, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 585-589

General concepts for measuring cumulative impacts on wetland ecosystems

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Because environmental impacts accumulate over space and time, analysis is difficult, and we must incorporate the most recent scientifically defensible information and methods into the process. Methods designed to deal specifically with cumulative impacts include checklists of characteristics or processes, matrices of interactions (rated according to their level of importance) between disturbance activities and environmental conditions, nodal networks or pathways that depict probable effects of disturbances, and dynamic system models. These methods have been tested over the past decade and have proven generally successful.

Landscape perspectives have emerged as especially helpful in analyzing cumulative effects, and have focused specific attention on questions of spatial and temporal scale, while leading to recognition of the complexity of ecosystem processes in general. An evaluation of several cases studies by the Commission on Life Sciences of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences emphasizes the importance of interactions and cumulative effects, but recognizes that current knowledge of the processes involved is insufficient to make specific recommendations for conceptual frameworks.

The conceptual approach suggested by Preston and Bedford (1988) addresses many critical issues, such as the need to define dimensions of scale, and the importance of wetland size, shape, and location in the landscape. This approach and similar ones must be tested and evaluated so that a consensus may eventually emerge.

A cumulative impact matrix is proposed that sets up additive, synergistic, and indirect categories, each capable of variation in space and time. Every interaction would be carefully examined to determine the likelihood of cumulative impact in any of the six categories. Because of its “magnifying glass” approach, such a matrix could be a very useful analytical tool, using existing methods to uncover all the information presently available about the behavior of the ecosystem of concern.