May 15, 2009

How can geospatial tools help get a handle on ecosystem services?

Estimated Article Reading Time: 3 min.

From V1, 15 May 2009 written by Matt Ball

We’re in a period of rapid global change that is very difficult to get a handle on. Human activities are largely at fault for ecosystem and climate change, but we’re still not entirely clear on how natural systems operate, and how we can change behavior in order to reduce our impacts.

Of increasing importance is an understanding of the contributions that ecosystems have on the overall balance of the Earth. Ecosystem services is the term that’s used to describe the role that our ecosystems perform to sustain and enhance our lives. For example, forests filter our water, absorb CO2, protect biodiversity, provide fuel and building materials, halt soil erosion, and provide aesthetic refuge. Similarly, there are ecosystem services for wetlands, agriculture land, marine environments, etc.

A crucial element of ecosystem services is the economic value of these services. When we look at the ability of a forest to filter water, we need to think in terms of the replacement cost of addressing this service with technology and infrastructure. Using that approach, we quickly understand that natural systems are a bargain compared to building and maintaining our manufactured solutions.

Dearth to Din of Data

The current state of natural system monitoring is rudimentary in scale and scope. Monitoring devices exist, but they don’t provide near enough granularity to understand the single systems or interaction among systems. Thankfully, sensing technology and the ubiquity of the Internet is rapidly changing the dearth of data into a din of data.

Information and communications technology (ICT) expansion in the developing world has led to a rapid increase of information infrastructure. The idea of the sensor web is moving quickly from an ideal toward broadly deployed networks of sensors that can communicate with one another to compile a meshed understanding of space and time. With all this new information will come a need synthesize this data into sophisticated computer models in order to understand the inputs of change.

Commons for Collaboration

The Internet provides a framework for geographic collaboration. Users can post details about a location to a centralized repository where others can see it. This data can then be used by others for additional explorations into that location. The ability to form community online with the means to collaboratively edit, comment and visualize information creates a quicker and more thorough understanding of place as individuals can assist each other in solving problems.

The multidisciplinary online communities offer a holistic approach toward ecosystem management by combining the expertise of many specialists into a combined intelligence. Breaking down discipline barriers will provide ripe opportunities for fresh perspectives and discoveries by facilitating exposure to different approaches toward understanding a place.

Tools for deliberate modeling of ecosystem services are being developed. One of the most compelling toolsets is the InVEST modeling tool that is being developed by the Natural Capitol Project. This organization has taken a disciplined and incremental approach to develop spatial modeling tools, that tackle specific communities and combine into a cohesive understanding of the whole.

Spatial Analysis

The modeling of ecosystem services will require an entirely new scale of spatial analysis and integration tools. The problem of a deep understanding of place requires a system of systems approach, where information is synthesized at increasingly larger scales from micro to macro.

Deeper analysis of the interface between humans and nature is also required in order to take into account the economic value of ecosystem services. This accounting of the benefits of the natural world will require an in-depth look at both the services of natural systems and their projected replacement costs. Such an exercise will bring whole new levels of understanding, but will require new systems and new tools.

The accelerating speed of global change requires an entirely new monitoring and modeling system that quickly condenses data in a visual and easy to understand format. Geospatial tools are ideally suited as the foundation for comprehending the complex web of life on our planet, and getting a handle on rapid change.


Can web crawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring?, Frontiers in Ecology and Environment
Measuring Marine Ecosystem Services, Spatial Sustain
Forest Ecosystem Services and Sustainable Community Development, by Bud Watson, The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute
Nature’s Services: Ecosystems Are More Than Wildlife Habitat, Rand Corporation

Note: This column alternates weekly between Vector1 Media editors. Matt Ball is editor Americas/Asia Pacific for V1 Magazine and V1 Energy magazine.