Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.

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One thought on “Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

  1. Pingback: Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating? | The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

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