Disturbances as opportunities: learning from disturbance-response parallels in social and ecological systems to better adapt to climate change.

Published online
30 Dec 2020
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Buma, B. & Schultz, C.
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1. Disturbances (e.g. fires, floods, windstorms, landslides and tsunamis) are ubiquitous throughout the world. Many social and ecological systems have resilience mechanisms to accommodate and recover from such events. Yet, in an era of directional climate change, adaptation (rather than recovery to the same state) may be the most logical path. In such cases, disturbances, while often unwelcome, may function as opportunities for change. 2. We synthesize the literature on disturbances and adaptation to climate change for both ecological and social systems, attempting to find commonalities and situations where disturbances present adaptation opportunities. We also identify three major characteristics of systems that may drive differential potential for success going forward: their overall richness of actors, their functional overlap in diversity, and their temporal rate of change. 3. Social systems are better positioned to successfully take advantage of disturbance-generated opportunities to adapt when they support collaboration of diverse interests and engage in pre-disturbance response planning to seize opportunities when they arise. Ecological systems are well-positioned for adaptation when they are diverse, populated with species that are tolerant of post-disturbance environments, and when life-history traits are well-matched with the temporal and spatial distribution of those disturbances. 4. Social systems with a lack of planning and inclusive participation and where powerful actors are resistant to change are less able to take advantage of disturbances as adaptational opportunities; ecological systems that are less diverse (spatially and in regards to species composition), especially those dominated by late successional species, are similarly constrained. Overall, we find that disturbances can create opportunities for adaptation when the ecology and social systems are aligned but there are also many situations where this is not true, depending on initial conditions, temporal pace of disturbance and system characteristics. 5. Policy implications. Disturbances, while damaging and often catastrophic in the short term, present climate adaptation opportunities because they can spur reorganization towards climatically suitable systems. Policy makers and advocates should carefully consider current social and ecological conditions, specifically how they will reorganize post-disturbance, and explore the options available to prepare and take advantage of (inevitable) future disturbances.

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