Social-Ecological Systems

In environmental analysis and decision-making, it is essential to link ecological and social processes for a more complete understanding of problems, drivers, and potential solutions. The concept of “social-ecological systems” or “complex human-environmental systems” has become central to these interdisciplinary discussions. As geographers, we explore the complex ways in which social-ecological systems are structured and interact, and frameworks for analyzing and understanding these complex systems. Faculty and students study social-ecological systems in a variety of contexts, including marine, rangeland, and forest ecosystems, as well as interactions between human and hydrological systems. We are interested in the drivers and environmental implications of human behavior, the role of institutions and governance frameworks, and outcomes for ecosystem health and management.


map of buffer zones around chitwan national park

Human Community Dynamics and Social-Ecological Vulnerability in A Biodiversity Hotspot

The Chitwan National Park, Nepal, along with its buffer zones, is a biodiversity hotspot where the endangered Bengal tiger, one-horned rhinoceros, and more than 200,000 people inhabit. One of the world’s most invasive plants, Mikania micrantha (also called “mile-a-minute weed”), rapidly spreading throughout collectively managed community forests in this region, is degrading critical ecosystems and the people who depend on them. To explore the links between Mikania invasion, ecosystem properties, and human, this project is collecting socio-ecological data in local community forests to develop a model and maps of local vulnerability in the hope of helping enhance the resilience of human communities and ecosystems in local coupled natural and human system.

Samoan fishermen on beach

Community Involvement in Natural Resource Co-Management

Research has documented that, under the right conditions, involving local communities and resource users in natural resource co-management can improve environmental outcomes, facilitating approaches that are more ecologically and socially relevant. However, co-management involves novel institutional arrangements that can be politically, culturally, and legally challenging to develop. This research works to better understand co-management arrangements and outcomes, and the factors that contribute to, or inhibit, community-based natural resource co-management success, particularly in coastal and marine environments in the U.S. Pacific and East Africa.

Samoan fisheries focus group

Social-ecological Vulnerability of Coral Reef Fisheries in American Samoa

This research explores how predicted changes to climate and ocean acidification will impact nearshore subsistence fisheries in American Samoa, the effects that these changes will have on local livelihoods and food consumption, and potential pathways for adaptation and resilience.

volunteer installing camera on tree

Impacts of Payments for Ecosystem Services in Coupled Natural and Human Systems

Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are incentives paid to users of natural resources to reduce their use of these resources and the accompanying stresses and disturbances to the natural systems that provide the resources. However, the success of payments in maintaining both ecosystems and human well-being has not been critically assessed. This project will study two PES programs in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve in China, the habitat of the endangered Guizhou golden monkey, Rhinopithecus brelichi. To assess effects on the ecosystem and human communities, researchers use data from various sources including remote sensing, camera trapping, participatory mapping, population census, and extensive household survey to study the complex interactions between the PES programs and the local coupled natural and human system.

spiny lobsters

Climate Change Impacts on the Sustainability of Key Fisheries of the California Current System Leave geography site

The ocean off the California coast supports productive commercial and recreational fisheries that are important to human cultures, quality of life, livelihoods, and the economy along the U.S. West Coast. Climate change is expected to alter the oceanic system and contribute to changes in fish populations that will directly affect the behavior and profits of people who fish, as well as actions of fisheries managers. This collaborative study brings together oceanographers, fisheries scientists, economists, and social scientists to develop a better understanding of interactions among the climate and coastal ocean system, fish populations, fishermen and fishing communities, and resource management, focusing on three key commercially harvested species that are known to respond to environmental change: Pacific sardine, California market squid, and California spiny lobster.



Links between landscape patterns and ecological processes at a variety of spatial scales to include causes and measures of landscape patterns, effects of landscape patterns on organisms, landscape models, landscape planning and management.

Hydrologic processes and regimes, how these are affected by environmental change and how hydrologic process and regimes affect patterns of environmental change. Processes operating at global, regional, and local scales are examined, including land-use/ land-cover change and climate change.

Theory and techniques in watershed analysis. Use of GIS and statistical programming for analyses of geomorphology, hydrology, and water quality data.

Application of statistical techniques to geographic research to include simple regression and correlation, multiple regression, geographically weighted regression, classification, factor analysis, and computer applications.

Theories and principles involved in natural and environmental resources management.

Natural and environmental resource conservation. May be repeated with new content. See Class Schedule for specific content.

Spatial analytic techniques from image processing, remote sensing, geographic information systems, cartography or quantitative methods. May be repeated with new content. See Class Schedule for specific content.