Academic contributes to first global classification of Earth’s ecosystems

A University of Plymouth researcher has contributed to the first-ever comprehensive system for classifying and mapping all the ecosystems on Earth.

The Global Typology of Ecosystems, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is designed to allow for more coordinated and effective approaches to conservation management.

It was developed by more than 100 ecosystem scientists representing the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and 85 scientific institutions.

Among them was Dr Louise Firth, Lecturer in Marine Ecology in the University’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences, who contributed her expertise in artificial shorelines and eco-engineering.

The typology defines the key biophysical features of 108 major ecosystem types throughout the oceans, freshwater and land, and describes the processes that sustain them as well as their global distributions.

It encompasses ecosystems that are shaped by humans – such as croplands and dams – as well as vast forest wilderness, deserts, deep ocean trenches, and others buried below ground and beneath ice sheets.

This systematic approach to classifying ecosystems will help identify which types of forests, reefs and wetlands, for example, are most critical to biodiversity conservation and the supply of ecosystem services, and which are at greatest risk of collapse.

Dr Firth, who leads the University’s Marine Eco-engineering Research Unit, has conducted world-leading research on the impact of artificial coastal structures on ecosystems and biodiversity. She has previously worked on a number of prominent international projects and collaborations and contributed to three sections of the IUCN typology – focusing on marine aquafarms, rocky shorelines and artificial shorelines. She said:

“The typology is a valuable synthesis of what humanity understands about global ecosystems, and reflects the enormous progress we’ve made in the last decade. It is important that we are now recognising artificial ecosystems as they are becoming increasingly important. I think it will be a useful resource for managers and researchers, and a fantastic teaching tool to inspire future generations of ecologists.”

Dr Louise Firth

Dr Louise Firth

In addition to enabling the setting and tracking of global biodiversity conservation goals, the new framework – led by the University of New South Wales, Arizona State University and Kings College London (of the PLuS Alliance) and Deakin University – will inform the Red List of Ecosystems, the IUCN’s standard for measuring risks of collapse faced by the world’s ecosystems.

It will also provide a solid foundation for the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), an ongoing initiative by the United Nations to measure the contribution of the environment to the economy through so-called ecosystem services, and the impact of the economy on the environment.

IUCN Director General Dr Bruno Oberle said:

“Many of the world’s ecosystems are under acute risk of collapse, with grave consequences for the survival of species, genetic diversity, ecosystem services and human wellbeing. To sustain them, it’s critically important that the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework contains explicit, ambitious goals for the conservation of ecosystems alongside species. This first standardised, spatially explicit ecosystem typology provides the infrastructure that is needed to set and track such goals.”

School of Biological and Marine Sciences

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