Billions of dollars are directed each year to reverse environmental degradation and to prevent ecosystem service collapses of regional social-ecological systems. Much of the science performed in service of managing these regional systems has historically been reactionary—investigating causes of major ecological regime shifts (e.g., toxic algal blooms) to better understand pathways for reversal or avoidance in the future.
Waiting to respond until environmental problems occur is usually not in the best interest of society, as many ecosystem functions cannot be readily restored once they become degraded. For this reason, there has been minimal success in the prevention of ecological shifts and their negative consequences, including biological invasions, degradation of water quality, and loss of ecosystem services such as pollination and soil stabilization.
Tracking and predicting large-scale ecological transitions are of national and international importance and key to securing livelihoods and security in a rapidly changing world.
Collaboration at Convergence
The long-term goal of this EPSCoR collaboration (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) is to build capacity at the convergence of individual faculty programs to develop and implement innovative technologies capable of solving problems of national importance. Collaborating faculty at the Universities of Nebraska and Montana are motivated by a shared awareness: the ecosystem services upon which humanity relies are becoming increasingly threatened by the loss of ecological resilience and accelerated environmental change.
Food and water security, rural economies, water rights, wildfire disaster avoidance, even funding for public school education are all threatened in the participating EPSCoR states as a result of simple transitions in vegetation that are unmatched during the lives of previous generations of resident citizens.
This research and collaboration are built on five convergence points (see below) which establish: a platform for sustaining research productivity through recruitment and training of early-career faculty; a nationally recognized resilience-science education program; and greater access to cyberinfrastructure among public and private stakeholders.
Resilience Informatics and Next-Generation Vegetation Monitoring
To date, ecosystem management has largely focused on diagnosing and treating regime shifts. It is not surprising then that ecosystem management has remained a reactive discipline. A spatial informatics approach links recent advances in spatial resilience theory, state-of-the-art landcover data, and powerful geospatial cloud computing. New mapping technology was developed by the University of Montana, powered in partnership with Google, that allows for the tracking of vegetation change at unprecedented scales in both space (United States rangelands from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean at a 30-m resolution) and time (annually from 1984–present). Now, for the first time, critical components of data, technology, and theory are converging to make it theoretically possible to screen for, and spatially image, the spatial order of regime shifts in ecological systems.
Socio-Economic and Behavioral Analysis for Improved Environmental Governance
Many social factors exist that influence the rate of adoption of best management practices in a landscape. Culture, economics, politics, and governance can all determine the ability of resource users and managers to adapt to rapid environmental change. A multi-disciplinary social science team, with expertise in environmental governance, social psychology, business, and experimental and behavioral economics, was brought together to better understand the barriers and opportunities to applying innovative technological approaches to build resilience across rural, working rangelands.
Science and Policy
One of the prevailing calls is for the next generation of scientists to translate science into policy formulation; yet, multiple barriers prevent rapid adoption of scientific information and closing science-policy gaps continues to be a major challenge. This convergence approach leverages advancements in computer science coupled with knowledge of linguistic structure within a specific context; in our case, we explore prescriptive or suggestive technical guidance documents, which are readily available in the public domain, to identify potential motives, attitudes, and subtle influences of the agency toward management actions and outcomes.
Science and Management
Translating scientific research into practical management strategies has long been a challenge in working landscapes. However, new collaborative groups (stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers) have emerged to collectively address social-ecological change that threatens to impact both individuals and communities. When science is co-produced, these groups have led to the formulation of strategies that empower landowners on working landscapes. Furthermore, this convergence point can help reinvigorate the role of science, along with social, political, and economic discourse.
Coupling Social-Ecological Systems Research with Policy and Management Sectors
The final convergence point aims to identify and overcome barriers to technology transfer and user adoption. It will test and adapt technologies based on direct feedback from stakeholder partners as well as survey results from workshop participants in the EPSCoR states. In addition to directly collecting data on barriers to technology transfer, the team will build online learning modules that seek to build global capacity in resilience education.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (1920938). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.