Invasive species are, as I’ve said before, a point at which traditional environmentalism intersects with climate activism. They can, by overwhelming local species, effectively terraform an entire land mass, as European earthworms have almost completed doing to North America. I think most of the time, even for species that don’t spend their lives underground, people don’t tend to notice invasive species or the effects they have. It’s very like how climate change has been “invisible” to most people, for most of the last 30 years, and it’s only recently that a lot of people have noticed something’s off.
Well, just as we’ve been using money to measure the cost of natural disasters, we can apparently now measure the cost of species invasion, and it turns out that the two are pretty comparable:
In a new study, an international research team led by scientists from the Écologie, systématique et évolution (CNRS/Université Paris-Saclay/AgroParisTech) reveals an explicit order of magnitude: the global economic impact of these biological invasions is equivalent to that of natural catastrophes. From 1980 to 2019, financial losses due to invasive alien species amounted to $1208 billion (US), compared to nearly $1914 billion in losses caused by storms, $1139 billion attributed to earthquakes and $1120 billion due to floods.
Scientists have also found that the costs of biological invasions increased more rapidly than those of natural disasters over a given period. Invasive alien species have a long-lasting and cumulative effect: for example, the zebra mussel is capable of attaching itself to a wide variety of substrates, wreaking havoc on everything from ship hulls to nuclear power plant pipes. Its spread is particularly problematic in North America.
Honestly, that makes sense. I’ve seen the way invasive species can choke out all life except for themselves, and there’s no way something like that doesn’t ripple out through the ecosystem. What economic damage is done, for example, by honeysuckle wiping out a forest’s understory? I don’t know, but it can’t be zero.
I’ve long held that we, as a species, now affect this planet on the scale of a “force of nature”, but it’s a power that we currently cannot control. Time will tell, I suppose, whether we manage to change that before we destroy ourselves, but the one reason I’m a bit optimistic about that, is that our ability to figure out how we are changing the world is growing.
More than that, ecologists have been working on how to control invasive species for a long time, and it’s something where, if nations were to actually take the issue seriously, we could probably make pretty radical progress pretty quickly. As with everything else, invasive species control isn’t going to save the world by itself, but it’s a piece of the puzzle, and it’s something that normal people can actually get involved with. Clearing out a local invasive could easily be part of community cleanup efforts, for example, with the support of local universities and/or nature centers, and I’m willing to bet that there are people in such institutions who would love to get more community involvement in that stuff. Imagine how much we could get done if the government got involved to help with material costs, or even provide financial incentives? We’ve used bounties in the past to destroy and destabilize ecosystems – why not do the same for rehabilitating them?
A noteworthy stat and fact here – especially when you volunteer to remove invasive weeds.