Delineating and mapping riparian areas for ecosystem service assessment

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Riparian buffers, the interface between terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, have the potential to protect water bodies from land-based pollution, and also for enhancing the delivery of a range of ecosystem services. The UK currently has no defined optimal width or maximum extent of riparian buffers for specific ecosystem services. Here, we present the first study, which attempts to (a) compare and critique different riparian buffer delineation methods and (b) investigate how ecological processes, for example, pollutant removal, nutrient cycling, and water temperature regulation, are affected spatially by proximity to the river and also within a riparian buffer zone. Our results have led to the development of new concepts for riparian delineation based on ecosystem service-specific scenarios. Results from our study suggest that choice of delineation method will influence not only the total area of potential riparian buffers but also the proportion of land cover types included, which in turn will determine their main ecosystem provision. Thus, for some ecological processes (e.g., pollutant removal), a fixed-distance approach will preserve and protect its ecosystem function, whereas for processes such as denitrification, a variable-width buffer will reflect better riparian spatial variability maximizing its ecological value. In summary, riparian delineation within UK habitats should be specific to the particular ecosystem service(s) of interest (e.g., uptake of nutrients and shading), and the effectiveness of the buffer should be ground-truthed to ensure the greatest level of protection.

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