Complex Dynamics of Telecoupled Human and Natural Systems

Studies on human-nature dynamics have usually focused on a single coupled human and natural system. However, almost all coupled systems interact with other systems, including those far away.  Even though decades of drastically increased distant interactions (e.g., through international trade) may be having profound socioeconomic and environmental impacts across borders and across scales, systematic research has been lacking. Traditional international trade research has focused on socioeconomic interactions between trade partners, with some separate studies on environmental impacts. However, human-nature interactions and feedbacks at multiple scales across borders are rarely considered. A new award-winning conceptual framework of telecouplings (socioeconomic and environmental interactions between coupled human and natural systems over distances) provides an integrated approach to address these issues systematically and simultaneously. The framework has been conceptually applied to a number of important issues, but there is a lack of quantification of the effects of telecouplings on human-nature dynamics.

The goal of this National Science Foundation-funded proposal is to quantify the telecoupling framework to address fundamental questions about telecoupled human and natural systems such as: What are the effects of telecouplings on human-nature dynamics across scales in distant systems? How do telecouplings and local couplings enhance or offset each other in terms of their effects on human-nature dynamics?  To address these questions and associated hypotheses, the project team will focus on major telecouplings involving the trade of agricultural products (e.g., soybeans for food and animal feed) between Brazil and China, two of the world's most important emerging economies. These two countries constitute an excellent example of telecoupled systems, but little is known about the effects of their rapidly increasing trade on human-nature dynamics. By leveraging existing data (e.g., remote sensing and socioeconomic data) and collecting complementary new data, the team will understand and simulate complex dynamics and relationships among key components of telecoupled systems. Analyses at the international/national scales will be conducted with the widely used GTAP (Global Trade Analysis Project) model. They will be complemented by in-depth studies at the regional/localscales through ecological fieldwork and socioeconomic surveys, as well as through developing and validating a telecoupled agent-based model. These studies, spanning local to international scales, will be joined via systems integration. The interdisciplinary team includes leading scholars in relevant social and natural science disciplines. This project will be the first effort in quantifying complex dynamics of telecoupled systems by going beyond the traditional focus on a single coupled system, one-way impacts, or comparative analysis of coupled systems. It represents an exciting new frontier of coupled systems research, with substantial contributions to the theory, methods, and applications of telecoupled systems science.

Understanding the complex dynamics of telecoupled systems will be indispensable to addressing some of the world's biggest challenges (e.g., land use, greenhouse gases, and food) across scales and across borders. The innovative research will be tightly integrated with ambitious education and outreach efforts. These will include mentoring a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists, engaging a range of stakeholders, and strategically disseminating research findings in multiple outlets including the global news media and social media. The project will also leverage the research results to develop a suite of communication training activities (e.g., boot camps) that will empower scientists to become effective science ambassadors by sharing their research stories to elevate the public’s understanding of telecoupled systems worldwide. Students and postdocs, including those we plan to recruit from underrepresented groups, will gain broad knowledge and learn important skills to become future visionary leaders and globally-engaged scholars on telecoupled systems.

Lead Investigator: 
Brazil, China and the United States