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Keywords:

  • complexity;
  • water limitation;
  • adaptation;
  • self-organization

ABSTRACT

Water limited ecohydrological systems (WLES), with their broad extent, large stores of global terrestrial carbon, potential for large instantaneous fluxes of carbon and water, sensitivity to environmental changes, and likely global expansion, are particularly important ecohydrological systems. Strong nonlinear responses to environmental variability characterize WLES, and the resulting complexity of system dynamics has challenged research focussed on general understanding and site specific predictions. To address this challenge our synthesis brings together current views of complexity from ecological and hydrological sciences to look towards a framework for understanding ecohydrological systems (in particular WLES) as complex adaptive systems (CAS). This synthesis suggests that WLES have many properties similar to CAS. In addition to exhibiting feedbacks, thresholds, and hysteresis, the functioning of WLES is strongly affected by self-organization of both vertical and horizontal structure across multiple scales. As a CAS, key variables for understanding WLES dynamics are related to their potential for adaptation, resistance to variability, and resilience to state changes. Several essential components of CAS, including potential for adaptation and rapid changes between states, pose challenges for modelling and generating predictions of WLES. Model evaluation and predictable quantities may need to focus more directly on temporal or spatial variance in contrast to mean state values for success at understanding system-level characteristics. How coupled climate and vegetation changes will alter available soil, surface and groundwater supplies, and overall biogeochemistry will reflect how self-organizational ecohydrological processes differentially partition precipitation and overall net metabolic functioning. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.