Human-ecosystem interactions: Perspectives from the LTER symposium

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst

Human-ecosystem interactions are complex and ever changing, influenced by factors ranging from region to religion, family history to homeowner’s associations. And in many cases, global change is having, and will continue to have, a pronounced impact on these already dynamic relationships—not only on which ecosystem services people value, but also how they obtain, use, and protect them.

Tropical rainforest biome at the Luquillo LTER in Puerto Rico.

On March 4, scientists from Alaska to Puerto Rico gathered to consider these changes at the 9th annual LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) symposium, “Ecosystem Services in a Changing World: Perspectives from Long-Term Ecological Research.” Researchers from 8 of the National Science Foundation’s 26 LTER sites discussed the relationship between society and ecology in the regions where they do their research.

“Ecosystem services,” as Barbara Bond of the Andrews Forest LTER pointed out, is a relatively new term for an old concept. Ecosystems provide people with a wealth of resources—not just tradable goods like food and biofuels, but also public goods like clean air and cultural benefits derived from our relationship with nature. Understanding how human activity changes and is changed by ecosystems and the myriad services they provide often requires scientists to step outside of their comfort zone and include a human dimension in their research, whether by conducting informal interviews or quantitatively analyzing social phenomena.

Ecologists frequently consider how to preserve the resilience of ecosystems—how to make sure that they will continue to produce important services as they face stresses like climate change and water shortages. But we can’t have it all. At some point, said Kelli Larson (Central Arizona – Phoenix LTER), we’ll have to make some tough tradeoffs, depending on which services we value the most. Larson’s work looks at residential landscaping in the Southwest, where traditional lawns use more water but homes with pebble-covered yards use more energy to keep cool and more chemicals to control pests artificially. Sustainable living, it seems, begins not with a to-do list but rather with a question: what do we most want to sustain? (And, importantly, what do we need to sustain?)

At the heart of the symposium, then, was a new kind of social-ecological question: how do different communities interact with and value different ecosystem services, and how can ecological research inform the management of these services? The speakers approached the matter in a variety of ways: some calculated dollar values to analyze tradeoffs; others surveyed community members about their priorities and developed indices to quantitatively compare them. Still others, like Terry Chapin (Alaska’s Bonanza Creek LTER) are collaborating with local communities, engaging the people who depend on the ecosystem in research design and implementation.

Climate station at the Nutirwik site at the foot hills of the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska.
Credit: Brian Charlton

As many of the scientists pointed out, LTER sites are integrated with the community and interdisciplinary by nature, making them ideal for these new kinds of approaches. And since social phenomena drive ecological change—and vice versa, of course—including social dynamics in ecological research is an important area to explore and pursue. But as scientists take up this pursuit, they will face a broad range of new questions and challenges associated with merging the very different methodologies of social and natural sciences. Standards for experimental controls, data collection and analysis, and scientific rigor are well-suited for their respective fields, and society interprets the resulting findings accordingly. But when we fold both approaches into a single analysis, how will non-scientists interpret the results? When we condense the countless possibilities of human volition into a set of likely scenarios—an important technique in proactive management—what can we do to achieve a level of certainty on par with that of traditional data collection techniques like measuring water quality, gene flow, or phenological change? And if we can’t, what is the best way to present the results? Ecological scientists have had to consider many of these questions before when using qualitative methods to evaluate behavioral and community ecology, for example. We invite your thoughts on how these challenges have been met in the past, and on how they might be addressed in future.

Author: Piper Corp

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  1. Even though doing research on human-ecosystem interactions is an important component of dealing with climate disruption, scientists need to make a greater effort in producing products that are accessible to policy makers/elected officials and that can be utilized to reach the wider public. Since most of the development of Climate Action Plans occurs at the grassroots (some towns and states) level and signing onto the “Cool Cities” program is a local initiative as well, the Ecological Society of America needs to develop approaches to close the gap between generating scientific data and producing synthesized information useful to the public. It is important to develop media outreach and information distribution mechanisms that can reach people at the grassroots, so that we can have a push up from the bottom to get our national/some states to move from discussion of the challenges of climate disruption to action.

    As a resident of Cape Cod, Ma. and a retired marine scientist, I find that local citizens are pre-occupied by the crises of the moment (largely related to the consequences of the economic meltdown) and give little thought to how we can make the transition to sustainability. Problems like developing wind energy; upgrading our wastewater infrastructure; developing zero waste approaches to address municipal solid wastes; improving our public transportation system to reduce reliance on private vehicles; and better planning to reduce sprawl development are viewed in isolation. One reason for this is that state/federal regulations and the agencies responsible for management/regulatory oversight focus on individual components of the wider problem of reducing our carbon footprint and living more sustainably within the constraints imposed by ecosystem services. The basis of Cape Cod’s economy is tourism, second homes, retirees and real estate, so the environment is closely linked to the economy.

    In addition, the effects of climate change are already evident here. Roughly half of our residents can’t purchase home insurance in the private market and are thrust into the state system of last resort. Home owners with private insurance face high wind damage deductibles in their policies and have to pay to have trees removed near their homes to maintain their insurance policies. There have been shifts in distribution of fish populations off of our shore as our coastal ocean warms and increased loss of coastal beaches/dunes from Northeasters. There have also been temporal/spatial shifts in plants and animals on land that are either permanent residents or seasonal migrants. Some of these changes in the natural environment come from long term climate fluctuations related to the North Atlantic Oscillation, but others result from human-induced climate disruption.

    We have a number of prestigious scientific institutions in Woods Hole that provide scientific data to quantify these changes and most of the institutions conduct public outreach programs. Many of these advances in scientific understanding are covered in the local media. In spite of this favorable situation very few towns have developed Climate Action Plans and begun implementation. Only two towns have joined the “Cool Cities” program. Local Environmental NGOs hold programs on many of the challenges that we face as either a direct or indirect consequence of climate change. Since roughly 20% of our population is retirees, many of these senior citizens are engaged in volunteer endeavors to address components of this problem. Unfortunately we lack a holistic vision to address these problems in an integrated approach.

    Even though there are costs associated in addressing these problems, there are also community benefits associated with this and opportunities to create “green jobs”. Green jobs in the private sector from the expenditure of public funds will provide direct, indirect and induced economic benefits to our local towns. It would be nice if the ESA produced some outreach products that emphasize this relationship. It would also be helpful to link climate disruption with the resilience of the sociological-ecological system that supports are life styles on Cape Cod and elsewhere.


  1. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Sustainability Dilemmas - [...] theme of this year’s annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) symposium, which Piper Corp reports on at the Ecological…

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