Sustainability science has emerged as an interdisciplinary response to the complex challenge of maintaining Earth’s life support functions during the Anthropocene. Recognizing that our most intractable and urgent ecological problems required the explicit consideration of our economies, cultures and institutions, Terry Chapin shifted the focus of his latter career toward the study of resilience and adaptation in social-ecological systems. We hypothesized that by doing so, Chapin drove transformative change in many different ways – as a leader, thinker, mentor, collaborator, interdisciplinary translator and practitioner – and in a wide variety of settings and communities across the Arctic and beyond.
We estimate Chapin’s multifaceted contributions to sustainability science, drawing on the experiences of current students and alumni of the Resilience and Adaptation Program that he established and led at the University of Alaska Fairbanks – one of the first interdisciplinary doctoral programs in the US to explicitly integrate ecosystem science and social science disciplines to address sustainability issues in real-world settings. Using these ‘data’ we evaluated the hypothesis that Terry Chapin’s work has had real and tangible positive impacts on the resilience and adaptive capacity of Arctic communities and ecosystems. In addition to finding cross-scale evidence supporting this hypothesis, we identified strong non-linear positive feedbacks that Chapin’s legacy has created for future generations of interdisciplinary scientists and practitioners. Our findings clearly indicate that his work has enhanced the capacity of both science and society to address the complex environmental challenges of the future.