Telecoupling: A new frontier of research on coupled human and natural systems
Coupled human and natural systems across the world are increasingly interconnected, both ecologically and socioeconomically. For example, while international trade has existed for a long time, an ever-stronger demand for products from great distances is shaping coupled systems as never before. Studies on human-nature dynamics have often focused on a single coupled system. Even when multiple coupled systems are studied, it is usually for comparison. Yet all coupled systems interact with other systems, including those far away. Studies that have considered human-nature interactions with other coupled systems often pay attention to one-way impacts. Some have treated external factors as drivers of changes in the focal system, while other separate studies have considered the impact of the focal system on other systems as spatial externalities. However, the feedbacks between these systems have rarely been considered. To account for these and other largely ignored components and processes simultaneously, a new integrated framework of telecoupling is proposed (www.telecoupling.org). Telecouplings are socioeconomic and ecological interactions between multiple coupled systems over distances. They occur during trade, water transfer, payments for ecosystem services, foreign investment, migration, and tourism. They also emerge when information flows, energy flows, organisms disperse, species invade, and diseases spread. In this study, we apply the telecoupling framework to understand complexity of telecoupled systems.
Results indicate that even a small remote nature reserve such as Wolong Nature Reserve of Southwest China has numerous telecouplings with the rest of the world. They vary across space and differ over time. They also interact with each other in various ways. Telecouplings can have profound effects on multiple and distant coupled systems by transforming their structures, patterns, processes, and dynamics. Applying the telecoupling framework has helped reveal hidden patterns and identify crucial knowledge gaps. Telecouplings pose new global challenges and offer exciting new opportunities for the scientific community. Understanding telecouplings provide essential information to formulate effective policy for sustainability. It is essential to rethink and reexamine human-nature dynamics and sustainability in the context of telecouplings.