All of the planet’s ecosystems classified for

A global interdisciplinary team of scientists led by researchers at UNSW Sydney has developed the world’s first comprehensive classification of ecosystems across land, rivers, wetlands and seas. Ecosystem typology will enable more coordinated and effective biodiversity conservation, which is essential for human well-being.

The broad collaboration includes the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has approximately 1,400 member organizations, including countries; the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management; the PLUS Alliance – Arizona State University, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney; and more than 100 ecosystem scientists worldwide.

The study, published today in Nature, explores the science behind the typology, as well as how it can help achieve global policy goals that extend to each country. With support from UNSW, IUCN launched the first public version of the typology in 2020, and since then researchers have refined and updated it.

The research team was led by Professor David Keith with Professor Richard Kingsford from the UNSW Center for Ecosystem Science, and Professor Emily Nicholson of Deakin University.

“For the first time, we have a common platform that identifies, defines and describes the full suite of ecosystems across the entire planet,” Professor Keith said.

“It might seem rather odd that we haven’t had this before, but historically scientists have made progress by working somewhat separately in marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. This is the first time that all of this detailed knowledge has been brought together in a single framework that leverages common theory across all disciplines. »

Typology allows us to understand major global patterns, including the transformation of ecosystems by people. Ten percent of ecosystems are created and maintained artificially by humans, but occupy more than 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface – what remains is home to 94 percent of threatened species on the IUCN Red List.

At a policy level, this is the first time we’ve had this kind of insight, Prof Kingsford said.

“It’s very difficult to see the big picture of a puzzle until all the pieces are in place – and that’s what we have now. We have a much stronger basis to move forward with a new era of conservation policy and ecosystem management.

At a more general level, the big picture allows policy makers and industry to plan their initiatives within a complete context. For governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in a range of countries, the overview can inform decisions about how efforts to protect and restore ecosystems can maximize conservation benefits, and where infrastructure development are best placed to minimize the impact.

“Biodiversity conservation efforts have largely focused at the species level, because they are seen as more tangible,” Professor Keith said. “But a broader focus on ecosystems and species is more likely to succeed in conserving all plants and animals, and the essential services that nature provides to people.”

Globally, countries are coordinating their efforts under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is up for renewal at the end of 2022. Delegates from 193 countries will meet in December at the 15th Conference Parties in Montreal, Canada, to agree on the post-2020 agenda for the CBD. Preparations for this meeting indicate that more emphasis will be placed on the conservation and management of ecosystems in the decades to come.

“The typology of global ecosystems will allow consideration of ongoing changes in ecosystems, identification of threatened ecosystem types, and planning for better preventive and restoration action under a renewed agenda for the CBD,” said Professor Nicholson.

This typology marks a breakthrough for the sustainable management of global ecosystems, said Dr Angela Andrade, chair of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and one of the authors.

“This will enable real progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and UN environmental accounting, and should help put ecosystems at the forefront of the UN’s post-2020 agenda for biodiversity conservation.

To make this a reality, we need a comprehensive set of high-quality maps for all major ecosystem types, Professor Keith said.

“We are already well along this path, but we need help to overcome the considerable challenges by exploiting recent advances in computer and satellite technology, as well as global networks of citizen scientists.”

The typology of the ecosystem

Ecosystems provide habitations and life support for all plants and animals, and provide essential ecosystem services that support businesses, culture and human well-being. These services – such as the provision of clean air and water, carbon sequestration, disaster risk reduction and outdoor recreation opportunities that support mental health – are sometimes seen as free, but the degradation of ecosystems leads to costs for exploiting alternative resources, disaster relief and reconstruction, and to health budgets.

All of the world’s ecosystems exhibit features of human influence, and many are at acute risk of collapse, with consequences for species habitats, genetic diversity, ecosystem services, sustainable development and well-being. human.

Global ecosystem typology describes the diversity of tropical forests, large rivers, coral reefs and other ecosystems that have generally been the focus of public attention. But it also includes little-known ecosystems of deep ocean trenches, seamounts, lakes under ice caps, and microscopic ecosystems in rocks.

“We don’t often think about what’s in the depths of the oceans, for example,” Professor Keith said. “Life here is extremely varied and organized into a number of different ecosystems. And these ecosystems are beginning to feel the impact of human expansion.

“The deep trenches of the ocean are filling up with microplastics, and we’re starting to look at mining volcanic vents for minerals. We have to make decisions about those kinds of environments, just like we do with coral reefs and tropical forests.”

A hierarchical structure

The new typology has a six-level hierarchical structure. The top level divides the planet into major domains, including terrestrial, freshwater, marine, and subterranean ecosystems. The second and third tiers include 25 biomes and 110 ecosystem functional groups, based on the ecological processes that shape different ecosystems and the functions their key components perform. These functional groups will oversee the plans for the sustainable management of ecosystems.

The lower levels of the hierarchy are based on finer ecosystem characteristics and allow the integration of existing national classifications. These national ecosystem classifications and maps have benefited from detailed scientific observations and considerable investment over many years. They are essential for conservation because many countries have built their environmental governance and regulations around them, as well as their networks of protected areas. For the first time, a globally agreed typology reconciles these many different systems across national borders, while supporting their continued use in each country.

What are the next steps?

The next major frontier for improved ecosystem management is global mapping and monitoring, Professor Keith said.

“Although many of the world’s 110 ecosystem types are already served by high-quality maps that can be updated with satellite technology, data for some other types is still rudimentary.

“We cannot effectively plan where to protect ecosystems or how to manage them sustainably unless we have reliable maps for all ecosystem types and integrate them into decision-making and monitoring systems,” did he declare.


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