Scenarios reveal pathways to sustain future ecosystem services in an agricultural landscape


Sustaining food production, water quality, soil retention, flood, and climate regulation in agricultural landscapes is a pressing global challenge given accelerating environmental changes. Scenarios are stories about plausible futures, and scenarios can be integrated with biophysical simulation models to explore quantitatively how the future might unfold. However, few studies have incorporated a wide range of drivers (e.g., climate, land-use, management, population, human diet) in spatially explicit, process-based models to investigate spatial-temporal dynamics and relationships of a portfolio of ecosystem services. Here, we simulated nine ecosystem services (three provisioning and six regulating services) at 220 × 220 m from 2010 to 2070 under four contrasting scenarios in the 1,345-km2 Yahara Watershed (Wisconsin, USA) using Agro-IBIS, a dynamic model of terrestrial ecosystem processes, biogeochemistry, water, and energy balance. We asked (1) How does ecosystem service supply vary among alternative future scenarios? (2) Where on the landscape is the provision of ecosystem services most susceptible to future social-ecological changes? (3) Among alternative future scenarios, are relationships (i.e., trade-offs, synergies) among food production, water, and biogeochemical services consistent over time? Our results showed that food production varied substantially with future land-use choices and management, and its trade-offs with water quality and soil retention persisted under most scenarios. However, pathways to mitigate or even reverse such trade-offs through technological advances and sustainable agricultural practices were apparent. Consistent relationships among regulating services were identified across scenarios (e.g., trade-offs of freshwater supply vs. flood and climate regulation, and synergies among water quality, soil retention, and climate regulation), suggesting opportunities and challenges to sustaining these services. In particular, proactive land-use changes and management may buffer water quality against undesirable future climate changes, but changing climate may overwhelm management efforts to sustain freshwater supply and flood regulation. Spatially, changes in ecosystem services were heterogeneous across the landscape, underscoring the power of local actions and fine-scale management. Our research highlights the value of embracing spatial and temporal perspectives in managing ecosystem services and their complex interactions, and provides a system-level understanding for achieving sustainability of the food–water–climate nexus in agricultural landscapes.

Ecological Applications
Sam Zipper
HEAL PI; Assistant Scientist/Professor

I specialize in ecohydrology and hydrogeology of agricultural and urban landscapes.