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Natural Disasters: Humans Should Be Less Controlling, Researchers Say

Oct 08, 2015 03:51 PM EDT
Levee Building
Bulldozers push out hydraulic fill to form a new levee in the Missouri River.
(Photo : Flickr: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Going with the flow may be in our best interest. That is, managing Earth's environment based on predicted outcomes can be tricky, and preventative measures often backfire, researchers noted in a new study. We may have to loosen the reins and let nature take its course. 

"By making things predictable in the short term, we make them unpredictable in the long term," Steve Carpenter, director of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the report, said in a news release. "We actively make things worse."

For example, we are able to mitigate flooding in low-lying areas by installing levees in rivers, but these artificial systems aren't flawless. Engineers can build them using the best materials and strategies, yet sometimes a levee breaks or river levels exceed what the levee was built to withstand. In this case, the outcome would be far worse than if we had just left the river alone in the first place.  

"Variability doesn't go away, it just goes somewhere else," Carpenter added in the release. "So, you do get better predictability. For many years the river stays in the levee and everything's fine. It's just that, every once in a while, it goes out and everything is worse."

For their study, researchers examined three human mitigation efforts: Controlling nutrient pollution in lakes, maintaining cattle production on rangelands invaded by shrubs, and sustaining harvest in a fishery.

Using computer models, they determined that when they tried to control variance in each of these situations, unexpected outcomes occurred. For example, when they controlled fish harvest, fish stocks collapsed at lower harvest levels. This suggests that human involvement may explain some unintended outcomes.  

"Living systems need a certain amount of stress," Carpenter said, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison News. "They continually got calibrated against variability."

This is similar to humans taking medicine to ward off a virus. Just as our immune system relies on exposure to bacteria and viruses to better fight a disease, natural systems also need that stimulation. 

However, Carpenter noted that this does not mean humans should give up on all efforts to manage natural resources. It means we need to accept different levels of variability and not try to put such restrictive controls on the environment. In other words, we need to let natural disasters be natural.

Carpenter calls this approach "adaptive management," which allows for greater natural variability in a system and encourages a diverse set of management approaches, according to the release. Being more flexible could help resource managers learn how to better sustain ecosystems in the future.  

"By allowing variability, learning from it and trying alternatives that seem sensible and safe, we can navigate change," Carpenter said in the release. "When we make complex systems too predictable, we set the stage for collapse."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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