Current issues of terrestrial ecosystem research

Ecosystems are increasingly impacted by human activities to a point that some boundaries for the sustainability of ecosystem services are or will be transgressed. Nine boundaries have been identified (Rockström et al. Nature 461, 472-475, 2009): climate change, land use change, loss of biological diversity, biogeochemical nitrogen cycle and phosphorus cycles, global fresh water use, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification and stratospheric ozone. It is estimated that humanity has already transgressed three of these planetary boundaries : for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle.

It is then urgent to develop a thorough understanding of the mechanisms behind ecosystem services and their controls in order to better predict rates of future changes and to develop mitigation or adaptation scenarios. However, the research community on terrestrial ecosystems is currently very fragmented due to difficulties inherent to the ecosystem and environment sciences, which are :

  • a wide diversity of ecosystem types (forest, grasslands, arable systems, marchlands, shrublands…) ; each of them having historically developed its own independent research community.
  • a wide diversity of eco-geographical contexts ; that lead to a multiplication of contextual case studies instead of generic approaches.
  • a process-based disciplinary approach ; that develops reductionism instead of interaction studies within a complex system approach.

This fragmentation has several important consequences:

  • difficulty in facing the scientific challenges requested by the question asked by the society on the impacts of climate and land use changes on environment, and the ways for mitigating them within a more sustainable development system.
  • controversy regarding the hierarchy among the different impacts because of disciplinary visions instead of multidisciplinary and integrated approach of ecosystem services.
  • impossibility for ecosystem research to take properly into account the trade-offs existing between the different ecosystem services in order to provide coherent and integrated solutions for future sustainable development systems.

However, ecosystem research is increasingly vital to addressing policy issues facing Europe and the globe, from nitrogen deposition to global carbon fluxes and climate change and a solution to address such research and monitoring challenges by European infrastructure had to be thought.