National Science Foundation awards grants for studies of coupled natural and human systems

How do humans and their environment interact, and how can we use knowledge of these links to adapt to a planet undergoing radical climate and other environmental changes?

To answer these and related questions, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 14 grants to scientists, engineers and educators across the country to study coupled natural and human systems.

Research conducted through NSF’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program, in its third year as a multi-directorate program, will provide a better understanding of natural processes and cycles, and human behavior and decisions, and how and where they intersect.

The CNH program is supported by NSF’s directorates for biological sciences (BIO), geosciences (GEO), and social, behavioral and economic sciences (SBE).

This year’s awards will address topics that include environmental variability, human vulnerability, and societal adaptation during the last millennium in the greater Mekong Basin; coupling human choice and biogeochemical cycling in urban ecosystems; computational modeling for the socioecological sciences; climate change and responses in a coupled marine system; and fires in western Amazonia: understanding and modeling the roles of climatic, social, demographic and land-use change.

“The CNH program has built bridges among NSF’s directorates,” says Tom Baerwald, a program director in SBE. “Human and natural environmental systems function in concert with one another, and through this program, several NSF directorates are doing the same.”

“Research in this program is leading to a new view of the relationship between humans and complex environmental systems–the systems that support life on Earth,” says Alan Tessier, a program director in BIO.

Sarah Ruth, a program director in GEO, agrees. “Such studies will become more important as our planet’s resources become more finite.”

One research team, led by Liam Heneghan of DePaul University, will use ongoing conservation and restoration efforts in the woodlands and savannas of the Chicago Wilderness region. It will investigate how different models of restoration and conservation planning may lead to different biodiversity outcomes in complex metropolitan landscapes. Chicago Wilderness is a consortium of more than 240 organizations dedicated to the conservation, restoration and management of biodiversity on 360,000 acres of open space in the greater Chicago metropolitan area.

Another group, led by Julie Winkler of Michigan State University, will use the international sour cherry industry as example to develop and evaluate an integrated framework for conducting climate change assessments for international market systems. The sour cherry industry was selected because of its sensitivity to climate extremes and limited adaptation strategies characteristic of any industry that has long planning horizons and long-term investments.

David Steward of Kansas State University and colleagues will study the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas, which sustains an agricultural system based on irrigated crops and the meatpacking industry. While the region’s economy has relied on groundwater to offset the impacts of a dry climate, natural recharge from the aquifer cannot sustain current practices in many areas, even in the near future.

This year’s grantees will study:

  • Coupling human choice and biogeochemical cycling in urban ecosystems (Lawrence Baker, University of Minnesota)
  • Computational modeling in the socioecological sciences (Michael Barton, Arizona State University)
  • Environmental variability, human vulnerability, and societal adaptation during the last millennium in the greater Mekong Basin (Brendan Buckley, Columbia University)
  • Coupled natural-human systems and emerging infectious diseases (Jefferson Fox, Center for Cultural and Technical Interchange, East-West Center)
  • Coupled natural-human systems in the Chicago Wilderness: evaluating the biodiversity and social outcomes of different models of restoration planning (Liam Heneghan, DePaul University)
  • Climate change and responses in a coupled marine system (Bonnie McCay, Rutgers University)
  • Fires in Western Amazonia: understanding and modeling the roles of climatic, social, demographic, and land-use change (Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, Columbia University)
  • Assessing and adaptively managing wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface (Anthony Prato, University of Missouri)
  • Social-ecological dynamics of aquatic species invasions on a lake-rich landscape (Robert Provencher, University of Wisconsin)
  • Hyper-extractive economies and sustainability: policy scenarios for sustainable water use in the High Plains aquifer (David Steward, Kansas State University)
  • Climatic extremes, mining, and Mycobacterium ulcerans: a coupled systems approach (Petra Tschakert, Penn State University)
  • An integrated computational approach to three fisheries (James Wilson, University of Maine)
  • Climate change impact assessments for international market systems with long-term investments (Julie Winkler, Michigan State University)
  • Environmental markets with application to nitrogen trading in the Neuse River Basin (Andrew Yates, University of Richmond)

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