New approaches to link humans and landscapes

Telecoupling helps explore causes and effects of socio-economic and environmental interactions.

Telecoupling can help us understand how best to communicate to stakeholders how to fight invasive Phragmites. Photo: Dave Brenner
Telecoupling can help us understand how best to communicate to stakeholders how to fight invasive Phragmites. Photo: Dave Brenner

The US Regional Association of the International Landscape Ecology Conference convened April 9-13, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland. The conference theme was “People, places, patterns: Linking landscape heterogeneity and socio-environmental systems.” I participated in a telecoupling workshop sponsored by NASA and Michigan State University.

“Telecoupling … what is that?” you might ask.

Telecoupling is an umbrella concept that links socio-economic and environmental interactions. There are five main components of a telecoupling framework: coupled human and natural systems, flows (e.g., materials, goods, species) between people (or stakeholders) and the environment, the roles agents (e.g., people, stakeholders, policies) play, and causes and effects. Telecoupling framework is a tool that scientists can use to examine linkages across distances from local to global contexts (Liu et al. 2013).

Here’s a recent example from Michigan where NASA landscape approaches and earth observations help us better understand changes within our Great Lakes coastal ecosystems involving invasive Phragmites australis, an exotic wetland plant that is expanding its range throughout the Great Lakes region. Landscape analytical approaches can help scientists understand where species of concern are, the impacts occurring in those areas, and predict where species and their impacts are likely to go. With this prediction information, private landowners, local governments, and other state, federal and tribal resource managers can develop and implement strategies to slow the spread or reduce the impacts of an invasive species.

What does this look like? Knowing where invasive Phragmites are likely to invade and how they are likely to get there helps stakeholders identify what to do. Here’s a hypothetical example … say, I have Phragmites on my waterfront property and the landscape analysis shows it is likely to transfer from my lake to a lake in another part of my county via seeds attached to kayaks and canoes. We know from other research that most aquatic based-recreationalists are vectors of invasive species transmission and although they generally have good intentions for reducing aquatic invasive species transmission, they are often confused about laws, policies, and actions they should take (Lee et al., 2015).

With this information from a variety of scientific fields (landscape ecology, remote sensing, human dimensions), we know where ecological changes are most likely to take place and why the changes are taking place. As a result of this information from scientific studies, we can engage appropriate entities and invite conversation about what society’s goals are relative to forthcoming changes, and collaborate with them on joint actions to achieve the goals. For example, say the goal is to reduce the likelihood of invasive Phragmites transmission to interior wetlands, so local Parks & Recreation, conservation and outdoor organizations, paddling shops, MSU Extension/Sea Grant, and other resource managers coordinate messages to increase stakeholder awareness of their role in transmission and what actions they may take to decrease transmission. After a season or two of coordinated outreach and education, then we can evaluate to see how effective the effort was at achieving the goals and make decisions to modify as necessary.

What do MSU Extension and Michigan Sea Grant have to do with NASA and the umbrella concept of telecoupling and its framework? Within this framework, stakeholders (agents) and feedback are critical. Part of my role is to help stakeholders understand issues in new and different ways, and to work with others on solutions to these issues. First, because I help inform managers and other stakeholders about behaviors that are likely to lead to increased or more rapid invasion, I get to be an “agent” in the telecoupling framework and disseminate information. Second, I get to help stakeholders understand things happening around us in different ways, by utilizing new concepts (e.g., advancements in scientific information). The goal is that these new scientific concepts and findings are useful at understanding problems, the causes and effects or outcomes of them, and engage stakeholders in a discussion about what they want, what actions to take, and how they will monitor progress toward achieving goals and adapt.

For more information, follow these telecoupling links and the new, online toolkit presented at the NASA-MSU workshop.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.


Lee, J., O'Keefe, D., Oh, C.-O., & Han, J. (2015). “Improving Public Outreach and Education Programs to Minimize the Spread of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS).” Retrieved from

Liu, J., V. Hull, M. Batistella, R. DeFries, T. Dietz, F. Fu, T. W. Hertel, R. C. Izaurralde, E. F. Lambin, S. Li, L. A. Martinelli, W. J. McConnell, E. F. Moran, R. Naylor, Z. Ouyang, K. R. Polenske, A. Reenberg, G. de Miranda Rocha, C. S. Simmons, P. H. Verburg, P. M. Vitousek, F. Zhang, and C. Zhu. 2013. Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society 18(2): 26. ES-05873-180226

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