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Regime shifts and panarchies in regional scale social-ecological water systems

Lance Gunderson, Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
Barbara A. Cosens, University of Idaho, Institute for Waters of the West; College of Law, Moscow, ID, USA
Brian C. Chaffin, Department of Society & Conservation, College of Forestry & Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, USA
Craig A. (Tony) Arnold, Brandeis School of Law, Department of Urban and Public Affairs and Center for Land Use & Environmental Responsibility University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA; UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Alexander K. Fremier, School of Environment, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Ahjond S. Garmestani, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Robin Kundis Craig, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Global Change & Sustainability Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
Hannah Gosnell, College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA
Hannah E. Birge, Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA
Craig R. Allen, U.S. Geological Survey, Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska, NE, USA
Melinda H. Benson, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA
Ryan R Morrison, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Mark C. Stone, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA
Joseph A. Hamm, School of Criminal Justice, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing MI, USA
Kristine Nemec, University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center, Cedar Falls, IA, USA
Edella Schlager, School of Government and Public Policy, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Dagmar Llewellyn, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA


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In this article we summarize histories of nonlinear, complex interactions among societal, legal, and ecosystem dynamics in six North American water basins, as they respond to changing climate. These case studies were chosen to explore the conditions for emergence of adaptive governance in heavily regulated and developed social-ecological systems nested within a hierarchical governmental system. We summarize resilience assessments conducted in each system to provide a synthesis and reference by the other articles in this special feature. We also present a general framework used to evaluate the interactions between society and ecosystem regimes and the governance regimes chosen to mediate those interactions. The case studies show different ways that adaptive governance may be triggered, facilitated, or constrained by ecological and/or legal processes. The resilience assessments indicate that complex interactions among the governance and ecosystem components of these systems can produce different trajectories, which include patterns of (a) development and stabilization, (b) cycles of crisis and recovery, which includes lurches in adaptation and learning, and (3) periods of innovation, novelty, and transformation. Exploration of cross scale (Panarchy) interactions among levels and sectors of government and society illustrate that they may constrain development trajectories, but may also provide stability during crisis or innovation at smaller scales; create crises, but may also facilitate recovery; and constrain system transformation, but may also provide windows of opportunity in which transformation, and the resources to accomplish it, may occur. The framework is the starting point for our exploration of how law might play a role in enhancing the capacity of social-ecological systems to adapt to climate change.

Key words

adaptive governance; cross scale dynamics; social ecological system; transformation

Copyright © 2017 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