Case Study 16: Co-Evolution of Upstream Human Behavior and Downstream Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate

Non-point source nutrient and sediment runoff from upstream agricultural production is impairing coastal ecosystem services across the globe, including the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, northern Gulf of Mexico and other regions of economic, recreational, and cultural importance. This degradation is projected to worsen with continued climate change, as more intense rains transport more nutrients and sediments downstream with impacts that include reduced water clarity, increased harmful algal blooms, and a loss of high-valued fish stocks. To address these problems many agricultural management practices have been identified that can reduce sediment and nutrient runoff. However, effective design of policies to encourage adoption of best agricultural management practices is limited by a critical knowledge gap concerning human behavioral responses to ecosystem conditions. Using the Maumee River watershed and western Lake Erie as a model ecosystem, this research will quantify the co-evolution between upstream human behavior and downstream ecosystem services through two objectives: (1) model how public attitudes co-evolve with downstream ecosystem conditions and shape support for policies that impact agricultural management practices, and in turn, how farmers respond to these policies and public attitudes to impact downstream ecosystem conditions; and (2) integrate biophysical models of our study region with behavioral models of public policy and farmer decision-making to predict this co-evolution between public policies, farmer behavior and downstream ecosystems under alternative future scenarios, including climate change scenarios.

The intellectual merit of this proposal centers on three novel developments: (1) creating a coupled human-natural model that focuses on the dynamic feedback between upstream human behavioral responses and downstream ecosystem change; (2) providing an assessment of how farmer behavioral responses mediate the interactions between specific policies and changing ecological conditions; and (3) understanding the capacity of state and local policy makers to influence farmer behavior, and hence downstream ecosystem conditions, to counteract the expected negative impacts of climate change. This modeling of a two-way coupling between upstream human behavior and downstream ecosystem services permits consideration of the central research question: can changes in upstream public attitudes, policies, and farmer behavior offset anticipated negative impacts of climate change on downstream ecosystem services? While substantial research has focused on the one-way impacts of upstream nutrient flows and fluxes on watershed functioning and downstream ecosystem services, key reverse linkages that shape public, policy, and farmer responses to ecological changes have received much less study. Our integrated model will provide the theoretical foundation for assessing the dynamic linkages between human attitudes and behaviors (specifically farmer land management) and downstream ecological conditions and will allow us to predict the dynamic effect of changing behavioral activities and climate on the availability and quality of downstream ecosystem services. This predictive knowledge is an important societal broader impact as it will improve the ability of decision-makers in coastal watersheds to manage adaptively to address negative impacts of climate change. Additional broader impacts of this research include: 1) training and mentoring of students (undergraduate and graduate) and post-doctoral researchers, 2) working directly with 6-12 grade teachers within rural school districts in the Maumee watershed to develop watershed science curriculum, 3) increasing science instruction and knowledge for rural6-12 grade students-an- underserved and underrepresented group with regards to STEM fields, and 4) disseminating results broadly by including decision-makers in our research, and working with Ohio Sea Grant to develop and distribute materials targeted at decision-makers and the general public.