Science Highlights: Ecosystem Services

If you could only protect one species on a coral reef, or plant trees on one city street, or eradicate one invasive pest from a forest, which one would it be? For almost two decades, researchers from a variety of disciplines—ecology, economics, and social sciences—have gathered at NCEAS to develop quantitative approaches and tools to help answer difficult questions like these. Humans place value on natural resources in many different ways including cultural, economic, spiritual, aesthetic, and ecological. A pragmatic way to estimate and compare values is to focus on the societal benefits plants, animals, and habitats provide to humans, known as “ecosystem services.”

Click to expand the accordions below and learn about some of the NCEAS research focused on ecosystem services.

Innovations in Ecosystem Services Science

Below is a sampling of NCEAS projects that have innovated the field of Ecosystem Services Science.

TOTAL VALUATION OF THE WORLD'S ECOSYSTEMS

It is much easier to place monetary value on goods traded in a marketplace than on intact natural resources; however, both provide valuable services to humans. To address this, Costanza and colleagues developed the first conceptual and empirical tools based on many previous site-specific studies to estimate the value of services provided by ecosystems worldwide. In a pivotal Nature paper, they presented a crude global average value of ecosystem services, such as pollination, erosion control, and waste treatment, of $33 trillion per year in 1995 (Costanza et al. 1997). This transformative work stimulated an explosion of research activity in a burgeoning field.

After spending almost two decades improving their modeling approach, in 2014 Costanza et al. estimated that global ecosystem services were valued between $125 and $145 trillion per year in 2011. Their research continues to challenge the field by asking, “How can we level the playing field when managing the tradeoffs between commodities and common pool natural resources?”

ECONOMICS OF BIODIVERSITY

Arguably one of the most difficult things to quantify is how biodiversity as a whole contributes to the goods and services that society values. Levels of biodiversity can be estimated based upon the sheer number of species present in a system, or upon specifically which species are present, or both. Kolstad and colleagues identified novel market and non-market mechanisms to infer the economic values of biodiversity, and thus conservation incentives. Several of this Working Group’s papers appeared in a special issue of the scientific journal Resource and Energy Economics in 2004 and made key contributions to advance the field of ecosystem services.

ECOLOGICAL FORECASTING

As human population continues to increase around the world, biodiversity is declining, in some cases rapidly, creating unprecedented threats to the services ecosystems provide to society. Reliable forecasting for which, where, and how ecosystem services will respond to global development and natural resource use is essential to sustainable planning. In a provocative Science commentary, Clark et al. (2001) described how important the interdisciplinary linkages between climate, society, ecology, and economics are for our ability to forecast ecosystem change. They identified new data sets, computational capabilities, and appropriate statistics to perform such imperative forecasting.

CULTURAL SERVICES

Cultural services have often been excluded from ecosystem service valuation because they can be intangible and disproportionately distributed among people. However, ignoring the cultural services that nature provides could underestimate the value of ecosystem services. Leveraging NCEAS’ dedication to exploring holistic approaches that advance ecology to improve human well being and the environment, Chan et al. (2012) defined eight dimensions of cultural values for decision-making within a valuation framework that more inclusively considers stakeholder perspectives. This research helped innovate ecosystem service valuation by describing the interconnectedness of all the benefits of nature, material and non-material, use and non-use.

Balancing Human Well Being and Conservation of Services

Below is a sampling of NCEAS projects that have integrated ecology and socioeconomics to shed light on how to strike a balance between natural resource use and conservation.

LAND USE TRADEOFFS

Nelson et al.’s (2009) study modeling ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs is among the top 20 cited papers that have appeared in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. To achieve this, they applied the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVest) model, which is based on production functions, economic valuation methods, and rural land-use changes. Their results show that scenarios that enhance biodiversity conservation also enhance ecosystem services, meaning there is no tradeoff between the two objectives for rural land; rather, they are synergistic. However, they did find a tradeoff between commodity production and both biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services. Interestingly, a carbon sequestration payment scheme could reverse this tradeoff and make conservation profitable. This work emphasizes how natural resource management is most effective and efficient when ecosystem services are quantified and the tradeoffs between them are analyzed in a spatially explicit manner.

FOREST PESTS

Biological invasions of non-native insects can threaten the economic and social benefits forests provide to humans. More than 450 non-native insects plague US forests, but the broad-scale economic impacts of those invasions were unknown until Aukema et al. (2011) estimated current and future true cost of damages. For example, these NCEAS researchers estimated that based on the 2009 US dollar over a ten year period, tree loss and damages caused by invasive wood-boring pests cost homeowners collectively $839 million per year in lost property values due to lost aesthetics, and governments approximately $1.7 billion per year to monitor and respond to hazards and damages. These estimates informed a Congressional Bill—Safeguarding American Act of 2011 (S. 1673), reintroduced in 2012 but not yet enacted—to strengthen US pest prevention efforts and preserve forest ecosystem services.

URBAN ECOLOGY & ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

In cities, trees provide multiple human benefits and ecosystem services including shade, habitat for wildlife, pollutant absorption, and increased real estate value. But space is limited and city planners tasked with sustainable development have to choose where to plant, or remove, trees. An important part of that decision is environmental justice—the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income. Following an NCEAS Working Group, Boone and colleagues wrote multiple book chapters in 2012, discussing socio-ecological and economic aspects of environmental justice, specifically the equitability of how ecosystem services are distributed in urban areas, quantified by things such as the presence of trees.

COASTAL PROTECTION

A common assumption when estimating the value of an ecosystem service has been that a given function, such as coastal protection, is directly proportional to a particular ecosystem characteristic, such as the size of the ecosystem. These linear relationships are often an oversimplification of natural processes, and in reality these relationships can be complex and non-linear. Koch et al. (2009) explored these ecosystem service assumptions for marshes, seagrasses, mangroves, and coral reefs—natural physical obstacles that dissipate wave energy and protect shorelines. For example, they found that the effectiveness of mangroves to dissipate wave energy and their corresponding “value” decreases with both an increasing tide and decreasing forest health. This work revealed the importance of understanding habitat quality and cumulative effects in ecosystem functions in order to account for non-linearities, and realistically estimate ecosystem service values, and improve management.

POLLINATION & FOOD PRODUCTION

Prior to a 2007 NCEAS study by Klein and colleagues, the extent of global reliance on animal pollination for crop production had not been evaluated. In their highly cited paper in Biological Sciences, Klein and coauthors used data from 200 countries and found that among all 107 crops traded on the world market, 33 crops are highly dependent on animal-mediated pollination—13 of which cannot thrive without it—and an additional 27 are moderately dependent on animals for pollination. They also concluded that agricultural intensification, or the investment of capital and/or labor to increase crop yield of a given land area, jeopardizes pollinators like wild bee communities, which in effect diminishes their pollination services. Pollinator loss via agricultural intensification will most severely impact those 13 crops that are entirely dependent on animal pollinators for reproduction. Species like passion fruit and vanilla rely on only a few pollinating species, and are therefore at greatest risk. In order to boost native pollinator densities, they call for reduction in pesticide use and landscape-scale management practices, such as increasing nesting opportunities and floral resources. This work was referenced in a 2010 Congressional Report entitled Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to ecosystem services research: