Ecosystem services have always been with us. Using the past to explore their dynamics.

This post has been cross-posted from downwithtime.

Figure 1.  Hoping we'll find a proxy for beautiful sunsets.  Image from: BrendelSignature at en.wikipedia

Figure 1. Hoping we’ll find a proxy for beautiful sunsets. Image from: BrendelSignature at en.wikipedia

Clean water, forest products, clean air.  The value of ecosystem services has received a lot of attention in the past several years. In 1997 Robert Costanza and co-authors provided one of the first real valuations of ecosystem services (Costanza et al., 1997), estimating that, at an annual subsidy of ~$33 Trillion, they provide more value to human society than the entire global GNP at the time (~$18 Trillion).  Following Costanza’s paper and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) considerable research effort has gone into understanding the extent of ecosystem services around the globe, and at multiple scales, however the widespread application of the term ‘ecosystem service’ has led some to question the consistency with which the term is used (Seppelt et al., 2011).

Regardless, it is clear that ecosystems play a vital role in maintaining critical social functions.  Whether providing clean and safe drinking water, wood for building, or giving us a sense of relief at the sight of a beautiful sunrise, ecosystem services are a fundamental (and often undervalued) component of our well being.  Given this, it is no surprise that we have become keenly interested in projecting changes in valuation of services in the future under changes in land use and as a result of global change.  Joshua Lawler and co-authors (2014) use land use trends to estimate changes in ecosystem services in the continental United States under three different conservation scenarios, but don’t attach value to the shifts.  In Landscape Ecology Monica Turner and co-authors (2013) lay out several key research questions to help resolve our uncertainty about the effects of future change on ecosystem service provisioning.  One of the key research questions in this paper is “How well will understanding of past landscape dynamics and ecosystem services inform the future?“.

The use of paleoecology in understanding ecosystem service function and change is still in its infancy, but John Dearing and co-authors (2012) have provided an excellent road map in their paper “Extending the timescale and range of ecosystem services through paleoenvironmental analyses, exemplified in the lower Yangtze basin”.  Table 1 of the paper provides a long list of ecosystem services and possibly related paleoecological proxies, linking food production to pollen microfossils, fresh water provision to diatom assemblages and air quality regulation to spherical carbonaceous particles, all of which – incidentally- can be found in lake sediment records.

The challenges of using the paleo-record remain, and it is critical that researchers begin to address the methods with which we cross-scales, from the paleo-record to modern ecological time scales, and on to future projections.  Excellent work by McLauchlan et al. (2014) in BioScience is beginning to do just this.  Exploring the ways in which we can integrate paleoeoclogical process into modern ecological theory is critical for understanding the long time-scale processes that ultimately help regulate the provision of ecosystem services.


Costanza, R. et al. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature. 387, 253-260.

Dearing, JA. et al. 2012. Extending the timescale and range of ecosystem services through paleoenvironmental analyses, exemplified in the lower Yangtze basin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(18), E1111-E1120. [PDF]

McLauchlan, KK. et al. 2014. Reconstructing disturbances and their biogeochemical consequences over multiple timescales. BioScience. [PDF]

Lawler, JJ. et al. 2014. Projected land-use change impacts on ecosystem services in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7492-7497. [PDF]

Seppelt, R. et al. 2011. A quantitative review of ecosystem service studies: approaches, shortcomings and the road ahead. Journal of Applied Ecology, 48(3), 630-636. [PDF]

Turner, MG. et al. 2013. Consequences of spatial heterogeneity for ecosystem services in changing forest landscapes: priorities for future research. Landscape ecology, 28(6), 1081-1097. [PDF]


About downwithtime

Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.
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