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Adaptive capacity: from assessment to action in coastal social-ecological systems

Charlotte K Whitney, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
Nathan J Bennett, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington; Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia; Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University
Natalie C Ban, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
Edward H. Allison, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington
Derek Armitage, University of Waterloo
Jessica L Blythe, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; WorldFish
Jenn M Burt, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University; Hakai Institute
William Cheung, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia
Elena M Finkbeiner, Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University; Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University
Maery Kaplan-Hallam, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
Ian Perry, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada
Nancy J Turner, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
Lilia Yumagulova, School for Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia


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Because of the complexity and speed of environmental, climatic, and socio-political change in coastal marine social-ecological systems, there is significant academic and applied interest in assessing and fostering the adaptive capacity of coastal communities. Adaptive capacity refers to the latent ability of a system to respond proactively and positively to stressors or opportunities. A variety of qualitative, quantitative, and participatory approaches have been developed and applied to understand and assess adaptive capacity, each with different benefits, drawbacks, insights, and implications. Drawing on case studies of coastal communities from around the globe, we describe and compare 11 approaches that are often used to study adaptive capacity of social and ecological systems in the face of social, environmental, and climatic change. We synthesize lessons from a series of case studies to present important considerations to frame research and to choose an assessment approach, key challenges to analyze adaptive capacity in linked social-ecological systems, and good practices to link results to action to foster adaptive capacity. We suggest that more attention be given to integrated social-ecological assessments and that greater effort be placed on evaluation and monitoring of adaptive capacity over time and across scales. Overall, although sustainability science holds a promise of providing solutions to real world problems, we found that too few assessments seem to lead to tangible outcomes or actions to foster adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems.

Key words

adaptation; adaptive capacity; climate change; coastal communities; resilience; social-ecological systems

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