About the KBP

In this study, an interdisciplinary team of American, Japanese and Russian scholars and students are examining a 5000-year history of human-environmental interactions along the Kuril Island chain in the northwest Pacific. Evidence of human colonization, persistence and abandonment at various times in the past five millennia and under different social, economic, and technological regimes, is being used to study human vulnerability and resilience to both catastrophic and gradual environmental changes, including human-induced changes. Our objectives include: understanding the feedbacks among climate, sea ice, terrestrial ecology, and humans; estimating the degree of human vulnerability to catastrophic events and their ecological consequences at different spatial and temporal scales; and assessing the role of cultural variables both in influencing community survival and affecting environmental changes. These objectives are being tackled through an ecologically integrated study of: archaeologic and historic records of human settlement and abandonment; geologic evidence of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis; paleoecologic evidence of past vegetation; and climatological evidence of past temperature, sea ice, and storminess. Evidence collected in the field over three summers will be used to test and calibrate computer models and simulations (agent-based models). Numerical models will be run to detect the most critical social, ecological and physical variables affecting human resilience and vulnerability. The project includes education and outreach partnerships with indigenous Ainu communities in Hokkaido, Japan; the development of secondary school education kits and interactive computer simulations through the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture; and the participation of undergraduate and graduate students throughout the project.

This study will make significant contributions to understanding the complexity of coupled human and natural systems. The research will advance the theory of human ecological dynamics and of the ways social and technological variables buffering or aggravate human vulnerability to unpredictable ecological changes and catastrophic events. Methodologically, this research will develop new modeling tools to facilitate interdisciplinary integration and understanding. In application, this research will provide models that can be adapted to other contexts and modern conditions where coastal communities appear particularly vulnerable to environmental and social factors beyond their control. More generally, this research will provide tools in the form of model prototypes that can be adapted to many different regions where human-environmental dynamics are complex. Subarctic coastal communities today face natural and human induced changes in the environment and in access to critical food resources. How well these communities can adapt is both constrained and facilitated by engagement in local and global social, political, and economic networks. Understanding the complexity of these interactions is critical to the effective management of human response to change in the subarctic and elsewhere. Unfortunately, modern communities are often embedded in such complex social-political-economic webs that quantifiably reliable and realistic models are difficult to develop and evaluate. The Kuril Islands are a region where coupled human-environmental models can be more easily bounded and evaluated. This project is supported by an award resulting from the FY 2004 special competition in Biocomplexity in the Environment focusing on the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems.