Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services

PAGES (Past Global Changes)
Focus 4: (Past) Human-Climate-Ecosystem Interaction (PHAROS)
Biodiversity Theme Workshop at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford (9-11 Jan)

Using fossil records to map potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments for biodiversity and ecosystem services
Organised by: Dr. Elizabeth Jeffers, Dr. Shonil Bhagwat and Prof. Kathy Willis

This small (about 30 attendees) workshop brought together academic researchers mainly working in the field of past environmental change to discuss the use, and potential use, of data sets in understanding the key environmental challenges facing society. The bulk of the discussion took place with reference to ‘ecosystem services’. Three types of ecosystem service were mentioned early on for which it was thought that the fossil record can provide a unique long term perspective (beyond historical records): 1) provisioning services (e.g. food, timber, biofuels), 2) regulating services (e.g. carbon), and 3) cultural services (e.g. national parks, tourism).

Below I will summarize some of the issues discussed. Please note that this does not cover the full range of discussion or all of the many high quality contributions. For further information click here to visit the workshop web page.

Understanding the long term trajectories of provisioning and regulating ecosystem services are important to anticipate future societal requirements. Palaeoecological data can provide a ‘reference condition’ (Wood) for assessing long term change and specifically data directly relevant to the implementation of policy directives. For example applying the Lotic invertebrate Index for Flow Evolution (LIFE) assessment method, usually used to assess modern streams, to the fossil record can be used to create a common ‘currency’ for assessing modern and past systems. Consequently a longer term perspective on systems response to change is provided and better informed policy decisions can potentially be made. Palaeo data can provide baseline information on trajectories of change in many areas, at this meeting examples related to water quality (Stone) and vegetation (Sugita) were also presented.

The importance of cultural landscapes and the timescales of their development was discussed in an Indian (Bhagwat) and European (Bradshaw) context. It is interesting to consider the types of landscape which people identify as desirable are generally chosen based upon cultural memory rather than scientific environmental value. For example people are often keen to preserve, and invest money in, the maintenance of perceived ‘traditionally’ managed landscapes, e.g. forest meadows in Sweden or sacred groves in India which, in reality, are manipulated ecosystems which have only been around for a few hundred years. While revertance of ecosystems to a ‘natural’ state following agricultural abandonment is often seen as a ‘bad thing’.

Providing relevant information from the fossil record to inform any of these ecosystem service areas and help parameterise trajectories of change presents a major challenge to the scientific community. Key among these challenges is integrating data sets collected at different spatial, temporal and taxonomic resolutions. Uncertainty in data can come from many sources including observation, process and parameters (Bonsal). Therefore, assessing and communicating parameters relevant to end users as well as the uncertainty related to parameters is essential (McLachlan). Combining palaeo data networks with mechanistic models is one way in which fragmentary data to be translated for use outside specialist contexts (Peng).

Discussions throughout the meeting served to highlight the great challenge of linking data, calculating the uncertainty and communicating the outputs. However, there was a consensus from participants that working together progress could be made with the collation of relevant existing data (within the Neotoma database) which would in turn help the community to be able to respond to questions posed by policy makers over short timescales.

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