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Revealing the complex dynamics of real landscape systems

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This talk examines landscape change from the perspective of complex social-ecological systems evolving through time. Such a perspective can reveal ‘hidden’ complex behaviour that may interact unpredictably with decision-making. These include feedback loops, system instabilities, critical transitions and trade-offs. Knowing the complex behaviours, such as feedback loops, within a system can help decision-makers avoid tipping points and traps in order to keep within ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable limits. There are two parts to the talk. a) Multiple time-series. Here, research analyses multiple time-series of social, economic, ecological, and climate variables covering the past few decades to help elucidate important changes in system interactions. In eastern China, studies at several sites show long term economic growth since 1950 as a trade-off with environmental deterioration, especially water quality. In western China, detailed studies of the lake Erhai lake-catchment system reveal the interactions between agriculture, climate and water management that led to a critical transition in the aquatic ecosystem in 2001. In the UK, a similar approach shows rapid agricultural intensification driving significant environmental degradation in England in the early 1980s, but with a recovery in most ecosystem services after 2000. However, the lack of recovery in farmland biodiversity and the ‘offshoring’ of some impacts represent major negative trade-offs. b) Systems modelling. Here, a case-study describes a systems model designed to guide decision-makers in the setting of ‘safe and just operating spaces’ for sustainable management. Monte Carlo simulations of fish catch from India's Chilika lagoon over the next 40 years are compared to conditions that are ecologically and socio-economically desirable. Akin to a satellite-navigation system, the model identifies multidimensional pathways giving at least a 75% chance of achieving the desirable future.

This talk is part of the Isaac Newton Institute Seminar Series series.

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