Quantifying resilience

Journal of Applied Ecology
By:  and 



The biosphere is under unprecedented pressure, reflected in rapid changes in our global ecological, social, technological and economic systems. In many cases, ecological and social systems can adapt to these changes over time, but when a critical threshold is surpassed, a system under stress can undergo catastrophic change and reorganize into a different state. The concept of resilience, introduced more than 40 years ago in the ecological sciences, captures the behaviour of systems that can occur in alternative states. The original definition of resilience forwarded by Holling (1973) is still the most useful. It defines resilience as the amount of disturbance that a system can withstand before it shifts into an alternative stable state. The idea of alternative stable states has clear and profound implications for ecological management. Coral reefs, for example, are high-diversity systems that provide key ecosystem services such as fisheries and coastal protection. Human impacts are causing significant, ongoing reef degradation, and many reefs have shifted from coral- to algal-dominated states in response to anthropogenic pressures such as elevated water temperatures and overfishing. Understanding and differentiating between the factors that help maintain reefs in coral-dominated states vs. those that facilitate a shift to an undesired algal-dominated state is a critical step towards sound management and conservation of these, and other, important social–ecological systems.

Resilience has gained popularity among both academicians and laypeople, as a term meant to describe a systems’ ability to withstand disturbance. Resilience has become a buzzword in the last decade, as shown by its increasing appearance in calls for research proposals and scientific citation data bases. The term resilience has in many cases lost the clarity of the original definition and in fact is frequently used in a manner in direct opposition to the original definition. Many current uses of the concept are loose and incorrect. The term is becoming increasingly used in a normative sense (Brand & Jax 2007), as if resilience were a desirable quality of systems. However, even systems in highly undesirable states, such as macro-algae dominated reefs, or city cores in poverty traps, may be highly resilient, which is to say they withstand attempts to transform them into different (desirable) states.

Operationalizing the concept of resilience for application and management has been difficult. Misuse of the term can have significant negative impacts, because resilience is being used to help guide responses to natural disasters and to assess the sustainability of ecosystems and urban systems and has been driving international research priorities. Resilience has been argued to be a basic emergent property of systems, a process or a rate. We focus on the original concept as described by Holling, which is that of an emergent system property; when a system is in a desirable state and managers wish to enhance resilience, or when the system is in an undesirable state and managers wish to erode resilience and foster a transformation to an alternative state. Fostering or eroding resilience is a process. When a system is perturbed but resilience is not exceeded, then the recovery can be measured as a rate.

Several frameworks to operationalize resilience have been proposed. A decade ago, a special feature focused on quantifying resilience was published in the journal Ecosystems (Carpenter, Westley & Turner 2005). The approach there was towards identifying surrogates of resilience, but few of the papers proposed quantifiable metrics. Consequently, many ecological resilience frameworks remain vague and difficult to quantify, a problem that this special feature aims to address. However, considerable progress has been made during the last decade (e.g. Pope, Allen & Angeler 2014). Although some argue that resilience is best kept as an unquantifiable, vague concept (Quinlan et al2016), to be useful for managers, there must be concrete guidance regarding how and what to manage and how to measure success (Garmestani, Allen & Benson 2013; Spears et al2015). Ideas such as ‘resilience thinking’ have utility in helping stakeholders conceptualize their systems, but provide little guidance on how to make resilience useful for ecosystem management, other than suggesting an ambiguous, Goldilocks approach of being just right (e.g. diverse, but not too diverse; connected, but not too connected). Here, we clarify some prominent resilience terms and concepts, introduce and synthesize the papers in this special feature on quantifying resilience and identify core unanswered questions related to resilience.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Quantifying resilience
Series title Journal of Applied Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2664.12649
Volume 53
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher British Ecological Society
Publisher location London, United Kingdom
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Seattle
Description 8 p.
First page 617
Last page 624
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details