Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future. Humans are part of the natural world. We depend on ecological systems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale. Resilience is a property of these linked social-ecological systems (SES). "Resilience" as applied to ecosystems, or to integrated systems of people and the natural environment, has three defining characteristics:

  • The amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure
  • The degree to which the system is capable of self-organization
  • The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation


The amount of resilience a system possesses relates to the magnitude of disturbance required to fundamentally disrupt the system causing a dramatic shift to another state of the system, controlled by a different set of processes. Reduced resilience increases the vulnerability of a system to smaller disturbances that it could previously cope with. Even in the absence of disturbance, gradually changing conditions, e.g., nutrient loading, climate, habitat fragmentation, etc., can surpass threshold levels, triggering an abrupt system response.When resilience is lost or significantly decreased, a system is at high risk of shifting into a qualitatively different state. The new state of the system may be undesirable, as in the case of productive freshwater lakes that become eutrophic, turbid, and depleted of their biodiversity. Restoring a system to it's previous state can be complex, expensive, and sometimes even impossible. Research suggests that to restore some systems to their previous state requires a return to environmental conditions well before the point of collapse.

Coral Dominance > > > > Algal Dominance

Coral reefs are spectacular marine ecosystems known for their diversity of eye-pleasing fish and corals. In the Caribbean, overfishing and increased nutrient loading from land water run-off is believed to be responsible for declines in herbivorous fish populations which allowed the sea urchin Diadema antillarum, to dominate the coral reefs. In 1981 a hurricane severly damaged the coral reefs. The sea urchin continued to graze on the algae which allowed the coral to recolonize the reefs. In subsequent years the urchin was hit hard by a pathogen and as a consequence, was no longer in a position to control the algae. Fleshy brown algae came to dominate the reefs. The adult algae that now covers the reefs are largely unpalatable to the remaining herbivores, which serves to keep the reefs in this state of algal dominance.


The resilience of social-ecological systems depends largely on underlying, slowly changing variables such as climate, land use, nutrient stocks, human values and policies. Resilience can be degraded by a large variety of factors including:
  • loss of biodiversity
  • toxic pollution
  • inflexible, closed institutions
  • perverse subsidies that encourage unsustainable use of resources
  • a focus on production and increased efficiences that leads to a loss of redundancy


Natural systems are inherently resilient but just as their capacity to cope with disturbance can be degraded, so can it be enhanced. The key to resilience in social-ecological systems is diversity. Biodiversity plays a crucial role by providing functional redundancy. For example, in a grassland ecosystem, several different species will commonly perform nitrogen fixation, but each species may respond differently to climatic events, thus ensuring that even though some species may be lost, the process of nitrogen fixation within the grassland ecosystem will continue. Similarly, when the management of a resource is shared by a diverse group of stakeholders (e.g., local resource users, research scientists, community members with traditional knowledge, government representatives, etc.), decision-making is better informed and more options exist for testing policies.Active adaptive management whereby management actions are designed as experiments encourages learning and novelty, thus increasing resilience in social-ecological systems.


Selected references:

Carpenter,S., B. Walker, J. M. Anderies, and N. Abel. 2001. From metaphor to measurement: Resilience of what to what? Ecosystems 4:765-781.

Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 4:1-23.

Holling, C. S. 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. Pages 31-44 in P. Schulze , editor. Engineering within ecological constraints. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Scheffer, M., S. Carpenter, J. A. Foley, C. Folke, and B. Walker. 2001. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413:591-596.

Walker, B., S. Carpenter, J. Anderies, N. Abel, G. Cumming, M. Janssen, L. Lebel, J. Norberg, G. D. Peterson, and R. Pritchard. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 14. [online] URL:

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