Organizing the Ocean

coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Lending a Critical Eye to Ecosystems – Bringing it all Together

by Holly Mehl

In my last two blogs I talked about our effort to develop Conservation Focus Areas for EPA Region 7, and one of the steps (Ecological Significance) for developing the Ecological Risk portion of our terrestrial assessment.  As a reminder the diagram below explains how all of the different pieces of our analysis fit together. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Ecological Significance is derived from two metrics, percent conversion and opportunity areas.  To arrive at Ecological Risk, we need to combine significance with threat.  Threats were calculated as the sum of three indices: development land demand; agricultural land demand; and potential toxic release impacts.  The first two represent conditions that could lead to conversion of natural land cover to a modified land cover (urban or agriculture), while the third represents known potential sources of anthropogenic (man-made) toxics.  The document itself  provides a lengthy description regarding the weighting of various parameters and rankings which arrive at the final grid where the lowest threat areas were assigned a “1” and the highest were set at “6.”  These threats were then combined with significance to derive an Ecological Risk layer. 

Irreplaceability is final metric that is necessary in developing the Conservation Focus Areas.  Irreplaceability values for each assessment unit within ecoregions were developed using software called C-Plan (Pressey et al. 1994).  Irreplaceability is defined as “the likelihood that a given site will need to be protected to achieve a specified set of targets, or conversely, the extent to which options for achieving these targets are reduced if the site is not protected.”  For targets we used Abiotic Site Types (which ensure representation of important habitats), the highest ranked Opportunity Areas, and areas of high vertebrate richness.  Again, all of the specific details can be found in the final document

Terrestrial Conservation Focus Areas were then derived from combining risk and irreplaceability.  As shown below, Conservation Focus Areas are those areas (depicted as 30 x 30 meter pixels) which have both high Ecological Risk and high Irreplaceability.

In general, the more natural ecoregions such as the Ozark Highlands, Nebraska Sand Hills, Flint Hills and Cross Timbers and Prairies have more focus areas, whereas areas that are heavily agricultural had fewer.   You can access and download a variety of shape files (included both ranked Conservation Opportunity Areas and all Conservation Opportunity Areas) from our analysis here.  Simply click on the folder labeled public, then the folder labeled EPA Region 7.   Stay tuned in November when I will talk about how we developed Aquatic Focus areas.

About the Author:   Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Ecoregions of the Midwest

By Jeffery Robichaud

I spent a couple of weeks this summer with my family on the beach in North Carolina.  I’m not the most social fellow in vacation settings, so I spent most of the time splashing in the waves with my sons.   Occasionally, I was forced into some small talk with locals at attractions while waiting for the boys to complete a ride.  Invariably, the question, “Where ya from?” would enter the conversation.  Whether I answered Kansas, Missouri, Kansas City, or the Midwest the responses were all the same…”really flat out there isn’t it…lots of corn huh?” (I’m choosing to leave out comments about the Royals as there is no need to kick them when they are down).

Yes Kansas is flat.  Yes we grow lots of corn in this part of the country.  But our four-State Region is not just a boring landscape of monoculture and interstate.  We have a tremendous diversity of unique ecosystems; from the Sandhills of Nebraska to the Mingo Swamp of the Missouri bootheel….from the Flint Hills of Kansas to the Prairie Potholes of Iowa.

Photos: University of Nebraksa Lincoln, US FWS, NASA, and Emporia State University

Over twenty years ago James Omernik with EPA’s Office of Research and Development worked with colleagues at EPA and with other organizations throughout the country to develop a map of Ecoregions for the United States.

Designed to serve as a spatial framework for the research assessment, and monitoring of ecosystems and ecosystem components, ecoregions denote areas within which ecosystems (and the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources) are generally similar. By recognizing the spatial differences in the capacities and potentials of ecosystems, ecoregions stratify the environment by its probable response to disturbance. These general purpose regions are critical for structuring and implementing ecosystem management strategies across federal agencies, state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations that are responsible for different types of resources within the same geographical areas.


You can get a copy of EPA’s Level 3 Ecoregions (the most commonly used Ecoregion) for the entire country as a zipped shapefile here, as well as the metadata here, and symbology here.  Download them and see for yourself how many different ecosystems we have here in Region 7.  Or drop us a comment.  Last week I mentioned we were packing up maps and wouldn’t you know, we found extra copies of unused wall sized Level III Ecoregion maps of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska which could sure use good homes.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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