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Scientists advocate breaking laws – of geography and ecology

February 3, 2021

Recent global calamities – the pandemic, wildfires, floods – are spurring interdisciplinary scientists to nudge aside the fashionable First Law of Geography that dictates “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

 Floods in Ohio in 2018 caused a terrestrial sediment plume in the Gulf of Mexico covering over 300 km (b), including associated nutrients, as pericoupled by the Mississippi River (NASA Earth Observatory).
Floods in Ohio in 2018 caused a terrestrial sediment plume in the Gulf of Mexico covering over 300 km. (“NASA Earth Observatory”)

Geography, and by association, ecology, has largely followed what’s known as Tobler’s Law, which took hold in the early 1970s. But then came the novel coronavirus apparently has leapt from wildlife meat markets in China to the world in a matter of months. Global climate change creates conditions ripe for infernos in the North American west and Australia. Extreme Ohio flooding in 2018 gave way to sediments and excessive nutrients to dump into the Gulf of Mexico to the tune of some 300 square kilometers.

In other words, all that’s local is a lot more global, and two EEB core faculty members - Jianguo "Jack" Liu and Kyla Dahlin - with colleagues in this week’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment say solutions can only be found through broader views and collaborations nearby and far away.

“Understanding and finding solutions to the recent and future crises need an integrated framework across local to global scales,” said Liu, Michigan State University’s Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability...

Other authors of “Macrosystems as metacoupled human and natural systems” note the issues keep unfolding. Dahlin, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, points out today’s western wildfires already are leading to questions about crops – and ultimately grocery store prices –hundreds of miles away. “Metacoupling especially breaks with the idea of Tobler’s Law,” she said.

Read the full story at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability site.