Long term data framework helps map a disturbance’s rich legacy

By Emma Odenweller

A national team of researchers, including FIU ecologist Dr. Evelyn Gaiser, is introducing a framework to better understand the ecological and social processes characterizing disturbances.

vast amount of water being pumped into the Tamiami Canal and then into the Everglades a week after H. Irma
Water being pumped into the Tamiami Canal and then into the Everglades a week after Hurricane Irma

Disturbances–events like hurricanes, floods, fires or droughts–lead to changes in the structure and functions of ecosystems and societies. They often leave impacts, or what researchers call  legacies, that are difficult to understand without long-term studies to capture pre- and post-disturbance conditions.

Understanding the relationships between ecosystems and societies is of vital importance, especially when considering long-term changes driven by disturbances. That’s where the proposed framework helps. It describes disturbances as a process, not a single event.

For example, during a hurricane in South Florida, water is diverted to the Everglades to reduce urban flooding. This can affect the way the Everglades recovers from the storm, as well as services humans get from the ecosystem, like clean freshwater.

Complicated interactions usually exist between the response and recovery of ecosystems and the dynamics of societies that interact with those ecosystems. The framework helps ecologists and social scientists map out the drivers of a disruption, the effects of the disturbance on social and ecological systems and their interactions, and the outcomes in terms of how the new (perhaps rearranged/reorganized) system operates.

By populating the structure with examples from seven sites in the national Long Term Ecological Research network, the scientists were able to show disturbances can sometimes lead to positive outcomes and are especially dependent on interactions with other long-term drivers of change.

Gaiser hopes this will inspire scientists to take this structure and populate it with their pertinent research, leading to additional valuable insight into how disturbances change ecosystems and societies.

The framework, Long-Term Ecological Research and Evolving Frameworks of Disturbance Ecology, was recently published in Volume 70, Issue 2 of BioScience, pages 141-156.

Gaiser is the Endowed George Barley Eminent Scholars Chair in FIU’s Institute of Environment.

The Long-Term Ecological Research Network is funded by the National Science Foundation.