Accounting for natural capital: building the numbers to track and sustain the nation’s natural resources

Science Center Objects

Accounting for ecosystem services - the benefits that nature provides to society and the economy - is gaining increasing traction worldwide as governments and the private sector use them to monitor integrated environmental and economic trends. When they are well understood and managed, ecosystems can provide these long-term benefits to people - such as clean air and water, flood control, crop pollination, and recreational, cultural, and aesthetic benefits.

Natural capital accounting - a tool being used in dozens of countries globally and by the private sector - tracks changes in ecosystem services and directly ties these changes to costs and benefits across different economic sectors. Yet, the compilation of a data, modeling, and valuation infrastructure to support natural capital accounting in the U.S. has not previously been undertaken. A working group supported by the USGS Powell Center, National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, and NASA is compiling existing natural capital accounts-relevant data nationwide, generating new data using biophysical models, and linking and quantifying environmental-economic trends over time for land, water, ecosystems, and other critical natural resources.

Our approach aims to provide a rigorous and replicable assessment process to support natural resource management for Federal agencies and the private sector. We are also working to identify uncertainties, data and methodological gaps, and next steps needed to advance natural capital accounting science and policy applications in the U.S. and beyond.

Data and model repositories

The data and models generated as part of this project are available in multiple formats accessible to both technical and nontechnical users.

This repository contains ecosystem services models designed to support the U.S. natural capital accounts. Models can be run by technical users experienced with the Python programming language. Initial models focus on urban ecosystem services, specifically heat mitigation and rainfall interception. Crop pollination models will be added in Summer 2019.

When available, nontechnical users will be able to access national-scale data using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas.

Data and models will also be coded within the Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES) modeling framework. This makes them accessible for nontechnical users using the ARIES Explorer and to technical users using the ARIES Modeler.


This project has been supported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) , and NASA’s Biodiversity and Ecological Forecasting program.

The project spans collaborations across the U.S. government, including USGS, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of State, as well as collaborators from universities, nonprofits, the private accounting sector, and the World Bank. We are also testing our methods for international use in collaboration with Statistics Canada, the European Union-Joint Research Centre, the United Nations Statistics Division, and the Group on Earth Observations’ Earth Observation for Ecosystem Accounting (EO4EA) initiative.