The Azimuth Project
Systems ecology (Rev #3)

Contents

Idea

Systems ecology is an interdisciplinary field of ecology, taking a holistic approach to the study of ecological systems, especially entire ecosystems. Systems ecology can be seen as an application of general systems theory to ecology. Central to the systems ecology approach is the idea that an ecosystem is a complex system exhibiting emergent properties. Systems ecology focuses on interactions and transactions within and between biological and ecological systems, and is especially concerned with the way the functioning of ecosystems can be influenced by human interventions. It uses and extends concepts from thermodynamics and develops other macroscopic descriptions of complex systems.

Examples

Climate change impact on forests

Dr. Andreas Fischlin is a Systems Ecology scientist who has contributed to IPCC reports. His work is mainly in modelling ecosystems, in collaboration with field researchers. He focuses on the impact of climate change on ecosystems, especially forest.

There are many types of model. A commonly used type involves ‘patch dynamics’. For example, an old tree dies, leaving a gap, and seedlings compete for light and nutrients. Seedlings vary: some tolerate shadows, others need more light, and so on. The model tracks individual trees and includes environmental variables such as precipitation which shape the competition. Such models are caricatures or cartoons, and do not attempt to match reality, but can nonetheless capture crucial aspects of a real forest. Different models suit different purposes: one would be used for predicting climate change impact, another for deciding how to best fertilise a forest.

These are some of the best models in ecology. They can predict what kind of natural forest you will find at a particular location, given information about the climate and soil. As well as predicting what we find today, they can also match what happened at the end of the last ice age, as determined from pollen data. This gives some confidence that they can predict what kind of forests we will have in the future.

References

category: area of research