Global Technology Network Earth
Global Technology Network Earth

Scientists have created a platform that identifies, defines, and describes the whole suit of the entire planet’s ecosystem for the first time.

The research will help improve biodiversity conservation.

An international multidisciplinary team of scientists led by University of New South Wales researchers has created the world’s first complete classification of ecosystems across land, rivers and wetlands, and oceans. The ecological typology will allow for better coordinated and effective protection of biodiversity, which is vital for human well-being.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has more than 1400 member organizations, including countries, the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, the PLuS Alliance, which is made up of Arizona State University, King’s College London, and UNSW Sydney, as well as more than 100 expert ecosystem scientists from around the world, were all involved in the extensive collaboration.

The research, which was recently published in Nature, explores the science behind the typology and how it may assist individual nations accomplish goals of global policy. IUCN released the typology’s first public version with UNSW’s assistance in 2020, and the researchers have since updated and improved it.

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

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

“It may seem rather odd that we haven’t had this before, but historically scientists have forged advances 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 into a single framework taking advantage of common theory across the disciplines.”

The typology allows us to comprehend broad, global trends, such as how humans are changing ecosystems. Ten percent of ecosystems are artificially created and maintained by humans but occupy more than 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface – what is left 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 overview, Professor Kingsford said.

“It’s very hard to see the big picture on a jigsaw puzzle until you have all the pieces in place – and that’s what we now have. We have a much more substantial foundation to move ahead with a new era of ecosystem conservation and management policy.”

At a more general level, the overview allows policymakers and industry to plan their initiatives in full context. For governments and non-government organizations (NGOs) working in a range of countries, the overview can inform decisions about how ecosystem protection and restoration efforts can achieve maximum conservation benefit, and where development infrastructure is best placed to minimize impact.

“Efforts on biodiversity conservation have largely centered at the species level because it’s seen to be more tangible,” said Professor Keith. “But a broader focus on both ecosystems and species is more likely to succeed in conserving all plants and animals, as well as the essential services that nature provides people.”

Globally, countries coordinate their efforts under the umbrella of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is coming up for renewal at the end of 2022. Delegates from 193 countries will meet in December at the 15th Conference of Parties in Montreal, Canada, to agree on the post-2020 agenda for CBD. Preparations for that meeting indicate a stronger emphasis on ecosystem conservation and management in the coming decades.

“The global ecosystem typology will make it possible to account for ongoing ecosystem change, identify threatened ecosystem types, and plan better preventative action and restoration under a renewed agenda for the CBD,” said Professor Nicholson.

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

“It will enable real progress on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Environmental Accounting, and should help place ecosystems at the forefront of the United Nations’ post-2020 agenda for conserving biological diversity.”

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

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

The ecosystem typology

Ecosystems provide homes and vital life support for all plants and animals and supply essential ecosystem services that sustain business, culture, and human well-being. Those services – such as the provision of clean air and water, carbon sequestration, reduced risks of disasters, and outdoor recreational opportunities that sustain mental health – are sometimes regarded as free, but ecosystem degradation incurs costs for tapping alternative resources, disaster relief, reconstruction, and health budgets.

All of the world’s ecosystems show hallmarks of human influence, and many are at acute risk of collapse, with consequences for habitats of species, genetic diversity, ecosystem services, sustainable development, and human wellbeing.

The global ecosystem typology describes the diversity of tropical forests, big rivers, coral reefs, and other ecosystems that have typically been the focus of public attention. But it also includes little-known ecosystems of deep ocean trenches, seamounts, lakes beneath the ice sheets, and microscopic ecosystems within rocks.

“We don’t think often about what’s in the deep oceans, for example,” said Professor Keith. “There’s a tremendous variety of life down there and it’s organized into a number of different ecosystems. And those ecosystems are beginning to feel the impact of human expansion.

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

A hierarchical structure

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

The lower levels of the hierarchy are based on finer ecosystem features and enable the integration of existing national classifications. These national ecosystem classifications and maps benefit from detailed scientific observations and considerable investment over many years. They are critical to conservation because many countries have built their environmental governance and regulations around them, as well as their protected area networks. For the first time, a globally agreed typology enables these many different systems to be reconciled across national borders, while supporting their ongoing use in each country.

What are the next steps?

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

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

“We can’t plan effectively where to protect ecosystems or how to manage them sustainably unless we have reliable maps for the full range of ecosystem types, and integrate them into decision-making and monitoring systems,” he said.

Reference: “A function-based typology for Earth’s ecosystems” by David A. Keith, José R. Ferrer-Paris, Emily Nicholson, Melanie J. Bishop, Beth A. Polidoro, Eva Ramirez-Llodra, Mark G. Tozer, Jeanne L. Nel, Ralph Mac Nally, Edward J. Gregr, Kate E. Watermeyer, Franz Essl, Don Faber-Langendoen, Janet Franklin, Caroline E. R. Lehmann, Andrés Etter, Dirk J. Roux, Jonathan S. Stark, Jessica A. Rowland, Neil A. Brummitt, Ulla C. Fernandez-Arcaya, Iain M. Suthers, Susan K. Wiser, Ian Donohue, Leland J. Jackson, R. Toby Pennington, Thomas M. Iliffe, Vasilis Gerovasileiou, Paul Giller, Belinda J. Robson, Nathalie Pettorelli, Angela Andrade, Arild Lindgaard, Teemu Tahvanainen, Aleks Terauds, Michael A. Chadwick, Nicholas J. Murray, Justin Moat, Patricio Pliscoff, Irene Zager, and Richard T. Kingsford, 12 October 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05318-4

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council, the MAVA Foundation, and the PLuS Alliance. 

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