Ecosystems and Societies: Divergent Trajectories and Coevolution

The Mongolian Plateau includes two regions with similar ecological systems but contrasting socioeconomic systems: Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. The Plateau has increasingly received worldwide attention due its rapid biophysical and socioeconomic changes. Building upon intensive previous work in the region, the purpose of this study is to bring together a multidisciplinary research team to examine and model the changes of the natural and human systems on the Plateau as well as the critical feedbacks between them over recent decades. The project team hypothesizes that while climate change has created pressure on ecosystems and societies in the Plateau, the distinct socioeconomic conditions and development paths of the different administrative units involved have also had a significant effect on the relationships and feedbacks within the human and natural systems. The team will also test the hypothesis that the human influences on the systems exceeded those of the biophysical changes but the significance varies in time, location, and ecological setting. The five major underlying processes studied for the natural systems will include the changes in water fluxes, radiation, soil heat fluxes, primary production, and carbon loss, while the five processes for the human systems are economic growth, population growth, urbanization, technology advancement, and lifestyle change. The system functions and changes will be examined by the life expectancy index, income index, education index, net primary production, evapotranspiration, and ecosystem carbon loss. More importantly, the project team will focus on the relationships between these functions, such as the productivity vs. income index. The connection between the human and natural systems will be viewed through the lens of land use cover and land use change. The progression of causes and consequences will be examined at various levels through three tasks: 1) modeling household behaviors and surrounding ecosystems; 2) studying divergent trajectories for Mongolian systems from past to future; and 3) understanding the vulnerabilities within the system and possible future adaptation strategies toward a sustainable Plateau. The multiple dimensions of the systems will be integrated together systemically, holistically, and across disciplines.

The results of this study will have global implications, especially to this and other regions that are vulnerable to climate and socioeconomic changes. The project will strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration between ecology, economics, anthropology, sociology, and demography and will provide a great opportunity for junior scholars as well as graduate students to conduct interdisciplinary research. Data and findings will be disseminated through a series of transformative activities that benefit the people on the Plateau, students in the US, China, and Mongolia, the scientific community, and stakeholders and policymakers worldwide. Recognizing past difficulties in accessing the data for the Plateau, the project team will first develop a comprehensive database that can be shared with the entire scientific community. Intensive training classes and cross-campus courses will be made available through a virtual classroom using state-of-the-art cyber technology to link researchers and students in the US, Inner Mongolia, and Mongolia. Researchers will deliver invited guest lectures at least twice per term via the virtual classroom and students from the participating universities will be simultaneously exposed to diverse views from each other?s institutions. These lectures will also be openly available to other institutions.

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Mongolian Plateau