State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Ecological and Urban Resilience

Ecological and Urban Resilience

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and man-made catastrophes such as the Bhopal Gas tragedy in India and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine all concern fundamentals of ecological resilience.

Davie, Fla., August 27, 2005 — Winds from Hurricane Katrina knocked over this tree crushing this Mobile home. The residents had evacuated. Many Mobile homes homes are damaged and residents are displaced. Photo by Marvin Nauman/FEMA
Coined by the Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling, ecological resilience describes the ability of a natural system to persist in spite of natural or anthropogenic changes. Depending on the intensity and duration of a disturbance, an ecosystem may pass a threshold in which it is permanently changed, unable to return to its natural state.

Consider the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, one of the worst technological failures and environmental disasters. While the impact has been compared to the devastation of other major events such as hurricanes or war, it is increasingly evident that an oil spill of this type and magnitude is unique in its challenges and necessary response.

BP’s Macondo well spewed 4.9 million barrels of highly toxic oil, destroying marine and terrestrial habitats that serve as local fisheries and are vital to wetlands and other connected ecosystems. As the oil slick and dispersants moved from ecological fragile environment to another, members of vulnerable species such as sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, and pelicans died. Phytoplankton populations plummeted, and as zooplankton feasted on the biomass, dead zones of limited oxygen formed. The effects in the short-term have become more overwhelming and those in the long-term have yet to be fully understood – has the tipping point already been passed?

Scientists aren’t sure. But concerted efforts are underway to reach a more sustainable existence, to balance our demand for environmental goods and services and the needs of our ecosystems. The sustainability of the habitats we depend on heavily involve the preservation and enhancement of ecological resilience.

As described in an informative article in Seed Magazine, resilience science has been evolving over the past decade, expanding beyond ecology to reflect systems of thinking in fields such as economics and political science. And, as more and more people move into densely populated cities, using massive amounts of water, energy, and other resources, the need to combine these disciplines to consider the resilience of urban ecosystems and cities is of paramount importance.

Many public and private sector investment decision makers are focusing on an economy in which the connections between actions and social, environmental and economic outcomes become clearly relevant (“Eco-Economy”). These decision makers are concerned about extreme environmental and social events and the resiliency of their communities, business operations and customer buying power. However, practical realities such as budget considerations and shareholder demands are placing constraints on the option of pursuing “green” alternatives.

CERC offers a course that examines the connections between environmental sustainability, resilience, and the need and ability to compete in a global marketplace. It begins by defining “urban resilience” and the “eco-economy,” exploring the competitive realities that exist in human driven systems. The course also analyses the need for “orgware” developers and “future system integrators” – those professionals who connect the dots between data, intelligent design, resilience, and sustainable communities to achieve a distinct competitive advantage in the 21st century.

This course is part of CERC’s Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. It meets Tue., Nov. 29 (6-8PM), Sat., Dec. 3 (9AM-4PM), and Tue., Dec. 6 (6-8PM) – 3 sessions. The first session is free and open to the public. To attend the full 10-hour course registration is required. Courses may be taken on an individual basis or you may pursue the full 12-course Certificate. Interested in learning more? Visit our website or contact CERC for more information: or 212-854-0149.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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