological diversity–ecosystem functioning relationships, concentrating on the effects of environmental disturbance and stress.

  • Seybold, C. A., J. E. Herrick, and J. J. Brejda. 1999. Soil resilience: A fundamental component of soil quality. Soil Science 164:224–234.

    DOI: 10.1097/00010694-199904000-00002

    A seminal article that defines the engineering resilience concept.

  • Shade, A., H. Peter, S. D. Allison, et al. 2012. Fundamentals of microbial community resistance and resilience. Frontiers in Microbiology 3:417.

    DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2012.00417

    Provides an overview of the concepts of stability that are relevant for microbial communities.

  • Sutherland, W. J., S. Armstrong-brown, P. R. Armsworth, et al. 2006. The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology 43:617–627.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01188.x

    Identification of the most policy-relevant ecological questions, in a UK context.

  • Van Nes, E. H., and M. Scheffer. 2007. Slow recovery from perturbations as a generic indicator of a nearby catastrophic shift. American Naturalist 169:738–747.

    DOI: 10.1086/516845

    Argues from a theoretical perspective that “engineering resilience” is a remarkably good indicator of “ecological resilience” and that “critical slowing down” may be of practical use as an early warning signal.

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