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What are ecosystem services?

Images of ecosystems and their benefits

What are ecosystem services, and why are they important?

Ecosystem goods and services, often shortened to just ecosystem services, are the benefits that humans receive from nature. These benefits underpin almost every aspect of human well-being, including our food and water, security, health, and economy. However, we are so accustomed to this natural provision of benefits that we are not always conscious of the links between our surrounding environment and our well-being, and thus may not always take the "true value" of ecosystems into account in our decision-making processes. Many of the decisions that we make, from how we develop the infrastructure in our communities, to the ways that we manage the land surrounding our communities, impact the provision of ecosystem services. Thus, considering the true value of ecosystem services in our policies and decision-making could help us better manage our resources in a way that would benefit us economically, environmentally, and socially.

EnviroAtlas Eco-wheel

Example of an Eco-wheel, which summarizes the resources, benefits, and drivers of change for each of the benefit categories in the proceeding tabs.

EnviroAtlas uses seven broad benefit categories to organize its information and data on ecosystem services:

  • Clean Air
  • Clean and Plentiful Water
  • Natural Hazard Mitigation
  • Climate Stabilization
  • Recreation, Culture and Aesthetics
  • Food, Fuel and Materials
  • Biodiversity Conservation

The concept of ecosystem services has existed for a long time but was popularized by the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a suite of reports initiated by the United Nations. Since the MEA publication, many local and national governments, non-profit organizations, the private sector, and those in academia have been striving to incorporate the idea of ecosystem services into policies and decision-making. In the past decade, a large amount of research has been conducted to help governments and other organizations move towards this ecosystem services framework, and an entire research field that combines social science, economics, and environmental science has emerged.

How are ecosystem services classified?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), which is the most widely used ecosystem services framework, classifies ecosystem services into provisioning(e.g., food and fresh water), regulating (e.g., water purification), cultural (e.g., recreation and aesthetics), and supporting (e.g., soil formation) services. In addition to the MEA, there have been attempts to refine ecosystem services classification systems (e.g., TEEB , CICES , SEEA , EPA FEGS effort ) in order to establish a common classification system. Many practitioners believe this common system is necessary for ecosystem services to be incorporated into everyday decision-making and economic accounting systems. Within each of the existing classification frameworks, the approach to biodiversity differs slightly and it is still under debate exactly how it fits within an ecosystem services framework. In the MEA framework specifically, biodiversity is not considered to be a service, but rather the foundation for all ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services are often divided further into intermediate and final ecosystem services. Final ecosystem services are the benefits that we directly consume, enjoy, or use, while intermediate ecosystem services lead to the final service. For instance, bass fishing would be a final good or service, with the water quality providing the fish habitat as the intermediate service. It is important to understand the difference between intermediate and final services when incorporating ecosystem services into economic accounting frameworks to avoid double counting when assigning economic value.

The seven EnviroAtlas benefit categories were selected largely because they provide a logical approach for organizing the many EnviroAtlas data layers in a way that reduces redundancy to the extent possible. Recognizing that all of the indicators presented in EnviroAtlas can be placed into multiple classification frameworks, our intent is to eventually provide a crosswalk of our indicators with widely accepted classification frameworks. Because EnviroAtlas is not strictly an ecosystem services accounting tool, it is not critical that the data be identified as pertaining to intermediate or final services.

How are ecosystem services measured and valued?

The valuation of ecosystem services encompasses a number of different types of values, including both market and non-market values. Valuation may incorporate assigning a market or dollar value to a particular ecosystem or component, but also includes many non-marketable values such as improvements in public health outcomes, societal preferences, and intrinsic value. Market and non-market values should be included in decision-making. EnviroAtlas addresses mostly non-market values, but the data included in EnviroAtlas can be used to inform market valuation.

The measurement and valuation of ecosystem services is extremely complex, and although there has been a lot of research into ways of measuring and valuing ecosystem services, much remains unknown. One facet that adds to the complexity of this valuation is that the beneficiaries of a service are not necessarily in close proximity to where the service is being produced. For example, in the production of clean drinking water, the water may be produced in one place but consumed many miles downstream or even in a different basin. We can also consider the carbon stored and sequestered by trees all over the planet. This storage and sequestration results in less carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere which ultimately helps maintain a more stable climate. All humans benefit from a stable climate, but those who live in areas susceptible to climate extremes, or those who rely on climate vulnerable resources for sustenance, likely experience the benefits more acutely.

To understand ecosystem services and how they may be impacted in the future, it is important to collect information about the production of ecosystem services, the demand for, or beneficiaries of those services, the factors that stress or influence their production, and the valuation associated with the services. EnviroAtlas provides indicators for all four of these aspects—ecosystem services production, demand, stressors, and valuation. Additionally, scale is an important concept to consider in valuation because it will dictate what types of measurements are appropriate, available, and reasonable to accomplish. EnviroAtlas provides data summarized by 12-digit HUCs for the nation, and census block groups for selected communities.

The full suite of ecological functions and processes that occurs within an ecosystem to produce the benefits that we receive is sometimes referred to as the ecological production function. In some cases, EnviroAtlas publishes data layers or indicators that fill in only pieces of these production functions and will produce map layers for the entire production functions once all of the pieces are known and have data available. In other cases, especially within the community component, we are able to map the entire ecological production function as well as the individual pieces.

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