Is there an ideal approach to multiple ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are based in time and, mostly, space. As such, they can be mapped.  Developing these maps in a scientifically reliable way is part of the key to developing ways to measure, baseline and monitor ES in a way that can ultimately lead to better informed policy and decision making to sustain our global systems, as well as the ES they provide.

I came across some news today that Martin Prince, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is advocating that  “mountain specific planning is needed to ensure the flow of ecosystem services.” Mountain specific planning… Hmm. This got me thinking:

Is there an ideal method of looking at ecosystem services in an integrated way that would make sense for multiple ecosystem services attributes?

As such, could we group water, soil, biodiversity, timber, medicinal, cultural etc ecosystem services together in a way that would be useful for each? Would we be best to go large and group by biome? Group by mountain? Group by watershed? Group by underlying soil type? These are examples of some of the approaches we could take, and any would likely be allow us to have a way to break down ecosystems and manage our actions on them appropriately and sustainably.

As far as individual ecosystem services attributes I’ve seen different maps of various ES parameters, such as:


Harmonized World Soil Index

Harmonized World Soil Database

Soil Carbon

Global Soil Organic Carbon

Fresh Water

Global Freshwater Habitat

Global Freshwater Habitat Types


Global Biodiversity

Global Biodiversity

A Combined ES Approach

As you can see from the above maps, they look great and allow us to get a global snapshot of various ecosystem parameters that underlie natural capital and flows of ecosystem services. There are also more localized regional maps that can be found, but if the maps are produced by different groups, it can start to become rather unwieldy to try and overlay them and get an idea of what land might be priority for protecting ecosystem services.

So what about a combined approach to more than one ES parameter at a time? In many cases, these parameters will be quite location specific such as this map below that shows carbon and a specific species, caribou. The Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative have produced this work that looks at both carbon and caribou habitat in order to help determine areas of the boreal forest in Canada that may be priority for conservation. The map below shows carbon in brown, and the woodland caribou and barren ground caribou ranges are shown with different green patterns.

Carbon and Caribou in the Canadian Boreal

Carbon and Caribou in the Canadian Boreal (Songbird Initiative Map)

Another study by UNEP, WCMC, the German Federation for Nature Conservation and other partners has produced an Interactive Tool that combines both carbon and biodiversity in general. Their map below indicates areas of the globe where they have completed studies, or have studies in development.

Exploring regional carbon, biodiversity and ecosystem services co-benefits

On the above map, you can see a purple area in China. That is Jiangxi Province, and here is a link to that project where they have mad a map for that region focusing on carbon and vascular plants. If you click on the previous link at the top of this paragraph you can find the link to the actual pdf map on that page, but I’ve pasted a smaller copy below for convenience. As can be seen on the map of Jiangxi, when you overlay carbon and biodiversity layers on the map, you can start to see if there are certain areas within regions that are hotspots for multiple ecosystem services that should be a priority for protection. The dark brown areas represent areas of high carbon, but the dark green areas contain both high carbon and high biodiverisity.

Jiangxi Province Carbon and Biodiversity

Jiangxi Province Carbon and Biodiversity

This is where this approach can start to become a useful tool for local to international policy and decision makers who are facing significant challenges, such as not meeting the targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010. When you overlay multiple ecosystem services attributes, and find a way to rank important or threatened ones, then you can start to form a clear picture of where you need to concentrate your resources and action for protection.

Another interesting and potentially useful approach I have seen is in some great work I’ve recently seen mapping ecosystem services by watershed. I will be following up with a blog post soon with examples of recent research on mapping ecosystem services using this watershed approach as I feel it deserves a separate treatment. Stay tuned…


About Maria Lavis
Exploring questions on how well (or not) humans and nature are getting along.

6 Responses to Is there an ideal approach to multiple ecosystem services?

  1. Megan Evans says:

    Hi Maria,

    Nice overview of some of the existing mapping for ecosystem services. Have you seen some of Oscar Venter’s work on making the most of the carbon market to secure both biodiversity and carbon?

    Venter O, Laurance WF, Iwamura T, Wilson KA, Fuller RA, Possingham HP. 2009. Harnessing Carbon Payments to Protect Biodiversity. Science 326: 1368-1368.

    See also: Strassburg BBN, et al. 2010. Global congruence of carbon storage and biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. Conservation Letters 3: 98-105.

    I wonder about your suggestion to use a ranking/scoring approach to prioritise efforts to protect ecosystem services. Sometimes if we simply overlay maps and rank based on the number of services in a location, it’s possible to ignore the costs of conservation, the likelihood of success of intervention, and complementarity (that is, we could secure two sites each with one different type of service, or we could secure one with both services – overly simplified but you get the idea). Prioritising based on threat alone can be tricky too – do we prioritise locations which are most threatened/possibly least likely to be conserved (reactive), or prioritise areas that avoid threat (proactive)? This has a pretty good overview:

    Wilson KA, Carwardine J, Possingham HP. 2009. Setting Conservation Priorities. Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology 2009 1162: 237-264.

    Also, when you talk about the watershed approach, are you referring to one of Gary Luck’s papers? Look forward to your analysis!

    • Thanks for the references Megan! I will look into them further.

      Good points on the ranking. I agree with you. With the diversity of ecosystems, it is certainly not a simple task to try and prioritize. The idea of the map overlays could make sense in some areas though as a method to break things down and help with analysis. It’s a little bit like the challenge of long term ecological monitoring. You can obtain large amounts of data, make maps of it etc., but you need a way to make appropriate sense of that data. You need to make sure you have asked the right questions from the start (which affects what data you collect to begin with), have the right people (trained) working on it, have enough time and funding to see it through, and have the right strategy to have the data/maps be useful at the end of the day.

      Regarding watershed approach, I wasn’t actually referring to Gary Luck’s work. I could certainly add him though if you are ok with me taking you up on your recommendation. 🙂

      • Megan Evans says:

        Completely agree with the asking the right questions before collecting data/making maps – a map can be misinterpreted very easily if its not clear what the purpose of the map is!

        That’s funny about the watershed paper/s – clearly there are a couple with similar ideas. Here’s the Luck reference:

        Luck GW, Chan KM, Fay JP. 2009. Protecting ecosystem services and biodiversity in the world’s watersheds. Conservation Letters 2: 179-188.

  2. Great blog – As you’ve stated there are a lot of approaches to mapping ecosystem services and this captures some of the potential of this approach. Problem is a lot of the time they are global, regional or national. Not that useful for where a lot of the action happens, i.e. at the local level.

    We just sent a paper to review on a research project that looked at incorporating ecosystem serivces into local land use decision making using proxy ecosystem services vialand use to build layers of potential ecosystem services to identify areas of multifunctionality. Our policy makers and others have since found this a useful, less resource intensive approach to identify areas of irreplaceable or priority ecosystem services – so may be of interest:

    Also the ecosystem services partnership has a thematic page on mapping techniques that we’re in the process of adding our work to. May be worth a look:

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Great points regarding scale. On one of the projects I’m working on now, involving Earth Observation for ecosystem services, scale has been a important factor highlighted in our stakeholder feedback to date. My next post will have some more regional approaches, that could be refined to be more local.

      Thank-you very much for the references Jonathan. I will certainly look into your CEP reference more closely. Looks compelling on a first glance. Would you be ok if I also referenced some of that work in my next post on mapping?

      Coincidentally, I just encountered the ES Partnership not too long ago. I plan on doing some profiles on the blog in the next little while, with some Q&A interviews, (I’m excited about the next person, but won’t disclose who it is yet), and one of them referred me to the ESP. It is indeed a great, and growing resource. I’ll look into those mapping references as well.

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