Cornell University: ‘Multisector dynamics’ studies how human, Earth systems interact

A new report co-authored by a Cornell researcher will help to steer the emerging field of multisector dynamics for years to come, shaping a strategy for the greater scientific community to better project the outcomes of human interactions with the natural world.

“MultiSector Dynamics: Scientific Challenges and a Research Vision for 2030” is an 82-page report developed for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science by a group of researchers co-facilitated by Patrick Reed, the Joseph C. Ford Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The report outlines a vision for research approaches to better address the ways in which human systems – such as the economy, urbanization, technology and agriculture – co-evolve with Earth systems, such as climate, natural resources and wildlife.

“At present, we are limited in our understanding of the tradeoffs, synergies and risks that exist in our efforts to address the nexus between sustainability development goals, climate change and energy transitions,” Reed said. “We want positive and transformative change but must acknowledge that change itself will need to be resilient to human pressures that will evolve simultaneously with a potentially increasingly extreme climate.”

For example, the report points to the Mississippi River basin as a complex region with interacting land, water, ecology, food and energy systems. Multisector dynamics can examine how evolving flood and drought risks shape the sustainable management of agriculture, the environment, fisheries, ports, land development and energy production. These codependent systems link the upper and central parts of the basin to coastal areas and the Gulf of Mexico, creating coordination challenges across jurisdictions and industries.

With interactions with more than 260 researchers from 30 countries, the report lays out core definitions and concepts in the field, identifies key investigative questions and describes ongoing activities to expand the field.

“Positioning ourselves to take advantage of open science, emerging human systems datasets and embedded intelligence in our modeling is critical,” said Reed, who added that another priority is making foundational advancements in the scientific workforce.

“A key aspect of the vision report is that we really need to invest in growing and diversifying our community to better understand the complexity of our national and global challenges.”

The vision report received financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Earth and Environmental System Modeling program through the Integrated Multisector Multiscale Modeling project.

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