During GEO Week 2019, a workshop focused on GEO initiatives’ contributions to assessing ecosystem changes and vulnerabilities due to climate change was held. Among the organizers was the MRI co-led GEO Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO-GNOME), with the MRI in attendance to represent this important initiative for our changing mountains.

Ecosystems face multiple stressors from human activities and climate change. In order to address these stressors and sustain ecosystem benefits, evidence-informed conservation, management, and restoration policies are urgently needed. To aid this decision-making, the effective monitoring, modelling, and understanding of the state of and trends in ecosystem conditions, functions, and services under current and future stressors is essential.

With this in mind, a GEO Week 2019 side event was organized by GEO ECO, GEO-GNOME, the ECOPOTENTIAL project, and the EuroGEO Action Group on Ecosystem and Biodiversity. The purpose of this workshop was for GEO initiatives to present contributions made by their recent activities to methods and conceptual approaches for assessing ecosystem changes and vulnerability in the face of climate change. Furthermore, it was an opportunity to explore how best to align the tasks and activities of the respective GEO initiatives in the coming GEO Work Programme 2020-2022, and improve communication and exchange in order to promote synergies.

GEO Week Roger SayreDuring the workshop, Sayre described the process of developing the new Global Ecosystems mapping tool. 
Image credit: GEO.
Tools with real-world applications

Speaking at this event was Roger Sayre of the US Geological Survey (USGS), who presented the newly developed Global Ecosystems project. Commissioned by GEO and developed through a collaboration between USGS and the Environmental Systems Research Institute – a “wonderful partner to work with,” according to Sayre – Global Ecosystems is a mapping tool used to measure the vulnerability of ecosystems. It does so firstly by looking at what percentage of the ecosystem is protected, and secondly by measuring how much the ecosystem has been converted over time. Highlighting the tool’s real-world applications, Sayre said that The Nature Conservancy in the US will be using Global Ecosystems for their future ecosystems planning. What is more, all data from the Global Ecosystems project will soon be made publicly available through GEO Knowledge Hubs.

Palma Blonde from the National Research Council of Italy then provided an overview of ECOPOTENTIAL, an EU-funded Horizon 2020 project that uses Earth observation and in situ data to measure ecological changes in 25 protected areas across Europe. Protected areas, said Blonde, are natural laboratories in which to monitor the impact of climate change, and looking at the differences between protected and unprotected areas can aid decision-making when selecting new areas to safeguard. There are, according to Blonde, several future challenges that ECOPOTENTIAL will need to address, however. These include the evaluation of past, present, and future ecosystem states, and integrating big data and e-laboratories into the monitoring and evaluation of protected areas.

Bridging gaps in mountain data

Following on from this, MRI Executive Director Carolina Adler presented outcomes from the GEO-GNOME initiative to date. The aim of GEO-GNOME, said Adler, is to provide a service to the research and practitioner communities – compiling, connecting, and opening up access to diverse sources of mountain observation data – while also delivering useful information to decision-makers at national and regional levels. Thus far, GEO-GNOME has mapped mountain areas using different definitions of mountain ecosystems, producing an online tool which allows users to compare modelling outcomes. The tool, the Global Mountain Explorer, has been made publicly available on the USGS website and will be made accessible via the GEO-GNOME GEOSS portal and planned GEO Knowledge Hub on mountains in the near future.

However, Adler warned, there are still many knowledge gaps in mountain ecosystems – one of many challenges, is the inaccessibility of mountain environments. To overcome this, there is a need to use a combination of Earth observation data, in situ measurements, and modelling. With mountains gaining increasing recognition, perhaps illustrated most notably by the inclusion of a chapter on ‘High Mountain Areas’ in the most recent IPCC report, it is vital to capitalize on this momentum by delivering useful data to support decision-making. “Policymakers are keen to have some figures to make observed changes tangible,” said Adler. To support this process, a key next step for GEO-GNOME is to build a network of collaborators across mountain regions, including the Himalayas, the Andes, East Africa, and Central Asia, which is also in response to the Call to Action agreed at the recent WMO High Mountains Summit, co-chaired by the MRI. There will also be a GEO-GNOME workshop held in Switzerland in February 2020 with the aim of identifying essential biodiversity and socio-economic variables affecting mountain environments.

The workshop concluded with the involved GEO initiatives agreeing to continue to dialogue and exchange on planned activities, with several GEO events identified to facilitate these exchanges, including the upcoming GEO Symposium in mid-2020 and the next GEO Week and Plenary, to be held in South Africa in November 2020.

More information, including a summary of key GEO Week 2019 outcomes, can be found on the GEO website.

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