Ecological Engineering

Ecological engineering combines ecological understanding of the functioning of human-natural coupled systems with engineering - using science, mathematics and experience for solving problems within constraints - to design management practices that are environmentally, socially and economically viable and sustainable.

Primary interests in this area are focused on the utilization of ecosystem engineering species; applying lessons learnt from the study of Nature's engineers to human environmental engineering; and the promotion and development of the discipline and practice of ecological engineering.

Ecological engineering has the general strategic goal of maintaining or increasing ecological processes, and hence the tangible and less tangible goods and services they provide to humans, with minimal human intervention and minimal adverse collateral impact. This strategic goal reflects the original definition of ecological engineering by H. T Odum in 1962 as “…. those cases in which the energy supplied by man is small relative to the natural sources, but sufficient to produce large effects in the resulting patterns and processes”. Ecological engineering is accomplished by using the tendencies of ecosystems to self-organize, to resist external forcing, to be resilient (i.e., recover from disturbance), to adapt to change, to be multifunctional, and to be energetically and materially self-sufficient.

An ecological engineering approach can be used:

  • to conserve the structure and functioning of ecosystems (e.g., maintaining forest regeneration);
  • to restore them (e.g., reintroduce hedgerows and riparian zones into agroecosystems);
  • to enhance their functioning (e.g., increase nutrient cycling rates, pollination);
  • to substitute natural processes for human activities that depend on fossil-fuels and non-renewable resources (e.g., green roofs for air conditioning; constructed wetlands or forests for water purification instead of filtration plants);
  • and as the basis for manufacturing design (e.g., closed industrial cycles, green chemistry, life cycle analysis, artificial ecosystems)
  • Ecological engineering is therefore a very broad conceptual approach encompassing many specific areas with similar general goals (e.g., habitat restoration, artificial ecosystems, urban and industrial ecological design, sustainable agriculture and forestry, wild land conservation, etc.).
Related Projects

Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers

Many species, including humans, change the physical structure of the non-living world, profoundly changing the functioning of ecosystems. How might we use an understanding of ecosystem engineering in species and ecosystem management? 

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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