The workshop, "Landscapes in the Anthropocene: Exploring the Human Connections," will be held 4-6 March, 2010 at the University of Oregon. The workshop will provide an important venue for intellectual cross-fertilization among scientists from disparate disciplines who otherwise would have little opportunity to interact. It will also provide a mechanism to bridge the real and perceived gaps that exist across the natural and social-scientific divide. Overcoming such barriers will build the community necessary to forge scientific advances, to anticipate and mitigate the human-induced changes to Earth's surface, as well as to factor the changes that have already occurred into human decision processes. The proposed workshop will develop knew knowledge of integrated human-landscape systems, and will build capacity to predict the future of Earths surface under human influence. Two days of activities, comprising short research presentations, discussion, and breakout sessions, are planned to meet several specific objectives: identify key research questions and integrative linkages for cross-disciplinary research, examine theoretical and methodological approaches among disciplines, assess data availability and needs, and explore models and tools toward predicting complex human-landscape systems. The outcomes will include a white paper to be submitted to NSF, and summaries of the workshop to be potentially published in disciplinary and interdisciplinary newsletters, as well as in outlets for the public. The workshop is also expected to produce a multi-authored manuscript, in addition to specific integrated research projects that will be ready for launch by collaborative teams.

It has become increasingly clear over the past several years that humans and the surface of the Earth are intertwined in a complex manner. Decisions that people make about building cities, damming rivers, and exploiting natural resources cause fundamental changes in the surrounding environment. In like manner, natural disasters, rising sea levels, and climate change have acute and chronic influences on the human economic and social fabric. This project will bring together researchers from the physical and social sciences to collaborate on methods for addressing these important issues, and prepare plans that will pave the way for future progess.

Project Report

Human interactions with landscapes are increasing at unprecedented rates. With world population continuing to expand, environmental impacts of human population growth and accompanying resource consumption have intensified to the extent that the term "anthropocene" has emerged in the scientific literature to signify a new geologic era dominated by human activity. In Landscapes on the Edge: New Horizons for Research on Earth’s Surface (2010), the U.S. National Research Council identified a grand challenge to understand, predict, and respond to rapidly changing human-landscape systems. It recommended development of new conceptual frameworks, methods, and interdisciplinary collaborations linking across the natural and social sciences to meet this challenge. Fifty scholars representing the physical, biological, and social sciences met for a three-day workshop in Eugene, Oregon (3-5 March 2010) to launch an interdisciplinary effort to develop theory and predictive capacity for integrated human-landscape systems. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the workshop initiated an integrating conceptual framework, identified key questions and linkages for interdisciplinary research, examined theoretical and methodological approaches among disciplines, assessed data availability and needs, and explored models and tools for gaining a predictive understanding of human-landscape systems. Activities included short presentations, discussion, breakout sessions, and a field trip. Attendees were geomorphologists, ecologists, atmospheric scientists, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, decision scientists, geographers, and engineers. Examples of human impacts on landscapes include the installation and removal of dams, alteration of surface hydrology through urban development, and the transport of sediment from agriculture and other human interventions. The group highlighted the increasing need to recognize the interdependence of hydro-geomorphological, ecological, and human systems in understanding human-landscape interactions. Widespread agreement also emerged for greater integration across disciplinary boundaries, and space and time. Such efforts are critical for generating the new knowledge urgently needed for theory building and for mitigation, environmental restoration, and social adaptation. Key outcomes include identification of integrative themes that serve as foci for interdisciplinary research. The themes emerged from connecting key questions across disciplines and identifying areas of overlap. Thresholds/tipping points: What are they, and how do they arise from interactions among hydro-geomorphologic, ecologic, climate, and human systems? Are thresholds predictable (are signals of irreversible change identifiable?) especially where the trajectory of response differs from that of impact? Time scales and time lags: How do the time scales of geomorphological, hydrological, and ecological processes relate to those of behavioral and institutional processes? How do time lags within physical, biological, cultural, political, and economic systems interact to influence observed and predicted system states? Spatial scales and boundaries: How do physical boundaries compare with cultural and political boundaries? Do human-made boundaries produce environmental signals, and vice versa? Feedback loops: In human-landscape systems, how can feedbacks be identified and altered to slow or reverse degradation, even where coupling is weak or includes threshold response dynamics? How can coupling be managed to promote greater resilience and a sustainable Earth? Working groups are currently developing test cases for the integrative themes, and advancing tools and human-interaction models. Solidifying interdisciplinary research communities and identifying their potential contributions is urgent, although further challenges, including the need to reconcile different languages and ways of characterizing natural and social systems, may arise in collaborations across the many disciplines needed to address the complexities of human-landscape systems. Identifying and developing common metrics and systematic methods for analyzing relationships across disciplines, including incorporating qualitative approaches, are also critical. Significant advances require intensified efforts to synthesize across cases and to aggregate and scale up from individual studies. The intellectual merit of the project lies in advancing a new understanding of integrated human-landscape systems by linking ideas, concepts, tools, and disciplinary perspectives across the geosciences and social and behavioral sciences in fresh and vital ways. The project has provided an important venue for intellectual cross-fertilization among scientists from disparate disciplines who otherwise would have little opportunity to interact. It has also provided a mechanism to bridge the real and perceived gaps that exist across the natural- and social-scientific divide. The project represents a significant step in building capacity to anticipate and mitigate human-induced changes on Earth’s surface, and to factor the changes that have already occurred into human decision processes. The broader impacts of the project are many-fold. By developing new conceptual frameworks to address human-landscape interactions, new ways of protecting and managing Earth’s surface are emerging that include policy mechanisms. The project has also developed collaborative networks and infrastructure by linking multiple investigators, institutions, and disciplines. The project has included training of students and young scientists, and environmental education for the public. The project has additionally contributed to enhancing diversity with inclusion of numerous participants in under-represented groups. Lastly, because the long-term goal is to advance a science that can guide toward a sustainable Earth surface, the ultimate broader impacts are aimed toward future generations. More information is available at:

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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Paul Cutler
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University of Oregon Eugene
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