Ecosystem footprint concept and its potential applications in environmental management

image: Scientists from University of Auckland suggested response footprints need to be characterized by spatial extent and depth. view more

Credit: Jasmine Low, Institute of Marine Science, The University of Auckland

Traditionally, the impact of human activity on an ecosystem has lacked context when planning restorative ecosystem mitigation and management strategies. Multiple human activities over time and space, the resilience of a particular ecosystem, and the stress caused by many individual or related, overlapping activities that generate cumulative effects may affect the overall “ecosystem response footprint,” or ability of an ecosystem to adapt and change to human activity.

A team of marine scientists reviewed the most recent perspectives on ecological footprints to rigorously define the term “ecosystem response footprint” as the ecosystems response or ability to adapt to change over space and time caused by external factors, rather than simply the summation of effects due to external factors in a particular area. The group additionally outlines how organizations can shift from stressor-limiting approaches to holistic ecosystem based management approaches which focuses on building ecosystem resilience and recovery.

The team published their review on 15 August 2023 in the journal of Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.

“Our conceptual footprint framework seeks to provide a perspective to manager and scientist on understanding ecosystem response to cumulative stressors and effects through understanding ecosystem dynamics,” said Jasmine M.L. Low, co-lead author of the review paper and doctoral candidate in Marine Science at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand.

The team argues that the footprints of human activity and stressors in marine and coastal ecosystems differ from the ecosystem response footprints due to four primary factors:

1) The presence of multiple stressors can affect the relationship between stressors and the response of the ecosystem,

2) Temporal mismatches in ecosystem responses are present because of lags in recovery generated by legacy and carry over effects even once the stressors have stopped,

3) Local place and time context dependent characteristics can change how an ecosystem responds to a specific stressor and

4) Stressors can cause indirect effects on ecosystems that are connected.

The authors emphasize that defining ecosystem response footprints in holistic terms and a dynamic environment is challenging but necessary to ensure the long-term health and resilience of an ecosystem.

“Our goal with this review was to move past the current stalemate in ecosystem-based management and limit-setting approaches. We need to use current ecological information to put the ecosystem front and center of environmental management to help boost and progress action in management decisions,” said Rebecca V. Gladstone-Gallagher, co-lead author of the review paper and lecturer in Marine Science at the University of Auckland.

“We call for a refocusing on ecosystems in place and time and a nuanced view of how they respond to change. We believe that alongside managing stressors, we need to manage ecosystems for resilience and recovery, and actions should be focused on assessing what can be done upstream or in surrounding areas to improve… resilience, safeguarding against future degradation,” Gladstone-Gallagher said.

Integrating both space and time into the relationship between stressors and an ecosystem can help organizations assess how long a particular response will last and whether or not an ecosystem will recover after mitigation or management efforts. Beyond the spatial area of the cumulative ecosystem response footprint, the authors argue that the “depth” of the response between stressors and the ecosystem accounts for the magnitude or timing of the interaction between the ecosystem and a stressor.

The team looks forward to the implementation of their guidelines to improve the management of ecosystems, both marine and otherwise, worldwide. “The next steps are to integrate these ecosystem response footprint concepts into marine spatial planning, policy frameworks, resource consent, assessments of cumulative effects and risk assessment frameworks,” Low said.

Other contributors include Judi E. Hewitt and Simon F. Thrush from the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand and Joanne I. Ellis from the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.

This work was supported by the New Zealand National Science Challenge Sustainable Seas Project 1.1 (Ecological responses to cumulative effects) established by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Enterprise, New Zealand (C01X1901).

JournalEcosystem Health and Sustainability

Method of ResearchLiterature review

Subject of ResearchNot applicable

Article Publication Date15-Aug-2023

COI StatementNo conflict of interests related.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is historically defined as “the total sets of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person.” The total carbon footprint cannot be calculated because of the large amount of data required and the fact that carbon dioxide can be produced by natural occurrences. It is for this reason that Wright, Kemp, and Williams, writing in the journal Carbon Management, have suggested a more practicable definition: : A measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions of a defined population, system or activity, considering all relevant sources, sinks and storage within the spatial and temporal boundary of the population, system or activity of interest. Calculated as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) using the relevant 100-year global warming potential (GWP100). Greenhouse gases (GHGs) can be emitted through transport, land clearance, and the production and consumption of food, fuels, manufactured goods, materials, wood, roads, buildings, and services. For simplicity of reporting, it is often expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent of other GHGs, emitted. Most of the carbon footprint emissions for the average U.S. household come from “indirect” sources, i.e. fuel burned to produce goods far away from the final consumer. These are distinguished from emissions which come from burning fuel directly in one’s car or stove, commonly referred to as “direct” sources of the consumer’s carbon footprint. The concept name of the carbon footprint originates from ecological footprint, discussion, which was developed by Rees and Wackernagel in the 1990s which estimates the number of “earths” that would theoretically be required if everyone on the planet consumed resources at the same level as the person calculating their ecological footprint. However, given that ecological footprints are a measure of failure, Anindita Mitra (CREA, Seattle) chose the more easily calculated “carbon footprint” to easily measure use of carbon, as an indicator of unsustainable energy use. In 2007, carbon footprints was used as a measure of carbon emissions to develop the energy plan for City of Lynnwood, Washington. Carbon footprints are much more specific than ecological footprints since they measure direct emissions of gases that cause climate change into the atmosphere.

Richard Goodwin Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He has written for Den of Geek, Fortean Times, IT PRO, PC Pro, ALPHR, and many other technology sites. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.


A new framework for customized marine conservation in local contexts

Aotearoa’s coastal marine ecosystems are struggling with the cumulative effects of multiple human activities and stressors that are leading to tipping points, ecological surprises, and irreversible ecosystem damage.

Each activity, the stressors it generates, and the adverse ecological effects of those stressors, leave a “footprint” on the environment, and in many marine ecosystems, overlapping footprints create complex mosaics of cumulative effects. How ecosystems respond to cumulative effects is dependent on the resilience of ecosystem components to stressors and ecological and physical context (i.e., place-based) dependencies. These collectively determine the size and depth of a footprint.

Microplastics are a growing problem world-wide and provide an example of how a stressor can impact the size of an ecosystem footprint. When microplastics wash up into our estuaries, they accumulate in the sediments altering the oxygen production of microscopic plants and nutrient processing capacities of foundation species, such as shellfish and worms. This negatively impacts the capacity of the estuarine ecosystem to process and remove excess nitrogen meaning that the ecosystem footprint has increased even though nitrogen inputs from land have not.

As a result, the ecosystem’s resilience to additional nitrogen loading and other stressors declines becoming more susceptible to a tipping point. Every coastal ecosystem has a unique ecosystem response that reflects the scale and context of interrelated activities and associated stressors, such as microplastics or excess nutrients.

New research from Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge has developed an “ecosystem response footprint framework” to help communities to manage their coastal ecosystems and prioritize ecological recovery. This framework can be used to inform policy and new guidelines for marine management. The study is published in the journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.

“We cannot just base the way we manage marine environments on limit setting approaches because the same thing doesn’t happen everywhere at the same time,” says researcher Jasmine Low, based at the University of Auckland.

“For ecological recovery and resilience, we need a way of understanding all of the damage done to a particular marine ecosystem and the best management actions to take.”

The framework aims to help communities and environmental managers take a more holistic (ecosystem based) approach to managing cumulative effects and make effective marine management decisions, even where detailed knowledge or data is not available. Take, for example, a community who are working to restore shellfish populations in a local estuary. The new framework can be used by everyone—regional council, community members and iwi/hapū—to make informed decisions about the next best steps to take.

This includes identifying if the estuary is a viable location for shellfish recovery, and whether that recovery can naturally happen in a time frame acceptable to the local community. Or alternatively, if shellfish stocks from elsewhere need to be brought in and cultivated to reestablish lost populations.

By knowing where and when to take different environmental management actions, communities can actively reduce the risk of future degradation to coastal marine environments.

“To try and find a solution to this big problem we have had to go back to basics and focus on how the ecosystems respond rather than just focusing on stressor loads (how much pollution we put in and how much fish we take out),” explains Jasmine.

The next steps are to integrate these concepts into marine spatial planning, policy frameworks, resource consenting, assessments of cumulative effects, and risk assessment frameworks.

More information: Jasmine M. L. Low et al, Using Ecosystem Response Footprints to Guide Environmental Management Priorities, Ecosystem Health and Sustainability (2023). DOI: 10.34133/ehs.0115

Provided by Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge

Citation: A new framework for customized marine conservation in local contexts (2023, August 31) retrieved 13 September 2023 from

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