ecosystem services

Ecology: What are Ecosystem Services?

Ever since human beings came to be, nature has been providing them with the resources they need to survive. Nature is indispensable for humans, and its value has long been recognized. But it is only in recent years that the concept of ecosystem services was developed to describe the multitude of benefits that nature provides us with. An ecosystem service is defined as any positive benefit that ecosystems or wildlife provide to people. They can be small or large, direct or indirect.

Although we cannot put a price on the ways in which nature enriches our lives, more often than not, we take things for granted. The concept of ecosystem services draws our attention to the nuances of these benefits. Let’s dwell on the concept of ecosystem services in detail.

What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are the many benefits provided to humans by the natural environment and ecosystems. These ecosystems include, among others, forest ecosystems, aquatic ecosystems, agroecosystems, and grassland ecosystems. The ecosystems, when they function in a healthy relationship, offer things like clean air, natural pollution of crops, extreme weather mitigation, and human physical and mental well-being. These benefits are collectively known as ecosystem services, and humans cannot survive without them. They are vital for the resilience and productivity of food ecosystems, provisioning of clean water and the decomposition of waste. Environmentalists and scientists have implicitly discussed the concept of ecosystem services for decades. But it was only in the early 2000s that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) popularised it. Ecosystem services are categorized into four groups: provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural services. 


The four categories of ecosystem services.
The four categories of ecosystem services. Credit@ Nature and Ecology

Ecosystem services are categorized into four groups by the MEA: provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural services. A single ecosystem doesn’t necessarily offer all four types of services simultaneously. The services that diverse types of ecosystems, like seas, forests, mangroves, reefs etc. offer are different in nature and consequence. Some of these services directly affect the neighbouring human populations’ livelihood, such as food, freshwater or aesthetic value). Other services, on which general environmental conditions depend, affect human beings indirectly. These include erosion regulation, climate change or natural hazard regulation, among others.

In 2005, the MEA defined ecosystem services as the benefits human beings receive from ecosystems. Out of the four categories, the supporting services serve as the basis for the services provided by the other three categories.

Estuarine and coastal ecosystems are marine ecosystems. It is these ecosystems that, together, perform the four categories of ecosystem services in myriad ways. They provide the basic services that make human life possible. Plants filter water and clean the air, bees pollinate flowers, bacteria decompose water and the roots of trees hold the soil together to prevent erosion. All of these processes work together to make ecosystems functional, clean, sustainable, and resilient to change.

Regulating services

Regulating services are those benefits offered by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena. These include water and air purification, carbon storage, climate regulation, decomposition, pollination, biological pest and disease control, disturbance regulation, among others. In the case of estuarine and coastal ecosystems, these services include waste treatment and disease control, climate regulation, and buffer zones which protect against natural hazards.  

Climate regulation

Climate and non-climate stressors interact synergistically with biological diversity, ecosystems, and the services they provide for human well-being.
Climate and non-climate stressors interact synergistically with biological diversity, ecosystems, and the services they provide for human well-being. Credit@ Globalchnage

The biotic and abiotic ensembles of marine ecosystems play a vital role in climate change. When it comes to gases in the atmosphere, they act as sponges by retaining huge amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane. Marine plants, when using CO2 for photosynthesis, also help in decreasing the amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. The seas and oceans absorb the atmospheric heat, which is then redistributed through the means of water currents. Other atmospheric processes, like the reflection of light and evaporation, help in the cooling and warming of the overlying atmosphere. Thus, it is evident that ocean temperatures are imperative for the regulation of the temperatures of the atmosphere, in any part of the world. Without the ocean, the earth would be extremely hot during the day and frigidly cold at night.

Waste treatment and disease regulation

Another service provided by marine ecosystems is the treatment of waste, which consequently helps in the regulation of diseases. Through transport across marine ecosystems, waste gets diluted and detoxified. Pollutants are thus removed from the environment and stored, recycled or buried in marine ecosystems. The microbial communities present in marine ecosystems break down organic waste, filter water, restrict the effects of eutrophication and break down toxic hydrocarbons into basic components like water, carbon dioxide, phosphorus and nitrogen. Hence, when waste is diluted with large volumes of water and is moved by the water currents, it leads to the regulation of diseases and also the reduction of toxins in seafood.

Buffer zones

Ecosystems act as buffer zones against environmental disturbances and natural hazards.
Ecosystems act as buffer zones against environmental disturbances and natural hazards. Credit@

Estuarine and coastal ecosystems act as buffer zones against environmental disturbances and natural hazards, like cyclones, floods, storms and tidal surges. What they do is that they absorb a portion of the impact and hence reduce its effect on the land. Wetlands, which include salt marshes, saltwater swamps, etc. and the vegetation supported by them (trees, root mats, etc. hold large amounts of water (rain, surface water, groundwater, snowmelt) and gradually release them back. This process plays a vital role in reducing the likeliness of floods. Coastal shorelines are protected by mangrove forests from erosion by currents or tidal erosion. This was studied after India was hit by a cyclone in 1999. Villages that had surrounding mangrove forests suffered less damage than the ones which weren’t protected by mangrove forests.

Provisioning services

Provisioning services consist of all the products we obtain from ecosystems. These include freshwater, plants that can be made into clothes and other materials, marine products, biochemical and genetic resources, medicinal benefits and raw materials.

Forest products

Forests produce and provide a large variety of timber products, including sawn wood, round wood, panels, engineered wood like cross-laminated timber, as well as pulp and paper. Apart from timber production, forestry activities may result in products that undergo little processing, like firewood, wood chips, charcoal and Roundwood used in the unprocessed form. In 2018, the highest ever values for global production and trade of all the major wood-based products were recorded.

Forests are also a reservoir of non-wood forest products, like fodder, medicinal and aromatic plants and wild foods. Worldwide statistics show that around 1 billion people depend, to some extent, on wild foods like edible plant products, wild meat, edible insects, fish and mushrooms, which often contain high levels of vital micronutrients.

Marine products

More than one billion people from all over the world rely on fish as their staple diet and main source of animal protein.
More than one billion people from all over the world rely on fish as their staple diet and main source of animal protein. Credit@ Business Standard

Marine ecosystems provide us with fresh water, wild and cultured seafood, biochemical and genetic resources, and fibre and fuel. Human beings consume a large number of products coming from the sea, whether for use in other sectors or as nutritious products. More than one billion people from all over the world rely on fish as their staple diet and main source of animal protein. Fish and other edible marine products- mainly shellfish, seaweeds and roe- are the main elements of the local diets, culture, norms and traditions for the populations residing along the coast.


Freshwater may run through rivers, lakes and streams, to name a few, but one of the most prominent areas where it is found is in the frozen state or buried deep underground or as soil moisture. It’s not only vital for the survival of humans, but also for that of animals and plants.

Raw materials

Marine organisms provide humans with the raw materials needed for the manufacturing of clothes, ornamental items and items for personal use (art, luffas, jewelry), building materials (lime extracted from coral reefs), to name a few. Some of the familiar uses include using the skin of marine mammals for clothing, the timber of mangroves, gas deposits for energy production and coastal forests for shelter. Other uses include utilizing raw marine materials for non-essential goods too, like shells and corals for ornamental items. Humans have also made use of the processes within marine environments for producing renewable energy. For example, tidal power or the power of the waves has been used as an energy source for the powering of a turbine. The sea and oceans are also used as sites for offshore gas and oil installations, and offshore wind farms.

Biochemical and genetic resources

Biochemical resources are used in cosmetics, medicines, pharmaceuticals, and other biochemical products.
Biochemical resources are used in cosmetics, medicines, pharmaceuticals, and other biochemical products. Credit@ Huffpost

Biochemical resources are those compounds extracted from marine organisms for use in cosmetics, medicines, pharmaceuticals, and other biochemical products. Genetic resources are the genetic information in marine organisms that would later serve a role in animal and plant breeding, and also for technological advances in the biological field. These resources can be either directly extracted from an organism, like fish oil as a source of omega3, or used as a model for products made by humans, like constructing fibre optics technology based on the properties of sponges.  When compared to terrestrial products, marine-sourced products have a tendency to be more highly bioactive. This may be due to the fact that marine organisms must retain their potency in spite of being diluted in the surrounding seawater.

Cultural services

Cultural services refer to the non-material world. These include recreational, cognitive, aesthetic, tourism, science, education and spiritual activities. These services aren’t easily quantifiable in monetary terms.

As humans interact and alter nature, the natural world, in turn, has altered humans. Nature has guided the intellectual, cultural, and social development of humans by being a constant force present in their lives. The importance of ecosystems and their role in the human mind can be traced to as early as the beginning of mankind. Ancient civilizations made drawings of plants, animals, and weather patterns on cave walls. Cultural services are those non-material benefits that play a vital role in the development and cultural advancement of people. This includes the role ecosystems play in local, national, and global cultures; knowledge building and spreading of ideas; creativity born from interactions with the natural world (art, music, architecture); and recreation.

The cultural part includes the use of nature as a motif in painting, folklore, books, film, national symbols, advertising, etc. Spiritual and historical services include the use of nature for heritage or religious value. Recreational experiences include outdoor sports, ecotourism and recreation. Science and education incorporate cultural services through the use of natural systems for scientific discovery and school excursions. Therapeutic uses include social forestry, ecotherapy, and animal-assisted therapy.


Marine environments have served as the inspiration for many a work of art, music, traditions, architecture, to name a few. Water environments are also spiritually important as many consider them as a means for rejuvenation and change of perspective. Water is also considered by many to be part of their personality, especially if they have resided near it since childhood-they associate it with past experiences and fond memories. When people live near water bodies for a long time, it results in a set of water activities that become a ritual and part of their lives and the culture of the region.

Recreation and tourism

Sea sports are popular among coastal populations.
Sea sports are popular among coastal populations. Credit@ Save Our Seas

Among coastal populations, sea sports are extremely popular, like surfing, kayaking, whale watching, snorkelling, and recreational fishing. A number of tourists also travel to resorts close to rivers, seas or lakes to be able to experience these activities and relax.

Science and education

There’s a lot to be learned from marine environments, processes, and organisms, which can be implemented into our daily life and into the scientific world. While science has progressed phenomenally, there is still much to be known about the ocean world-the extraordinary intricacy and complexity of the marine world.

Supporting services

When the natural world provides a billion services to humankind, we sometimes tend to overlook the most fundamental one of these services. Supporting services include primary production, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis, natural cycles, creation of soil and biologically mediated habitats. Without the consistency of these underlying processes, ecosystems themselves cannot be sustained. It is these processes that make life possible on earth and sustain basic life forms, let alone humankind and whole ecosystems. Without supporting services, the other three services wouldn’t exist.

Nutrient cycling

Nutrient cycling services gradually impact all the other ecosystem services as all living organisms require a constant supply of nutrients for their survival.
Nutrient cycling services gradually impact all the other ecosystem services as all living organisms require a constant supply of nutrients for their survival. Credit@ Freie Berlin

The movement of nutrients through an ecosystem by biotic and abiotic processes is known as nutrient cycling. The ocean is a vast reservoir of these nutrients, like phosphorus, carbon and nitrogen. The basic organisms of the marine food web absorb these nutrients. They are transferred from one organism to another, from one ecosystem to another. As organisms die and decompose, nutrients are recycled through these life cycles and released into the neighbouring environment. Nutrient cycling services gradually impact all the other ecosystem services as all living organisms require a constant supply of nutrients for their survival.

Biologically mediated habitats

The habitats that living marine structures offer to other organisms is called biologically mediated habitats. These structures may not have evolved for the sole purpose of providing a habitat for others, but became living quarters when growing naturally. The importance of these natural habitats is that they permit the interaction between different species. Thus, they aid in the provisioning of marine services and goods. Other than this, they also serve as a food source and shelter for these organisms.

Primary production

Primary production is the production of organic matter or chemically bound energy. It is done through processes like photosynthesis and chemosynthesis. It is the organic matter produced by primary producers that creates the basis of all food webs. Furthermore, it produces oxygen, without which life wouldn’t exist.


Ecosystem services, as it is evident, are vital for the survival of life on earth. But as the population, consumption and income increase every day, human beings create more pressure on the natural environment to provide these benefits. Pollution, climate change, land-use change and over-exploitation are some driving factors leading to ecosystem loss.

To reverse the degradation and loss of ecosystem services, the value of ecosystem services must be incorporated into decision making. Land acquisitions, regulations, tax incentives and conservation easements are some of the conservative approaches that aid in the protection of the natural environment. In the past decade, advances in forest certification and sustainable forest management have complemented the objectives of conservation.

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