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Submitted by jdp on Tue, 01/04/2022 - 03:51 pm

In 2018 Melissa Parsons and Martin Thoms (quoting various academic sources), noted that resilience has, on one hand, been described as a powerful lens through which to view major issues, a systems approach to understanding change, and an organizing concept for radical change. On the other hand, resilience has been characterized as having the potential to become a vacuous buzzword, a word of the year, and an academic bandwagon (Parsons and Thoms, 2018: 242). 

I will not parse the various meanings or explore the dimensions of resilience here; it is clear by now that due to the various meanings attached to the term, one should always define it if a specific version of resilience is intended, or perhaps choose a different, less contested term. Discussions of resilience, by virtually any definition, are critical now in the context of planning for and responding to climate change. Significant changes are happening now and will continue (and likely accelerate) in the future, and Earth systems (including humans) will have no choice but to respond one way or another. 

The purpose of this post is to propose that with respect to semi-natural, biophysical systems such as ecosystems and landscapes, the most promising approach to preparing for and responding to climate change is based on adaptation and transformability. These concepts, as I define them below, are consistent with many strains of resilience.

Biological adaptation in ecological and evolutionary contexts is often defined as the adaptation of living things to environmental factors for the ultimate purpose of survival, reproduction, and an optimal level of functioning. To avoid defining something in its own terms, substitute “adjustment” for adaptation, and to broaden the definition, substitute “environmental systems” for living things—that is what I mean by adaptation in this paper. Transformability is the capacity to create a new system when changed conditions make the existing conditions untenable (Thoms et al., 2018). 

Though I prefer separating the concepts of resistance and resilience, they are often combined or conflated. Thus, resilience may be seen in some instances as capacity of a system to defend itself against or absorb changes. Resilience is also often defined in terms of recovery; or the ability of a system to return to or toward in previous state following a change or disturbance. 

There is nothing wrong with either of these notions, except that in the context of climate change they may be unfeasible, impossible, or counterproductive. Rather than preventing change by increasing resistance or restoring previous conditions, the adaptation/transformation approach is based on acceptance of change as inevitable. To use a boxing metaphor, when getting punched is inevitable, adaptation is akin to rolling with the punch rather than hoping to take a punch and remain standing (resistance) or get up off the canvas after getting knocked down (recovery).

Take, for example, the issue of water resource allocation in dryland areas such as much of the American west, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Australia. Where climate change reduces water available (by reducing precipitation, increasing evapotranspiration, limiting snowpack storage, shrinking glaciers, or some combination of these) a resilience approach would typically focus on increasing water storage capabilities, a search for new water sources or supplies, and development of programs for drought relief and recovery. An adaptive approach, by contrast, would prioritize transformations of, e.g., agriculture, industry, and households to less water-intensive and dependent crops, products, production processes, and cultural practices. 

Drought in New South Wales, Australia (

This example also serves to illustrate the similarities and overlaps of adaptation and transformation thinking vs. (traditional) resilience thinking. Both strategies, for instance, would embrace improved water use efficiency and more aggressive conservation. Transformations of agriculture and horticulture would involve use of plants that are more drought resistant and recoverable. 

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Some things we need to get straight and keep in mind. These are not revelations, nor are they assertions. These are reminders of important facts that we need to bear in mind, whether resisting, recovering, adapting, or transforming.

•Climate change such as global warming is real. It has already happened, it is happening now, and will continue to happen. 

•Climate change is unstoppable. Yes, we can slow it down, but for at least several generations climate change due to human agency will happen no matter what we do going forward.

•Climate change is, and will be, unsteady and erratic. The long-term trends are entrenched for a while, but the inevitable hourly to decadal changes, episodes and cycles will be overprinted on top of that. Though on average it will get hotter, for instance, there will still be relatively warmer and cooler years. Some areas will get progressively drier, but there will still be wetter and drier spells. 

•”New normals” are here. What used to be exceptional heat waves will become commonplace. Bad fire seasons become typical fire seasons. Tropical cyclones get more frequent, powerful, wetter, and slower moving. And so on. Concepts based on assumptions of statistical stationarity—e.g., the hundred-year rainfall event or the 500-year flood are useful benchmark conditions but are becoming less useful—even useless—for planning purposes. 

•In the middle of an episode or event, it is difficult (and sometimes impossible) to determine whether it is an isolated, one-off event, part of a trend, or something that would have happened without human-influenced climate change. Was Barry Bonds’ 71st home run of 2001 due to steroids? Would he have hit it anyway (he did hit some homers before he got on performance-enhancing drugs)? Or was it because Chan Ho Park grooved a pitch that most major leaguers would have knocked out of the park? We can say with absolute confidence that Bonds would not have hit 95(!) homers that year without steroids (about 1.5 times the pre-steroid-era record), but we cannot say to what extent any individual homer is attributable to steroids. 

•Unprecedented weather and climate events will occur. The historical record is extremely useful, but we cannot use it to fully prepare for the future. 

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Lessons from nature:

Adaptation by selection: Biological adaptation operates by selection, whether Darwinian natural selection in evolution or ecological filtering. Adaptive selection also occurs in other environmental phenomena, including abiotic processes. This probabilistic selection serves to form, enhance, and preserve more efficient and resistance processes, structures, relationships, and networks. We should thus learn from selection processes in (non-human) nature what “works” in adapting to climate change and should formulate our proactive adaptation with selection in mind. We should also bear in mind that selection is negative as well as positive (filtering out what doesn’t work as well as reinforcing what does) and imperfect. Thus, we should be flexible and adaptive in our adaptations. Can natural ecosystems provide lessons for managing and planning urban ecosystems and industrial ecologies?  Can unaided (by humans) responses to disturbance inform human efforts at restoration and rehabilitation? This principle also implies that failures in human adaptations may be due to inconsistency with the applicable selection principles, so that it is often not suitable to try the same approaches repeatedly or consistently.  

•Hydrological systems develop (driven by efficiency selection) and persist when they develop “store-and-pour” capabilities. This enables them to temporarily store and slowly release excess water during high-input periods, to efficiently convey flow during normal periods, and to preserve some water resources during dry spells. Any design or management of hydrological systems (and ecosystems) should seek to preserve or mimic this property. For example, in some cases, river corridors along low-gradient coastal plain rivers have been evolving under a regime of rising sea-level, and have developed a store-and-pour morphology well-adapted to handle both storm surge flooding from downstream and river floods from upstream, often simultaneously. This indicates an adaptive strategy of maintaining these channel-wetland systems and prioritizing them for preservation. Studies have shown that farming strategies geared toward minimizing disruption to the dual-porosity properties of soils improves soil health and crop yields. Percolation and constructal theory, among others, have shown how store-and-pour systems can increase the efficiency of engineered flow patterns for many kinds of fluids. 

Part of the fluvial-estuarine transition zone of the Neuse River, N.C. This area has developed store-and-pour morphology that is adapted to flooding from both downstream storm surge and upstream flooding. Thus, when Hurricane Florence in 2018 caused the highest storm surges ever recorded and record river floods, the effects were absorbed with limited geomorphological, hydrological, or ecological change (Phillips, 2022). 

•Landscapes (including geomorphic and soil landscapes, ecosystems, and hydrological systems) are characterized by TREE: Transformative Reciprocal Emergent Evolution. Transformative means that development over time often involves state changes and transformations to fundamentally different conditions. Thus, the transformations implied or prescribed in the framework are a natural, inherent way to respond to climate changes, and landscape transformations provide useful benchmarks and analogs for human responses. Transformation is common and natural. The state of an environmental system (human influenced or otherwise) is essentially a snapshot of an episode in a history of constant change. Under climate change we cannot expect environmental or economic systems to remain unchanged or only somewhat modified. Many are being, and will be, transformed. This will call for hard decisions in determining whether it is feasible, or even possible, to maintain or restore affected systems. We will have to recognize that maintaining or restoring a transforming system (e.g., a desired ecological community, an agricultural production system, a transportation network) will be difficult, expensive, and unending. We also need to recognize that in many cases transformation in human activities will be necessary—e.g., phasing out of fossil fuels or switching to electric vehicles. We should also be alert to opportunities to steer transitions, as there often exist multiple possibilities for landscape transitions.        

•The reciprocal in TREE refers to the highly interrelated character of environmental systems, where everything is connected to everything else. You can fertilize the ocean to increase carbon storage, for instance, but you cannot expect to do so without complex ripple effects (some of which might be deleterious) throughout marine and coastal ecosystems. 

You cannot change (only) part of a system. There will be chain reactions and reverberations throughout the system, many of which are difficult or impossible to foresee. In the case of mega- or geoengineering, this may suggest foregoing these options, or keeping them as a last resort, as the side-effects and collateral damages may be too great a risk. In the case of more readily managed phenomena, such as modifications of market systems and trade networks, we should be flexible and prepared to respond quickly to negative side-effects. 

•The emergent in TREE refers to the fact that independent of humans, Earth systems cannot consciously strive toward any goals or stay on any single developmental trajectory. Their behavior emerges from fundamental processes and relationships within the system. For example, no laws or principles dictate that hydrological flow systems develop any particular structure or pattern. Yet, many surface, soil, and groundwater flow systems develop a “store and pour” morphology through emergent phenomena First, concentrated flows form due to principles of gradient and resistance selection. Second, positive feedback reinforces the concentrated preferential flow paths and their relationship to potential moisture storage zones. Third, intersecting flow paths form networks. Fourth, the expansion of concentrated flow paths and networks is limited by thresholds of flow needed for channel, macropore, or conduit growth and maintenance. This results in a “store and pour” flow system that can retain water during dry periods and transport it efficiently during wet periods. These survive provided they develop “spillway” and/or secondary storage mechanisms to accommodate excess water inputs. 

Understanding the principles and processes of emergence can guide our assessments of environmental change, and perhaps provide openings for opportunistic interventions. 

•The evolution in TREE reminds us that Earth systems indeed evolve. We cannot create, restore, or otherwise influence a system and expect it to remain in that state indefinitely. It will change, along the lines of TREE. Conversely, this reminds us that if we want to maintain Earth systems in a particular state it will require ongoing management or at least occasional interventions by humans. 

Dynamical instability happens. Small changes and disturbances may have effects that grow much larger than the disturbance and lasts far longer. As large events may sometimes have disproportionately small impacts, this means that effects are often not proportional to the magnitude of changes or events. It is therefore critical to think in terms of amplifiers and filters—the former, such as ice-albedo feedbacks, tend to amplify effects of climate change. The latter resist or damp climate impacts—for example, bedrock-controlled stream channels are less likely to show strong morphological responses due to their high resistance to erosion and channel migration. 

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As an overall guiding philosophy for adapting to climate change, I turn to actor, director, martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee. We cannot ignore climate change, nor wish it away. We cannot stop it entirely, and we cannot keep everything the way it is. So the operable approach is to be like water. Lee expressed this idea on numerous occasions, but the best known is from a 1971 appearance on the Pierre Berton show:

“Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend."




Parsons, M., Thoms, M.C. 2018. From academic to applied: Operationalising resilience in river systems. Geomorphology 305, 242-251. 

Phillips, J.D. 2022. Geomorphic impacts of Hurricane Florence on the lower Neuse River: Portents and particulars. Geomorphology 397, 108026.

Thoms, M.C., Piégay, H., Parsons, M. 2018. What do you mean, ‘resilient geomorphic systems’? Geomorphology 305, 8-19. 


Questions or comments:

Posted 3 January 2022