ClassificationSee also: Ecosystem diversity, Ecoregion, Ecological land classification, and Ecotope
Classifying ecosystems into ecologically homogeneous units is an important step towards effective ecosystem management. A variety of systems exist, based on vegetation cover, remote sensing, and bioclimatic classification systems. American geographer Robert Bailey defines a hierarchy of ecosystem units ranging from microecosystems (individual homogeneous sites, on the order of 10 square kilometres (4 sq mi) in area), through mesoecosystems (landscape mosaics, on the order of 1,000 square kilometres (400 sq mi)) to macroecosystems (ecoregions, on the order of 100,000 square kilometres (40,000 sq mi)).
Bailey outlined five different methods for identifying ecosystems: gestalt ("a whole that is not derived through considerable of its parts"), in which regions are recognized and boundaries drawn intuitively; a map overlay system where different layers like geology, landforms and soil types are overlain to identify ecosystems; mulitvariate clustering of site attributes; digital image processing of remotely sensed data grouping areas based on their appearance or other spectral properties; or by a "controlling factors method" where a subset of factors (like soils, climate, vegetation physiognomy or the distribution of plant or animal species) are selected from a large array of possible ones are used to delineate ecosystems. In contrast with Bailey's methodology, Puerto Rico ecologist Ariel Lugo and coauthors identified ten characteristics of an effective classification system: that it be based on georeferenced, quantitative data; that it should minimize subjectivity and explicitly identify criteria and assumptions; that it should be structured around the factors that drive ecosystem processes; that it should reflect the hierarchical nature of ecosystems; that it should be flexible enough to conform to the various scales at which ecosystem management operates; that it should be tied to reliable measures of climate so that it can "anticipat global climate change; that it be applicable worldwide; that it should be validated against independent data; that it take into account the sometimes complex relationship between climate, vegetation and ecosystem functioning; and that it should be able to adapt and improve as new data become available".
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