Ecosystem assessment

Ecosystem assessment includes techniques and concepts to characterize and evaluate ecosystems. Assessment paradigms influence the development of restoration goals and frame the post-audit evaluation of projects. Assessment metrics are essential for designing and quantifying the efficacy of restoration projects, provide input for adaptive management decisions, and provide data for use by policy makers. A central objective of ecosystem assessment is to quantify anthropogenic disturbances on water bodies and watersheds and their impacts on ecosystems. New ERIE research will be shaped by, and feed into, ongoing policy-oriented initiatives such as the Great Lakes Environmental Indicators Project, the Detroit River-Western Lake Erie Indicator Project, and UB’s State of the Region program.

The ERIE program will expand assessment tools and concepts to facilitate a thorough evaluation of intervention measures associated with ecosystem restoration. For example, biological indicators of habitat degradation, such as habitat complexity, genetic diversity, and biotic integrity, are commonly cited as evidence of degradation and serve as a primary motivation for restoration projects. However, considerable work is needed to define quantitative indices for determining the extent or magnitude of ecosystem impairment and the specific targets for restoration, particularly in mixed-use watersheds such as the lower Great Lakes. Quantitative comparisons of genetic diversity over a range of mixed-use environments are needed to establish how diversity differs between restored and highly impacted systems, and whether genetic diversity affects a population’s ability to adapt to changing conditions, and how diversity can be integrated within a restoration plan.

Physicochemical attributes, such as sediment or contaminant transport, also can provide a useful assessment vehicle if they are appropriately linked to ecosystem health. Research projects under development include: (a) evaluation of the importance and control exerted by sediment-associated versus dissolved fluxes for identified problem contaminants, such as PCBs, to the lower Great Lakes through a combination of field measurement and process-based laboratory experiments; (b) mesocosm experiments to define the stress levels of select index species in response to various sediment transport processes; (c) quantification of sediment sources, pathways, and residence times for terrestrial systems where sediment loadings have been identified as a key ecologic stressor; and (d) incorporation of biologic and geomorphic indices and stress levels into numerical models that predict of sediment and contaminant fluxes to rivers, streams, and lakes.