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What are Geoindicators?

The diversity and resilience to stress of living systems and their organisms depend upon many factors. There is now wide awareness of the ways in which the activities of people can affect their own environmental well-being, that of ecosystems and, even, the climate. There is less recognition, however, that human activities occur within natural changes which take place on varying time-scales. In addition to extreme weather events and natural hazards such as earthquakes, eruptions and landslides, these include changes in the chemistry of rocks, soils and waters, and rates of erosion and of re-deposition of the resulting sediments. In tracking and assessing the condition (state, health) of ecosystems and the environment together with the human activities that affect them, we need to take account of natural changes in biological and non-biological factors. There is a common misconception that all geological changes are so slow as to be irrelevant to monitoring of environmental change. While this is so for some geological processes, it is far from true for others, some of which can affect the environment on daily, seasonal, or decadal time-scales. Those that can change in less than 100 years to an extent significant for environmental reporting can be described in terms of geoindicators, under a new framework developed to assist in monitoring and reporting environmental change.

Environmental indicators are not independent of one another. Geoindicators do not stand alone, but should be part of a larger monitoring effort. For example, in monitoring wetlands it is obviously important to assess the condition and diversity of birds and fish that live in or pass through them. However, to design conservation strategies, it is also necessary to monitor changes in the area of the wetlands - are they expanding, decreasing? - and in the quality of their surface and sub-surface water. Glaciers and ice sheets respond quite quickly to climate changes, and fluctuations in their mass and extent can have profound effects on regional water supply, on hydroelectric generation, on fish populations in local rivers, and on recreation activities. Changes in the rate of erosion in watersheds and in the deposition and transport of sediment by the rivers that drain them can have profound effects on nearby forests, farms and aquatic ecosystems, and can increase flood hazards. It is important, therefore, to include geoindicators in monitoring schemes in order to obtain the full range of environmental information needed for managing and rehabilitating land and ecosystems.

In the mid-1990s, a working group under COGEOENVIRONMENT compiled an annotated checklist of 27 geoindicators from which appropriate parameters can be selected, depending on the particular terrain to be monitored. Information is given as to where, when and how each parameter can be measured, the significance of each for environmental assessment, the relative role of human and non-human inputs, and from where further information can be obtained. The checklist, which is the core of the geoindicator approach, can be found in its entirety at

Geoindicators are now being used to assist managers of parks and protected areas to identify geological features that affect ecosystems and that can be altered by human inputs. They are also helping in assessing the environmental impact of mining and quarrying activities. A number of projects to apply geoindicators to particular landscape issues are underway or being developed.

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