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Habitat map of Switzerland

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Switzerland is home to many different habitat types. A digital map, produced at WSL in a pilot project, provides an overview.

Fields, lakes, glaciers, forests, and even parking lots make up some of the over 200 different types of habitat found in Switzerland. These habitats are constantly changing, whether as a result of natural processes, such as the flooding of alluvial forests, or human intervention, such as new roads.

Our requirements for space have risen sharply and human interventions in the landscape are increasing. These trends impact, in particular, the habitats of plants and animals, and thus the basis for species diversity. Understanding such developments increasingly raises questions such as: Where do particular habitats occur? Which habitats are expanding? Which habitats are disappearing? Up until now, there has been no overview of the spatial distribution of either natural or human-influenced habitats in Switzerland. The OECD criticised this situation in its 2017 Environmental Review Report and recommended developing a habitat map for the whole of Switzerland. The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) therefore commissioned WSL to carry out a pilot study.

Such a digital map cannot, of course, be produced at the touch of a button. Project manager Christian Ginzler and his team initially collated national geodata, such as vegetation height models, digital terrain models and time series of satellite images. They combined these to obtain information on the different types of habitat. The project team relied on the existing classification of habitats according to Delarze and Gonseth, the most commonly used classification in Swiss biodiversity research, which classifies habitats according to the composition of plant species into plant communities. “This systems poses major challenges,” says Christian, “since individual plants cannot be identified using remote sensing data.”


Prototype will be adapted to needs

One finding from the pilot study was that the level of detail in the map is limited. At the highest habitat classification level, nine classes, such as forests, water bodies and grassland, can be mapped well. Some habitat classes can be mapped in more detail. For example, the map can distinguish between standing and flowing water. However, the more detailed the habitat subclasses are, the more difficult it is to represent them. For example, different grassland habitat subclasses are difficult to differentiate, and habitats that are almost vertical, such as rock faces, or underground, such as caves, cannot be identified at all.

Experts and future users, such as FOEN staff or cantonal conservation officers, will be able to test the prototype in a workshop. The needs of the users will be taken into account. “If, for example, it is crucial for users to be able to distinguish oak from beech forests, we will work with FOEN to clarify what needs to be done to obtain this level of detail,” says Christian. (Sara Niedermann, Diagonal 1/19)


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