Ecosystem recovery from anthropogenic disturbances, either without human intervention or assisted by ecological restoration, is increasingly occurring worldwide. As ecosystems progress through recovery, it is important to estimate any resulting deficit in biodiversity and functions. Here we use data from 3,035 sampling plots worldwide, to quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and functions occurring during the recovery process (that is, the ‘recovery debt’). Compared with reference levels, recovering ecosystems run annual deficits of 46–51% for organism abundance, 27–33% for species diversity, 32–42% for carbon cycling and 31–41% for nitrogen cycling.
Restoration ecology is a young scientific discipline whose limitations can compromise the recovery of ecosystem biodiversity and functions. Specifically for limitations on forest restoration, we first recommend considering measures prior to land use changes to deal with the common lack of efforts to anticipate and plan restoration. Second, we suggest using multiple references in restoration planning to avoid simplified reference characterization, and we advise assessing ecosystem recovery with indicators that better incorporate ecosystem complexity in recovery assessments.
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