GEOITALY | GI-14 GECO: the GEO Global Ecosystem Initiative
GEO-ITALY è un gruppo di coordinamento degli esperti italiani coinvolti nelle attività del Group on Earth Observations
GROUP ON EARTH OBSERVATIONS, GEO, Biodiversity, Disaster, Energy, Mineral, Food security, Infrastructure, Public health, Sustainable urban development, Water resources management
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GI-14 GECO: the GEO Global Ecosystem Initiative


An Ecosystems Societal Benefit Area (SBA) with a number of evolving, multi-component Ecosystem Tasks has existed since the beginning of GEO and GEOSS. For the second decade of GEO (2016-2025), a combined Biodiversity and Ecosystems Sustainability SBA has been established which features a number of new ecosystems-related initiatives. One of those initiatives is the Global Ecosystems (GECO) initiative, which combines new activities related to the H2020 ECOPOTENTIAL and SWOS projects with continuing global ecosystem mapping activities carried forward from the former GEO Ecosystems Task.

In 2014, two H2020 projects focused on the use of earth observations (both remote sensing and in situ) for the assessment of ecosystem services were funded. The two projects are: 1) ECOPOTENTIAL, a large 47-partner Consortium focused on the assessment of mountain environments, drylands, transitional coastal lagoons and Large Marine Ecosystems, and including more than 25 European and non-European protected areas of international relevance, and 2) SWOS (Satellite-based Wetland Observation Service), a smaller 13-partner project focused on developing an operational, remote sensing based, wetland observation service in support of international conventions, regulations and policy frameworks.. ECOPOTENTIAL includes a programmatic emphasis on macrosystems ecology, cross-scale interactions and coupled geosphere-biosphere processes, and it has the goal of building a GEO Ecosystems Community of Practice. The SWOS project directly contributes to the development of a Global Wetland Observation System (GWOS) together with global partners like e.g. GEO and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

In addition to the H2020 activities, global ecosystem mapping work from the first decade of GEO and GEOSS is being carried forward and included in GECO. In partial satisfaction of the former GEO Ecosystems activity (EC-01-C1) to “map standardized, robust, and practical global ecosystems for terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments”, a new global terrestrial ecosystems map was produced in a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, Esri, and a number of international ecosystems experts. This new global Ecological Land Units (ELUs) product is a first-of-its-kind, globally comprehensive, high resolution, and data-derived characterization. While the global terrestrial ecosystems map is now completed, the global marine and global freshwater ecosystem maps are still outstanding. A major collaboration is now underway to produce a first-of-its-kind, 3D global ecological marine units (EMUs) map in analog fashion to the ELUs. The global EMUs map will be developed as a short-term (1-2 years) foundational activity of the GI-14 GECO initiative, and an analog global ecological freshwater units (EFUs) map will be advanced as a longer term (2-3 years) GECO activity.

The scope, timeframe, significance, and resourcing of the two European projects and the two global ecosystem mapping projects (marine and freshwater) are consistent with the nature of the concept and process for developing new GEO Initiatives in the second phase (2016-2025) of its existence, and have been accepted as such. Significant H2020 funding for the two European projects, and significant in-kind support available for the global ecosystem mapping efforts from Esri, are promising indicators of the commitment and likelihood of success for these activities in GECO.



Terrestrial and marine ecosystems provide essential goods and services to human societies. In the last several decades, however, anthropogenic pressures are causing serious threats to ecosystem integrity, functions and processes, potentially leading to habitat degradation, creation of uncertainty related to “novel ecosystems” and increased risk of collapse, with related loss of ecosystem services. Ecosystem degradation and loss of ecosystem services can seriously affect human wellbeing and climate processes at local and regional scales ( maweb/en/Framework.aspx), potentially amplifying the negative effects of global change.

Knowledge-based conservation, management and restoration policies are thus urgently needed in order to ensure delivery of ecosystem benefits in the face of increasing anthropogenic pressures. Fundamental to all these is effective monitoring of the state and trends in ecosystem conditions and services. New monitoring methodologies are now available that combine approaches in geo- and bioscience, remotely sensed data, and in situ observations. Best use should be made of existing and future earth observations (EOs) and field monitoring data complemented by appropriate interpretation tools and data services and ecosystem models using these data. Knowledge must be built together with the relevant stakeholders to identify the relevant research outputs and support the use of new data and tools. Finally, synergies must be sought with other key ecosystems-related international initiatives and projects.


The European H2020 Project ECOPOTENTIAL is designed to facilitate significant progress beyond the state of the art in ecosystems assessments and monitoring. It will focus its activities and pilot actions on a targeted set of internationally recognised protected areas (PA) in Europe, European Territories and beyond, and will include mountain, arid and semi-arid, and coastal and marine ecosystems. PAs such as those included in the scope of ECOPOTENTIAL provide essential ecosystem services, but are exposed to a variety of pressures, which can change their very nature. ECOPOTENTIAL sites include UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves, National Parks and important Natura 2000 sites. Additionally, two Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean are included. In addition to their conservation importance as recognized by official decree, many of the selected sites are directly linked to Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites (


In order to conserve wetlands biodiversity, the distribution of wetlands in time and space, which is highly variable, must be well characterized. Remotely sensed imagery offers much promise for this temporal and spatial characterization of wetland systems, some of which are ephemeral. The European H2020 Project SWOS focuses on the development and use of remote sensing information to support conservation and sustainable management of wetlands. Therefore, it follows an application focused and policy / user driven approach to develop an operational information portal and infrastructure that makes high quality data and information products available to users on different levels (local to global) and demonstrates this based on multi-level service cases. .


As mentioned above, a new global ELU map was recently published (December 2014) and is now available for research, assessments, and policy support. The work was produced in a public/private partnership between the USGS and Esri, and is in active deployment, curation and improvement. The ELUs were developed as an integration of four global characterizations of the primary elements of ecosystem structure (bioclimate, landfrom, lithology, and land cover). Since its initial release, a new global landforms and a new global land cover product have been developed. Since these represent two of the four input layers, the ELUs were remodeled using the new inputs, and a version 2.0 of the ELUs is now available.


Now turning their attention to global ecological marine units (EMUs), Esri and the USGS are teaming up again to produce a global EMU map in analog fashion to the ELUs. The EMUs will be a first-of-its-kind characterization of marine ecosystems, and will be derived from data at a relatively high spatial resolution and in true 3D. A methodology has been developed based on 3D statistical clustering of globally comprehensive marine physical environment data. The method has been successfully prototyped for marine ecosystems off the California coast, and the global implementation has commenced. A steering committee of experts from USGS, Esri, and other international organizations (e.g. UNESCO, IUCN, NOAA, NatureServe, World Bank, etc.) is actively managing and promoting the effort. The global EMU map is anticipated to be completed by January 2017. Meanwhile, a parallel global ecological freshwater units (EFUs) mapping effort is in discussion. It has not yet commenced in earnest, but will soon, and is anticipated in a 2-3 year timeframe. The EFUs will be modeled as ecologically meaningful surface waters (lakes, ponds, stream reaches, etc.) and will be overplotted (burned in) on top of the ELUs. The development of the global EFUs map will be done in close collaboration with the emerging SWOS (Satellite-based Wetland Observation Service), itself a priority activity of GECO. Together, the global EMUs and EFUs constitute a major deliverable from the GEO Global Ecosystems initiative.


Based on these existing perspectives and results, the GECO Initiative intends to build upon available results and extend them to a global scale, identifying Protected Areas of international relevance where the same methodology used in ECOPOTENTIAL can be applied. Parallel to this, GECO intends to support the efforts of extending and improving the ELU, EMU, and EFU maps currently in development, and fostering other research initiatives of the same kind.

2016 Activities

► Support the global ELU and EMU mapping, contributing with data and results in a close collaboration with the USGS group.

► Discuss how to export the results of ECOPOTENTIAL and SWOS to other ecosystem types and regions of the world, using the know-how and expertise developed during these two projects to set up a global monitoring and modelling approach to ecosystem functions and services.

► Contribute ecosystem data, results and models to the system of GEOSS portals.

► Create a partnership of key stakeholders and start the construction of the GEO Ecosystems Community of Practice.

► Plan a set of training course on the use of Earth Observation data in the management of ecosystems and preservation of ecosystem services.

► Support the development of conservation and management policies at international level, with the participation of international entities such as UNEP, UNESCO, IUCN, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and others.

► Invite representatives of Protected Areas with other ecosystem types and from other regions of the world to the General Assembly of the ECOPOTENTIAL project in mid 2016.

2016 Resources

EUR 4M (cash) + EUR 500k (in-kind) (ECOPOTENTIAL)

EUR 1.66M (cash) (SWOS)

US$ tbd, but substantial (in-kind) (Esri/USGS).

Leads and contributors

Italy, CNR, Antonello Provenzale, (Lead)


Germany, Kathrin Weise, Jena-Optronik GmbH, Jena,
United States, USGS, Roger Sayre,
Germany, Adrian Strauch, University of Bonn,
Germany, Uni. Bayreuth, Carl Beierkuhnlein,
The Netherlands, DELTARES, Ghada El Serafy,
United Kingdom, University of Leeds, Guy Ziv,
Spain, CREAF-UAB, Joan Masò,

Other contributors as appropriate as the initiative grows

Social Benefit Area
Implementation Mechanism

GEO Candidate Initiatives