Category Archives: Regime Shifts

Nobel Symposium in Stockholm

I just argued the human role in the Anthropocene with Will Steffen at the 2011 Nobel Laureate Symposium in Stockholm.  In a mock court, in front of a jury of Nobelists, I successfully argued that:

1) Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch, but 4) Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene

2) Humanity has substantial capacity to cope with tipping points, they do not represent “catastrophic change” (from the perspective of humanity).

3) Humanity needs learn how to cope with a novel, turbulent world requires change – based on learning, experimentation, diversity.

The rest of the symposium is is being broadcast on the web.

The symposium’s website provides a description of the meeting:

This third Nobel Laureate Symposium will focus on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change.

Climate change, decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty and a continuously growing population all contribute to reducing the planet’s resilience and may have catastrophic implications for humanity.

Each of these problems has attracted great attention from the international community, but they have invariably been considered in isolation, with little or no regard to the interactions between them.

It is time to change this approach.

The Symposium is organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Stockholm Environment Institute, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.

The Symposium, organised with the participation and support of HM King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, will provide an informal setting for productive discussions on how we can transform current governance into a more sustainable and adaptive management approach that operates within the boundaries of the planet.

It will take place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm between 16-19 May and will include a mix of plenary presentations, panel discussions and working group sessions. The Symposium will be concluded with a Royal dinner hosted by HM Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Interesting recent resilience papers

A few recent papers on resilience are quite exciting.  Below are brief pointers to them.  Hopefully we will have more time to right about them in the future.

  1. Steve Carpenter and colleagues Early Warnings of Regime Shifts: A Whole-Ecosystem Experiment in Science (DOI:10.1126/science.1203672)
    Uses experimental lakes to show that early warning signs of regime shifts can be detected (with high frequency monitoring).
  2. Kendra McSweeney and Oliver Coomes Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras PNAS 108(13) 5203-5208 (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014123108)
    Response of a community in Honduras to Hurricane Mitch shows that disasters can provide opportunities for the poor.
  3. JP Evans Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of Institute of British Geographers 36 (2): 223-237 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00420.x)
    A geographer reflects on the consequences of resilience approaches to cities – especially Urban LTER in USA.
  4. Bill Currie Units of nature or processes across scales? The ecosystem concept at age 75.  New Phytologist 109(1) 21-34. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03646.x)
    An ecosystem ecologist looks at the history, problems, and possible future of the ecosystem concept.

Resilience and Life in the Arctic

On Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Resilience Alliance Board voted to accept Eddy Carmack as the new Program Research Director. Eddy is a climate oceanographer studying water and people from oceans to estuaries as scientific lead for the Canada’s Three Oceans monitoring program in the Arctic and Subarctic; he is retiring in 2011.  He invented something extraordinary – a Philosopher’s Cruise on the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent as it journeyed through the North West Passage while monitoring data were collected. It was like the meetings on islands that the Resilience Alliance delights in.  It brought scientists form different disciplines, from the polar climate change community, philosophers, senior leaders in the Canadian government, Dene from the Canadian Senate, aboriginal and other young people, policy advisors to governments, business people from communications and people from the Resilience Alliance.  We lectured and talked, and discovered new steps. I describe my discoveries and one new step here. – CSH

Is the Arctic about to flip into a new state as a consequence of climate change?   It is certainly the first region of the world where climate change has so clearly demonstrated its early impacts. But it is also the place where political transformations have opened the opportunity for leaders and citizens to address economic, social and ecological changes. Such flips are an inevitable potential in any living system. They are rare but dramatic, and potentially transforming.  One of the steps that can now be made is to join the international science monitoring effort with a community based one.

How We Grow, How We Die, How We Transform

The Arctic is no different from any system of life. Every living system, at some stage, grows: a baby, a neighborhood, a company, a town, a forest, a grassland, a nation, a global set of biophysical and human processes, During the early phase, growth is dominated by entrepreneurial processes.  Early growth in a temperate forest, for example, sees saplings beginning to grow on a landscape during a period when entrepreneurial, pioneer species and physical forces dominate.  The system then continues to develop during an intermediate period with more diverse interacting species, leading to a period where a mature forest of a few species emerges that captures and stores the capital that has been accumulated.

But also, nearing the culmination of this first phase of growth and accumulation, resilience gradually decreases, new invaders are progressively resisted, and the system becomes locally stable but rigid, less resilient, with little latitude for innovation or for adapting to surprise. For example, the 800 year old trees of the Cathedral Grove in the Vancouver Island temperate rain forest stun the mind and entrance the spirit.  But its delights as a mature, temperate rain forest, immense and still, but singing with its small bits, also poise it on a sensitive edge of collapse. Remember the great windstorm of January 1997 that felled a number of giants? As a mature forest, it had become, and the survivors continue to be, an accident waiting to happen.  In other forests, the accident might be a fire, a windstorm or an insect or disease outbreak.

When collapse is triggered, then reorganization and renewal follows.  That is when power lays in the hands of the individual- plant, animal, person or small group. They can launch experiments, some of which can survive to determine the future. This is when resilience expands and where surprise and novelty can suddenly appear. The collapse is a kind of Schumpeterian creative destruction: certainly destructive, but much more interesting, also creative because it releases new opportunity that earlier was smothered. That might lead to the return of the original cycle from the memory of the old established by their seeds and saplings. Or more intriguingly, novelty might emerge as invasive species establish unexpected synergies with native species that fruitfully nucleate a new system, a new cycle.

That full cycle is what we call the Adaptive Cycle, one where there is a “front-loop” of growth, followed by a “back loop” of collapse and reorganization (see: Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002).

In terrestrial ecological systems, change during the front loop is incremental and learning is gradual and applied. It is essentially predictable.  In contrast, during the back loop, disorganization reigns, constraints are removed and probabilistic events can begin to emerge and synergize to nucleate the beginning of a new pathway. That back loop is faster in natural ecological systems than the front loop. It is the time when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. Learning can be dramatic, but it is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop is inherently unpredictable.

The front loop is a period of increasing efficiency, the back loop a period of reemerging resilience.


At times, the memory of the old system can be subverted by larger changes that, at a larger scale of cycles, have set new conditions that can flip biospheres into new states at smaller scales.  Going up and down such scales is what Panarchy adds to the Adaptive Cycle (see: Holling, C.S., Gunderson, L. H. and G.D. Peterson, 2002)

Global climate change did that 11,000 years ago, and established the conditions for new biospheres.  For example, much of Florida, and I would guess, Cedar Key, where we used to live, earlier was dry oak and grass savannas since so much of the water of the world was still trapped in ice sheets.  Shorelines were many kilometers from their present location, and the present Everglades were semi-arid lands.

Similarly, the southern edge of the present Boreal Forest was a mixed oak and beech savanna, waiting for the ice sheets to retreat and for the appearance of new species from the south that gradually, in a sequence of adaptive cycles, established the present interacting mix of spruce and fir, jack-pine, alders and birch.

When our view of the scale of a system in space and in time is expanded in this manner, new ranges of scale are perceived where ecosystems become seen as transient assemblages, that for a time- long for people, short for evolving systems- maintain persistent associations of species and local climate, to be ultimately replaced by new conditions that have emerged at a larger scale. Regional or global changes in climate intrude, and ultimately the earlier association breaks down to evolve to another.

Inside vs. Outside the System

Time and space scales in the boreal forest (from Peterson et al 1998. Ecosystems)

I have written this to this point inferring an Olympian view from inside the system, where we perceive with equal precision small and big elements, fast and slow ones and all in between. The fast cycling of leaves are perceived as precisely, with as much detail as the very slow millennial scale cycling of bioregions. The first occurs in days and months, and the other in centuries and hundreds of kilometers.  But standing outside the full system, in real life, we humans see partial chunks of that full spectrum. We perceive and live in a reduced scale range.  Some elements have a speed that are seen and reacted to immediately, some are slower and are seen roughly and periodically.  For long periods, as the slow elements on the inside change, that change is invisible to us on the outside.

Hence, within our constrained, but swinging rhythm, for long periods we see and act on principally the fast variables.  Changes in them dominate our actions, management and policies.  Think of the recent financial crisis that precipitated a global surge of surprise and the unknown in 2008/2009. That emerged because our society had slowly evolved a global economy based on a front loop concentration on fast investments through reduced financial regulation and monitoring and on extending globally.  Removing controls on an imaginary market was seen as allowing the market to solve any unexpected deviations without explicit attention.  Big instabilities could be forgotten. That is as much of a joke of limited economic theory as it is of myopic vision.

This focus on fast economic variables led to an emphasis on efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing, hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments.  No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy.  Globalization spread the collapse.  What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

The Planet First, The People Next

Now that process is happening to biophysical elements, not just economic ones.  Humans have become a global force by also slowly increasing green house gas emissions, modifying the landscape and transforming the hydrosphere. We are, perhaps, at the beginning of the impact of those slow changes as climate warms because of human influences. Humans have become a global force. We are at the time of a large scale back loop when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. It is the global time when small is beautiful and local experiment most useful. Learning is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop, recall, is inherently unpredictable.

That is particularly evident in the Arctic now as we see the floating ice sheets dramatically contract and glaciers melt. Over the past decade, radar satellite imagery shows that the ice sheets on the Arctic Ocean have shrunk to 2/3 of their original extent and thickness. It is simply astonishing that the thickness can be measured within a few centimeters from space!

The image of change described earlier shows adaptive cycles arranged in structures across scales. This equally applies to a different set of ecological and physical processes at the top of the world, in the Arctic region.

In one orientation of a map of the top of the world, sitting on the pole, scanning the world above the Arctic Circle, we see Alaska at the top left, Canada on the left side, Greenland and Iceland on left bottom, Norway, Sweden, and Finland on the right bottom and Russia sprawling throughout the right side to the top.  Those nations represent the Arctic Council of eight nations. This is indeed a view from the top of the world.

The Arctic Ocean dominates the center of the map, while Northern Alaska, the Canadian Arctic archipelago and Greenland fringe the left side.  This is the region where the North West Passage was imagined in its alternate routes. This is a region, at smaller scales, of ocean passages, changing ocean currents, productive biotic hotspots, and Inuit communities with polar bears, beluga whales, seals and Arctic fox both at the top of the world and the top of the food network or chain. Even the subsurface topography is only crudely known as are the biotic interactions and the water chemistry.  The Beaufort Sea is now freshening as melt water creates the largest collection of fresh water in the world. The area is the focus of the International Polar Year (IPY) and, more specifically of Canada’s contribution: The Canada’s Three Oceans (C3O) project, led by Eddy Carmac (Carmac and Mclaughlin. 2011).

That project is dedicated to monitoring the Arctic from the northern Pacific through the Arctic into the northern Atlantic. Physical, chemical and biological attributes are sampled along a trajectory that can ultimately reveal, when repeated, the changes that occur as regional temperature increases.  Melting of floating ice sheets, increases in water acidity, and hints of impacts on some species in the trophic network are already evident.  The most obvious hints come from speculation concerning polar bears as they hunt for food on diminishing ice sheets.  But there are also hints from suspicions about planktonic species. Fish resources are likely to respond, and the knowledge needed to mange them is weak.

These observations reinforce the steps now underway to collect the kind of data, test speculations and develop models that are essential as change progresses on the top of the world.  The possibility of flips of ecological systems is very real, with surprises emerging that will have positive and negative consequences from a human perspective.  There are existing examples on land as permafrost melts; more will appear in the oceans.

The economic consequences for access to new fossil fuel sources and for ship movement through the Arctic are increasingly raising social, ecological and political issues that challenge and invite a cooperative regime of governance among the nations of the north. Perhaps Norway’s experience as one of the eight Arctic nations can help.  They have dealt with their own oil development in a way that recognizes present and future social needs. Perhaps those lessons are transferable to other Arctic nations.  At the moment, however, individual nations tend to launch competitive national initiatives to establish sovereignty, in preparation for international negotiations.

Next the People

These clear changes in the impacts of climate change suggest a need to expand national efforts to moderate climate change from present  international steps limiting greenhouse gas emissions, to new regional steps to adapt to existing and expected effects of changes in climate (for example, see Visbeck, 2008). Active Adaptive Management then becomes a priority, and the north the place to initiate and test the steps. Scientists, stakeholders and citizens are an integral part of the approach that has evolved. In the Arctic new scientific, social and political forces can combine for mutual benefit as an initiative leading to international action.

The polar program is therefore more than natural science. It is politics, history and social science as well.  Preeminently, the Inuit will be profoundly affected.

Historically, it is hard to imagine a more adaptive culture than that of the Inuit who lived on ice and land in the Arctic, prior to the appearance of Europeans. The Inuit and others hunted and lived over 4 000 years in ecological edges and hotspots, shifting away when climate became colder, back again when it got warmer.  Throughout, they adapted inventively for blunt survival.

The appearance of Europeans launched one transformation of these societies. Conversation now with those who live in and know the north feature telling stories of the isolating, shattering Residential Schools, of forced movement of Inuit groups torn from northern Quebec forests to Arctic deserts. The Churches, RCMP, and the government were blind, locked in their own paradigm of conquest and dominance. These are examples from our past that now are seen as representing beautifully intentioned narrowness and overwhelming ignorance (McGrath 2008).

Since then, the Inuit have experienced both crises and opportunities whose effects are barely grasped as settlements increasingly detach people and parts of their culture from the land and seascape.

The Arctic is now on the edge of a new sudden flip into a new regime caused by climatic, global economic and social causes. The Inuit’s adaptive capacity is one element that could help invent elements for the transition. Recent changes in political structures in northern Canada, Alaska and in Greenland open the opportunities. In addition, the best of integrative science at the scales now examined in Polar Studies is the other.  Extending the work of the International Polar Year and of the Three Canadian Oceans’ Project is therefore a prime opportunity.

A fundamental step for that extension is to join a new social initiative with existing scientific ones.  That could be done in a program that developed a consortium of local communities to monitor the physical, biological and social changes on land and at sea, using small vessels or snow machines owned by each community.

An early example of such a program is provided by Carmack and Macdonald (2008) who describe examples of indigenous knowledge and western science combining to give deeper insight than either alone. That local monitoring can combine to provide data and understanding at a next larger scale. And that in turn would combine with the IPY and 3CO programs for a full Arctic and costal assessment.

The Panarchy would be bridged and its different speeds perceived.  People would combine their talents, different experiences and histories as a stage for policy responses globally and regionally and for living locally.

That sounds nice, but how will we get people from eight different nations to cooperate, and have their governments act accordingly and not with selfish greed for resources?

Such an initiative would have its own local economic benefit as residents used their community vessel for other activities as well.  It would, for example, connect to the existing Canadian Rangers program, an existing network of local peoples with extraordinary skills in living on the land. There is deep knowledge of ecosystems and environment in every community of the Arctic and of the Pacific coast, knowledge drawn from the history and present experiences of the Inuit and First Nations. This new project would open a new direction to build on the deep identities indigenous peoples have slowly evolved in their earlier worlds. It could begin small and expand as naturally appropriate.

Imagine the potential for the Inuit kid or the young Haida native to develop the knowledge that can link his elders knowledge, with modern science, and economically viable harvesting, across scales.  A member of a true regional and global citizenship, who could recapture a disappearing identity.


Carmack, Eddy and Fiona McLaughlin. 2011. Towards recognition of physical and geochemical change in Subarctic and Arctic Seas. Progress in Oceanography. in press. (doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2011.02.007)

Carmack, Eddy and Robie Macdonald. 2008.  Water and ice-related phenomena in the Costal Region of the Beaufort Sea: Some parallels between native experience and western science. Arctic 61(3): 1-16.

Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London.

Holling, C. S., L.H. Gunderson and G.D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3, 63-102.

McGrath, M. 2006. The Long Exile. Alfred A. Knopf, Nerw York, 268 pp.

Visbeck, M. 2008. From climate assessment to climate services. Nature Geosciences, 1, 2-3. doi:10.1038/ngeo.2007.55

Resilience 2011: notes on regime shifts and coupled social-ecological systems

The Resilience 2011 conference was a unique opportunity to meet people and new ways of thinking about resilience. This post is dedicated to the sessions I enjoyed the most, and my research interests biased me towards sessions on regime shifts and coupled social-ecological system analysis.

As PhD student working with regime shifts, it was not surprisingly that the panel on research frontiers for anticipating regime shifts was on my top list. Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University introduced the theoretical basis of critical transitions on social-ecological systems. His talk was complemented by his PhD student Vasilis Dakos on early warnings. Their methods are based on the statistical properties of systems when approaching a bifurcation point. These are gradual increase in spatial and temporal auto-correlation, as well as variability. A perfect counterpoint to these theoretical approaches was offered by Peter Davies from University of Tasmania; who presented the case study of a river catchment in Tasmania. Davies and colleagues introduced Bayesian networks as a method to estimate regime shifts, their likelihood and possible thresholds. Victor Galaz from Stockholm Resilience Centre presented an updated version of his work with web crawlers, exploring how well informed Internet search can give early warnings on, for example, disease outbreaks. Galaz point out the role of local knowledge as fundamental component of the filtering mechanism for early warning systems.  Questions from the audience and organizers were focused on the intersections from theory and practical applications of early warnings.

While Dakos’ technique does not need deep understanding of the system under study, his time series analysis approach does require long time series. On the other hand, Bayesian networks require a deep understanding of the system and their feedbacks in order to make well-informed assumptions to design models. An alternative approach was proposed by Steve Lade from Max Planck Institute in a parallel session, who used generalized models to identify the model’s Jacobian. Although his approach does need a basic knowledge of the system, it is able to identify critical transitions with limited time series, typical of social-ecological datasets in developing countries.

Most of the work on regime shifts is based on state variables that reflect either ecological processes or social dynamics, but rarely both. Thus, I was also interesting in advances on operationalizing the concept of critical transitions to social-ecological systems in a broader sense. I looked for modeling examples where it is easier to track how researchers couple social and ecological dynamics. Here are some notes on the modeling sessions.

J.M. Anderies and M.A. Janssen from Arizona State University (ASU) presented their work on the impact of uncertainty on collective action. They used a multi-agent model based in irrigation experiments (games in the lab). Their work caught my attention because first they capture the role of asymmetries in common pool resources, which is often overlooked. In the case of irrigation systems, it is given by the relative positions of “head-enders” and “tail-enders” with different access to the resource.  Secondly, they used their model to explore how uncertainty both in water variability and shocks to infrastructure affects the evolution of cooperation.

Ram Bastakoti and colleagues (ASU) complemented the previous talk by bringing Anderies and Janssen insights to the field, particularly to cases in Thailand, Nepal and Pakistan. Batstakoti is studying the robustness of irrigation systems to different source of disturbances including policy changes, market pressure and the biophysical variability associated with resource dynamics. In the following talk, Rimjhim Aggarwal (ASU) presented the case of India, a highly populated country facing a food security challenge in the forthcoming decades; where groundwater levels are falling faster than expected. Aggarwal research explores the tradeoffs among development trajectories. His focus on technological lock-ins and debt traps as socially reinforced mechanism towards undesirable regimes makes his study case a potential regime shift example.

My colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University also presented interesting work on modeling social-ecological dynamics. Emilie Lindqvist uses a theoretical agent model to explore the role of learning and memory in natural resource management. Her main results point out that long-term learning and memory is essential for coping with abrupt decline or cyclic resource dynamics. On the other hand, Jon Norberg and Marty Anderies presented a theoretical agent model where social capital dynamics are coupled with a typical fishery model. Although their work is still prelimary, it was the only talk that I saw which actually coupled social and ecological dynamics.

Resilience 2011 gave me the opportunity to rethink and learn a lot about regime shifts. Although my main question: how to study regime shifts in coupled social-ecological system remains unsolved, the discussions in the panel sessions gave me some possible ways of tackling it.

The research agenda on regime shifts is strongly developing towards early warnings. Three competing methods arise:

  1. look for signals in spatial and temporal data by examining the statistical properties of a system approaching a threshold: increase in variance and autocorrelation
  2. acquire a deep knowledge of feedback dynamics and apply Bayesian networks to understand and predict potential interacting thresholds
  3. use shallow knowledge of the system to estimate their Jacobian using short time series.

Social and ecological dynamics are hard to couple. It is not only because there are usually studied in different disciplines with different methods. My guess is that the rates of change of their main variables occur at very different rates. As consequence social scientists assume nature dynamics to be constant or as drivers, while natural scientists assume the “social stuff” to be constant as well.

Modelers have started breaking the ice by introducing noise to the external variables (e.g. rainfall variability, political instability, market pressure); or by looking at how memory or social capital at individual level scale up to resource dynamics. However, their main insights remain confined to study cases making difficult to generalize or study the coupling of society with global change trends.

Does an increased awareness of catastrophic “tipping points”, really trigger political action?

This critical question relates to a suite of resilience related research fields, ranging from early warnings of catastrophic shifts in ecosystems, non-linear planetary boundaries, and the role of perceived crisis as triggers of transformations towards more adaptive forms of ecosystem governance.

The answer might seem quite straight-forward: “yes!”. Why wouldn’t political actors try to steer away from potentially devastating tipping points? Political philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner elaborates the opposite position in a very thought-provoking article in the Journal of Social Philosophy (2009) about the moral implications of abrupt climate change.

Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries

According to Gardiner, several economical, psychological and intergenerational dilemmas make it likely that an increased awareness of devastating “tipping points”, undermine political actors’ work towards effective climate change mitigation. Instead, it induces them to focus on adaptation measures, and involve in what Gardiner denotes an “Intergenerational Arms Race”.

Suppose, for example, that a given generation knew that it would be hit with a catastrophic abrupt change no matter what it did. Might it not be inclined to fatalism? If so, then the temporal proximity of abrupt change would actually enhance political inertia, rather than undercut it. (Why bother?)

In addition, according to Gardiner, in facing abrupt climate change, there will be other more urgent concerns than climate change mitigation, again creating greater risks for future generations.

[T]he proximity of the abrupt change may actually provide an incentive for increasing current emissions above the amount that even a completely self-interested generation would normally choose. What I have in mind is this. Suppose that a generation could increase its own ability to cope with an impending abrupt change by increasing its emissions beyond their existing level. (For example, suppose that it could boost economic output to enhance adaptation efforts by relaxing existing emissions standards.) Then, it would have a generation-relative reason to do so, and it would have this even if the net costs of the additional emissions to future generations far exceed the short-term benefits. Given this, it is conceivable that the impending presence of a given abrupt change may actually exacerbate the PIBP “the problem of intergenerational buck passing”], leaving future generations worse off than under the gradualist paradigm.

So what are the ways to get out of this dilemma? Gardiner suggests:

In my view, if we are to solve this problem, we will need to look beyond people’s generation-relative preferences. Moreover, the prevalence of the intergenerational problem suggests that one set of motivations that we need to think hard about engaging is those connected to moral beliefs about our obligations to those only recently, or not yet, born. This leaves us with one final question. Can the abrupt paradigm assist us in this last task? Perhaps so: for one intriguing possibility is that abrupt change will help us to engage intergenerational motivations.

(Thanks to Simon Birnbaum for passing on Gardiner’s article.)

Steve Carpenter wins Stockholm Water Prize

Big congratulations to my former post-doc advisor Steve Carpenter on winning the 2011  Stockholm Water Prize.  It is well deserved as Steve has done a huge amount of really innovative work on ecosystem dynamics, ecological economics, large scale ecosystem experiments,  and environmental management.

The prize citation writes:

Professor Carpenter’s groundbreaking research has shown how lake ecosystems are affected by the surrounding landscape and by human activities. His findings have formed the basis for concrete solutions on how to manage lakes.

Professor Carpenter, 59, is recognised as one of the world’s most influential environmental scientists in the field of ecology. By combining theoretical models and large-scale lake experiments he has reframed our understanding of freshwater environments and how lake ecosystems are impacted by humans and the surrounding landscape.

The Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee emphasises the importance of Professor Carpenter’s contributions in helping us understand how we affect lakes through nutrient loading, fishing, and introduction of exotic species.

“Professor Carpenter has shown outstanding leadership in setting the ecological research agenda, integrating it into a socio-ecological context, and in providing guidance for the management of aquatic resources,” noted the Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee.

The Stockholm Water Prize is a global award founded in 1991 and presented annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute to an individual, organisation or institution for outstanding water-related activities. The Stockholm Water Prize Laureate receives USD 150,000 and a crystal sculpture specially designed and created by Orrefors.

H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who is the patron of the Prize, will formally present Professor Carpenter with the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony in Stockholm City Hall on August 25 during the 2011 World Water Week in Stockholm.

SIWI, who gives the water prize have also posted an interview with Steve about his work on trophic cascades and resilience:

Mapping impact of snow and ice feedbacks on climate

NASA Earth Observatory Image of the day has some powerful figures created with data from a new paper by Mark Flanner and others Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008. in Nature Geoscience. They use satellite data to estimate how changes in snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere have contributed to rising temperatures over the last 30 years. They found that these changes in albedo have warmed the planet more than expected from models.

NASA Earth Observatory writes:

The left image shows how much energy the Northern Hemisphere’s snow and ice—called the cryosphere—reflected on average between 1979 and 2008. Dark blue indicates more reflected energy, in Watts per square meter, and thus more cooling. The Greenland ice sheet reflects more energy than any other single location in the Northern Hemisphere. The second-largest contributor to cooling is the cap of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean.

The right image shows how the energy being reflected from the cryosphere has changed between 1979 and 2008. When snow and ice disappear, they are replaced by dark land or ocean, both of which absorb energy. The image shows that the Northern Hemisphere is absorbing more energy, particularly along the outer edges of the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice has disappeared, and in the mountains of Central Asia.

“On average, the Northern Hemisphere now absorbs about 100 PetaWatts more solar energy because of changes in snow and ice cover,” says Flanner. “To put it in perspective, 100 PetaWatts is seven-fold greater than all the energy humans use in a year.” Changes in the extent and timing of snow cover account for about half of the change, while melting sea ice accounts for the other half.

Flanner and his colleagues made both calculations by compiling field measurements and satellite observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, and Nimbus-7 and DMSP SSM/I passive microwave data. The analysis is the first calculation of how much the energy the entire cryosphere reflects. It is also the first observation of changes in reflected energy because of changes in the entire cryosphere.

Reading through computer eyes

by Juan Carlos Rocha (PhD student at Stockholm Resilience Centre working on Regime Shifts)

An N-gram is a sequence of characters separated by a space in a text. An N-gram may be a word, a number or a combination of both. The concept of N-grams simplifies the application of statistical methods to assess the frequency of a word or a phrase in body of text. N-gram statistical analyses have been around for years, but recently Jean-Baptiste Michel and collaborators had the opportunity to applying N-gram text analysis techniques to the massive Google Books collection of digitalized books. They analyzed over 5 million documents which they estimate are about 4% of all books ever published, and published their work in Science [doi].

The potential of exploring huge amounts of text, which no single person could read, provides the opportunity to trace the use of words over time. This allows researchers to track the impact of events on word use and even the evolution of language, grammar and culture. For example, by counting the words used in English books, the team found that in the year 2000 the English lexicon had over one million words, and it has been growing about 8500 words per year. Similarly, they were able to track word fads, for example the changes in the regular or irregular forms of verb conjugations over time (e.g. burned vs burnt). More interestingly, based on particular events and famous names they identified that our collective memory, as recorded in books, has both a short-term and long-term component; we are forgetting our past faster than before; but we are also learning faster when it comes to, for example, the adoption of technologies.

The options for reading books with machine eyes does not end there. Censorship during the German Nazi regime was identified by comparing the frequency of author’s names in the German and English corpus. The researchers could detect a fingerprint of the suppression of a person’s ideas in the language corpus.

The researchers term this quantitative analysis of our historic knowledge and culture through the analysis of this huge amount of data – culturomics. They plan further research will incorporate newspapers, manuscripts, artwork, maps and other human creations. Possible future applications are the development of methods for historical epidemiology (e.g. influenza peaks), the analysis of conflicts and wars, the evolution of ideas (e.g. feminism), and I think, why not ecological regime shifts?

Above you can see the frequency of some of the regime shifts we are working with in the English corpus. Soil salinization and lake eutrophication appear in 1940’s and 1960’s respectively, probably with the first description of such shifts. Similarly, coral bleaching take off during the 1980’s when reef degradation in the Caribbean basin began to be documented. Similarly, the concept of regime shift has been more and more used since 1980’s, probably not only to describe ecological shifts but also political and managerial transitions.

Although data may be noisy, the frequency of shock events may be tracked as well. Here for example we plot oil spill and see the peak corresponding to the case of January 1989 in Floreffe, Pennsylvania. Note that it does not show the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year because the database is updated to 2008.

If you want to play around with your favorite words or your theme of interest, have a look to the n-gram viewer at Google Labs and have fun!

Seed’s global reset on tipping points and systematic risk

Seed magazine has a special issue on new approaches to interconnected and complex challenges. It also features interesting articles on TEEB and ecological economics, new modes of science, forecasting, tipping points and systematic risk.  As well as,  Carl Folke’s article on resilience, which I mentioned previously.

Economist Ian Goldin writes on On Systemic risks

Systemic risk is the underbelly of globalization and technical change. Intense integration of markets, trade, and finance has accompanied the latest tidal wave of globalization, facilitated by seismic policy shifts, like those associated with the fall of the Soviet Union, the formation of the European Union, and the opening of emerging economies. Between 1980 and 2005, global foreign-investment flows increased 18 times, and trade flows increased more than sevenfold, reflecting unprecedented integration.

… While the term “systemic risk” has historically referred mainly to collapses in finance, recent decades of globalization have created new and broader risks. There has been an exponential increase in the number of nodes and pathways through which materials, capital, information, and knowledge can be transmitted at lightning speeds and with global reach. These networks also have the potential to create and propagate risk. Interconnectedness, networks’ central property, can lead simultaneously to greater robustness and more fragility. Risk can decline as connectivity increases because as risk sharing increases, so does the number of nodes and links. This is true of financial systems, manufacturing services, intellectual property, and ecosystems. However, increased fragility is also a concern. Once a tipping point is triggered past its threshold, connectivity can amplify and spread risk instead of sharing it stably.

Looming systemic risks include pandemics, which may spread more rapidly across a densely connected world, and bio-terrorism risks, which are likely to become increasingly systemic in the 21st century. The ability to produce biological and other weapons of mass destruction is becoming more widespread, especially among non-state actors, due to technological innovation (not least with the development of DNA synthesizers). Increases in population density, urbanization, and the growth of connectivity, both physically and virtually, means that dangerous recipes and panic can be instantaneously transmitted globally. And climate change, a silent tsunami that crept up on us, presents major systemic environmental, social, and economic risks to humanity.

In an article On Early Warning Signs of tipping points ecologist George Sugihara writes:

A key phenomenon known for decades is so-called “critical slowing” as a threshold approaches. That is, a system’s dynamic response to external perturbations becomes more sluggish near tipping points. Mathematically, this property gives rise to increased inertia in the ups and downs of things like temperature or population numbers—we call this inertia “autocorrelation”—which in turn can result in larger swings, or more volatility. In some cases, it can even produce “flickering,” or rapid alternation from one stable state to another (picture a lake ricocheting back and forth between being clear and oxygenated versus algae-ridden and oxygen-starved). Another related early signaling behavior is an increase in “spatial resonance”: Pulses occurring in neighboring parts of the web become synchronized. Nearby brain cells fire in unison minutes to hours prior to an epileptic seizure, for example, and global financial markets pulse together. The autocorrelation that comes from critical slowing has been shown to be a particularly good indicator of certain geologic climate-change events, such as the greenhouse-icehouse transition that occurred 34 million years ago; the inertial effect of climate-system slowing built up gradually over millions of years, suddenly ending in a rapid shift that turned a fully lush, green planet into one with polar regions blanketed in ice.

The global financial meltdown illustrates the phenomenon of critical slowing and spatial resonance. Leading up to the crash, there was a marked increase in homogeneity among institutions, both in their revenue-generating strategies as well as in their risk-management strategies, thus increasing correlation among funds and across countries—an early warning. Indeed, with regard to risk management through diversification, it is ironic that diversification became so extreme that diversification was lost: Everyone owning part of everything creates complete homogeneity. Reducing risk by increasing portfolio diversity makes sense for each individual institution, but if everyone does it, it creates huge group or system-wide risk. Mathematically, such homogeneity leads to increased connectivity in the financial system, and the number and strength of these linkages grow as homogeneity increases. Thus, the consequence of increasing connectivity is to destabilize a generic complex system: Each institution becomes more affected by the balance sheets of neighboring institutions than by its own. The role of systemic risk monitoring, then, could simply be rapid detection and dissemination of potential imbalances, much as we allow frequent underbrush fires to burn in order to forestall catastrophic wildfires. Provided that these kinds of imbalances can be rapidly identified, maybe we will need no regulation beyond swift diffusion of information. Having frequent, small disruptions could even be the sign of a healthy, innovative financial system.

Further tactical lessons could be drawn from similarities in the structure of bank payment networks and cooperative, or “mutualistic,” networks in biology. These structures are thought to promote network growth and support more species. Consider the case of plants and their insect pollinators: Each group benefits the other, but there is competition within groups. If pollinators interact with promiscuous plants (generalists that benefit from many different insect species), the overall competition among insects and plants decreases and the system can grow very large.

Relationships of this kind are seen in financial systems too, where small specialist banks interact with large generalist banks. Interestingly, the same hierarchical structure that promotes biodiversity in plant-animal cooperative networks may increase the risk of large-scale systemic failures: Mutualism facilitates greater biodiversity, but it also creates the potential for many contingent species to go extinct, particularly if large, well-connected generalists—certain large banks, for instance—disappear. It becomes an argument for the “too big to fail” policy, in which the size of the company’s Facebook network matters more than the size of its balance sheet.

Food security and financial markets

FAO says that Food price volatility a major threat to food security:

Concluding a day-long special meeting in Rome the experts recognized that unexpected price hikes “are a major threat to food security” and recommended further work to address their root causes.

The recommendations, put forward by the Inter-Governmental Groups (IGGs) on Grains and on Rice, came as FAO issued a report showing that international wheat prices have soared 60-80 percent since July while maize spiked about 40 percent.

The meeting said that “Global cereal supply and demand still appears sufficiently in balance”, adding, “unexpected crop failure in some major exporting countries followed by national policy responses and speculative behaviour rather than global market fundamentals have been the main factors behind the recent escalation of world prices and the prevailing high price volatility.”

Among the root causes of volatility, the meeting identified “Growing linkage with outside markets, in particular the impact of ‘financialization’ on futures markets”. Other causes were listed as insufficient information on crop supply and demand, poor market transparency, unexpected changes triggered by national food security situations, panic buying and hoarding.

The Groups therefore recommended exploring “alternative approaches to mitigating food price volatility” and “new mechanisms to enhance transparency and manage the risks associated with new sources of market volatility”.

In a recent IFPRI discussion paper, Recent Food Prices Movements: A Time Series Analysis, Bryce Cooke and Miguel Robles analyze the food price spike of 2008.  They asses multiple proposed explanations (from biofuels, oil prices, weather, trade barriers, and speculative markets) using econometric time series analysis.  They conclude that financial activity in futures markets and proxies for speculation can best explain crisis.  They write:

Results of our rolling windows Granger causality tests show the following:

(1) In the case of rice prices we find weak evidence that for few 30-month intervals between 2004 and 2007, the U.S. dollar depreciation rate has marginally Granger-caused the growth rate of rice price; and also the growth rate of real world money holdings seems to be more important in explaining the growth rate of rice prices after 2004, but this evidence is not really statistically significant.

(2) When we analyze the price of soybeans we find that, starting in mid-2005 (which implies a 30-month period ending December 2007), the growth rate in the world exports of soybeans shows evidence of Granger causing the growth rate of soybean prices.

(3) In the case of corn we find that starting in the second half of 2004 the growth rate of oil prices shows evidence of Granger causing the growth rate of corn prices, but with a negative relationship.

(4) When analyzing our speculation proxies we observe that the ratio of monthly volume to open interest in futures contracts indicates that for the case of wheat and rice, starting in 2005, it has influence in forecasting price movements.

Also we find that for the case of rice, the ratio of noncommercial long positions to total long (reportable) positions has an effect on prices, starting in 2004. When we analyze the same ratio for short positions we find additional evidence for speculation affecting the growth rate of corn and soybean prices. In the case of corn there are signs of causality between March 2004 and September 2006, and during the 30-month span from May 2005 to November 2007. In the case of soybeans we find weak evidence, in particular for the 30-month period ending February 2008.

Interestingly as the rolling samples include 2008 and 2009 data, picking the decrease of grain prices since mid 2008 and the adverse effects of the global financial crisis, the evidence of speculation activity affecting spot prices vanishes in all cases. This supports the view that during the food crisis agricultural grain markets were operating under a different regime in which speculation activity played a role in spot prices formation. The overall evidence points to the following interpretation: before and after the food crisis speculation activity had no effect on spot prices formation while during the crisis it did. This is not to say that before and after the crisis speculation was not present, it was (probably to a less extent) but didn’t granger cause spot prices.

Overall, we conclude from our time series analysis that when taking the four commodities analyzed here there is evidence that financial activity in futures markets and/or speculation in these markets can help explain the behavior of these prices in recent years. Other explanations are only partially supported for the particular case of one agricultural commodity or not supported at all. We do not claim, however, that these other explanations should be disregarded; all that we can say is that in using the variables considered in this study and the particular time series models herein, we do not find such evidence.

Frederick Kaufman wrote a Harper’s magazine in July 2010 The food bubble:
How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it
that reports on finance and the food crisis. The Harper’s version is behind a paywall, but Kaufman was interviewed on Democracy Now.

More academic takes on the food crisis and the possible future of food price volatility are in:

C. Gilbert and C. Morgan’s article Food price volatility in Proc Royal Soc (DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0139 ). They conclude:

We have highlighted the extensive evidence demonstrating interconnection of financial and food commodity markets as the result of speculative activity. Nevertheless, this contention remains controversial and, until the mechanisms are better understood, the policy debate will remain confused.


C. Gilbert’s How to Understand High Food Prices in Journal of Agricultural Economics (DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-9552.2010.00248.x) whose abstract states:

Agricultural price booms are better explained by common factors than by market-specific factors such as supply shocks. A capital asset pricing model-type model shows why one should expect this and Granger causality analysis establishes the role of demand growth, monetary expansion and exchange rate movements in explaining price movements over the period since 1971. The demand for grains and oilseeds as biofuel feedstocks has been cited as the main cause of the price rise, but there is little direct evidence for this contention. Instead, index-based investment in agricultural futures markets is seen as the major channel through which macroeconomic and monetary factors generated the 2007–2008 food price rises.