Nature giveth, and humans taketh away


To our detriment, if we continue on current trajectories, and global modelling shows just how. Natalie Parletta reports.


Nature's ability to protect people from water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops is declining. 

John Crux Photography

Nature has been supporting life on Earth for millennia. But human exploitation of her generous resources is wearing thin, and an interactive global map created by a large team of scientists from the US, Canada and Europe models where and how.

“Nature underpins people’s wellbeing,” says lead author Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer from Stanford University, US. “We know this and yet we are flying blind – we’ve lacked the information we need to safeguard the nature that supports us.”

Recent technological advances can help map the environment’s contributions to humanity with increasing detail.

Information about the Earth’s habitats, biodiversity and people’s activities and locations has advanced rapidly and continues to improve as satellites provide information at finer and finer spatial magnitudes – up to 1000 times greater than before.

At the same time, the capacity of computers to make sense of these huge stacks of data has advanced, “allowing us to model for the first time at a global extent the locally relevant processes of bee flight patterns, the path water takes through a water shed, or where exactly waves are pounding on the shoreline,” says Chaplin-Kramer.

The fine scale is important, she says, because it reveals just where people are benefiting from nature, while the global view matters because the patterns it shows can inform policies to support our interconnected wellbeing with the environment's.

“By applying this new technology, we are able to clearly see where people are receiving benefits from nature around the world. We also see where people are most likely to lose vital benefits as ecosystems degrade.”

The team focussed on three vital functions provided by natural ecosystems: water quality control, protection from coastal hazards and crop pollination, and modelled how future changes in climate, fossil fuel use and development will impact these using open-source software developed by the global Natural Capital Project.

The key findings, reported in the journal Science, are sobering.

“Up to five billion people face higher water pollution and insufficient pollination for nutrition under plausible future scenarios of land use and climate change,” says Chaplin-Kramer.

These risks are disproportionately distributed; half of African and South Asian populations face higher-than-average water pollution, crop losses and storm risk.

“Our analyses suggest that the current environmental governance at local, regional and international levels is failing to encourage the most vulnerable regions to invest in ecosystems,” says co-author Unai Pascual, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

“If we continue on this trajectory, ecosystems will be unable to provide natural insurance in the face of climate change-induced impacts on food, water and infrastructure.”

The effects are more widespread as well. Projected rise in sea levels alone impacts coastal communities globally and could affect more than 500 million people by 2050.

The model also highlights the interconnectedness of things. Globally, more sustainable initiatives might mitigate declines in nature’s benefits three to 10-fold, says Chaplin-Kramer, but sustainability on one scale or perspective needs to be viewed in a broader context.

For instance, a more ‘sustainable’ scenario they explored was sparing more land for natural ecosystems through increased fertiliser use on existing agricultural lands; however, this caused more water pollution and far worse drinking water for rural people in South Asia.

Policy makers, scientists and concerned citizens can explore different scenarios by zooming into their own regions of interest on the interactive viewer to identify where the environment makes its biggest contributions and who will be most impacted by future development trajectories.

“Determining when and where nature is most important is critical to understanding how best to enhance people’s livelihoods and wellbeing,” says co-author Stephen Polasky from the University of Minnesota.

Chaplin-Kramer hopes the information will help people understand how the environment benefits people and inform efforts to protect the natural systems that humans – particularly the most vulnerable populations – rely on for their wellbeing and survival.

“We’re equipped with the information we need to avert the worst scenarios our models project and move toward an equitable, sustainable future,” she says. “Now is the time to wield it.”

A new Stanford-led study uses high-resolution satellite data to map nature’s global contributions to people and pinpoint where people rely on nature the most.

Chaplin-Kramer et al., 2019
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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. http://viz.naturalcapitalproject.org/ipbes/
  2. https://naturalcapitalproject.stanford.edu/
  3. https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaw3372
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