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NSF awards grants for research on coupled natural and human systems

How do humans and their environment interact, and how can we develop an understanding of these processes to adapt to a planet undergoing far-reaching climate and other environmental changes?

To answer these and related questions, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 14 grants to scientists, engineers and educators across the country to study coupled natural and human systems.

Research conducted through NSF's Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program, in its fourth year as a multi-directorate program, will provide a better understanding of natural processes and cycles and human behavior and decisions, and will examine how and where these systems intersect.

The CNH program is supported by NSF's Directorates for Biological Sciences (BIO), Geosciences (GEO) and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE).

"Understanding coupled natural and human systems lies at the heart of the quest for global sustainability, and generates crucial knowledge for solutions to environmental and socioeconomic challenges," says Sarah Ruth, program director in GEO.

"NSF's CNH projects address fundamental issues about the adaptability and resilience of human and natural systems," says Alan Tessier, program director in BIO, "and illustrate the relevance of the CNH program to the broader portfolio of sustainability research supported by NSF."

"CNH-supported projects have been particularly adept at examining the complex interactions between human activity and natural system dynamics," adds Thomas Baerwald, an SBE program director, "and these new projects will continue to do so in a diverse set of settings and problems."

This year's awardees will conduct research on fire-prone landscapes; ancient acequias, or community irrigation systems, of the southwestern U.S.; Mongolian rangeland ecosystems; pastoral societies in the Sahel; and other topics.


Title: Coupled Natural and Human Systems in Fire-Prone Landscapes: Interactions, Dynamics, and Adaptation
PI (Principal Investigator): John Bolte, University of Oregon

Summary: This project will examine how biophysical systems, management actions, and socioeconomic influences interact to affect sustainability in fire-prone landscapes in a time of climate change. The researchers will combine models of land-management decision-making, vegetative succession and fire ignition and spread, and landscape evaluators of socioeconomic and ecological system performance.

Title: Hydrologic Transformation and Human Resilience to Climate Change in the Peruvian Andes
PIs: Jeffrey Bury, University of California-Santa Cruz; Mark Carey, Washington and Lee University; Kenneth Young, University of Texas-Austin; Bryan Mark, Ohio State University

Summary: Scientists will evaluate the new system of freshwater governance emerging in the Andes Mountains of Peru, as well as how glacial dynamics are transforming meltwater rates as glaciers rapidly recede. The researchers will examine the combined effects of glacier recession on downstream watersheds, the resilience of human livelihood systems, and the ways in which economic change and shifting water governance are factors in this hydrologic, ecological, and social transformation.

Title: Acequia Water Systems Linking Culture and Nature: Integrated Analysis of Community Resilience to Climate and Land-Use Changes
PI: Alexander Fernald, New Mexico State University

Summary: The acequias of the southwestern United States are community irrigation systems based largely on ancient technology introduced to the region by 16th-century settlers. This project will examine the socioeconomic and natural resource pressures that threaten the existence of contemporary acequia-based communities. The researchers will explore links among acequia communities and associated landscapes as well as the implications of change on surface water and groundwater, wildlife habitat, and livestock grazing.

Title: Does Community-Based Rangeland Ecosystem Management Increase the Resilience of Coupled Systems to Climate Change in Mongolia?
PI: Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, Colorado State University

Summary: This project will examine how local resource-management institutions may contribute to resilience and enable communities to adapt more successfully to climate change. The researchers will assess the vulnerability of pastoral social-ecological systems to climate change in Mongolia by focusing on the operation of more than 2,000 community-based rangeland management organizations that have formed in the last decade.

Title: Hydrology, Ecology, and Pastoral Societies in the Sahel: Ephemeral and Perennial Water Resources in a Dynamic Coupled System
PI: Niall Hanan, South Dakota State University

Summary: Researchers will study changes that have altered the interaction of vegetation, surface-water flow, and human activity in the Sahel region of Africa, a region that has experienced frequent droughts and considerable year-to-year uncertainty in availability of both fodder and surface water for cattle. The scientists will provide new insights into the complex interactions and feedbacks among climate, vegetation dynamics, landscape hydrology, and the human societies that depend on and manage these systems.

Title: Removal and Restoration: Social, Economic and Ecological Dynamics of Invasive Spartina in San Francisco Bay
PI: Alan Hastings, University of California-Davis

Summary: This project will integrate biological, mathematical, economic, and political science tools to answer interrelated questions about the invasive Eastern smooth cordgrass (Spartina spp) in San Francisco Bay. The researchers will develop models that will apply to a wide range of systems where an invasive species can have long lasting effects.

Title: Modeling the Dynamics of Harmful Algal Blooms, Human Communities, and Policy Choices Along the Florida Gulf Coast
PIs: Porter Hoagland, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Barbara Kirkpatick, Mote Marine Laboratory; Andrew Reich, Florida Department of Health Division of Information Technology; Laura Fleming, University of Miami Rosenthal School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Summary: This project will examine the choices and effectiveness of policies for mitigating the economic and public health effects of blooms of the harmful alga, Karenia brevis, along the Gulf coast of Florida. The researchers will develop statistical models of biophysical and human system dynamics and relate these to demographic, environmental exposure-response, cost-minimization, and policy-simulation models.

Title: Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia and Land Use in the Mississippi River Watershed: Feedback and Scale Interactions
PIs: Catherine Kling, Iowa State University; Robert Turner, Louisiana State University; Nancy Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium; Sergey Rabotyagov, University of Washington; Raghavan Srinivasan, Texas A&M University

Summary: This project will examine the natural and human dynamics of this enormous system by the interactions among human and natural system dynamics in the Mississippi River watershed and the annual formation of an oxygen-depleted (hypoxia) zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The researchers will develop a comprehensive modeling system that relates agricultural land-use decisions made at the field scale in the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee river basins; system-wide environmental and hydrologic components; and downstream water-quality effects, including the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Title: Climate Change, Hydrology, and Landscapes of America's Heartland: A Multi-Scale Natural-Human System
PI: Christopher Lant, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale

Summary: This project will investigate the effects of anticipated climate change on the agricultural heartland of the central United States, and how adaptations to climate change will generate new landscape patterns. The researchers will link greenhouse gas emissions scenarios with models of farmer behavior, projections of land-use change, and estimates of stream flow, sediment, and nutrient loads related to those changes.

Title: The Vector Mosquito Aedes aegypti at the Margins: Sensitivity of a Coupled Natural and Human System to Climate Change
PI: Andrew Monaghan, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Summary: This project will explore the ecology of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya, with special emphasis given to the combined effects of climate variability and changes made by humans to their local environment as key aspects of both mosquito ecology and human behavior. The investigators will explore these dynamics in Mexican coastal regions.

Title: Explaining Socioecological Resilience Following Collapse: Forest Recovery in Appalachian Ohio
PIs: Darla Munroe, Ohio State University; Todd Hutchinson, Ohio University

Summary: This project will focus on the human and ecological links that give rise to specific forest forms and functions. The investigators will examine the extent to which those links and forests lead to irreversible changes in socioecological systems, focusing their attention on Appalachian Ohio, a region where forests have returned.

Title: Spontaneous Silvopastoral Landscapes: Origins, Extent, and Ecological Significance in the Ecuadorian Amazon
PI: Thomas Rudel, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Summary: This project will investigate changes in the biodiversity of the pastures that cover most agricultural lands in the neotropics of Central and South America. The researchers will examine how seed rain, soil fertility, tree species, and foraging influence the spread of trees in pastures, as well as how biodiversity, carbon storage, and biogeochemical cycling change with more trees in pastures.

Title: Strengthening Resilience of Arid Region Riparian Corridors: Ecohydrology and Decision Making in the Sonora and San Pedro Watersheds
PI: Christopher Scott, University of Arizona

Summary: Scientists will study how changes in social and natural processes affect the resilience of riparian systems, and the ecosystem services these systems provide. The researchers will focus on two adjacent river systems: the Upper San Pedro River, which flows from the state of Sonora in Mexico into Arizona in the U.S., and the Upper Sonora River, which flows south within Sonora. They will develop a model to explore interactions among environmental conditions, societal rules, and human practices in these riparian corridors.

Title: Fishscape: Complex Dynamics of the Eastern Pacific Tuna Fishery
PI: D.G Webster, Dartmouth College

Summary: This project will identify the major sources of stability and instability that lead to wide variation across otherwise similar fisheries systems. The researchers will develop a geospatial model of the international fishery, focusing on tropical tunas in the eastern Pacific Ocean and linking oceanographic conditions, fish population dynamics, and fisher behavior.


Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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