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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Diagram showing concept of rivers as socio-ecological systems
An illustration depicting social–ecological systems at work within riverscapes. Starting on the right, the ecological system has the capacity to create conditions in riverscapes that deliver natural goods and services, or flows, to society. The availability of these flows can then affect the social system through four interacting sub-systems. The sub-systems then produce social conditions that drive human demands for ecosystem goods and services, leading to different pressures for consumption, conservation, or restoration of ecosystem capacity. Citation: Dunham et al. Rivers are social–ecological systems: Time to integrate human dimensions into riverscape ecology and management. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 23, April 2018.

For individuals who live, work, and play in and on rivers, the notion that humans both strongly influence and are influenced by these aquatic environments may come as no surprise. Despite this, research on riverscapes – rivers combined with their associated landscapes – has historically been centered around various elements of biodiversity, omitting social values.

More recent syntheses of riverscape ecology have revealed that excluding the human dimensions of riverscapes produces an incomplete view of how river ecosystems function.

team of researchers from the Science for Nature and People Partnership recently published a paper in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water presenting this need to study and manage rivers as socio-ecological systems. They are investigating the social systems that drive river management decisions – decisions that affect a river’s ecology and its ability to provide natural benefits to people, which in turn affects the social conditions of river communities.

The paper’s lead author and USGS scientist Jason Dunham describes their research:

As an ecologist who has studied human impacts on riverscapes for decades, it has only recently occurred to me that I also need to formally consider the causes of human impacts themselves. This perspective connects people and ecosystems through how they influence each other. In other words, this means viewing riverscapes as full "social-ecological" systems.

Approaching riverscapes as social-ecological systems requires more than just ecological expertise. It requires formally engaging social scientists. It is obvious that people can strongly influence riverscapes. Much less obvious, however, is how to trace these influences back to their root causes and understanding how they interact with ecological systems.

Seeing riverscapes as social-ecological systems can help connect traditionally disparate lines of work - for example, work on water resource management versus aquatic ecology. Connecting these perspectives promises to more completely elaborate the full spectrum of real-world complexities that affect how we can best manage riverscapes in a rapidly changing world."

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Figure for Thought features thought-provoking, NCEAS-related figures from the academic literature with a brief explanation from the lead author.

Category: Feature

Tags: Science for Nature and People Partnership, Freshwater