Now a team of international scientists is drawing up a new "Red List" identifying ecosystems that are on the brink of collapse.
Australia gets a mention, with eight of its species on the list so far.
The study aims to assess every major ecosystem around the world by 2025.
Reporter: Sarah Clarke
Speakers: Professor David Keith, University of New South Wales; Richard Kingsford, University of New South Wales
SARAH CLARKE: The Coorong Lakes at the lower end of the Murray Darling Basin have long struggled with drought and diminishing flows. But the latest environmental assessment shows it's been given a second chance.
Professor David Keith is from the University of New South Wales.
DAVID KEITH: That system was very close to collapse in recent years and it's been the break in the drought and this unusually high rainfall that we've had in the basin catchment over the last few years that's just pushed it back from the brink.
SARAH CLARKE: David Keith is also the lead author in a new global report which establishes a "Red List" of ecosystems, identifying those that are in trouble.
It's similar to what already exists for animal and plant species that are threatened, vulnerable or on the brink of extinction.
Now in cooperation with the United Nations affiliated conservation body the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), this team of scientists is looking at the bigger picture.
Richard Kingsford from the University of New South Wales is part of that team.
RICHARD KINGSFORD: Look, we're just experiencing at the moment unprecedented biodiversity loss - loss of plants and animal species across that world. And what we're seeing is really big impacts on ecosystems - deserts, oceans, rivers, wetlands. And I guess one of the big challenges is that we need some sort of framework that doesn't just focus on species.
SARAH CLARKE: So far the study has assessed 20 ecosystems across six continents and three oceans.
The Coorong and seven others in Australia get a mention. The red gum forests of Echuca have been listed as "vulnerable" while the seagrass meadows of South Australia have been given the status of "endangered".
Here's David Keith again:
DAVID KEITH: This is all about evidence-based environmental management. And a system like this provides a fairly clear and simple message about the relative status of different ecosystems and that's going to be very useful for governments and industries and also community groups to direct their efforts in places where it's going to make the most difference.
SARAH CLARKE: But this is just the start of what is a much bigger effort to gather long term data and assess every major ecosystem around the world.
While it may sound too big a challenge, these scientists are confident that they'll have it done by 2025.
RICHARD KINGSFORD: Well it is, but I think that's part of the great challenge. And I think it's fantastic thing because ecosystems really capture all the species, not just a single species. And it's a great opportunity to have effective conservation.