Dynamics of Resilience in Complex Adaptive Systems

Ecosystems are a type of complex system, and as such share general rules of behavior with other types of complex adaptive systems. Research across a wide variety of disciplines has uncovered rules of system dynamics that address features of self-organization and emergence. Work in the field of ecology has proposed that resilience may be an emergent phenomenon of complex adaptive systems, and in particular, social-ecological systems. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb or buffer while staying organized around the same key structures, processes, and functions. As our understanding of non-linear dynamics and complex systems has grown in recent years, the concept of resilience has exploded, and a great deal of work has been done to understand how resilience emerges and what system components and interactions comprise resilience.

One of the key findings is summarized in the cross-scale resilience model, which proposes that the distribution of species and the functions they represent within and across the scales of an ecosystem plays a key role in system resilience. While most previous work has been explicitly focused on social-ecological systems, there is some tantalizing evidence to suggest that resilience and the cross-scale model may also be applicable to other types of complex adaptive systems, such as economies.

In a more applied exploration of these ideas, the role of species abundance, coupled with their distribution of function, is an element of the cross-scale model that remains unexplored.


This project has two objectives.
1. Explore the discontinuity hypothesis and cross-scale model in greater detail at both ends of the research spectrum, building the theoretical foundations of the cross-scale model and thus its applicability to other complex adaptive systems, in order to expand our understanding of the cross-scale model to incorporate species’ abundances and potentially use it as a tool for resource managers to use for identifying impending regime shifts.
2. Focus on improving our understanding of the relationship between cross-scale distributions, species abundance, and regime shifts at a system level.

Current Status

This project will be finished in December of 2017. Theoretical/conceptual work has focused on expanding the cross-scale resilience model to incorporate the role of abundance, and making the case that adaptive cycles and panarchy are not just a metaphor of system dynamics of change and development over time. Applied work has included identifying discontinuities in economies as complex adaptive systems and testing possible processes that would generate scale-specific attractors; looking for spatial regimes across terrestrial and aquatic systems; and will conclude with an analysis of the relationship between cross-scale resilience and degradation gradients in coral reef fish communities.

Principal Investigator(s)
-Craig R. Allen, NE CFWRU
Graduate Student(s)
-Shana Sundstrom, Ph.D.
Project Duration
August 2012- December 2017
-U.S. Geological Survey
-Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis
Project Location
Northwest United States and Statewide Nebraska