Climate variations, especially extremes, disturb ecosystems and cause economic loss every year, but adaptations built into resource and supply systems aim to buffer potential impacts on water availability, food production, hazards protection, and other resource management systems. Adaptation strategies seek to reduce sensitivity to climate fluctuations, perhaps even ultimately decoupling social-environmental systems from climate. Adaptation, however, is constrained by cost, technology, and competing needs across resources, so some systems are more de-coupled than others.

The Climate Coupling project seeks to measure the strength of coupling between climate drivers and social-environmental systems and to explain those measurements as a function of management interventions. We are mapping the response of system indicators (like streamflow, reservoir levels, vegetation productivity, wildfire, crop yields, and economic activity) to climate fluctuations in the historical record across the contiguous United States to reveal how sensitive key resource systems are to contemporary climate variability. From this analysis, we will identify natural experiments, or case studies, that highlight the role of management in determining system sensitivity to climate fluctuations. In addition to quantifying current coupling or decoupling, this work seeks to predict system sensitivities to future climate change.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for the relationship between management intensity and the strength of coupling to contemporary climate. Effective management (i.e. where degree of coupling decreases with increased management) is depicted with a black line.


This project is supported by the NSF grant: “Testing the strength of coupling among climate, natural, and human systems: a big data approach to natural experiments in CNHS.” National Science Foundation, Dynamics of Coupled Natural-Human Systems, $598,679, 2020-2022. Co-PIs: Virginia Iglesias, Matt Rossi, William Travis

Project Team

Project Lead

Virginia Iglesias

Virginia Iglesias is a Research Scientist in Earth Lab working on the effects of climate variability on social-environmental systems.

Luke Nordgren

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology