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  • Dr Catherine Farrell

What lies beneath? Getting to know our geological natural capital

Updated: May 5, 2021

Waterfall gshing down a mountain side on a sunny day, a few people walking beside it
Dramatic geological features: Powerscourt Waterfall in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow by Sean Kuriyan, Unsplash

Lead ecologist Dr Catherine Farrell writes on how INCASE is including research on geosystems and geological assets in natural capital accounts for our Irish catchments.

As part of the INCASE project we have been blessed with a diverse and multi-disciplinary steering committee (they that steer but also help keep us on time with project deliverables!). And so, having geologists and catchment scientists in with the economists and ecologists helps keep our eyes on what lies and flows beneath the surface.

The term ecosystem services has been around for a while now, and it certainly appears in many literature and research papers. But what about geosystem services? Probably less so.

The good news is that there is work ongoing to bring geosystems into the thinking around natural capital and groups like Natural England are working to raise awareness about the link between geology and the occurrence of ecosystems and how they are interconnected.

For the INCASE project, we are including our geosystems and the geological assets, using the SEEA-EEA framework to account for the extent, condition services and benefits in a similar way to ecosystems and adjusting accordingly. We are following the definitions and thinking of a number of researchers in the area:

  • Geosystem (van Ree and van Beukering, 2016; van Ree et al., 2017) is defined as the underground environment that consists of subsoil, bedrock, minerals, oil, natural gas and groundwater. Note, it does not include soil and the ecosystem associated with soil, or groundwater that provides the abiotic support to ecosystems such as fens. That is included in the ecosystem accounting part.

  • Geosystem services are considered as the outputs from geosystems that contribute to human wellbeing specifically resulting from the subsurface, including the flow of natural resources from stocks that have built up over geological time. Examples include aggregates, minerals, energy from fossil fuels, pollutant attenuation provided by subsoils, geological heritage sites, landscape geomorphology including associated cultural values, groundwater used for drinking, geothermal energy (potential) and carbon storage.

When building our pilot accounts for the Dargle, geosystem services were very apparent. Sure, mining is not a strong feature in the catchment although it was historically, but the mountains, the ravines and the dramatic physical features such as Powerscourt Waterfall, the Sugar Loaf peaks and the beautiful valleys and corrie lakes are all part of the geological heritage. This is the body of land over which the living ecosystems have arranged themselves, relying strongly on the support of that steady ‘geo-form’ and, in places, the upwellings of precious groundwater.

Trees and rocky terrain on a hillside in Ireland
Geological heritage: The Scalp mountains, Kilternan, as seen from Barnaslingan summit by Joe King, CC

Our thinking is evolving but you can read our paper which outlines the extent, services and benefits of Limestone assets in particular. The paper was published as part of the proceedings of the IAH 2020 conference, the annual meeting of Hydrogeologists in Ireland, which gathered an excellent group of presentations on water provision, groundwater aquifers and limestones in general.

You can watch Dr Farrell's presentation on The Contribution of Limestones in Ireland to our Natural Capital at the IAH conference to our Natural Capital.


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