Reflections from the Tuesday morning theme session “Identifying social and ecological drivers of regime shifts: Approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system dynamicsm”

Regime shifts is a concept that that may seem straight forward. And that’s really only partly true. How do we know when it’s shifted from on ‘thing’ to the other ‘thing’? Some shifts can be pretty obvious, as is the case of the Maumee River Watershed in Ohio where it used to be 98% wetland, which is now almost completely converted to industrial agriculture.  That is one, big obvious regime shift that has occurred. But, how do we know exactly when a shift(s) occurrs and why? And can we get past the qualitative assessment of the shifts? That is, can we actually calculate when and why these shifts occur based on quantifiable data? This session set out to answer this set of questions.

The first, riveting speaker, Paris Vasilakopoulos from the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, Italy, focused on folded stability landscapes and how one goes about quantifying resilience within systems.  The equation can be simplified down to this: “Resilience = Horizontal component + vertical component”.  This ultimately equals an “integrated resilience assessment” (IRA) – taking the theory and testing it against a real world problem in practice. Every researcher’s dream is that his or her theory will hold when tested against reality and that the model will actually work.  And in this case, the quantifiable output beautifully matched the stability model theory.  The ‘breaks’ (regime shifts) in the system happen exactly where you think they would happen when plotting the system versus the stressors.  The awesome thing about this finding is that it can be applied to basically any other system, so long as it is data-rich.

The next speaker, Christina Hick from Lancaster University, UK, presented her research she conducted with a group from Stanford that focused on social drivers in marine regime shifts, with an interdisciplinary approach using historical ecology as a methodology to uncover the proximate drivers and to understand the past in order to better manage the future. The group parsed out the underlying drivers into two categories: proximate drivers (e.g. habitat destruction) and distral drivers (e.g. economic shocks or drivers). Through a literature search, the group picked out the four most iconic coastal marine regime shifts. I’ll relay one finding and if you’d like to find out more of the other case studies, please see Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal article.

The decline of west coast U.S. kelp forests is a well-known case study.  The kelp forests have been decimated and it took a while to find out why.  It turns out that those cute little otters are a key species that keep the sea urchin population under control.  Sea urchins love to eat kelp.  The luxury fur export market went through the roof and demand for otter pelts far outpaced supply.  As a result, those cute little sea otters were over exploited to the point that the sea urchins took over the seabed and decimated the kelp forests. In this case, the environmental factors were not the main drivers, but rather, a social pressure from a continent away that drove a regime shift.  A key theme underlying each of the case studies is to understand the system well enough so that we can identify impending regime shifts and have a lead time to proactively act upon the shift.

And finally, the last speaker, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden, worked on disentangling the role of human and natural drivers of multiple reef regimes (calcifying regime, turf regime, and macroalgae regime) in the Hawaiian Islands using a multivariate statistical analysis.  Interestingly, they were able to identify whether the main regime shift driver was environmental or anthropogenically caused. This is crucial as scale matters! The island scale is fisheries driven. However, when you zoom into one part of the bay, a shift could be caused by sediment. As a result, findings must specifically define the focal system of the study for the results to be contextually accurate.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

Kelly Siman is a Biomimicry PhD Fellow at the University of Akron. Her research focuses on the social-ecological resilience of Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline, adaptive management and polycentric governance structures, and biomimetic applications that support long-term system resilience, moving away from “random acts of restoration” to a holistic, data-driven approach to management. Kelly is a Project Drawdown Research Fellow with Paul Hawken, a member of the Resilience Alliance, and Resilience Alliance Young Scholars and is passionate about a healthy environment for future generations, communicating climate science and data to decision makers, and applying resilience thinking.

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