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Structure and Functionality in Coupled Socio­Ecological Dynamics (NSERC Discovery Grant) 2022-present

Both modern ecological catastrophes as well as examples of ecosystem recovery and resilience in response to our impacts on the natural world make it clear that humans and ecosystems form a single, coupled social­ecological system (SES) where humans not only cause ecosystem impacts, but also react to them. This interrelated nature reveals the myriad of human actions that can have both positive or negative impacts, for instance ecological restoration efforts versus introducing invasive species or resource over­exploitation. Such examples often illustrate regime shifts resulting from positive feedbacks that represent synergies between disparate mechanisms. Most existing SES models lack important structure on both the human and ecological sides which can be crucial for applying theoretical findings to real­world systems. The long­term objective is to develop novel theoretical frameworks of intermediate complexity for studying SESs, balancing both realism and simplicity to identify important feedbacks and synergies. Additionally, studying a diverse array of SESs will improve on tools for policy makers managing ecosystems in the face of global changes. Short­term objectives include adding realism to existing SES models through new functional forms and trait­based structure, incorporating new data types and sources, as well as higher­level rewiring through the introduction of new state variables and human­environment interactions. These novel approaches with applications to metapopulation frameworks will improve our understanding of SES feedbacks, specifically in the face of human and environmental disturbances. The models will predict what behavioural/ecological parameters/feedbacks are most important to the sustainability of their respective systems and cross­system comparisons will reveal higher­level insights. Questions include: What combination of increased social learning and behavioural incentive is optimal to achieve sustainable outcomes in trait­structured ecosystems and human populations? What do coupled SES models reveal that we cannot know studying these systems in isolation? How does the complex coupling of human inputs, outputs and social dynamics affect our understanding of ecosystem management? How do specific disturbance interactions lead to catastrophic regime shifts? What types of synchrony between human and ecological metapopulations are beneficial/detrimental to ecosystem resilience and how can they be managed? Models will span a range of types including simple mechanistic models derived from first principles, to phenomenological models that subsume chunks of system complexity, to larger and more detailed system dynamic models­­all of which can be relevant to both informing policy and gaining scientific insight.

Navigating the Climate Emergency With Coupled Human-Environment Models (New Frontiers in Research Fund grant) 2020-present

There is a growing awareness that addressing the climate emergency will require understanding and harnessing social forces.  However, current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets rely upon ad hoc projections of emissions generated by humans. This project will incorporate social dynamics into existing climate models to refine climate change predictions and chart new achievable pathways towards IPCC targets.  The project will build on recent modelling research by the co-PIs showing that realistic social processes can dramatically alter climate change predictions, and thus models need to include the two-way coupling between social and climate dynamics (socio-climate dynamics).  However, there are still many unknowns, both theoretical and practical. We assemble here, for the first time in Canada, a group that includes experts in climate modelling, environmental psychology, and human-environment models. We also include both established and new collaborations with policy-makers (federal, provincial, municipal) and stakeholders who will inform policy and implementation aspects of the project. Compared to existing models, our socio-climate model will contain significantly more structure and realism, allowing it to inform climate change projections and suggest policy interventions.

Social Networks for Healthy Soils: Understanding the Role of Peer Learning in Driving Soil BMP Adoption (OMAFRA grant; co-PI: Dr. Erin Nelson) 2019-2022

The Social Networks for Healthy Soils project addresses the need to increase adoption of soil Best Management Practices (BMPs) in Ontario as a means of safeguarding the province’s long term soil health. Our work focuses on farmer-led social networks and the peer learning programs embedded within them, as these have proven to be an effective strategy for driving BMP adoption. The overall goal of the project is two-fold: 1) to increase understanding of how and why network-based peer learning programs contribute to BMP adoption; and 2) to assess how such programs can be improved upon, supported and expanded in Ontario. Our mixed methods, participatory research design will allow us to develop robust, relevant knowledge to inform BMP adoption policy and programs.

Transitions and thresholds in global ecological changes of forest ecosystems (NSERC Discovery) 2016-2021

Our research is focused on improving our understanding of global ecological changes (stress and disturbances) in forest ecosystems to inform science-based conservation, resource management and restoration decisions. Our research detects transitions (critical and non-critical) associated with nonlinear thresholds in forest dynamics with new and existing data to probe current and to build new mathematical and simulation models at population and ecosystem levels. As a result, statistical methods will be developed for detecting transitions (critical and noncritical) with mathematical and simulation models (modeling and theoretical studies).

Modelling and Monitoring Agroecological Mosaic Ecosystems for Optimizing Human-Environment Sustainability (CFREF Food from Thought grant) 2018-2019

Balancing food production demands from a growing population and biodiversity and ecosystem service conservation is one of the major current challenges societies face. In Southern Ontario, we currently live in mosaic landscapes, where not only agriculture but other competing interests on the land —conservation, recreation, urban development— exist. Our main goal of this research is to contribute to the sustainability of these mosaic landscapes, developing strategies and tools to achieve win-win scenarios for agricultural production/profitability, ecosystem health (services, biodiversity). Ultimately, we expect our project will have long-term outcomes that improve policy and management of natural and agricultural lands.

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Climate Change Resilience in Temperate Hardwood Forests: Implications for Forest Management (NSERC Engage grant) 2018

Temperate hardwood stands are of particular importance globally due to their high-value products and demand worldwide. However, there is a growing understanding that species’ responses under changing climate can be complex and unexpected. Our research focused on estimating long term growth projectors in pure sugar maple stands. Further isotopic analysis helped to determine the roles of carbon fertilization and environmental variation on growth trends in sugar maple stands. The information gained from analysis will help (1) identify whether forests are likely to be stressed directly by climate (water, temperature) or if some other stressor may be present and (2) present recommendations for future management to increase productivity under climate change scenarios.

Coupled Human-Environment System Dynamics and Alternative Stable States in Complex Mosaic Ecosystems (James McDonnell Foundation grant) 2012-18

Much, if not all, of the human-dominated landscapes of our world, and indeed, several naturally occurring landscapes, are mosaic ecosystems. These are landscapes that exhibit complex spatial patterns of heterogeneity, in which, for terrestrial systems, patches can represent forest stands, grasslands, farms or even urban areas. Complex systems science suggests that certain mosaic ecosystems can exhibit alternative stables states, whereby for the same environmental parameters the ecosystem could equally well reside either in one state or another state depending on the initial conditions of the system. The objective of our research is to generate models of complex forest-grassland mosaic ecosystems based on southern Brazilian and Indian examples where models of human behaviour (including strategic interactions) are coupled with ecological dynamics. These models will help understand and ultimately enhance terrestrial ecosystem sustainability. 

NSERC CREATE in Forest Complexity Modeling (FCM) (Project leader: Dr. Christian Messier) 2011-17

The environmental, social and economic importance of forests for Canadians is overwhelming. Forests contribute to our economic well-being, provide habitats for many wildlife species, store an enormous amount of carbon, filter water and provide unique recreational and spiritual values. Many of these essential forest ecosystem services are being threatened by climate change, invasive species and an unsustainable resource development. New approaches and modeling tools are needed that can deal with the large number of processes interacting at multiple spatial and temporal scales. With the help of CREATE and in collaboration with the Centre d’Étude de la Forêt (CEF), we propose to create a new interuniversity, interdisciplinary bilingual training program in Forest Complexity Modeling (FCM). Internationally recognized experts will be invited to participate in the program. Funding will provide scholarships and internal internships to students and provide new and unique training in the emerging field of modeling dynamic and complex systems with applications to understanding and managing forest ecosystems.