To address the issues faced by climate change and other global environmental changes, it is necessary to combine complexity science with ecology and biodiversity conservation.


Each red point represents an author or co-author who has published a paper on Ecological Complexity. Red lines connect authors who have collaborated on publications. Image Credit: Dr Federico Riva, Dr Caio Graco-Roza et al.

Recent research carried out by Dr. Federico Riva, Dr. Caio Graco-Roza et al. paves the way to make this a reality. The study was published in Science Advances.

The Earth is full of intricate, complex processes that humans are continuously learning about. Complex systems are all around, from the global financial market to the inner workings of the human brain, and even something as seemingly simple as a flock of birds shifting in direction or the behavior of fireflies. 

While diverse types of complex systems are often difficult to anticipate, they have several characteristics that can aid in understanding them. This is where complexity science comes in; it is the study of the common principles that underpin all forms of complex systems.

It is extremely significant in comprehending the environment because ecosystems are outstanding examples of complex systems. With human activities altering these ecosystems at an unprecedented rate, we must master this complexity. However, new research by Riva, Graco-Roza, and colleagues demonstrates that there is still a long way to go.

As scientists, we love to use the word ‘complex, but complexity is a tricky term to pin down.  If we’re not clear about what we mean by complexity, it can generate confusion, slowing down our efforts to understand how human activities are affecting ecosystems.

Dr. Federico Riva, Assistant Professor, VU Amsterdam

Dr. Riva has hope for complexity science. Dr. Federico Riva adds, “Traditional methods might not be up to the task of studying certain aspects of ecosystems, but complexity science offers a new perspective. We need to make the most of it, which starts with understanding the prerogatives of complex system, and the goals and approaches of complexity science”.

To emphasize the point, consider a patch of forest. This ecosystem is a complex system comprised not only of trees, but also of innumerable species of animals, insects, and microbes, all of which interact with one another as well as with non-living elements of the environment, such as soil and climate.

Assume that humans begin to harvest some of the trees for timber. This system disturbance will alter not only which trees and animals survive in the forest, but also how these components interact with one another.

Complexity science helps estimate what timber will be needed by investigating the connections between the pieces that make up the forest, as well as the patterns that may develop at different organizational levels as this system changes.

We took a deep dive into environmental science research articles to understand what authors had in mind when they talked about ecological complexity. What we found was that there’s a lot of interest around the world in studying complexity in ecology. This research isn’t always in line with the key principles of complexity science such as nonlinearities, stability, and resilience.

Dr. Caio Graco-Roza, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Helsinki

However, he observes considerable common ground, particularly among authors who organize their work around basic theory, scaling, and macroecology – three paradigms central to complexity science.

As climate and land use change continues to accelerate, organizing the study of complexity has the potential to expand the understanding of the natural world through fresh ideas, methods, and perspectives.

Journal Reference:

Riva, F., et al. (2023). Toward a cohesive understanding of ecological complexity. Science Advances. doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abq4207.

Source: https://www.helsinki.fi/en

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