Landscape change and resilience theory

J A Dearing
Holocene, 2008 vol. 18 no 1
DOI: 10.1177/0959683607085601
Abstract: The paper explores the use of Resilience Theory to provide an improved theoretical framework for the analysis of socio-ecological interactions over decadal–millennial timescales. It identifies landscape system behaviour through analysis of proxy records for land use, erosion and monsoon intensity over the past 3000 years in the Erhai lake-catchment system, Yunnan, SW China. Analysis of the records shows the possibility of alternative steady states in the landscape, as expressed by the relationship between land use and erosion. In particular, a period of agricultural expansion ~1400 cal. yr BP triggered rapid gully erosion that led to the formation of an eroded landscape state that has existed since ~800 cal. yr BP to the present day. Comparison of detrended time-series data suggests that over 3000 years erosion and land use should be considered ‘slow’ processes relative to the ‘faster’ monsoon intensity and flooding. In the past, the effects of high monsoon variance on flooding have been suppressed by paddy farming and the maintenance of terraced field systems. Mapping the Adaptive Cycle on to the millennial record of land use and erosion suggests that the modern landscape may be approaching a ‘conservation’ phase characterized by minimum resilience. Such ‘historical profiling’ of modern landscapes offers a new dimension for hypothesis testing, for the development and testing of simulation models and for the creation of appropriate management strategies.