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A Team for Coupled Human and Environmental MacroSystems (TeamCHEMS) in a Changing Globe

Landscape Ecology and Environmental Change | Environmental Science & Policy Program

Project Overview

Challenges & Objectives

The iconic statement of BBC News to Americans that “We live in a rapidly changing, increasingly connected world”. This statement reflects the needs for science, technology, and education on a global scale— such as global change science and telecoupling and those in broadly-defined environmental sciences.

With many pressing issues facing today’s global community (e.g., water scarcity, food security, energy shortage, global warming, human health), sound solutions and approaches need to: (1) couple natural and human sciences, and (2) consider the co-evolutions of natural and human systems at broader spatial scales.

These needs have resulted in two major research programs within the National Science Foundation (NSF): coupled natural and human systems (CNH) and macrosystems biology. Other programs within/outside of the NSF include the Sustainable Energy Program or SEP (NSF), Climatic Change, the LULCC Program (NASA), the Future Earth (IUCN), etc. All of these programs have the same requirements for a coupled human-natural science approach. Most recently, the NSF is considering a new, cross-division program focusing on food, energy, and water at national and international levels.

Among the 16 ITBI members, previous collaborations have been held, offering complementary and appropriate expertise from four colleges and three research centers. However, in this endeavor, not all 16 will be working on a single objective. New members may be added as we proceed in carrying out the above objectives.

Project Goal

The goal of this proposal is to form a team across Michigan State University's campus that is well-positioned to compete for these opportunities. TeamCHEMS (Team Coupled Human and Environmental MacroSystems) will target: 1) three contrasting countries (USA, China, and Brazil), and 2) three clustering macrosystems (European Union, Africa Union, and the former Soviet Union including Mongolia)—which include six countries in each—and the links between them (i.e. telecoupling among these macro-systems).

Project Objectives

To achieve this long-term goal, the TeamCHEMS will organize regular workshops and address the following objectives:

  • A comprehensive database of the natural systems (NS) and human systems (HS) for the three macrosystems (i.e. building up the necessary infrastructure and preliminary data for proposals)
  • One or two manuscripts highlighting research needs and directions
  • External proposals will be submitted to NSF (Macrosystems Biology, CNH, a new food, energy, and water program) and/or NASA (the Inter-Disciplinary Science or IDS).

The Scientific Foundations

Empirical evidence strongly indicates that neither biophysical nor socioeconomic systems operate independently; rather, they interact with one another, often in a nonlinear fashion, varying across spatial, temporal, and organizational scales and yielding emergent behaviors for each system.

Under this school of thought, we will not only examine complex interactions among the elements of the human system (HS) or natural system (NS) but, more importantly, also the direct or indirect causal relationships between the elements of the HS and NS matrices (Fig. 1, below) in light of the changes of driving forces from socioeconomic or climatic perspectives (e.g., population increase, institutional and policy changes, economic growth, global climate, education, etc.).

Fig.1. Picture depicting the direct causal relationship and feedback.

Figure 1. Our conceptual framework used for understanding the drivers, mechanisms, and consequences of socioeconomic and physical changes on the functional changes of the human systems (HS) and natural systems (NS) within the three macrosystems that have headed in different directions. Land use change (LUC) and land cover change (LCC) will be considered as the intermediate variables facilitating the causal relationships as well as the foundation for the trajectories.

An increasing number of studies have shown that these two drivers (socioeconomic and climate) regulate ecosystems simultaneously, with human disturbances producing much stronger impacts than climate change. Over human history, we now know that ecosystem services have been mostly affected by human actions such as wars, formations of social structure, urban expansion, and agricultural expansion.

However, escalating global climate change and disturbances over recent decades have added more complexity to CNH processes and functions. A particular, technical challenge is to understand the impact of ecosystem/societal functions from coupled socioeconomic and biophysical changes where the HS is often delineated by administrative boundaries while the NS is not. These differences will likely yield different land use among the units and consequently alter the functions and dynamics of ecosystems— which, in turn, will have direct feedback on socioeconomic development.


In light of understanding the complex coupled human and environmental macrosystems (CHEMS), we hypothesize that while biophysical change (e.g., climate) produced uneven pressures among ecosystems and societies in time and space, the socioeconomic changes and their disparities among the administrative units further escalated the complex causal relationships among the elements of the NS and HS. We further hypothesize that the human influences on CHEMS exceeded that of the biophysical changes, but that the significance varies in time, location, and ecological setting (e.g., biome).

To test these hypotheses, we must perform an uncertainty analysis, assess the vulnerabilities, and forecast the changes in CHEMS functions at various temporal, spatial, and organizational scales in order to develop sound adaptation strategies for alternative climates, land uses, and socioeconomic conditions to ensure long-term sustainability.


The functions of the HS and NS have been traditionally measured using different metrics. Here, we propose to use the same algorithms as the United Nations Development Program to calculate the Human Development Index (HDI). Among the 40+ different indices, the life expectancy index (LEI), income index (II), and education index (EI) have been used since 1990 and will be utilized in this study.

Other qualitative and quantitative (e.g., human poverty index) measures will also be examined. For NS functions, net primary production (NPP), evapotranspiration (ET), and ecosystem respiration (Re, carbon loss) will be modeled in this study. More importantly, we will place major focus on the relationships between these functions, such as NPP/GDP, GDP/ET, RE/II, etc. None of these relational variables between the HS and NS have been explored in literature, suggesting that our innovative endeavors may produce stimulating results for the CNH community.

We will use LCLUC as an intermediate process to connect these elements because it provides a logical link to integrate humans and nature.

Working Group Activities

The proposal work plan matches well with the research and education priorities of Michigan State University, including perspectives in global change, water and food, and human dimensions of global environmental change. TeamCHEMS also supports five new (Drs. Chen, Basso, Dahlin, Lafortezza, Moran) and four junior (Drs. John, Luo, Dahlin, Moore) faculty members.

The sections of focal macrosystems were based on our long-term research in China (Drs. Chen, Qi, Liu, Fan), Brazil (Dr. Moran), East Africa (Dr. Moore), Central Asia (Drs. Qi, John, Chen), Europe (Drs. Lafortezza, Basso). Rich datasets, strong collaborations, and knowledge are in place, warranting our success.

TeamCHEMS member projects

Project leaders belonging to TeamCHEMS are in bold

  1. Liu, Moran. Complex Dynamics of Telecoupled Human and Natural Systems. NSF, 2015–18.
  2. Moran, Liu, Qi, Buhler. Belmont Forum: Food Security and Land Use, the Telecoupling Challenge. NSF, 2015–20.
  3. Fan, Chen. Urbanization and Sustainability Under Global Change and Transitional Economies: Synthesis from Southeast, East and North Asia (SENA). LULCC-NASA, 2015-18.
  4. Chen, Brown, Zhuang. LCLUC Synthesis: Ecosystem-Society Interactions on a Changing Mongolian Plateau. LULCC-NASA, 2014-17.
  5. Chen, Jones, John, Zhang, Kinnucan. Ecosystems and Societies: Divergent Trajectories and Coevolution. CNH-NSF, 2013-17.
  6. Qi. MAIRS Project Scientist. LULCC-NASA, 2013-18.
  7. Snapp, Messina, Richardson, Basso, Schmitt, Olabisi. Perennial grain crops for African smallholder farming systems. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013-2015.
  8. Fan, Messina, Moore. China's urbanization and its sustainability under future climate change, LULCC-NASA, 2009-13.
  9. Hofferth, Moran. RCN: Social Observatories Coordinating Network (SOCN). NRCN-SF, 2012-16.
  10. Moran. Social and environmental processes that accompany the construction of Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, Altamira, PA, FAPESP, 2013-18.
  11. Moran, Amazonian Deforestation and the Structure of Households. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, 1997-2014.
  12. Messina, Moore. Global Center for Food Systems Innovation: Land use change and climate change impacts in Malawi. USAID AID-OAA-A-13-00006, 2012-17.
  13. Lafortezza. Green Infrastructure and Urban Biodiversity for Sustainable Urban Development and the Green Economy, European FP7, 2014-18.
  14. Liu, Vina, Winkler. Complex effects of climate change on nature reserve networks at macroscales, Macrosystems-NSF, 2014-18.

Research areas: three macrosystems

In addition to USA, China (Drs. Qi & Fan lead), and Brazil (Dr. Moran leads)—where we have substantial data and knowledge—we have identified six countries and have clustered them into three macrosystems. These countries represent different bioclimatic regions, the diversity of socio-economic conditions, and our past/current projects.

1. European Union : Austria, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom.
(Dr. Lafortezza leads) These countries span the range and variation of pan-European socio-political and environmental conditions, which the project activities will focus on. These European case studies have been selected and defined to represent different bioclimatic regions of Europe, the diversity of socio-economic conditions, and a range of European Union policies. They also contain solid reference and research data from which empirical data can be extracted and utilized.Together, the case studies provide a widely ranging, topical set of challenges and focus for addressing key European regulatory framework in agricultural, urban, forest, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems.

2. African Union: Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia
(Dr. Moore leads) These countries are all rapidly modernizing nations in East Africa that share common economic ties, land use practices, governance structures, and an upland tropical climate. Most of the agriculture in these countries is dominated by smallholder farms centered on rain-fed maize cultivation— the exception being bananas in Uganda and cattle/sheep/goat transhumance in more arid regions. Market liberalization in recent decades has triggered substantial economic growth in east Africa, bringing with it significant changes in agricultural and ecological processes. Michigan State University has a long record of working in these countries and has many active working relationships already in place with university an NGO institutions. Research in these locations are broadly interdisciplinary and range from studies on market access, to climate change impacts on agriculture, and to coupled natural-human systems.

3. Former Soviet Union states and Mongolia : Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia.
(Drs. John & Chen lead) The collapse of the former Soviet Union provides us with a great opportunity to explore the driving mechanisms of CHEMS. We will focus on these countries in the drylands region where we have conducted substantial research in the past 15 years. Central Asia, as defined by the former Soviet Union, consisted of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc. However, the UNESCO definition includes the countries of Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The dominant cover type in this water limited region is the temperate steppe with 75% of the land area in grassland and shrubland. The post Soviet Union decade saw the collapse of the collective agricultural systems, which resulted in a “re-wilding of the steppe" (for e.g. Kazakhstan). However, the last two decades have also seen increased degradation, owing to rapid increase in livestock population along with changes in livestock composition driven by market forces.


These groups will perform four tasks

Task 1. Construct seamless databases for proposed macrosystems
We will construct a comprehensive database of the NS and HS for the three macrosystems at multiple spatial and temporal scales from multiple sources of journal/government publications, previous research projects, remote sensing, and other international agencies. This web-based platform will be critical for us to produce the necessary preliminary results demonstrating the feasibility of our proposal for reviewers and foundation managers. This webpage will be housed on Dr. Chen’s LEES server, hosted by Michigan State University, by November 2014.

Task 2. Organize workshops
A total of six workshops (i.e., one per academic term) for the PIs, potential external partners, and graduate students will be organized with support of Michigan State University’s faculty development office. We anticipate that 1-2 seminars from our external visitors will be given on Michigan State University's campus as well; these seminars will be organized as ESPP seminars.

Task 3. Develop manuscripts for publication
We anticipate Dr. Chen to lead in the creation of a manuscript during the proposal development stages entitled "Dynamics and variations of the human-environment systems based on the macrosystem concept". This manuscript will be based on the social (e.g., population), economic (e.g., gross domestic product, purchasing power parity), and ecological (net ecosystem production, water use, etc.) of the countries since 1980. The lessons learned from this manuscript will help us to develop the hypotheses that will be the foundation of our external proposals (Task 4).

Task 4. Organize external proposals
Throughout the two-year period, we will build several sub-teams for external proposals. These may include:

  • A PIRE proposal for NSF in 2016 on the co-evolutions of CHEMS
  • An IDS proposal for NASA in 2015 or 2016
  • Other small-scale proposals (e.g., CNH or Macrosystems Biology Programs of the NSF) that may emerge during the two-year period

Expected Outcomes

We expect the following outcomes from our collaboration: a comprehensive database for open access in the LEES server (held at Michigan State University), one or two synthesis papers in influential journals, an interactive webpage with necessary databases to support the proposals.

Team Members

Name Title Dept/College Specialty
Jiquan Chen
Professor Geography/CSS Regional Ecology, Global Change, CNH
Emilio Moran
Professor CGCEO Socioeconomics, Land Use Change
Bruno Basso Associate Professor Geology/CNH Ecosystem Modeling
Kyla Dahlin Assistant Professor Geography/CSS Climate Change, Ecosystems
John Dirkx Professor EdAmin/CE Higher and Adult education
Peilei Fan Associate Professor SPDC/CSS&CANR Urban Studies, Policy
Christine Geith Associate Provost MSU Global Online Learning, Knowledge Systems
Ranjeet John Research Associate CGCEO Climate-vegetation Interactions
Sasha Kravchenko Professor Plant-Soil/CANR Spatial Statistics
Raffaele Lafortezza Adjunct Professor CGCEO Landscape Change and Modeling
Jack Liu Professor CSIS/CANR CNH and Sustainability Science
Lifeng Luo Assistant Professor Geography/CSS Global Change and Modeling
Carolyn Malmstrom Associate Professor Plant Biology/CNS Plant and Landscape Ecology
Nathan Moore Associate Professor Geography/CGCEO Climate Modeling
Jiaguo Qi Professor CGCEO Remote Sensing and Land Use
Julie Winkler Professor Geography/CSS Climatic Changes
Jinhua Zhao Professor ESPP Environmental Policy Education

Selected Collaborators

Mateus Batistella , Director, Embrapa Satellite Monitoring, Brazil
Edson Bolfe, Associate Director, Research, Embrapa Satellite Monitoring, Brazil
Amarjargal Amartuvshin, Associate Professor & Dean, Business School, University of Humanities, Mongolia
Askarbek Tulobaev, Professor, Turkey Manas University, Kyrgyzstan
Pius Yanda, Director, Institute for Resource Assessment, Tanzania
David Mkwambisi, Program Coordinator, LUANR, Malawi
Dan Wang, Professor, IceMe/NUIST, China



Center for Global Change and Earth Observations (CGCEO)
202 Manly Miles Bldg. 1405 S. Harrison Rd,
Michigan State University,
East Lansing, MI 48823

Phone: 517-844-1885 | Fax: 517-353-2932

Interested in learning more?

Contact either Dr. Jiquan Chen or Dr. Emilio Moran, TeamCHEMS leaders