Telecoupling & Spatial Subsidies

Agents of change may be distant, yet their effects may be profound.


Environmental and social scientists have traditionally focused on particular study sites—bounded place-based systems— looking at local causes and effects in order to solve local problems. However, accelerating globalization has made interactions between distant places increasingly common. This idea has been formally described by the telecoupling concept which recognizes that the drivers of environmental change in one location can have profound effects on ecosystems and human well-being in distant locations. Telecoupled systems are composed of sending locations (the sources of impacts that affect other locations) and receiving locations (the recipients of impacts from other locations). 

The telecoupling concept recognizes that the drivers of environmental change in one location can have profound effects on ecosystems and human well-being in distant locations.

Migratory Species

Scientists who study migratory species have long understood that it is impossible to understand and manage a natural environment in isolation. Complete knowledge requires insights into ecological networks spanning space and time, and also the human systems that interact with them.

Each year, millions of birds, bats, and insects migrate across North America via multiple stop-over sites, often crossing international boundaries. During these mass seasonal movements, some of these species also provide benefits to humans. Cotton farmers in the southwestern United States, for example, receive free pest-suppression benefits worth millions of dollars from migratory bats that migrate north from Mexico in the spring. Overwintering bat habitat in Mexico is therefore valuable to farmers hundreds of miles away.

The Amazon Soy Moratorium

Focusing only on a natural system, without understanding economic influences, ecologists might solve one local problem, just to see it spill over into another location. Consider the link between the price of soybeans and the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. In the 2000s, an international Soy Moratorium reduced rainforest-clearing in the Amazon by 80%. Yet, because of the high prices for soybeans in China, Brazilian farmers moved their crops to the nearby Tocantins Cerrado region, a less well-known savannah environment, causing similar environmental impacts there.

Clean Water in Ethiopia

Telecoupling can also reveal unexpected factors leading to unforeseen consequences of management plans. Clean water development in rural Ethiopia was a success: the local infant mortality rate went down. Yet, the resulting population growth created competition for jobs, driving rural people to the cities. This increased urban development prompted the building of dams. These dams displaced water resources and living spaces for downstream rural communities, creating a feedback loop of unintended consequences.

Moving Forward

Facing the challenges of sustainability in today’s complex world requires consideration of the full complexity of natural and human systems across space by recognizing dynamic relationships that exist over long distances and over broader time periods. The telecoupling concept recognizes the importance of combining information from different disciplines to understand complex interactions, and to make meaningful predictions and recommendations for both local decision-making and transboundary governance.

Spatial Subsidies

Species that migrate across multiple international borders present special challenges to conservation planning and governance. When such species are also economically or culturally valuable to humans (i.e., they provide ecosystem services), there is added incentive to develop sustainable transboundary management practices.

Our spatial subsidies approach uses the telecoupling concept to quantify the degree to which the ecosystem services a migratory species provides in one location depend on the species’ habitat in other locations. We call this “spatial subsidies” because species often provide more benefits in certain parts of their range than in others, and some areas of habitat are more critical than others for the species’ population viability. Essentially, the “receiving areas” are subsidized by conservation of habitat in “sending areas”.

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