The Princeton Guide to Ecology

By Simon A. Levin | Go to book overview

VI.6
Grasslands
Martha Downs and Osvaldo E. Sala
OUTLINE
1. Scope of grasslands
2. Provisioning ecosystem services
3. Regulating services
4. Cultural services
5. Supporting services
6. The significance of grasslands

This section focuses on the ecosystem services provided by natural grasslands. These regions of the world are mostly limited by water availability, and they exclude anthropogenic grasslands, which derived from forests that were logged and converted into pastures, often to support cattle grazing. Grasslands account for 41% of Earth’s land surface, and 38% of Earth’s 6.8 billion people live in natural grasslands. Grasslands support a diversity of uses, but until recently they have been primarily used for grazing and wood gathering for fuel, with conversion to agriculture at the wet end of their climatic envelope. Alternative uses of these regions—e.g., recreation, conservation, and carbon sequestration—are gaining in societal value, particularly in developed countries. This chapter used the definition of ecosystem services presented above and the categorization developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment with four types of ecosystem services: provisioning services, regulating, cultural, and supporting services.


GLOSSARY

albedo. Energy reflected from the land or water surface. Generally, white or light-colored surfaces have high albedo, and dark-colored or rough surfaces have low albedo.

carbon sequestration. The process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmospheric pool and making it less accessible or inaccessible to carbon-cycling processes.

grasslands. Short-stature vegetation dominated by grasses, characteristic of locations with a strong water limitation for at least part of the year.

petagram. One trillion million (10 18) grams.

soil texture. Soil texture is described by the proportions of sand (large particles), silt (intermediatesized particles), and clay (smallest particles). Sandy, loose-textured soils allow rapid water infiltration and fast leaching of nutrients. Denser, clayey soils have poor drainage and poor soil aeration.

transpiration. The evaporation of water from the leaves, stems, and flowers of plants. Transpiration occurs through small pores, or stomata, on leaf and stem surfaces, which must remain open to take up carbon dioxide.


1. SCOPE OF GRASSLANDS

Grasslands occur where there is not enough water to support forests, although temperature also plays a role: cool locations can support forests at precipitation levels that can only support grasslands in warmer climates. For instance, rainfall in the United States generally increases from west to east, and temperature increases from north to south. The grassland-forest boundary thus runs in a diagonal fashion from southeast to northwest, reflecting the issue that lower temperatures characteristic of the north allow forest to grow at lower precipitation than in the south. Grasslands are dominated in general by herbaceous vegetation, mainly grasses and forbs, although shrubs account for an important fraction of grassland biomass in some regions, and grasslands can also support occasional trees. The proportion of shrubs and grasses depends on the texture of the soil and the seasonality of precipitation. Grasslands encompass different vegetation types with different shrub abundance from prairies to steppes.


2. PROVISIONING ECOSYSTEM SERVICES

Grasslands, through their support of grazing, produce meat, milk, and blood for many people who depend on animals for their daily protein intake. Grasslands in developed countries are primarily managed by cowcalf producers where calves are sold to fattening

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