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Constructing stability landscapes to identify alternative states in coupled social-ecological agent-based models

Patrick Bitterman, Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, University of Iowa
David A. Bennett, Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, University of Iowa


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The resilience of a social-ecological system is measured by its ability to retain core functionality when subjected to perturbation. Resilience is contextually dependent on the state of system components, the complex interactions among these components, and the timing, location, and magnitude of perturbations. The stability landscape concept provides a useful framework for considering resilience within the specified context of a particular social-ecological system but has proven difficult to operationalize. This difficulty stems largely from the complex, multidimensional nature of the systems of interest and uncertainty in system response. Agent-based models are an effective methodology for understanding how cross-scale processes within and across social and ecological domains contribute to overall system resilience. We present the results of a stylized model of agricultural land use in a small watershed that is typical of the Midwestern United States. The spatially explicit model couples land use, biophysical models, and economic drivers with an agent-based model to explore the effects of perturbations and policy adaptations on system outcomes. By applying the coupled modeling approach within the resilience and stability landscape frameworks, we (1) estimate the sensitivity of the system to context-specific perturbations, (2) determine potential outcomes of those perturbations, (3) identify possible alternative states within state space, (4) evaluate the resilience of system states, and (5) characterize changes in system-scale resilience brought on by changes in individual land use decisions.

Key words

agent-based model; resilience; social-ecological system; stability landscape

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087