A new map of standardized, mesoscale (tens to thousands of hectares) terrestrial ecosystems for the conterminous United States was developed by using a biophysical stratification approach. The ecosystems delineated in this top-down, deductive modeling effort are described in NatureServe’s classification of terrestrial ecological systems of the United States. The ecosystems were mapped as physically distinct areas and were associated with known distributions of vegetation assemblages by using a standardized methodology first developed for South America. This approach follows the geoecosystems concept of R.J. Huggett and the ecosystem geography approach of R.G. Bailey.
Unique physical environments were delineated through a geospatial combination of national data layers for biogeography, bioclimate, surficial materials lithology, land surface forms, and topographic moisture potential. Combining these layers resulted in a comprehensive biophysical stratification of the conterminous United States, which produced 13,482 unique biophysical areas. These were considered as fundamental units of ecosystem structure and were aggregated into 419 potential terrestrial ecosystems.
The ecosystems classification effort preceded the mapping effort and involved the independent development of diagnostic criteria, descriptions, and nomenclature for describing expert-derived ecological systems. The aggregation and labeling of the mapped ecosystem structure units into the ecological systems classification was accomplished in an iterative, expert-knowledge-based process using automated rulesets for identifying ecosystems on the basis of their biophysical and biogeographic attributes. The mapped ecosystems, at a 30-meter base resolution, represent an improvement in spatial and thematic (class) resolution over existing ecoregionalizations and are useful for a variety of applications, including ecosystem services assessments, climate change impact studies, biodiversity conservation, and resource management.