Ecosystem Services in the Prairie Pothole Region: Impacts of Management and Climate Change


U.S. Geological Survey


The Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada is a unique area where shallow depressions created during Pleistocene glaciation interact with mid-continental climate variations to create a variety of wetlands that supply a suite of ecosystem services. These unique wetlands comprise a diversity of aquatic invertebrates and vertebrate wildlife that depend upon them as food. The seasonal wetlands serve as safe breeding grounds for a significant population of ducks and an important stopover for migrating shorebirds. In the past century large portions of the area have been transformed to cropland. What remains of the glaciated wetlands supports more than 300 bird species, producing about half of North America’s 40 million ducks.

USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have also collaborated on a long term study to understand the potential of prairie pothole region wetlands to sequester carbon emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. Results suggest that wetlands traditionally functioned as sinks for atmospheric carbon, but cultivation has shifted their function to be sources of atmospheric carbon. Data suggest that equal or greater amounts of atmospheric carbon can be stored in wetlands through restoration programs when compared with cropland, even though the acreage of wetlands is much smaller. Further, nitrous oxide emissions are reduced for every acre going back to wetland because of the reduction in fertilizer use.

Finally, a new project has been initiated because of the unique resources at the USGS and the ability to integrate ecosystem-based research across multiple disciplines and large areas. The unique resources include:

  1. biogeochemical modeling which emphasizes agricultural practices and simulates sustainability and impacts on ecosystem goods and services,

  2. socioeconomic modeling of land use and land use trends across broad regions,

  3. dynamic monitoring of Ecosystem Performance and the Net Ecosystem Exchange of carbon,

  4. access to archival remote sensing data and near-real time data from a variety of sources,

  5. capability to provide large datasets to the user community in a seamless manner, and

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