Ensuring the continued availability of ecosystem services is important as climate change progresses


Our society is dependent on ecosystems and the ecosystem services that they provide. With climate change, ecosystems are facing many changes that also affect the commodities and other services that are important to humans. Biodiversity sustains a number of ecosystem services, and its appreciation may increase with climate change.

Significance of ecosystem services in Finland

Humans and society are dependent on natural resources and processes. Ecosystem services are intangible and tangible benefits that humans gain from nature. These include nutrition, medicinal products, construction materials, and recreational opportunities, among others. Natural processes, such as ecological interaction between pollinators and plants, the natural purification and storage of groundwater, and the purification of air, also belong to ecosystem services.[1]

The concept of ecosystem services has been developed to aid our understanding of the monetary value of nature to society. The freedom to make use of ecosystem services is considered an important right, and it has been included in the Constitution of Finland [2]. Ecosystem services are nevertheless often taken for granted. Because they are often free of charge, they have not been taken into consideration in earlier economic calculations, in societal decision-making, or in plans concerning the use of natural resources. As opposed to the approach that emphasises the intrinsic value of nature, the economic valuation of ecosystem services is based on a human-centred perspective. It acts as a tool that allows us to promote economically, socially, and ecologically sustainable development. [1]

Determining a price for predator-prey interactions, water purification, and the flood protection provided by wetlands, for example, is challenging. The value of ecosystem services is always dependent on the individuals involved in the valuation process, their living conditions, and their level of income. [3]

Figure 1. A pollinator at work. Plant pollination is an important ecosystem service.

© Jouko Lehmuskallio

Ecosystem disservices are the reverse of ecosystem services. Some natural processes and phenomena, such as pollens that cause allergies, can be perceived as nuisances rather than services. Many ecosystem services have both positive and negative sides, and one of these sides may override the other depending on the circumstances or the individual.[4]

Relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services

Biodiversity supports the conservation of many ecosystem services. As biodiversity declines, the ability of ecosystems to produce ecosystem services may deteriorate. The ability of diverse biological communities to withstand and recover from disruptions is better than that of communities with fewer species, which supports the availability of ecosystem services. Some ecosystem services are also dependent on the continued diversity of habitats, species, and intraspecies genetic variation.[1] The loss of biodiversity may affect the usability and availability of suitable crops, production animals, and medicinal products. Climate change is one of the factors affecting biodiversity.

Biodiversity affects the quantity of ecosystem processes; as each species has its own ecological niche and its role in a biological community, a more diverse ecosystem is also able to produce a higher number of ecosystem processes [5]. The relationship between individual ecosystem services and biodiversity nevertheless varies. Some ecosystem services, such as erosion control or water purification, are mostly independent of biodiversity, and what is critical for these processes is the conservation of vegetation [6].

Effect of climate change on ecosystem services

Global warming and changes in rainfall, which are caused by climate change, shape ecosystems. They affect the quality of the habitats in which organisms live, and their ecological effects include changes in the geographic ranges of species, the annual biological rhythms of organisms, and the size of organisms in aquatic habitats [6]. Changes in the services produced by ecosystems are expected, and they will affect both natural environments and different forms of land use from agriculture to forestry, fishing, infrastructure, and housing.

Vital supporting ecosystem services

Ecosystem services can be divided into supporting, regulating, provisioning, and cultural services [7]. As their name suggests, supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, photosynthesis, or biodiversity, support several ecosystem processes. They can be affected by climate change, which will also have an indirect impact on many other ecosystem services. An increase in the levels of carbon dioxide in the air and in the speed of plant metabolic processes, for example, can accelerate photosynthesis. On the other hand, the availability of water may limit it in regions that are suffering from drought. In Finland, plant primary production is expected to increase as a result of climate change. This will be reflected in the volume of many provisioning services, such as nutrition and construction materials.

Regulating ecosystem services and biodiversity

Regulating ecosystem services include, among others, erosion control, purification of water and air, greenhouse gas sequestration, plant pollination, and the effect of predators on prey abundance [7] [8]. The purification of water and air, for instance, may be affected by changes in vegetation and in the speed of metabolic processes in organisms as a result of climate change [6]. Many regulating ecosystem services are dependent on events in food webs and on biodiversity

Pest control provided by insects, birds, and other predators is an important ecosystem service in agriculture and forestry. By regulating the abundance of their prey species, they help to reduce damage to crops and forests, for example. Due to increasing asynchrony between the activity of predators and prey, which results from changes in biological rhythms at different levels of the food web, and the loss of habitats, many of the organisms that typically control the abundance of pests will, as climate change progresses, become unable to make use of their previous sources of nutrition or may even become extinct. [9]

Pollination is an important ecosystem service from the perspective of plant reproduction and the production of nutrition. Interaction between pollinators and plants has affected the evolution of both, and certain species have become specialised in using and pollinating certain plants. If the diversity of pollinators declines or their numbers dwindle, or if asynchrony develops between plant blossoms and pollinator activity, the success of pollination is in danger. Many birds and insects also help to disperse seeds. If the overlap of the geographic ranges of species decreases or if the food web is compromised in some other way, this ecosystem service will also be in jeopardy. [9]

The micro-organisms and invertebrates that help to break down soil provide important ecosystem services by maintaining nutrient and carbon recycling. With climate change, droughts, for example, can affect the functioning of these organisms, which could also have an impact on agriculture and forestry, for instance. [9]

Climate change affects the ability of ecosystems to function as carbon sinks

The ability of ecosystems to function as carbon sinks is an especially important regulating service in terms of slowing down and adapting to climate change. Ecosystems, such as seas, forests, grassland plains, and bogs, sequester approximately half of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by humankind [7]. Carbon is stored in living organisms, in organic matter in the soil, and dissolved in water. Carbon is released in the course of cellular respiration and the decomposition of organic matter, for example. The functioning of carbon sinks affects the ability of society to slow down climate change. The transformation of ecosystems from carbon sinks into sources of carbon would reinforce the greenhouse effect and global warming.

The most important carbon stores in Finland are trees and soil in the forests and peat in bogs [4]. Lake sediments are the third largest carbon store [10]. Carbon is also found dissolved in the water column of the Baltic Sea and sequestered in sediments on the seabed [11]. The significance of carbon stores is illustrated, for example, by the fact that if the carbon sequestered in peat was to decrease by ten percent, the volume of carbon dioxide released into the air would be equivalent to Finland's emissions over a period of 30 years [12]. With climate change, global warming, changes in rainfall, and the lengthening of the growing season can have an impact on the ability of bogs to store carbon. The use of peat for energy production is a provisioning service provided by bogs, which competes with the regulating service provided by bogs, i.e. carbon sequestration [4].

Cultural services provided by ecosystems: recreational use of nature, berry picking, and mushrooming

The value of cultural services, such as scenery or recreation, may decrease as a result of sudden changes in habitats or declining biodiversity. Climate change may affect the recreational use of nature, such as walking in the woods, berry picking, and mushrooming.

Berry picking offers an opportunity for recreation in nearby nature and is a common pastime among Finns. In addition to a cultural service, berry harvests provide a provisioning service. In 2005, which was an average harvest year, the harvests of the eight most important wild berries amounted to a total of approximately 686.7 million kilograms. Only some of this was gathered, and the harvested volume was worth 77.2 million euros. [13]

Figure 2. A little blueberry picker.

© Mikko Kuusinen

Opportunities for berry picking may decrease with climate change. The reason for this is the potential decline in the prevalence of berry plants in the future. As the northern boreal ecoregion retreats further north to make way for temperate broadleaf forest, the prevalence of blueberries may decrease, as they are less often found in broadleaf-dominated forests than in coniferous forests [14] [15]. The success of pollination is important in terms of berry harvests [16]. It is possible that, with climate change, asynchrony between pollinator activity and berry blossoms may increase.

The utilisation of berries may also become less safe than before. As small carnivorous mammals become more numerous, the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm that they carry is also feared to spread to Finland. Humans can become infected with the parasite by consuming meat or berries and mushrooms that have been in contact with the faeces of small carnivorous mammals. The risk of infection is a particularly big threat to economies such as the berry industry and tourism [17]. In the future, potential summer droughts may affect the abundance of berry and mushroom harvests.

Some insects also attack humans in the woods. Deer flies have become more common in Finland in recent years, and the nuisance caused by them has increased. As the climate becomes warmer, deer flies are able to spread further and further north and, if the number of deer grows, deer flies may also become more numerous [18] [19]. Enjoyment derived from nature is also affected by the prevalence of castor bean ticks (Ixodes ricinus), which may grow as deer become more numerous. In Sweden, the range and prevalence of castor bean ticks have been found to be linked to mild winters [20] as well as to certain species of plants, such as the European Alder (Alnus glutinosa). The prevalence of castor bean ticks and Lyme borreliosis, a common tick-borne disease (caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria), is expected to increase throughout Scandinavia, with the exception of the highlands, by the end of the current century [21], and cases of tick-borne encephalitis are also expected to become more common [22].

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