Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology

Rating: ★★★★★

F Stuart Chapin III, Pamela A Matson and Peter M Vitousek. 2011. Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology 2e. Springer. ISBN 978 1 4419 9502 5

“Humans have directly modified half of the ice-free terrestrial surface and use 40% of terrestrial production. We are causing the sixth major extinction event in the history of life on Earth…” If you’re going to justify any text, that is probably the most focussing! Taken from the back cover information, this quote very much sets the scene and argument for what follows. If we are making such an immense impact then it is important that we understand the processes we are interrupting and how to minimise this change.

The aim of the text is to focus on those essential processes that shape natural ecosystems and place these in a globalĀ  context. Appropriately therefore, the first chapter examines those key functions of ecosystems starting with basic definitions and working through functions, structures and constraints. Key control mechanisms and human impacts are also mentioned. The remaining two chapters in this part deal with crucial abiotic components: atmosphere and lithosphere. The former deals with energy budgets, structures, distributions and flows. The latter starts with plate tectonics and moves on to soil and soil losses. If part one is focussed on context, part two looks at mechanisms – how are these patterns created. Water and energy are the first ones examined with the focus being on the distribution of energy and the flow of water through systems. Carbon is clearly the key link in many ecosystems and so the subsequent 3 chapters look, in detail, at various aspects – essentially, photosynthesis, productivity and decomposition flows. To these are added chapters on nutrients and nutrient including a major section on Nitrogen cycling. All of this must take place within trophic dynamics which is mitigated, at least in part, by the interactions of numerous species upon the ecosystem itself.

Up to this point we are looking at the aspatial aspects of ecosystem dynamics. However, these processes must take place within space and time constraints and so it is appropriate that part three studies these. We start with temporal dynamics – issues of stability, vulnerability and resilience which influence succession as well as trophic dynamics. A second chapter takes this into a scalar context by looking at regional-level processes and the impacts of heterogeneity on landscape processes. Part four brings this together, firstly, by examining the changes wrought by humans on the global ecosystem. A final chapter argues for sustainable use of ecosystem processes. A substantial glossary and references round off the text.

There is much to praise in this text. The authors have been faced with the almost impossible decision of what to include/exclude and made an excellent set of choices with no obvious issues. The flow of the text is highly logical; it draws the reader into the subject by starting with the key aspects and then slowly leading the reader through the subsequent stages. Although it might be argued all texts have a logical arrangement, frequent reviews prove this no to be the case; this text is outstanding in that regards. Finally, the production values are very high. There’s a very crisp arrangement of items. A brief summary, key terms in bold, focal issues to get the reader thinking, copious diagrams (many in colour), summary, review questions and specific references are all carefully controlled to improve understanding. It would be an excellent reader in many university courses but also be a first-rate text to help educators and senior school students make sense of environmental processes. One of the most impressive books I’ve seen this year – it should be a must-buy for the institution or personal library.

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