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Complexity in social-ecological and environmental systems

Ecosystems and the landforms and human societies with which they are associated reflect the interaction of a range of complex natural and anthropogenic forcing factors, operating over a range of space and time scales. The complexity that results from the interaction of such forcing factors, and the feedback that is generated within the complex human and natural systems that respond to them often necessitates the need for landscape-scale analyses and/or global-scale datasets. Sophisticated statistical and computational modelling approaches allow us to move towards the ultimate goal of understanding the likely impacts of future environmental or societal change.

Mike Bithell, Gareth Rees, Elizabeth Christie, Ben Evans, Hannah Cubaynes, Oliver Taherzadeh.

Research projects

Research projects currently being undertaken on this theme include:

Agent-based Modelling of Rangeland Health for Sustainable Dairy Production in Uganda's South-western Cattle Corridor

Agent-based Modelling of Rangeland Health for Sustainable Dairy Production in Uganda's South-western Cattle Corridor

Although milk production is a major source of livelihood amongst cattle keepers in Uganda's south-western (SW) corridor, the productivity is generally low, threatening the enterprise and the people that depend on it. The government of Uganda has recognised the need to enhance production to boost farmers’ incomes and increase milk uptake in the next 5 years. We will establish baselines of rangeland quality with a sample of 80 farms in three districts. The modelling process will inform decision-making and policy formulation.

The Cambridge contribution to the development of Global Ecosystems Models for use in IPBES and other global biodiversity assessments

The Cambridge contribution to the development of Global Ecosystems Models for use in IPBES and other global biodiversity assessments

This Cambridge Conservation Initiative-funded project brings together Cambridge-based ecosystem modellers to assess the extent to which current models, and their planned future developments, could be useful to policy processes connected to the maintenance of biodiversity at the global scale, in particular the IPBES processes.

The water-land-energy nexus: Foreseer

The water-land-energy nexus: Foreseer

The Foreseer tool at the University of Cambridge investigates the ‘nexus’ of water, energy and land resources. It is a scenario generation tool which includes natural resource supply, transformation, and use, as well as the ways in which they affect each other. The Foreseer tool also calculates greenhouse gas emissions and other measures of stress, such as groundwater depletion, in response to user-defined scenarios. The basis of the tool is a set of linked physical models for these resources plus the technologies that transform these resources into final services.

Discrete element modelling of scree dynamics

Discrete element modelling of scree dynamics

The issue of how scree slopes form has been under investigation at least since the time of the Reverend Oswald Fisher in 1866. He deduced analytically that the shape of the rock core under the scree should be quadratic in form, with the underlying rock slope being just tangential to the debris as the scree approached the full cliff height. Numerous investigations of this rock-core shape have since been undertaken, but few investigations have looked at the dynamics of the accumulating debris at the cliff foot. Here we use a discrete element model to simulate the falling material that is loosened from the cliff by weathering. We simulate the interactions between all particles that fall to the cliff foot, approximating the interactions by damped linear springs, and constraining our spherical particles to move in only 2 dimensions.

Agent-based models of disease transmission in a small population

Agent-based models of disease transmission in a small population

Agent-based models of infectious disease propagation have become a popular industry in the last few years. However, in order to properly disentangle the effects of social processes and spatial constraints from physiological mechanisms of disease spread, we need modelling of disease transmission at the scale of individuals and their day-to-day activities, including the effects of real-world spatial geometries. This presents a number of challenges that have yet to be thoroughly addressed in many agent-based models. This project uses data gathered in a small primary school to investigate how we can begin to understand the interaction between social use of space and the transmission of disease.

Floodplain Biodiversity and Restoration (FLOBAR)

Floodplain Biodiversity and Restoration (FLOBAR)

This research project ran between April 2000 and March 2003. Its two main aims were: (i) To address knowledge-gaps in present scientific understanding of river-floodplain biological and physical systems by exploring: (a) Scientific aspects of the impact of different flow regimes on the growth and regeneration of floodplain plant species. (b) The impact of floodplain vegetation on flood retention; and (2) To integrate scientific understanding of these interactions between abiotic and biotic factors on floodplains with the decision-making mechanisms involved in water allocation in river catchments.

Earlier projects