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