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The Big Picture

By: Ahmed Soliman

Sunset over Siwa Desert Oasis, Egypt.
Photograph copyright by Ahmed Soliman.

The world is comprised of unique and beautiful landscapes, from desert oases to stunning waterfalls. In the past we have been quick to transform the landscapes to accommodate industrialization and rapid growth, but today, there is a growing focus and movement to restore and preserve our environment.

As ecologists, we understand the fragile balance between biotic and abiotic environments; and that there are no simple solutions to complex environmental issues. It is evident from climate change, natural disasters, and sea-level rise that abiotic environments have a major impact on our environment. Furthermore, these events demonstrate that multi-disciplinary collaborations and approaches are essential to preserving and restoring our environment.

Glacier National Park, Montana.
Photograph copyright by Ahmed Soliman.

Many disciplines and professions are dedicated to understanding and preserving the environment. Ecologists are dedicated to understanding the relationship between living organisms and their environment; landscape architects are dedicated to understanding nature’s perfect design; biologists are dedicated to preserving biodiversity…and the list goes on. But what about the big picture—what about preserving the environment as a whole?

Environmental stewards worldwide are recognizing the critical need for multi-disciplinary approaches to solve complex environmental issues and preserve the environment. In the United Kingdom, Geomorphological conservation (geoconservation) is a relatively new approach making headway in the scientific community and receiving worldwide attention. Geoconservation is a landscape-based approach that investigates the interaction between geologic features, hydrology, abiotic, and biotic factors within an ecosystem.

Geomorphologist and leading advocate of preserving abiotic nature, Dr. Murray Gray, argues that the significant attention given to biodiversity and wildlife conservation causes an imbalance within nature conservation policy and practice. Many international nature conservation organizations view nature conservation as synonymous with wildlife conservation and focus most or all of their attention on the latter. Echoing Dr. Gray’s argument is Professor of Social Anthropology Dr. Kay Milton, who observes, “Diversity in nature is usually taken to mean diversity of living nature.”

While comparing biodiversity patterns with geodiversity measures, Parks and Mulligan found that geodiversity incorporates many of the environmental patterns that are considered drivers of biodiversity and can be used in landscape-based studies to predict the availability of resources (energy, water, space, and nutrients). The 2010 Engaging with Geodiversity Conference supported the inclusion of geodiversity in ecosystem management and the delivery of ecosystem services.

Hydrogeomorphology (HGM) is a similar landscape-based approach pioneered in the United States. Hydrogeomorphology is an interdisciplinary science that examines the interaction of geomorphology (landforms) with surface and subsurface water and how this interaction shapes the environment over time and space. HGM has been used to restore rivers, streams, and wetlands, demonstrating the importance of including geomorphological, physical, and abiotic factors in ecosystem restoration.

Distinguished research ecologist and HGM pioneer, Mark Brinson, introduced the HGM wetland classification system in 1993, leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adopt the HGM approach as a guiding tool to assess wetland functions. Furthermore, by evaluating the effects of wetland regulations through HGM Gwin et. al. showed that the cumulative effects of wetland management could be discerned effectively through HGM classification. Recently, Great Ecology’s Tim Jackson highlighted the benefits of HGM to improve ecological function at the 2012 American Shore and Beach Preservation Annual Conference. Similarly, the presenters at the Geological Society of America’s Annual Conference  stressed the importance of how HGM describes the link between water and geomorphic conditions that define habitats in wetlands, rivers, and other environments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also adopted a landscape-based approach. The Watershed Approach Framework is hydrologically and geographically based and aims to address the highest priority problems in these defined areas, taking into consideration both ground and surface water flow. Great Ecology’s previous blog discussed how urban stream restoration projects using landscape-based approaches result in successful projects. Cities worldwide have found that these and other restoration projects have both ecological and environmental benefits.

These big picture approaches are wrapping up their second decade of research and application. In the age of cyber speed, this may seem eternal. However, understanding the complexities of the world we live in requires much more work, dialogue, and free thinking to come together. Although Geoconservation and Hydrogeomorphology are gaining momentum, they are yet to be applied consistently by all key government agencies, regulators, and professionals involved in natural restoration. Successful integration of multi-disciplines, such as ecology, landscape design, and hydrology, as well as implementing tools, such as HGM, the Watershed Approach Framework, and others has been demonstrated through successful habitat restoration and enhancement projects. Continuing with these multi-disciplinary approaches and dialogues is crucial to sustaining the forward momentum and preserving the big picture.

 

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