A systems framework and methodology for geospatial assessment of ecosystem services

A growing body of research suggests that deficits in ecosystem services (ES) are key drivers of vulnerability in coupled social-ecological systems. For this reason, scientists, managers and policy makers have increasingly sought a conceptual and technical basis for assessment and modeling of ES delivery – in many different systems, at multiple scales, and for a variety of research and decision-support applications. To date, most ES assessment efforts have focused either on the ecosystem (supply-side) or the social system (demand-side) without explicit analysis of interactions, such as benefit flows or anthropogenic impacts, in the coupled system. In addition, few approaches have linked our understanding of these complex systems with informatics and analytical techniques that can incorporate uncertainty and non-linear dynamics. To this end, I present a systems framework that defines ES delivery as a function of three interacting processes: the ecological capacity to generate ES (provision), human demand for ES (use), and anthropogenic changes and their legacies (disturbance). This framework is translated to a ‘criteria-and-indicators’ informatics that structures data in hierarchical fashion, allowing the quantification of individual ES flows or aggregated ‘bundles’ of ES. Using these informatics, ES can be assessed using existing data in a GIS, either by discrete units (e.g., watersheds) or as continuous rasters. A case study demonstrating this approach for provisioning ES in a managed forest landscape is presented. Next steps include a comparative case study method designed to capture temporal dynamics (i.e., changes in regulating and supporting ES) and non-parametric statistical techniques to estimate system thresholds in response to anthropogenic change. Lastly, the combination of this approach with expert knowledge and Bayesian network models is introduced as a possible new direction for studying ES in coupled human-nature systems.

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