Stanford researchers contribute to a definitive guide to California’s ecosystems

California brown pelicans and early winter swell at Scotts Creek, Calif. (Photo credit: Ed Dickie/
California brown pelicans and early winter swell at Scotts Creek, Calif. (Photo credit: Ed Dickie/

With the world’s oldest and biggest trees, North America’s lowest point and the highest peak in the contiguous United States, California is a land of superlatives.

Ecosystems of California, a definitive new guide co-edited by Stanford ecologist HAROLD “HAL” MOONEY and with myriad Stanford contributors, provides the first-ever encyclopedic overview of the Golden State’s awe-inspiring ecosystems. It is intended to serve as a valuable resource for policymakers, resource managers, students and interested readers around the state.

“It encompasses the total array of California’s natural wealth. It’s not just an ecology book or just a history book,” said Mooney, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology, Emeritus, and a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Last week, the California Academy of Sciences organized a symposium to introduce this comprehensive new reference in San Francisco. The book’s co-editors and several contributors have been traveling to Sacramento to brief state officials on the publication’s policy-relevant conclusions.

EcosystemsofCA_Cover_760Unlike many books of its kind, Ecosystems of California, published this month by University of California Press, highlights opportunities for regulation and stewardship and shows how ecosystems support human well-being. For example, one chapter identifies the construction of “armoring” such as seawalls and the erosion they lead to as a key threat to California’s sandy beaches. Removing these man-made barriers and moving threatened infrastructure inland to allow coastal retreat could provide ecological and economic benefits for the state.

It charts a story that includes a destructive period – including intensive logging, mining and water waste – that helped put a quarter of California’s species at risk of extinction. The book then traces a trajectory into a more hopeful era of growing environmental awareness that led to about half of the state’s land coming under public protection, the establishment of marine reserves and the restoration of rivers. Finally, Ecosystems of California looks ahead to a range of scenarios that could play out for the state’s natural systems as the climate changes.

“This is all about the natural wealth of California, what we lost, and how we’re turning the tide,” Mooney said.

Mooney’s co-editor on the project is ERIKA ZAVALETA, a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology and a doctoral degree in biological sciences all from Stanford. Other contributors with Stanford ties include NONA CHIARIELLO of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve; MARK DENNY and LUKE MILLER of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station; NOAH DIFFENBAUGH, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute; CHRIS FIELD, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, professor of Earth system science and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and at the Stanford Woods Institute; ELIZABETH HADLY, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute; LISA MANDLE and REBECCA CHAPLIN-KRAMER of the Natural Capital Project, a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute and other organizations; and CHENG LI, a former research assistant at Stanford.