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The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Whitney, C. K., N. J. Bennett, N. C. Ban, E. H. Allison, D. Armitage, J. L. Blythe, J. M. Burt, W. Cheung, E. M. Finkbeiner, M. Kaplan-Hallam, I. Perry, N. J. Turner, and L. Yumagulova. 2017. Adaptive capacity: from assessment to action in coastal social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 22(2):22.

Adaptive capacity: from assessment to action in coastal social-ecological systems

1School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, 2School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, 3Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, 4Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, 5University of Waterloo, 6Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, 7WorldFish, 8School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, 9Hakai Institute, 10Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, 11Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, 12Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, 13School for Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia


Because of the complexity and speed of environmental, climatic, and socio-political change in coastal marine social-ecological systems, there is significant academic and applied interest in assessing and fostering the adaptive capacity of coastal communities. Adaptive capacity refers to the latent ability of a system to respond proactively and positively to stressors or opportunities. A variety of qualitative, quantitative, and participatory approaches have been developed and applied to understand and assess adaptive capacity, each with different benefits, drawbacks, insights, and implications. Drawing on case studies of coastal communities from around the globe, we describe and compare 11 approaches that are often used to study adaptive capacity of social and ecological systems in the face of social, environmental, and climatic change. We synthesize lessons from a series of case studies to present important considerations to frame research and to choose an assessment approach, key challenges to analyze adaptive capacity in linked social-ecological systems, and good practices to link results to action to foster adaptive capacity. We suggest that more attention be given to integrated social-ecological assessments and that greater effort be placed on evaluation and monitoring of adaptive capacity over time and across scales. Overall, although sustainability science holds a promise of providing solutions to real world problems, we found that too few assessments seem to lead to tangible outcomes or actions to foster adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems.
Key words: adaptation; adaptive capacity; climate change; coastal communities; resilience; social-ecological systems


Coastal communities are experiencing complex social and ecological changes at multiple scales and speeds (Steffen et al. 2011, Kareiva and Marvier 2012, Kueffer and Kaiser-Bunbury 2014, Moore 2016). The oceans are severely affected by human-induced global environmental change, with warming and acidifying waters, changing currents, and declining fish stocks that simultaneously drive related impacts on coastal ecosystems and human communities (Harley et al. 2006, Worm et al. 2006, Johnson et al. 2011). Economic globalization and markets can also drive changes in demands for certain marine species, pressure on resources, migration to coastal communities, and changes in nearshore vessel traffic (e.g., Tuler et al. 2008, Bennett et al. 2016a). Both biophysical and social drivers of change are presenting as risks or opportunities in coastal social-ecological systems (Adger et al. 2005b, Sales 2009), making it especially relevant to understand whether communities are able to adapt (Gallopín 2006, Cinner et al. 2012, Bennett et al. 2014, 2016a). Assessments of adaptive capacity, i.e., “the ability of systems, institutions, humans, and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to the consequences” (IPCC 2014:118), can provide such an understanding (Armitage and Plummer 2010, Mcleod et al. 2016).

Along with vulnerability analysis, assessments of adaptive capacity are often used to provide the basis for planning adaptations or management actions to mitigate impacts in efforts to achieve beneficial social or ecological outcomes (McClanahan et al. 2008, Marshall et al. 2010, Hill and Engle 2013). These assessments tend to draw either from theories of ecological resilience (Holling 1973) or social resilience (Adger 2000, Folke et al. 2002, Engle 2011). In natural systems, ecological adaptive capacity is an indicator of evolutionary adaptive potential, suggesting that a species or ecosystem has the existing natural ability to persist over time and through change (Dobzhansky 1968, Smit and Wandel 2006). In contrast, the adaptive capacity of social systems refers to the ability of human actors and communities to respond to change and maintain human well-being over time (Smit and Wandel 2006). Numerous qualitative, quantitative, and participatory approaches have been developed to analyze adaptive capacity, each giving varying levels of attention to different components of the social or ecological system. As a result, each approach to assessing adaptive capacity produces different results, insights, and recommendations. However, there have been few comparative reviews of the different adaptive capacity assessment approaches that contrast their relative measures, outcomes, and applications (Gupta et al. 2010, Engle 2011, Fabinyi et al. 2014).

Given today’s global challenges, an important objective of adaptive capacity assessments, indeed of all sustainability science, is to foster positive real-world action that improves the ability of a given system to adapt to change (Kates et al. 2001, Wiek et al. 2012, Glandon 2015). However, it is generally unclear the extent to which previous efforts to measure or characterize adaptive capacity have led to on-the-ground actions to increase adaptive capacity. Furthermore, disparate assessment methodologies produce dissimilar descriptions of system properties and can lead to identification of different and even divergent interventions. By describing, clarifying, and contextualizing a diversity of assessment methods, we aim to improve the consistency and quality of adaptive capacity assessments. Here, we examine the strengths and drawbacks of 11 approaches for evaluating adaptive capacity, with a particular focus on coastal communities as linked social-ecological systems (SESs). Coastal communities are at significant risk from the cumulative effects of anthropogenic change and coastal development to climate change and they also support a large proportion of the world’s human population (Hallegatte et al. 2013, Weatherdon et al. 2016a). As such, measuring and fostering the adaptive capacities of coastal social-ecological systems is of particular importance for researchers, planners, and policy makers (Wong et al. 2014). We identify the insights and implications of employing each approach and propose some best practices for selecting and applying different adaptive capacity techniques. We also provide a conceptual framework that links adaptive capacity assessments to management and planning actions to foster adaptive capacity across both social and ecological systems.


The variety of ways in which adaptive capacity is defined, applied, assessed, and measured reflect a diversity of interests, areas of expertise, and theoretical rationales (Table 1). As with the application of resilience theory, understanding the adaptive capacity “of what to what” helps to frame an appropriate assessment approach as well as the corresponding actions or interventions (Fabinyi et al. 2014). Although the diversity of adaptive capacity assessment tools might be useful in different contexts, the multitude of different definitions and ways of conceiving of the problem can be unclear. This complexity and lack of conceptual clarity may increase the likelihood that an approach to assess adaptive capacity is not chosen mindfully, which is problematic given that the recommendations stemming from assessments may have real consequences for SESs.

Our aim is to provide direction to adaptive capacity assessments so as to foster and improve proactive interventions. Based on a literature review of adaptive capacity studies using key word search terms (adaptive capacity, adaptation, vulnerability, coastal communities, social-ecological systems) in Google Scholar and Web of Science for papers published between 1990 and 2015, we identified adaptive capacity assessment approaches that spanned a range of scales from local to large scale and also varied in their emphasis on social or ecological methods. We were particularly interested in research that was framed with a SESs lens. The approaches were grouped into 11 categories based on differences in methods, scale of application, and social or ecological focus: (1) large-scale social indicators, (2) large-scale ecological indicators and models, (3) integrated social-ecological indicators, (4) governance approaches, (5) multiple community surveys, (6) social experiments, (7) species-level experiments, (8) historical ethnographic approaches, (9) participatory planning approaches, (10) qualitative community-based approaches, and (11) mixed-method approaches (Table 1, Appendix 1). This list covers broad categories of adaptive capacity analyses to illustrate the range of possible approaches and may not be comprehensive. Although these approaches are described as distinct for the purposes of clarity, we acknowledge that in many cases, approaches could be taken that combine aspects of several of these tools.

We held a workshop in November 2015 with 12 academic researchers who had experience (as reflected in their publication and implementation experience) in adaptive capacity research across these categories in coastal SESs. The workshop served as an opportunity to guide discussion and provide expert opinion on the diversity of ways in which the concept of adaptive capacity is applied. The group was convened to explore the following overarching questions: What are the strengths, drawbacks, and insights of the range of approaches for analyzing adaptive capacity? How might these different approaches be applied to analyze the adaptive capacity of linked SESs? What lessons can be learned from previous efforts to bridge analyses of adaptive capacity with taking actions to build adaptive capacity? For each identified approach to assess adaptive capacity, one participant was asked to present and prepare a brief synopsis based on the following criteria:

  1. Describe the approach used to analyze adaptive capacity.
  2. What type(s) of indicators were used?
  3. At what scale was the approach applied?
  4. What are the main strengths and benefits of the approach?
  5. What are the main weaknesses and drawbacks of choosing this approach?
  6. What insights and related practical solutions emerged from using the approach?
  7. To what extent did the approach engage with and link to both the social and ecological components of the system?
  8. Does the approach take a past, present, or future orientation to understand adaptive capacity?
  9. How have or how can the results be integrated into decision making?
  10. What are the implications for communities of using each approach (e.g., of the process, outcomes, outputs, or recommendations)?
  11. What key references best reflect this approach to analyzing adaptive capacity?

Using these questions as a framework, we compared and contrasted the different approaches (see Appendix 1 for more details). To illustrate the different approaches, we drew on our own case studies and examples from the literature. Rather than simply describe each approach (summarized in Table 1), we aimed to illuminate parallels and opportunities for developing better and more integrated assessments of adaptive capacity that incorporate indicators of both social and ecological change and associated risks and that link knowledge to action. This guiding comparison of the 11 approaches was directed by five key considerations: (1) attention to social or ecological systems, (2) spatial scale, (3) temporal scale and orientation, (4) social or ecological indicators, and (5) implications and outcomes to clarify the trade-offs in choosing a particular approach to assess adaptive capacity in a particular context.

Attention to social or ecological adaptive capacity

Adaptive capacity assessments have tended to focus on either ecological or social adaptive capacity, with emerging approaches increasingly bridging social and ecological methods (Fig. 1). Ecological adaptive capacity can be assessed at a range of scales using field or laboratory experiments (species-level experiments; e.g., Crozier and Zabel 2006, Eliason et al. 2011, Whitney et al. 2013) or large-scale analyses and models of thermal tolerance, species traits, fisheries catches, biomass, ocean conditions, or market-based data on fisheries landings over time (large-scale ecological indicator approaches; Sunday et al. 2011, Cheung et al. 2015). Both small- and large-scale ecological assessments offer valuable information about adaptive capacities to disturbances such as climate change and increase the understanding of ecosystem responses to changes such as increasing temperatures. However, in isolation, the response or management applications of these empirical and model-based studies remain theoretical and without context to the appropriate or feasible policy changes and other responses that result in meaningful action. Social adaptive capacity assessments tend to focus on aspects of governance at different scales (e.g., local rules or actions, or federal macro policies) or on agency (of communities), norms and beliefs, the ability to predict and have foresight related to environmental conditions and change, occupational mobility and diversity, social capital and leadership, and the political and economic contexts for adaptive capacity (Armitage 2005, Folke et al. 2005). Reflecting the diversity of social-system components and the different social scales at which they can be applied, a broader range of approaches to assess social adaptive capacity have emerged (Fig. 1). Integrated social-ecological approaches consider a set of bridging adaptive capacity concepts that apply to both social and ecological systems or that incorporate the feedbacks and interactions between ecological and social systems by incorporating metrics of both. For example, when flexibility is assessed in both social and natural systems, it is possible to describe how social groups (e.g., fishers) respond to changes in natural conditions (e.g., fisheries abundance) as well as to changes in governance or other social structures (Blythe et al. 2014, Aguilera et al. 2015, Finkbeiner 2015).

Spatial scale

Adaptive capacity can be assessed at different interacting spatial scales using a range of scale-appropriate measures in either ecological or social systems (Adger et al. 2005a, Hill and Engle 2013; Fig. 1). Large-scale approaches based on large-scale ecological (Aguilera et al. 2015) or social indicators (e.g., Allison et al. 2009, Himes-Cornell and Kasperski 2015), ecological modeling-based studies (Cheung et al. 2015, Gattuso et al. 2015), and governance analyses (Dietz et al. 2003, Armitage and Plummer 2010, Gupta et al. 2010) provide rapid comparative results for policy decisions and, in some cases, may be operationalized more quickly than in-depth assessments at smaller scales. However, a limitation of large-scale studies is that they do not incorporate local, traditional, or cultural knowledge, address household or individual capacities, and, because of their large scale and coarse approach, often do not allow for local validation of results or vetting of recommendations. In contrast, community-based participatory methods can provide nuanced understanding of the dynamic nature of a group or community and its historical, present, and potential adaptive responses, as well as include the views and preferences of community and stakeholders (e.g., Henly-Shepard et al. 2015). Participatory methods may also integrate well with qualitative methods such as interviews and quantitative methods such as surveys in developing a deeper and more holistic understanding of household- to community-level adaptive capacities and strategies (Bennett et al. 2014, 2016a,b). However, action-research, community-based methods, and mixed-method approaches may require significant time commitments (e.g., years; decades for historical approaches) that exceed research program and funding time lines. Each approach to assessment has different strengths and weaknesses of which the researcher needs to be mindful.

Temporal scale and orientation

The measurement of adaptive capacity is generally for a given time period and based on available data and the selected indicators. Assessments of adaptive capacity can focus on short-term time scales (measuring coping or acclimation potential) or over longer time scales (enabling social adaptation or evolutionary adaptation). In ecological systems, short-term adaptive strategies usually refer to acclimation to a new (or temporary) environmental state; acclimation may draw on phenotypic plasticity, habitat diversity, or short-term behavioral responses (Stillman 2003). If an environmental stressor or shift continues, long-term adaptive strategies depend on evolutionary responses at the species level or migration strategies (leaving the area for better suited habitats; Jensen et al. 2008, Chown et al. 2010, Ekstrom et al. 2015). Social communities may cope with change in the short term through social networks, informal arrangements, alternative income generating activities, or financial remittances from overseas family members (Adger 2003, Adger et al. 2007).

The temporal orientation of adaptive capacity assessments can also focus on learning from the past, examining the present, or predicting future response capacity. Rarely are assessments of adaptive capacity conducted over multiple time periods (although see Cinner et al. 2015), with the majority of assessment methods focusing on the recent past or present (Engle 2011). An exception to this is historical ethnographic methods, which focus specifically on how human communities have adapted to changing environmental conditions in the past, with insight for present or future adaptive capacities (Berkes and Jolly 2001, Turner and Clifton 2009, Blythe et al. 2014). Conversely, ecological modeling techniques (Cheung et al. 2009, 2010, Weatherdon et al. 2016b) or analyses of governance and institutions (Brooks et al. 2005) can apply scenario planning to assess future adaptive capacities (Peterson et al. 2003, Tompkins et al. 2008, Tschakert and Dietrich 2010, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015, Bennett et al. 2016b). Future predictions of adaptive capacity are especially relevant for urban planning and disaster planning in coastal settings, where assessments can indicate important vulnerabilities for policy or management action (Adger et al. 2005b, Malakar 2013, Henly-Shepard et al. 2015). Planning approaches to adaptive capacity include “participatory futures approaches” for community-based climate change adaptation, which engage and empower community members to be active collaborators in developing community scenarios that facilitate coevolutionary adaptation to climate change, rather than passive adaptation (Gidley et al. 2009).

Indicators: social, ecological, or integrated

We broadly categorize indicators that are commonly used for measuring the adaptive capacity of both social and ecological systems (Table 2, Fig. 2) in an effort to provide useful insights to guide policy and management improvements across scales (Armitage and Plummer 2010). Indicators can be quantitative measures of adaptability summarized as indices (Yohe and Tol 2002) or can comprise qualitative perceptions of individuals or communities about their capacity to adapt (Armitage and Plummer 2010, Hinkel 2011, Bennett 2016). Ecological indicators of adaptive capacity (Fig. 2) are based on diversity and flexibility across a range of traits (e.g., life history or behavioral) and organizational levels (e.g., genetic, species, populations) as well as access to and interactions with suitable habitats (Aitken et al. 2008, Mawdsley et al. 2009, Hutchings 2011, O’Connor et al. 2012, Benscoter et al. 2013). Social indicators of adaptive capacity (Fig. 2) can be grouped into four broad categories: access to assets, diversity and flexibility, learning and knowledge, and governance and institutions (Adger 2003, Brooks et al. 2005, Allison et al. 2009, Hinkel 2011, Bennett et al. 2014). Some indicators of social and ecological adaptive capacity complement each other (e.g., diversity, flexibility, modularity, access to assets or habitats), whereas others do not have an ecological equivalent (e.g., social capital, innovation, institutional structures, governance strategies; Walker and Salt 2006, Nemec et al. 2013; Table 2). An important distinction between social and natural systems is that humans have agency and foresight, theoretically leading to learning and proactive decision-making power, whereas natural systems and species assemblages generally do not have agency or foresight (Walker et al. 2002, except in some indigenous world views; Kimmerer 2013, Turner 2014).

Implications and applications of adaptive capacity approaches

If applied to the same case study, each of the 11 approaches highlighted here would reveal varied insights and produce very different recommendations for policy or management. For example, an assessment of the ecological adaptive capacity of a commercially valuable fish species might suggest that managers restrict harvesting or target particular stocks with higher adaptive capacity (e.g., Pacific salmon; Whitney et al. 2013). In contrast, assessments of social adaptive capacity of the same fishing community might recommend gear restrictions, livelihood diversification programs, or basic service provision support to assist the human community dependent on that fishery. Thus, choosing any one approach inevitably involves the prioritization of different actions and potential trade-offs such as different scales of analysis and insights, levels of attention to social and ecological systems, temporal orientation, as well as methods and indicators (Table 1). The approach chosen will also be driven by the objectives and skills of the researcher or research team. Overall, one consistent weakness across all methods included here is the lack of direct connection between assessments and actions taken to augment adaptive capacity. To select the most relevant and effective approach, it is important to be mindful of the many choices to be made prior to assessment as well as the good practices for evaluating and building adaptive capacity.


Drawing on our review, we present: (1) a set of considerations for framing the problem and choosing an appropriate assessment approach, (2) key challenges that require attention when analyzing adaptive capacity in SESs, and (3) good practices for linking results to action to foster adaptive capacity (Table 3).

Framing adaptive capacity research: choosing an assessment approach

Adaptive capacity assessments are commonly limited by a lack of clarity on the assumptions and contextual outcomes of a particular method or a lack of attention to the applicability of an assessment tool to the context, scale, or stressor under consideration (Adger and Vincent 2005, Engle 2011). These barriers limit the accuracy of the relative estimates of adaptive capacity and the applicability of results when seeking to identify policy solutions and thus diminish the potential for implementing proactive measures for fostering adaptive capacity within and among systems. Some approaches can contribute to more than one of these goals. Being clear and transparent about the purpose and mindful of methods will strengthen the analysis. To address these challenges, we highlight seven key questions to ask when selecting an assessment approach (Table 3), which include: the adaptive capacity of what, to what, of whom, and for whom; the scale and orientation of adaptive capacity; the types of indicators and methods that are available and relevant; and the purpose of the analysis. By highlighting these framing questions, as well as key challenges and good practices, the intention is that adaptive capacity assessments can become more transparent and intentional, and the results more applicable.

The adaptive capacity of a SES is inherently normative and scale dependent: The assessed adaptive capacity of an ecosystem or social community could be interpreted differently from the eyes of a policy analyst, facilitator, or stakeholder because each of these people has a different perception of the system and stressor(s) in question (Adger 2003, Cote and Nightingale 2012, Bennett 2016). The spatial scale of assessment is selected by the analyst and influences the results and recommendations of the assessment. Temporal scale also matters. Indicators of adaptive capacity reveal effects and responses over both slow and fast temporal scales. Building adaptive capacity of either social or ecological components of a system will also affect certain groups more than others. If the effect or change continues, coastal communities will need to develop long-term adaptive strategies that may be more dependent on governance, planning, infrastructure, adaptive management, sense of place, or even emigration (retreat) from factors such as rising sea levels (Tol et al. 2006, Adger et al. 2007, Berman et al. 2012, Joakim et al. 2015).

Evaluating adaptive capacity: influential factors and key challenges

Following the framing of an adaptive capacity assessment approach, there are several key considerations or challenges of which researchers and practitioners should be cognizant during their evaluation. Different groups or individuals can be politically marginalized or more vulnerable, leading to differential adaptive capacities (Tschakert 2007, Bunce et al. 2010). The perspectives and worldviews of researchers, stakeholders, governance agents, and change agents will doubtlessly affect the assessment and any actions to build adaptive capacity. Tools such as the SESs framework may help to understand the diversity of perspectives within a SES and the interactions therein (Basurto et al. 2013, McGinnis and Ostrom 2014). Depending on the timeline of assessment, certain tools may offer deep understanding yet be too expensive or time consuming (e.g., qualitative community engagement), whereas other tools may offer comparability across systems (e.g., large-scale index-based approaches). Ongoing evaluations of adaptive capacity are important to understand how response capacity changes over time. Adaptive capacity assessments are frequently a single project for a particular system and stressor, resulting in estimates that are quickly outdated and likely fail to connect with postassessment action (although this is rarely evaluated). Monitoring how adaptive capacity may change as the system reacts to change may allow a deeper understanding of feedbacks, trade-offs, and potential improvements to techniques for assessing and building adaptive capacity (see Cinner et al. 2015). We stress that postassessment evaluation should be a component of many adaptive capacity studies rather than single nonrepeated assessments. Although integrating across social and ecological components of a system can be beneficial, it is not always applicable in adaptive capacity studies. The IMBER-ADApT tool is a valuable example of an integrated social-ecological adaptive capacity assessment framework (Bundy et al. 2015). In choosing an integrated SESs perspective, it is more likely that multiple key characteristics of adaptive capacity as well as important trade-offs and feedbacks will be incorporated, leading to more robust analyses.

Fostering adaptive capacity: linking assessment to action

Based on our research, experience, and review of the literature, assessments and studies of adaptive capacity are rarely effectively linked to policy change or actions that promote adaptive capacity, despite clear directives or calls to do just that. For example, only one of the assessment approaches we examined linked to action based on that assessment (participatory planning; Appendix 1). The importance of participation and knowledge cocreation for enhancing adaptive capacity has long been emphasized (Folke et al. 2002). Participatory vulnerability assessments can help identify adaptation strategies that are most feasible and practical in communities with a focus on current risks, allowing for integration with resource management, disaster preparedness, and sustainable development initiatives (Smit and Wandel 2006). At the community level, linking assessments with actions may mean supporting forums for sharing knowledge within and across generations (social learning; Berkes and Jolly 2001, Pelling and High 2005). At the coastal community scale, this can mean supporting cross-generational knowledge-sharing platforms such as elder-youth groups, integrating harvesting trips among community members, or recording historical social norms that are relevant for the local ecological system (Senos et al. 2006, Turner 2014). At larger scales, linking assessment to evaluation and response offers researchers and managers the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and generate opportunities for fostering adaptive capacity (Perry et al. 2010). This might entail financial support mechanisms, government-led investments in jobs or other economic incentives, or educational platforms for community or regional leaders (Brooks et al. 2005, Bronen and Chapin 2013). Building adaptive capacity through social learning can support the success of other related adaptive management opportunities, both within a project and across international processes (e.g., adaptive spatial planning; Mills et al. 2015).

Overall, it is increasingly important to shift from a reactive to a proactive framework for adaptive planning. For managers and policy makers, identifying the barriers to adaptation through evidence-based indices is valuable, especially across systems and at regional scales. For coastal communities and managers, considering the linked nature of SESs could lead to sustainable policies that support both social adaptive capacity factors as well as the adaptive capacity of the ecosystem. Considering the adaptive capacity of both social and ecological systems together can help to avoid social-ecological traps (Carpenter and Brock 2008, Cinner 2011). Although there are commonalities across assessment tools and conceptual models of what makes up high adaptive capacity for both social and ecological systems (e.g., diversity, redundancy, capital), indicators cannot truly be integrated for practical applied analyses (Nemec et al. 2013). It is, however, useful to consider social and ecological indicators of adaptive capacity as additive metrics that cumulatively characterize an integrated SES as having high or low adaptive capacity to a specific impact.

We propose a conceptual framework with which to prioritize potential actions based on integrated social-ecological adaptive capacity assessments (Fig. 3), building on themes proposed by McClanahan et al. (2008). In four quadrants, we illustrate example systems in which ecological and social adaptive capacity ranges from high to low, and we identify example actions that could foster adaptive capacity in either the social or ecological realm to move the system toward a state where both capacities are increased. If an assessment indicates that social or ecological adaptive capacity is low, we suggest potential actions that are designed to build capacity. If an assessment indicates that adaptive capacity is already high, we suggest actions that are intended to support existing capacity against future shocks or disturbances. The suggested actions are meant to be illustrative, not prescriptive, and the appropriate actions taken will depend on the social and ecological contexts. The actions are also not meant to be exclusive, and in some cases, multiple actions across scales will be possible or necessary.


Suggesting a set of potential actions to build adaptive capacity (Fig. 3) demands some important caveats. First, important trade-offs exist between and across scales and across social and ecological systems (Walker et al. 2009). For example, building social adaptive capacity might involve diversifying or intensifying fisheries, for example, which could have the effect of decreasing biodiversity, abundance, and ecological adaptive capacities in that system (Coulthard 2012). Similarly, national-level policy changes to decrease fossil fuel production according to international agreements may negatively affect local economies, for example, by limiting fishing activity, at least in the short term (Biggs et al. 2012). Likewise, there may be temporal trade-offs whereby actions to build short-term adaptive capacity might imply a trade-off for future outcomes if those actions create barriers for future options. It is important to foster adaptive capacity that allows a SES to cope with change while not losing adaptive options for the future (Folke et al. 2002, Armitage and Plummer 2010). Moreover, we recognize the existence of taboo trade-offs or choices between morally incommensurable values such as trade-offs between the conservation of a particular species and human health (Daw et al. 2015).

Second, we recognize that building adaptive capacity requires situated research that is sensitive to particular contexts. The development of a universal framework for adaptive capacity is neither realistic nor desirable. For example, advocacy for institutional criteria (such as flexibility, diversity, legitimacy) can lead to highly differentiated and unpredictable effects on the ground. Rather, principles for assessing and building adaptive capacity must be drawn out of the specifics of each case where unique social-ecological processes and social relations of power are observable (Cote and Nightingale 2012). However, reluctance to simplify complex phenomena into useable metrics can result in their gradual omission from research and practice. That which cannot be measured can disappear from public debates and political consciousness. Conversely, indictors or metrics allow the definition of what is important, the measurement of change, and direct research and investment (Hicks et al. 2016). Therefore, this framework is intended as a starting point for developing more targeted and context-specific actions that build adaptive capacity in coastal SESs.


The extent and speed of global change has catalyzed broad interest in understanding and supporting the capacity of SESs to respond to, cope with, and adapt to change. Adaptive capacity assessments that focus on climate change have been applied in many contexts, including forestry (Pramova et al. 2012), agriculture (Marshall et al. 2013, Wang et al. 2013), fisheries (Kalikoski et al. 2010, Cinner 2011, Cinner et al. 2013, Aguilera et al. 2015), conservation (McClanahan et al. 2008, Mcleod et al. 2016), and disasters (Adger et al. 2005b, Cutter et al. 2008, Taylor 2011, Henly-Shepard et al. 2015). Several important points emerge from this literature and the broader literature and case studies on adaptive capacity. First, both the local and broader contexts of change matter. Adaptive capacity may vary depending on the changes occurring, the linkages between local contexts and global processes, the ways that linkages manifest as effects on systems and individuals, local perceptions of desirable and undesirable system states and outcomes, and the characteristics of the system that determine the suite of available responses. In other words, it is crucial to define the adaptive capacity “of what,” “to what,” and “for whom” (Carpenter et al. 2001, Adger and Vincent 2005, Lebel et al. 2006, Adger et al. 2012).

Second, spatial and temporal scales of social and ecological change matter. SESs produce a suite of interacting ecosystem services at multiple scales, which support interdependent social systems. These complex systems are affected by cross-scale interactions whereby large-scale decisions affect small-scale systems, and small-scale adaptive characteristics add up to region-wide norms (Klein et al. 2014). Changes, effects, and responses are all critical factors for assessing adaptive capacity and occur and interact at multiple scales. Thus, the scale of assessment (“of what”) is dependent on the scale of the given stressor (“to what;” Adger 2003, Adger and Vincent 2005, Folke et al. 2005, Biggs et al. 2012). Adaptive capacity in SESs can therefore be measured across scales such as household or population, cross-community or ecosystem, national, or regional levels. In an era of rapid transformative change, it is important that both social and ecological indicators be both robust and transparent and applicable to the scale of assessment to have meaningful policy applications (Adger and Vincent 2005).

Third, increasing interest in the concept of adaptive capacity has led to the development of numerous definitions as well as conceptual and analytical frameworks with associated measures and indicators. Many of these definitions and frameworks have primarily addressed either social or ecological adaptive capacity without integrating them. There is a need for integrated ways of thinking about adaptive capacity, with the caveat that not all SESs have tightly connected feedbacks. The direct feedback mechanism between changes in social or ecological systems may be missing or delayed in some contexts (buffered by social structures or other scales of resource availability, governance, or institutions beyond the scope of study). Furthermore, adaptive capacity should be assessed both in terms of the ability to react and change in response to opportunities (positive change) as well as stressors or challenges (negative change). There is no absolute measure of adaptive capacity, only adaptive capacity relative to the specific context, scale of disturbance, and scale of analysis.

Moving forward, some important gaps in adaptive capacity application are evident. There is much to learn about which measures and indicators of social and ecological adaptive capacity are the most powerful predictors of adaptive responses. Unfortunately, there are few instances in which assessments of adaptive capacity are followed up with monitoring or postassessment evaluation of change in that system through time. Future efforts should be made to follow up on single assessments of adaptive capacity to observe and describe whether assessments were accurate and which factors in particular enabled effective responses to both slow and rapid change. In addition, more attention is needed to develop integrated social-ecological assessments. In policy-relevant time scales, fostering adaptive capacity is most applicable to social systems, although it is possible to evaluate historical change in ecological adaptive capacity over longer time scales. Thus, it is imperative that management be focused on preventing the erosion of ecological adaptive capacity (e.g., through overfishing) and building social adaptive capacity through positive proactive action (futures thinking; Tschakert and Dietrich 2010). A learning opportunity for building consistency in adaptive capacity assessment could come from the fields of environmental impact assessment, management effectiveness evaluation, and social impact studies, where metrics for monitoring, evaluation, and reporting have a more developed history. Finally, there are limited published examples of assessments that demonstrate the linking of results from assessments to building of adaptive capacity. If adaptive capacity is to be a useful concept for fostering real world change, it is imperative that researchers and decision makers work across disciplines to develop clear, consistent methods that can support action-oriented outcomes that resonate with communities.


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We thank Sam Gilchrist for help with the figures, and three anonymous reviewers whose comments greatly improved the manuscript. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council through the Ocean Canada Partnership (Pacific Working Group). Additional support was provided to C.K.W. through an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship (475091) and a Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) fellowship, and to N.J.B. through a Liber Ero Fellowship in Conservation Science, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Award, and a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship. J.B. was supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research project FIS/2012/074.


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Address of Correspondent:
Charlotte K. Whitney
School of Environmental Studies
University of Victoria
PO Box 1700 Stn CSC
Victoria, BC Canada V8P 5C2
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Table1  | Table2  | Table3  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Appendix1