Resilience Measured: The Key to a Sustainable Future

Professor John Battles, Forest Ecologist, College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

A fundamental tenet of ecology, built on more than a century of study, is the balance of nature. Simply put: we expect nature to recover after disturbance. Today there is no such guarantee. In ecosystem after ecosystem, we have observed biological and physical responses to perturbations that defy expectations of nature’s equilibrium. We worry that these erratic responses signal the approach of a tipping point and suspect that the accumulated stress of global environmental change has reduced the resilience of many ecosystems to the extent that recovery from disturbance will be critically slowed. Our concern over the loss of resilience and the risk it poses to sustainability is widely shared. Leaders from the National Park Service to the US Conference of Mayors have prioritized “planning for resilience.” Although theory suggests that there may be early warning indicators for systems approaching major shifts, we do not yet know how to measure resilience — let alone manage it — in complex ecosystems. John Battles will work to take a data-intensive approach to quantify resilience in well-studied, high-dimensional ecosystems in order to test the hypotheses that some might be approaching a tipping point and that indicators of this approach exist.