Cooperative Research Units
Education, Research And Technical Assistance For Managing Our Natural Resources
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Dynamics of resilience in complex adaptive systems


May 2012 - December 2017


Ecosystems are a type of complex system, and as such share general rules of behavior with other types of complex adaptive systems. Research across a wide variety of disciplines has uncovered rules of system dynamics that address features of self-organization and emergence. Work in the field of ecology has proposed that resilience may be an emergent phenomenon of complex adaptive systems, and in particular, social-ecological systems. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb or buffer while staying organized around the same key structures, processes, and functions. As our understanding of non-linear dynamics and complex systems has grown in recent years, the concept of resilience has exploded, and a great deal of work has been done to understand how resilience emerges and what system components and interactions comprise resilience.

One of the key findings is summarized in the cross-scale resilience model, which proposes that the distribution of species and the functions they represent within and across the scales of an ecosystem plays a key role in system resilience. While most previous work has been explicitly focused on social-ecological systems, there is some tantalizing evidence to suggest that resilience and the cross-scale model may also be applicable to other types of complex adaptive systems, such as economies.

In a more applied exploration of these ideas, the role of species abundance, coupled with their distribution of function, is an element of the cross-scale model that remains unexplored.

This project has two objectives.
1. Explore the cross-scale model in greater detail at both ends of the research spectrum, building the theoretical foundations of the cross-scale model and thus its applicability to other complex adaptive systems, in order to expand understanding of the cross-scale model to incorporate species’ abundances and potentially use it as a tool for resource managers to use for identifying impending regime shifts.
2. Focus on improving our understanding of the relationship between cross-scale distributions, species abundance, and regime shifts at a system level by using a comparison of a highly disturbed river basin system (the Lower Columbia River Basin, USA) against a less disturbed basin (the Fraser River Basin, Canada).

Research Products and Activities

Peer Reviewed Publications

  • Sundstrom, S., C.R. Allen, A.S. Garmestani, J. Garcia, and D.G. Angeler. 2014. Transdisciplinary application of the cross-scale resilience model. Sustainability 6(10):

  • Sundstrom, S.M., T. Eason, R.J. Nelson, D.G. Angeler, C. Barichievy, A.S. Garmestani, N.A.J. Graham, D. Granholm, L. Gunderson, M. Knutson, K.L. Nash, M. Nyström, T. Spanbauer, C.A. Stow, and C.R. Allen. 2017. Detecting spatial regimes in ecological systems. Ecology Letters 20:19-32.


  • Sundstrom, S. Complex adaptive systems: cross-scale structure and resilience. Dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Current Staff

Federal Staff: 95

Masters Students: 239

Phd Students: 142

Post Docs: 53

University Staff: 240

5 Year Summary

Students graduated: 701

Scientific Publications: 1936

Presentations: 4260



  • Craig AllenPrincipal Investigator
  • Shana SundstromStudent

Funding Agencies

  • USGS Powell Center


Cooperative Research Units Program Headquarters Cooperators

  1. U.S. Geological Survey