Maldonado, Uruguay. Photo by Juan Rocha

Cascading effects

Since the industrial revolution the world’s economy has grown by a factor of 50, energy consumption by a factor of 40; and since my parents were born (1950s) human population doubled, all together causing an unprecedented rate of change in world’s ecosystems. Under current trends of anthropogenic forcing, scholars suspect that ecosystems will undergo more frequent and severe critical transitions or regime shifts. Regime shifts are abrupt reorganization of a system’s structure and function. A regime corresponds to a characteristic behavior of the system maintained by mutually reinforcing processes or feedbacks. The shift occurs when the strength of such feedbacks change, usually driven by cumulative change in slow variables, external disturbance or stochastic shocks.

Regime shifts present a challenge of ecological management and governance, because they are difficult to predict8 and reverse7, while having substantial impacts on the availability of ecosystems services9. Examples of regime shifts include i) well-established cases such as eutrophication, where lakes turn from clear water to murky water leading to reduced fishing productivity and toxic algae blooms; ii) controversial cases such as dryland degradation when dry forest and savanna shift to deserts and bare soils, significantly reducing ecosystem services such as agricultural production and water cycling; and iii) speculative regime shifts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet where the frequency and intensity of warm events will shift the ice sheet from permanent to occasional, reducing services such as coastline protection and climate regulation.

Although we have a fairly good theoretical understanding of critical transitions in ecosystems, little is know about the overall patterns of regime shifts causation and their impacts on human well being. We do not know how common they are, where are they most likely to happen, what are their main drivers, what can we do to avoid them, what are the potential cascading effects or who will be the most affected groups in society. While my doctoral research has focused on investigating the main drivers and impacts of regime shifts globally, for my postdoctoral research I would like to explore the systemic risk of cascading effects.

Objectives The aim of this project is to explore the possibility of cascading effects among regime shifts across the world. The specific objectives of this project are:

  1. Developing an analytical framework to explore theoretical feasibility of inconvenient feedbacks and domino effects
  2. Exploring the empirical evidence of potential cascading effects by modeling networks of natural resource flows across the world
  3. Communicating resource interdependence and environmental footprint across countries.