Pastoral Social Ecological Systems Under Global Socio-Environmental Change

Pastoral social ecological systems (PSES) have responded to socio-environmental change over millennia. However, in the last decades, PSES have been driven into marginality, poverty, and vulnerability. This project analyzes the relationship between PSES and global change. The goals of the project are to:

Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected Area Performance

March 12, 2013

Fox group

Digital Information Research Specialist

Communications Coordinator

Recently, a diverse group that included marine scientists, governance scholars, database developers, and management experts convened at SESYNC to address the question of under what conditions do designated marine protected areas (MPAs) improve the ecological and social conditions in coastal communities. Funded under SESYNC’s Ecosystem Services Theme, this pursuit aims to document and explain the impacts of MPAs at local, regional, and global scales and to generate scientific insights that can be used to inform both academic research and marine policy deliberations.

SESYNC appealed to the project’s principal investigators, Dr. Helen Fox of the World Wildlife Fund and Dr. Robert Pomeroy of the University of Connecticut, as the right opportunity for their research proposal because of our transdisciplinary integration of social and natural approaches to environmental problem-solving. Participants in this group are all experts in their respective fields, but, as one participant commented, no one person can possible know all available data in all fields—collaborative, integrated synthesis amongst scientists and practitioners from different disciplines can help fill knowledge niches and lead to meaningful, actionable results.

The participants’ varied backgrounds and perspectives meant that an important first step was to develop a cross-disciplinary understanding of their meeting, as well as overall research, goals. During the three-day gathering, the team coalesced around a common framework, shared vocabulary, and possible data sources and analytical approaches. They then identified the next steps to be undertaken by four interconnected, self-selected subgroups that formed in response to the broad tasks identified by the team.

We were excited to see this group make full use of our provided resources. They found our teleconferencing capabilities easy to use and were able to share screens, notes, and video with colleagues on the West Coast and in Europe. Small breakout groups frequently formed in our common area, then reconvened in plenary in our large conference room. One participant found the atmosphere of collegiality created by the physical space so appealing that he asked for the blueprints to inform a redesign at his home institution!

Our cyberinfrastructure resources will continue to support this team in accomplishing its goals between on-site meetings. The team is already making good use of the collaborative workspace and file share we provide to all groups. In addition, our IT staff is ready to support the complex data discovery and synthesis efforts of the project by advising on database design and providing remote access to our database and GIS servers.

We look forward to welcoming this group back to SESYNC for its second meeting later this year.

Reframing Restoration for Novel Ecosystems

March 7, 2013

Novel Ecosystem

Communications Associate

“Certain people always say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature. It seems to me they are more concerned that we should go back, than about nature.”
                                                            — Adolph Gottlieb, 1947

For many ecosystems world-wide, environmental deterioration has likely led to a point of no return: through intensive human use followed by abandonment, non-native species invasions, and/or off-site influences, among other factors, these ecosystems have crossed into new, unique states that are entirely different from any past or present ecosystem. System thresholds—such as pollutant loading, urbanization, or directional changes in temperature and precipitation—prevent strained species populations or altered landscapes from returning to their former, historical compositions.

These so-called “novel ecosystems” present a very real challenge to traditional notions of environmental restoration, which are often concerned with reverting to conditions that precede human disturbance. Within this context, novel ecosystems—by virtue of their tipped thresholds—appear to be an endgame in which restoration efforts are out of luck and out of time.

However, if we redefine our understanding and implementation of environmental restoration to take account of the barriers of novel ecosystems—if we transfer our focus from composition to function—recovery is again within sight.

SESYNC recently welcomed visiting scholar Dr. Michael Perring, Research Associate, School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia, to our Annapolis facility in support of his continuing synthesis research on novel ecosystems. In his SESYNC Seminar on February 26, Dr. Perring introduced the concept of novel ecosystems, as well as an experiment that’s investigating the reframing of ecological restoration in an era of novel ecosystems.

The Ridgefield Multiple Ecosystem Services Experiment at the University of Western Australia’s Future Farm tests the utility of restoring for ecosystem function. The farmland, heavily altered by cropping and sheep grazing, is typified by ecosystem structures and functions unrecognizable to their pre-agricultural state. Led by Dr. Perring and Dr. Richard Hobbs, the research team is endeavoring to improve management practices of degraded agricultural landscapes through the restoration of ecosystem functions of particular value to land managers, policy makers, and the general public.

In 2010, Ridgefield’s 124 experimental plots were planted with 10 different combinations of eight species of native trees and shrubs, and categorized according to soil type, moisture content, and directional aspect so as to ensure geographic controls. The goal: to determine how these various vegetative combinations affect carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, invasion resistance, pollination, and soil erosion prevention. Could these functions be restored to an ecologically degraded landscape?

While Ridgefield is a long-term project, early results tentatively confirm predictions that plots containing a higher number of species support increased functioning of multiple ecosystem services.

In a time of widespread and rapid environmental change, novel ecosystems are becoming increasingly common. Traditional restoration efforts remain relevant to ecological communities that have not yet reached a tipping point—but have failed when applied to novel ecosystems. The research at Ridgefield addresses an emergent need for new goals and methods in restoration practice, and highlights an opportunity for synthesis research to both extend the implication of Ridgefield and identify data gaps among experiments concerned with similar questions.

For Dr. Perring’s research, this opportunity means synthesizing social and regulatory implications for novel ecosystems with ecological factors. During his time in Annapolis, Dr. Perring extended his research by working with SESYNC staff and postdoctoral fellows to identify how social variables (e.g., differing organizational, community, or business goals) and regulatory frameworks (which, because they are often far less dynamic than ecological systems, are frequently a restrictive factor) affect ecological restoration of novel ecosystems. For natural scientists, issues of human behavior and values are less familiar than those of biologic composition or function. However, because novel ecosystems are driven and maintained by anthropogenic influences and are therefore an interlinked system of people and nature, social questions must be asked in order to generate insights into the systems’ management and restoration. We at SESYNC are hopeful that Dr. Perring’s time with us will help him identify new intellectual and policy-relevant challenges to the study and management of novel ecosystems.

Further reading:
Hobbs R. J., Higgs E. S. & Hall C. (Eds.). (2013). Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. John Wiley & Sons.

Perring M. P., Standish R. J., Hulvey K. B., Lach L., Morald T. K., Parsons R., Didham R. K. & Hobbs R. J. (2012). The Ridgefield Multiple Ecosystem Services Experiment: Can restoration of former agricultural land achieve multiple outcomes? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 163, 14–27.


What is the recipe for a sustainability research center?

March 4, 2013

Faculty Research Assistant

Solving complex environmental problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Yet experts working in diverse fields on the same topic use different language, methods, and tools and ask fundamentally disparate questions—which in turn produces a complicated, uncertain, and sometimes even contradictory body of results that is difficult for non-experts to make sense of. Understandably, households, companies, and governments trying to make informed decisions can be confused about how to use this multitude of results.

Similarly, researchers studying complex environmental problems can find it frustrating when their results are not put into practice. Research has shown that social and political dynamics have a remarkable influence on the ways in which scientific research informs, or fails to inform, the decisions made by policy-makers, business leaders, and individuals. Therefore, the solutions to many environmental problems are transdisciplinary—they require collaboration amongst experts in different fields. But how and where do those collaborations happen?

SESYNC at the University of Maryland, University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability are some of the places working to produce research that can be effectively used by decision-makers. The deans and directors of these institutions came together in a session at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, MA, to discuss how the organizational structures of their institutions actually facilitate interdisciplinary research. While a traditional university model fosters the creation of academic specialists, sustainability research centers are designed to facilitate research by groups of specialists that have vastly differing backgrounds, approaches, and perspectives on environmental problems.

Scientific enterprise in universities is traditionally structured around disciplinary boundaries where faculty members are incentivized to advance fundamental knowledge in their field. The organizational (e.g., tenure and promotion process, staffing models, administration) and even physical structure of a typical university campus reflects this academic “silo” mentality, and perpetuates the effective collaboration of faculty and students within well-defined areas of research. In the past, collaborating with non-academics, or even researchers from a different part of campus, was a risky endeavor for faculty members working within traditional academic settings.

SESYNC and other sustainability-focused research centers are experimenting with institutional models that facilitate research that is more likely to make an impact beyond the academic community. These places prioritize actionable research portfolios and communication networks between scientists and non-academics, and have flexible organizational models to accommodate the dynamic nature of research topics being addressed. Creating a rigorous academic culture centered on actionable science requires leaders of these institutions to develop new metrics to evaluate the success of their more ambitious but novel goals. How will they measure the success of a new communication network? How will non-traditional research outputs be considered in promotion processes? What institutional support is necessary for successful interdisciplinary collaborations?

Highly-motivated and collaborative faculty members that were frustrated by not seeing their research used to solve problems are now finding homes in institutions like SESYNC, where research with actionable results that cross social, economic, political, and natural science disciplines is prioritized. These institutions are thoughtfully considering how to make the best use of their faculty’s diverse talents and harness that expertise towards meaningful outcomes.


Macroevolution of Ecosystem Services from Trees

This Venture examines the macroevolution of ecosystem services that the Earth’s trees provide. The more ecosystem and environmental services we consider, the more species and evolutionary lineages will be found critical to human well-being. Using a range of computational approaches and bridging the fields of economics, ecology, evolution, and ethnobotany, Venture participants are synthesizing data to economic valuation of the ecosystem services of trees in North American and globally.


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