Assessment of Vulnerability

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Arable, grassland, and forest ecosystems are managed primarily for the purpose of providing material goods such as forage, food, and fiber. However, terrestrial ecosystems also provide a range of other goods and services, notably through the improvement of environmental quality (e.g., water purification, flood and erosion control, atmospheric regulation), recreational and amenity values, provision of habitats for species and conservation of biodiversity, and mitigation of anthropogenic CO2 enrichment through sequestering carbon. The soil biota play an important role in the delivery of all of these services. This is in part because the above- and belowground components of terrestrial ecosystems are inextricably linked. Therefore, any global change agent that affects the soil community will affect not only the ability of the soil to provide services that are directly driven by the soil biota (e.g., soil carbon sequestration, prevention of leaching of nutrients), but also those that are driven by the plant community.

To illustrate the nature and mechanistic basis of vulnerability of ecosystem goods and services driven by soil biota to global change, we now present some examples. In Chapter 2, an assessment was made of the importance of contributions of soil biotic and abiotic factors to the delivery of ecosystem services in representative temperate arable tilled, grassland, and forest ecosystems. These were quantified on a scale of * (unimportant) to *** (highly important). In the present assessment, we considered, for each of these ecosystems, the vulnerability of each of those ecosystem services identified in Chapter 2 to three scenarios of global change: global change agents that (1) operate over large scales via the atmosphere (drought, resulting from climate change), (2) operate at the landscape scale (change of the ecosystem to a new land use), and (3) operate directly through individual species effects (invasions by alien species with radically different functional attributes to that of the resident species). For each of these scenarios, we considered how each ecosystem service is modified by the global change agents, how abiotic and biotic drivers of that service are modified, and how the role of soil biota in providing that service is altered. We used our understanding of current knowledge in the published literature, and assigned semi-quantitative scores. Specifically, we assessed the extent to which the ability of the soil biota to provide each good or service was vulnerable to each global change agent for each ecosystem type, assigning a score to each ability by using a scale of 0 to 3 (with increasing values indicating greater vulnerability). We also assessed the net impact of the global change factor (positive, neutral, or negative) on the delivery of the good or service.

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