Assessment of the Vulnerability of Critical Below Surface Habitats Functions and Taxa

Paul V.R. Snelgrove

In the previous chapters, we described the many goods and services provided by soil and sediment biota and alluded briefly to some of the effects that human activities have had or will likely have on the continued delivery of these services. The next section focuses specifically on the vulnerability of ecosystem goods and services, defined here as the probability that ecosystem services will be altered by external disturbances. Each of the chapters that follow notes that different threats operate on different spatial and temporal scales, as does the provisioning of different ecosystem goods and services. For example, invasive species are identified as major stressors in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, but some invasive species are localized in their current distribution and may disperse rapidly or slowly. By contrast, global climate change is large scale by definition, and it cuts across habitats, ecosystems, and even the terrestrial/freshwater/marine interface. Decomposition, a key regulation service in all of the domains, occurs over very broad landscapes, aquatic habitats, and seascapes, but it is manifested largely at the scale of individual microbes and invertebrates. Differences in exposure (frequency, intensity), sensitivity to exposure (likelihood of change), and resilience (capacity to rebound from alteration) are all factors that are scale-dependent and vary among ecosystems, habitats, and the specific organisms that deliver goods and services.

The initial goal of these chapters was to address three broad questions on vulnerability of ecosystem goods and services. First, what is the vulnerability of critical below-surface ecosystems, habitats, functions, and taxa to human activities? Second, to what extent is the vulnerability of different systems spatial- and time-scale dependent? Third, what are the implications for management when we consider the vulnerability of soils and sediments, their biodiversity, and their provisioning of ecosystem goods and services?

The evidence for linkages between vulnerability of goods and services and biodiversity varies considerably among ecosystems. However, in the chapters that follow, we provide the most relevant examples and case studies currently available in order to illustrate the issues and to point out where information is inadequate. Ultimately the initial questions we posed cannot be fully addressed with our current knowledge, but the situation is rapidly improving. Questions regarding the biotic basis of ecosystem processes and the implications of biodiversity loss and associated effects on delivery of goods and services are now at the forefront of conservation biology. Unfortunately, the magnitude and pervasiveness of many threats stemming from human activities is rapidly increasing at a rate that underscores the urgency of research in this area.

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