For the first time, researchers have finally classified all Earth’s ecosystems

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

The research will help improve biodiversity conservation.

An international interdisciplinary group of scientists led by University of New South Wales researchers have created the world’s first comprehensive classification of terrestrial, river and wetland, and ocean ecosystems. An ecological typology will allow better coordination and effective protection of the biodiversity vital to human well-being.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has more than 1,400 member organizations, including countries, the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, the PlusS Alliance, which consists of Arizona State University, King’s College Londonand UNSW Sydney, and more than 100 ecosystem experts from around the world participated in the extensive collaboration.

A study recently published in Nature examines the science behind the typology and how it can help individual countries achieve global policy goals. The IUCN released the first public version of the typology with help from UNSW in 2020, and researchers have since updated and refined it.

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

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

“It may seem quite surprising that we haven’t had this before, but historically scientists have thrived by working somewhat separately in marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. This is the first time that all this detailed knowledge has been brought together in a single framework using a common theory across disciplines.”

The typology allows us to understand broad global trends, such as how humans are changing ecosystems. Ten percent of ecosystems are man-made and maintained by humans, but cover more than 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface – what’s left is home to 94 percent of the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

At a policy level, this is the first time we have had such an overview, Professor Kingsford said.

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

At a more general level, the review allows policy makers and industry to plan their initiatives in full context. For governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in a number of countries, the review can be useful for decisions about how efforts to protect and restore ecosystems can achieve maximum conservation benefits and where development infrastructure can best be located to minimize impacts.

“Biodiversity efforts are mostly focused on the species level because it’s more sensitive,” Professor Keith said. “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 to humans.”

Around the world, countries are coordinating their efforts under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is scheduled to come into force at the end of 2022. Delegates from 193 countries will meet in December at the 15th Conference of the Parties in Montreal, Canada, to agree on the CBD agenda for the period beyond 2020. The build-up to this meeting points to a stronger emphasis on the conservation and management of ecosystems in the coming decades.

“A global ecosystem typology will enable us to account for ongoing ecosystem changes, identify ecosystem types at risk and plan for better preventative and recovery actions in line with the updated CBD agenda,” Professor Nicholson said.

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

“This will make real progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Environmental Accounts, and should help put ecosystems at the forefront of the UN’s post-2020 biodiversity agenda.”

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

“We’re already well on our way, but we need help to overcome significant challenges, leveraging the latest advances in computer and satellite technologies and global networks of citizen scientists.”

Ecosystem typology

Ecosystems provide a home and vital support for all plants and animals and provide essential ecosystem services that support business, 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 considered free, but ecosystem degradation entails costs in alternative resource use, disaster relief, reconstruction, and health care budgets.

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

The Global Ecosystem Typology describes the diversity of rainforests, large rivers, coral reefs, and other ecosystems that have typically been the focus of public attention. But it also includes the little-known ecosystems of deep ocean trenches, seamounts, ice-covered lakes, and microscopic ecosystems in rocks.

“For example, we rarely think about what’s in the deep oceans,” Professor Keith said. “There’s a huge variety of life down there that’s organized into a number of different ecosystems. And these ecosystems are beginning to feel the impact of anthropogenic expansion.

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

Hierarchical structure

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

The lower levels of the hierarchy are based on more subtle features of the ecosystem and allow the integration of existing national classifications. These national ecosystem classifications and maps have benefited from detailed scientific observations and significant investment over many years. They are very important 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 allows these different systems to be reconciled across national borders, while supporting their continued use in each country.

What are the next steps?

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

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

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

Reference: David A. Keith, Jose R. Ferrer-Paris, Emily Nicholson, Melanie J. Bishop, Beth A. Polidora, Eva Ramirez-Lodra, Mark G. Tozer, Jeanne L.: “A Functional Typology of Earth’s Ecosystems.” Nel, Ralph Mc Nally, Edward J. Greger, Kate E. Watermeier, Franz Esl, Dawn Faber-Langendoen, Janet Franklin, Caroline E.R. Lehmann, Andres Etter, Dirk J. Roux, Jonathan S. Stark, Jessica A. Rowland, Neil A. Bramit, Ulla S. Fernandez-Arcaya, Ian M. Suthers, Susan K. Wither, Ian Donoghue, Leland J. Jackson, R. Toby Pennington, Thomas M. Iliff, Vassilis Gerovasileou, Paul Hiller, Belinda J. Robson, Natalie Petarelli, Angelo Andrade, Arild Lindgaard, Teemu Tahvanainen, Alex Terauds, Michael A. Chadwick, Nicholas J. Murray, Justin Mote, Patricia Pliskoff, Irene Zager, and Richard T. Kingsford, October 12, 2022. Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05318-4

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council, the MAVA Foundation and the PLuS Alliance. For the first time, researchers have finally classified all Earth’s ecosystems

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