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Keywords:

  • Adaptive management;
  • disaster recovery;
  • floodplain management;
  • resiliency

Recent natural and man-made catastrophes, such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant, flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Haiti earthquake, and the mortgage derivatives crisis, have renewed interest in the concept of resilience, especially as it relates to complex systems vulnerable to multiple or cascading failures. Although the meaning of resilience is contested in different contexts, in general resilience is understood to mean the capacity to adapt to changing conditions without catastrophic loss of form or function. In the context of engineering systems, this has sometimes been interpreted as the probability that system conditions might exceed an irrevocable tipping point. However, we argue that this approach improperly conflates resilience and risk perspectives by expressing resilience exclusively in risk terms. In contrast, we describe resilience as an emergent property of what an engineering system does, rather than a static property the system has. Therefore, resilience cannot be measured at the systems scale solely from examination of component parts. Instead, resilience is better understood as the outcome of a recursive process that includes: sensing, anticipation, learning, and adaptation. In this approach, resilience analysis can be understood as differentiable from, but complementary to, risk analysis, with important implications for the adaptive management of complex, coupled engineering systems. Management of the 2011 flooding in the Mississippi River Basin is discussed as an example of the successes and challenges of resilience-based management of complex natural systems that have been extensively altered by engineered structures.