Adaptive Capacity

Systems with high adaptive capacity are more able to re-configure without significant changes in crucial functions or declines in ecosystem services. A consequence of a loss of adaptive capacity, is loss of opportunity and constrained options during periods of reorganization and renewal.

Adaptive capacity in ecological systems is related to genetic diversity, biological diversity, and the heterogeneity of landscape mosaics. In social systems, the existence of institutions and networks that learn and store knowledge and experience, create flexibility in problem solving and balance power among interest groups play an important role in adaptive capacity.


View a video of Lance Gunderson's presentation "The Nature of Change and the Change of Nature -
Obstacles and Opportunities for Building Adaptive Capacity"


Resilience is key to enhancing adaptive capacity

Are there elements that sustain adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems in a world that is constantly changing? Addressing how people respond to periods of change, how society reorganizes following change, is the most neglected and the least understood aspect in conventional resource management and science (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Folke et al. (2002) identify and expand on four critical factors that interact across temporal and spatial scales and that seem to be required for dealing with natural resource dynamics during periods of change and reorganization:

  • learning to live with change and uncertainty;
  • nurturing diversity for resilience;
  • combining different types of knowledge for learning; and
  • creating opportunity for self-organization towards social-ecological sustainability.


Folke C., J. Colding, and F. Berkes, 2002. Building resilience for adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems. In: Berkes F., J. Colding, and C. Folke (eds). Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Gunderson and Holling 2002

Keywords: adaptive capacity