Introduction - What is Panarchy (and the Adaptive Cycle)?

Panarchy theory was developed by Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling in order to understand how systems function and interact across scales (Resilience Alliance 2018). Allen et al. (2014) defines panarchy as “a conceptual model that describes the ways in which complex systems of people and nature are dynamically organized and structured across scales of space and time”. A panarchy is a set of nested adaptive cycles (see Fig. 1 for an image of an adaptive cycle) organized into a hierarchy (see Fig. 2), which connects adaptive cycles at small scales to adaptive cycles at large scales (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Allen et al. 2014). While “hierarchy” is generally used to describe a system in which power, influence, or authority originate at the top and travel down to the bottom, in panarchy theory “hierarchy” is defined more broadly as the overall structure of the scales where systems operate (Allen et al. 2014).

Figure 1. The adaptive cycle. Courtesy A. Garmestani, US EPA.

Figure 2. Nested adaptive cycles in a panarchy. Adapted from A. Garmestani. US EPA.

If two systems’ structure and processes occur at the same temporal or spatial scale, then they are at the same scale of the panarchy (Holling et al. 2002). However, this does not mean system effects only travel one way (from large scales at the top to small scales at the bottom). Instead, influence can travel from top to bottom, or from bottom to top since self-organized, smaller scales also affect larger scales (Holling et al. 2002). Panarchy theory’s ability to examine the interactions of adaptive cycles at multiple scales is what makes it so useful when assessing a system’s ecological resilience. Recall that adaptive cycles in the late K stage may have little resilience (Allen et al. 2014). A system may experience a disturbance it cannot absorb, triggering an Ω-stage collapse. Panarchy theory allows us to assess how one system’s collapse will influence – and be influenced by – other systems that the collapsed system interacts with.

You will notice that the concept of adaptive cycles is core to this module. They are covered in greater detail in their own module, which will be helpful reading prior to tackling the concept of panarchy. However, this module will also provide a brief recap of these ideas. Do not worry if the above description of panarchy is a bit confusing as the core components will be broken down in the description next.