Understanding Resilience in an Age of Change


By Jenny Rempel

B.S. in Earth Systems, 2012
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Had you asked me four months ago about “the new ecological world order,” I might have given you a blank stare – even after graduating with a degree in the environmental sciences. Luckily, my Bill Lane Center internship at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) gave me a chance to study Anthropocene-era conservation. I quickly learned how much climate change has altered the ecological world order, such that conventional conservation and restoration approaches are often inappropriate and even unsuccessful. With the SFEI team, I addressed this problem by donning a new mask, metaphorically at least. Together, my SFEI advisors and I adopted the two-faced gaze of Janus, the Roman god of gateways, looking both forward and backward in efforts to understand how we might design functional landscapes in a changing world.

SFEI is in the process of developing an interdisciplinary research institute called the Center for Resilient Landscapes, and my somewhat daunting summer task was to clarify what “resilient landscapes” really are. The new Center will build on the strengths of existing SFEI programs in historical ecology, watershed and wetland science, and conservation biology, combining these programs‘ individual strengths to focus on creating dynamically functioning landscapes. Though ecologists, social scientists, and policymakers intuitively know what “resilience” means, it‘s hard to pinpoint a definition that renders the term useful to local managers. Thus, I spent a good portion of my summer reviewing the relevant literature – analyzing, annotating, and summarizing what “resilience” might mean to the SFEI team.

Resilience is a paradox of change and persistence. At SFEI, we consider resilient landscapes to be capable of recovering dynamically from perturbations, maintaining their basic function and structure in the face of change. The new Center will focus on building resilience by developing locally appropriate, long-term restoration strategies at sufficient scale for adaptation over time. Working with government agencies, land trusts, and local communities, the SFEI team will attempt to design landscapes that sustain natural hydrologic processes, support native species, and provide ecological services. This type of nuanced conservation work is challenging but important. It draws upon historical patterns and processes with an eye toward modern values and future conditions.

My time on SFEI‘s historical ecology team gave me a small taste of what the new Center will be capable of accomplishing. I focused my research on understanding historic species distributions in a handful of key watersheds and riverine systems in California. Using archival materials, I helped the team understand how California watersheds functioned in the early nineteenth century and how they might best function in the future. In addition to my literature reviews, I analyzed species collection databases, visited archives, digitized California maps, reviewed papers, and copyedited reports. These activities gave me a taste of the different kinds of work that go into historical ecology projects.

Whether the team at SFEI was analyzing old maps or proposing new restoration strategies, they consistently brought a critical eye and an optimistic approach to their work. As my first summer spent almost entirely in an office, I had to get used to sitting in a desk for eight or nine or even ten hours a day. I‘m glad my first desk job was at SFEI. With afternoon walks, yoga classes, and a social group of people surrounding me, I had a great work environment. The people at SFEI were curious about my aspirations and goals, and they cared about the trivial stuff of my day-to-day well being. Though I maintained a smile throughout my going-away lunch, it was hard not to cry. The team was dedicated, creative, encouraging, and just plain kind. Working at SFEI taught me about the type of colleagues I will search out in the future, and I only wish I could have stayed to help inaugurate the Center for Resilient Landscapes.

Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »