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Panarchy: Discontinuities Reveal Similarities in the Dynamic System Structure of Ecological and Social Systems

Ahjond S Garmestani, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Craig R Allen, University of Nebraska
Lance Gunderson, Emory University


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In this paper, we review the empirical evidence of discontinuous distributions in complex systems within the context of panarchy theory and discuss the significance of discontinuities for understanding emergent properties such as resilience. Over specific spatial-temporal scale ranges, complex systems can configure in a variety of regimes, each defined by a characteristic set of self-organized structures and processes. A system may remain within a regime or dramatically shift to another regime. Understanding the drivers of regime shifts has provided critical insight into system structure and resilience. Although analyses of regime shifts have tended to focus on the system level, new evidence suggests that the same system behaviors operate within scales. In essence, complex systems exhibit multiple dynamic regimes nested within the larger system, each of which operates at a particular scale. Discrete size classes observed in variables in complex systems are evidence of these multiple regimes within complex systems, and the discontinuities between size classes indicate changes in scale.

Key words

panarchy; discontinuities; complex systems; regime shifts; resilience

Copyright © 2009 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087