The entire planet’s ecosystems classified for the first time

Published on
October 13, 2022

Wageningen University & Research has been part of a global cross-disciplinary process to develop the first comprehensive classification of the world’s ecosystems across land, rivers and wetlands, and seas. This ecosystem typology will enable more coordinated and effective biodiversity conservation, critical for human wellbeing.

The study, published today in Nature, explores the science that underpins the global ecosystem typology, as well as how it can help achieve objectives in global policy that flow to individual countries. It describes the diversity of tropical forests, big rivers, coral reefs and other ecosystems that have typically been the focus of public attention. But it also includes little-known ecosystems of deep ocean trenches, seamounts, lakes beneath the ice sheets and micro-ecosystems within rocks.

Emphasis on ecosystem conservation and management

The typology allows us to understand broad global patterns and trends in relation to different ecosystems, and how they are used and modified by people. Globally, countries coordinate their efforts under the umbrella of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). “While conservation efforts have often been species-centred, the post-2020 agenda for CBD indicates a much stronger emphasis on ecosystem conservation and management in the coming decades,” says Jeanne Nel, head of the Biodiverse Environment Programme at Wageningen University & Research, and co-author of the study.

Broad engagement

The extensive collaboration includes the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which comprises about 1400 member organisations, including countries; the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, the PLuS Alliance – Arizona State University, Kings College London and UNSW Sydney; and more than 100 specialist ecosystem scientists around the world, including those from Wageningen University & Research.

“The broad engagement of the study adds huge value. For example, in the freshwater realm there has historically been a strong bias towards temperate freshwater ecosystems. Our input literally helps to put semi-arid and arid freshwater ecosystems like those in southern Africa on the global map,” says Jeanne Nel.

Six hierarchical levels

The new typology has a hierarchical structure with six levels. The top level divides the planet into major realms, including terrestrial, freshwater, marine and subterranean ecosystems. The second and third levels include 25 biomes and 110 ecosystem functional groups, based on the ecological processes that shape different ecosystems and the functions that characterise their key components.