U.S. EPA Contaminated Site Cleanup Information (CLU-IN)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. EPA Technology Innovation and Field Services Division
Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem Services image
Scientific studies have documented the many tangible and intangible services and health benefits that are provided by our surrounding ecosystems, such as wetlands and forests. This page describes the services ecosystems provide, how those services affect human health and well-being, and the different ways to look at the value of those services.

What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem Services are the life-sustaining products and benefits people obtain from natural environmental resources and processes, such as clean air and water, timber, and pollination of native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or a rural area, the ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and services that are very familiar to us.

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What are some common ecosystem services?

Ecosystem Services Illustration
Ecosystem Resources, Benefits, and
Drivers of Change. Source: EPA EnviroAtlas
  • Climate regulation
  • Purification of water and air
  • Soil formation
  • Carbon storage and sequestration
  • Nutrient dispersal and cycling
  • Seed dispersal
  • Waste decomposition and detoxification
  • Crop pollination
  • Pest and disease control
  • Food, crops, and spices
  • Forest products (i.e. timber)
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Energy (i.e. hydropower and biomass fuels)
  • Recreation
  • Scientific discovery and education
  • Aesthetic and spiritual value

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What is the role of soil and water in ecosystem services?

Soil is the building block of ecosystems — the medium in which all the living and non-living components of a system. Soil provides a physical, chemical, and biological environment for the exchange of water, nutrients, energy, and air, thereby supporting growth and diversity of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Water is the building block of life. It is essential for biological functions of all living organisms; ecosystems at the interface of land and water, particularly wetlands, provide services of critical importance to humans.

  • Healthy soil regulates the distribution of water between infiltration and runoff; regulates the flow of water and solutes, including nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and other dissolved constituents; and provides biological and chemical reactivity to degrade and/or immobilize toxic constituents.
  • Degraded soil. The effects of soil degradation (e.g., compaction, mixing horizons, loss of topsoil) can include reduced water and gas transport, restrained root growth, increased runoff and erosion, reduced nutrient availability, less nutrient supply for essential microbes, increased transport of potentially toxic elements (e.g., heavy metals), and numerous other issues.
  • Soil amendments can be used to restore and revitalize soils. One of the benefits of using organic soil amendments for remediation and ecological revitalization is carbon sequestration.
  • Wetlands such as swamps, estuaries, and mangrove forests protect both human health and the environment by providing valuable services such as flood control in river environments, replenishing groundwater supplies, stabilizing shorelines and providing storm protection, and purifying water. Wetlands also serve as nurseries for many saltwater and freshwater fish and shellfish of commercial and recreational importance.
  • Example of a Freshwater Ecosystem
    Willamette River Valley, Oregon
    Source: EPA Science Matters Newsletter
  • Freshwater Ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, and streams provide invaluable services such as flood control, transportation, recreation, purification of human and industrial wastes, habitat for plants and animals, and production of fish and other foods and marketable goods. Rivers, lakes, wetlands and their connecting groundwater are the "sinks" into which landscapes drain, and are tightly linked to their respective watersheds.

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What impact do ecosystem services have on my health?

Ecosystem services are indispensable to the well-being of all people. From the growth of crops for food and supply of water, to regulation of vector-borne diseases, pests, and pathogens, human health and well-being depends on these services and conditions from the natural environment.

Human interventions such as overfishing, deforestation, and pollution are altering the capacity of ecosystems to provide their goods (e.g. fresh water, food, pharmaceutical products, etc.) and services (e.g. purification of air, water, soil, sequestration of pollutants, etc). Ecosystem disruption can impact human health in a variety of ways and through complex pathways. The types of health effects experienced are determined by the degree to which local populations depend on ecosystem services, and factors such as poverty that affect vulnerability to changes in elements such as access to food and water.

For in-depth information on the complex links between ecosystems and human health, please visit the EPA Eco-Health Relationship Browser.

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What is the value of ecosystem services?

Expressing the value of ecosystem services quantitative economic units can be a useful tool for illustrating the fundamental importance of healthy ecosystems for human health and well-being. Value, however, is not a single, simple concept. People have material, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, cultural and other interests, all of which can affect their perception of the value of ecosystems and the services they provide. The value of ecological systems and services can be viewed from many perspectives, including ecological, economic, philosophical, and psychological.

Ecosystems provide humans with services that would be very difficult to duplicate in an artificial environment. Placing an accurate monetary amount on ecosystem services is very difficult, but some researchers have attempted to make quantitative estimates. A 2012 Study, Global Estimates of the Value of Ecosystems and their Services in Monetary Units, estimated over 1,300 unique values for services provided by different ecosystems and biomes. While the values were estimated in the trillions of dollars, the researchers strongly cautioned that these estimates should not be used to consider ecosystem services as tradable, monetary commodities. Instead, the numbers should be used to highlight their benefits to society and to humankind - benefits that would be lost if the ecosystem is destroyed, and benefits that would be gained if the ecosystems are restored and protected.

Similarly, a 2009 Report by the EPA Science Advisory Board, Valuing the Protection of Ecological Systems and Services, recognizes that the valuation of ecosystem services can be an important tool in guiding policy, setting program priorities, and helping EPA improve the remediation of hazardous waste sites and making other site-specific decisions.

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Examples of Ecosystem Services at Work

  • The New York City Watershed provides safe drinking water for the city's 9 million residents. Rather than build a filtration plant for this water, the City preserves the land and ecosystems within the watershed, resulting in low costs and some of the purest drinking water on the planet.
  • An EPA study that considered the value of ecosystem services in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed found that these can be a powerful tool when determining pollution prevention strategies that address national guidance and policy.
  • Reuse activities at the Northwest 58th Street Landfill Superfund Site in Miami, Florida truly took into account the services the ecosystem can provide. The landfill operated from 1952-1982. In its last three years, it operated as an unpermitted sanitary landfill. Leachate from the landfill contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer beneath and adjacent to the site. Remediation included groundwater treatment with air stripping and capping to a level protective of human health and the environment, but included an eye towards ecological reuse as well. Several onsite wetlands were restored as part of the remedial process, providing habitat for animals such as the endangered wood storks. Lookout centers with a trail system were also included to allow the community access to view the restored habitat and return of wildlife to the property.

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Additional Resources

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