Scaling and complexity in landscape ecology

Erica A. Newman, Maureen C. Kennedy, Donald A. Falk, Donald McKenzie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


Landscapes and the ecological processes they support are inherently complex systems, in that they have large numbers of heterogeneous components that interact in multiple ways, and exhibit scale dependence, non-linear dynamics, and emergent properties. The emergent properties of landscapes encompass a broad range of processes that influence biodiversity and human environments. These properties, such as hydrologic and biogeochemical cycling, dispersal, evolutionary adaptation of organisms to their environments, and the focus of this article, ecological disturbance regimes (including wildfire), operate at scales that are relevant to human societies. These scales often tend to be the ones at which ecosystem dynamics are most difficult to understand and predict. We identify three intrinsic limitations to progress in landscape ecology, and ecology in general: (1) the problem of coarse-graining, or how to aggregate fine-scale information to larger scales in a statistically unbiased manner; (2) the middle-number problem, which describes systems with elements that are too few and too varied to be amenable to global averaging, but too numerous and varied to be computationally tractable; and (3) non-stationarity, in which modeled relationships or parameter choices are valid in one environment but may not hold when projected onto future environments, such as a warming climate. Modeling processes and interactions at the landscape scale, including future states of biological communities and their interactions with each other and with processes such as landscape fire, requires quantitative metrics and algorithms that minimize error propagation across scales. We illustrate these challenges with examples drawn from the context of landscape ecology and wildfire, and review recent progress and paths to developing scaling laws in landscape ecology, and relatedly, macroecology. We incorporate concepts of compression of state spaces from complexity theory to suggest ways to overcome the problems presented by coarse-graining, the middle-number domain, and non-stationarity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number293
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Issue numberAUG
StatePublished - 2019


  • Coarse-graining
  • Complex systems
  • Complexity
  • Hierarchical organization
  • Macroecology
  • Middle-number problem
  • Non-stationarity
  • Scaling relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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