Exploring temporality in socio-ecological resilience through experiences of the 2015–16 El Niño across the Tropics

Stephen Whitfield*, Emilie Beauchamp, Doreen S. Boyd, David Burslem, Anja Byg, Francis Colledge, Mark E.J. Cutler, Mengistu Didena, Andrew Dougill, Giles Foody, Jasmin A. Godbold, Mirjam Hazenbosch, Mark Hirons, Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, Eleanor Jew, Carmen Lacambra, David Mkwambisi, Awdenegest Moges, Alexandra Morel, Rebecca MorrisPaula Novo, Mario Rueda, Harriet Smith, Martin Solan, Thomas Spencer, Ann Thornton, Julia Touza, Piran C.L. White

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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In a context of both long-term climatic changes and short-term climatic shocks, temporal dynamics profoundly influence ecosystems and societies. In low income contexts in the Tropics, where both exposure and vulnerability to climatic fluctuations is high, the frequency, duration, and trends in these fluctuations are important determinants of socio-ecological resilience. In this paper, the dynamics of six diverse socio-ecological systems (SES) across the Tropics – ranging from agricultural and horticultural systems in Africa and Oceania to managed forests in South East Asia and coastal systems in South America – are examined in relation to the 2015–16 El Niño, and the longer context of climatic variability in which this short-term ‘event’ occurred. In each case, details of the socio-ecological characteristics of the systems and the climate phenomena experienced during the El Niño event are described and reflections on the observed impacts of, and responses to it are presented. Drawing on these cases, we argue that SES resilience (or lack of) is, in part, a product of both long-term historical trends, as well as short-term shocks within this history. Political and economic lock-ins and dependencies, and the memory and social learning that originates from past experience, all contribute to contemporary system resilience. We propose that the experiences of climate shocks can provide a window of insight into future ecosystem responses and, when combined with historical perspectives and learning from multiple contexts and cases, can be an important foundation for efforts to build appropriate long-term resilience strategies to mediate impacts of changing and uncertain climates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date23 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding: This work was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the UK Government Department for International Development [grant numbers NE/P004806/1; NE/P004091/1; NE/P00394X/1; NE/P004210/1; NE/P004830/1; NE/P003974/1].

We are grateful to Annalyse Moskeland for her valuable support in the organisation and running of the workshop.


  • Climate change
  • Ecosystems
  • Perturbations
  • Resistance
  • Societies
  • Temporal dynamics
  • Variability


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