The Kuril Biocomplexity Project: Human Vulnerability and Resilience to Subarctic Change

Subarctic coastal communities today face natural and human induced changes in the environment and in access to critical food resources. How well these communities can adapt is both constrained and facilitated by engagement in local and global social, political, and economic networks. Understanding the complexity of these interactions is critical to the effective management of human response to change in the subarctic and elsewhere. This research project will bring together an interdisciplinary team of American, Japanese, and Russian scholars and students to examine the 5,000-year history of human-environmental interactions along the Kuril Island chain in the northwest Pacific. Evidence of human colonization, persistence and abandonment at various times in the past five millennia and under different social, economic, and technological regimes will be used to study human vulnerability and resilience to both catastrophic and gradual environmental changes, including human-induced changes. The projects primary objectives include (1) understanding feedbacks among climate, sea ice, marine and terrestrial ecology, and human activity; (2) estimating the degree of human vulnerability to catastrophic events and their ecological consequences at different spatial and temporal scales; and (3) assessing the role of cultural variables both in influencing community survival and affecting environmental changes. These objectives will be tackled through an ecologically integrated study of archaeological and historic records of human settlement and abandonment; geologic evidence of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis; paleoecologic and oceanographic evidence of past vegetation and marine conditions; and climatological evidence of past temperature, sea ice, and storminess. Evidence collected in the field over three summers will be used to test and calibrate agent-based computer models and simulations. Numerical models will be run to detect the most critical social, ecological, and physical variables affecting human resilience and vulnerability. The project will include education and outreach partnerships with indigenous Ainu communities in Hokkaido, Japan; the development of secondary school education kits and interactive computer simulations through the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington; and the participation of undergraduate and graduate students throughout the project. This study will make significant contributions to understanding the complexity of coupled human and natural systems. The research will advance the theory of human ecological dynamics and of the ways social and technological variables buffer or aggravate human vulnerability to unpredictable ecological changes and catastrophic events. This project will develop new modeling tools to facilitate interdisciplinary integration and understanding. It will provide models that can be adapted to other contexts and modern conditions where coastal communities appear particularly vulnerable to environmental and social factors beyond their control. More generally, this research will provide tools in the form of model prototypes that can be adapted to many different regions where human-environmental dynamics are complex. This project is supported by an award resulting from the FY 2005 special competition in Biocomplexity in the Environment focusing on the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems.

Lead Investigator: 
numerical models
Kuril Island chain, NW Pacific
Temporal Scope: 
Spatial Scope: 
Natural System: 
subarctic island, coastal, climate, sea ice
Human System: