Sectoral Interactions, Compounding Influences and Stressors, and Complex Systems: Understanding Tipping Points and Non-Linear Dynamics

Active Project
Sectoral Interactions, Compounding Influences and Stressors, and Complex Systems: Understanding Tipping Points and Non-Linear Dynamics

Focus Areas: 

  • Earth Systems
  • Managed Resources
  • Infrastructure & Investment
  • Energy Transition
  • Multi-Sector Dynamics

Modeling Framework

For more than 25 years, the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has focused on a balanced approach for continual development and numerical experimentation within a multi-system, multi-sectoral modeling framework and analysis system. This balanced approach places equal emphasis on modeling and linking the various co-evolving components of: (a) physical systems (including the physical dynamics and chemical processes of the atmosphere and ocean, the biochemistry and ecosystem dynamics of land and ocean, hydrology and land surface processes, and physical resources); and (b) human systems (including economic markets, energy, agriculture, land-use change, population dynamics, and infrastructure). Another signature focus of the program has been to use a risk-based approach to quantify uncertain effects of future environmental and socioeconomic change.

Figure 1. [view full size]

As our research has progressed, it has become clear that the interaction among various human activities and natural resources involves interaction among systems at multiple time and geographic scales. Figure 1 illustrates the broad elements of this complex “systems of systems” that comprises the MIT Joint Program’s research vision for future modeling studies. Informed by that vision and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, this project aims to:

  • Understand (1) the forces and patterns (Fig. 1: research foci, outer ring) that are driving the evolution of water, energy and land resources; (2) coasts, the built environment, urban structure, and material flows (physical systems, second ring); and (3) atmospheric composition and links to economic sectors (socio-economic systems, third ring);
  • Examine stabilities and instabilities in these systems, and their interactions, to find potential tipping points at multiple scales (inner ring); and
  • Explore how different approaches to representing foresight affects the co-evolution of these systems and their resilience and vulnerabilities.

To get to the necessary level of detail in these interactions, we will focus on specific regional case studies with a goal of developing generalizable insights that can be applied beyond these regions.

Project Scope and Vision

The scope of our Cooperative Agreement has had an emphasis on: 1) continuing development of our integrated global modeling system (IGSM), with a focus on energy-water-land-atmosphere interactions; 2) better characterization of uncertain responses of the Earth system at scales relevant to decision-making under uncertainty; and 3) focused efforts on the interactions within the U.S. to develop understanding of vulnerability to global environmental change and tools that can assist in adaptation to these changes.

Within and consistent with the scope of our Cooperative Agreement, we will continue to strengthen our understanding of how primary interactions among water, land and energy systems, and corresponding development may both influence, and be influenced by, economic activity at regional and sub-regional scales (or, more generally at multiple scales). Emphasis will be on long-term changes in stressors and influences (the latter can be positive or negative), concentrating on weather patterns and extremes, population/demographic shifts, and existing infrastructure and its future reconfiguration within a range of typological landscapes, from urban to rural and accompanying gradients. Specifically, the general objectives of this work are to examine the following major science questions:

  1. Forces and Patterns. What combination of factors, varying by geography, contribute to salient patterns of economic and infrastructure development in trans-regional, regional, and sub-regional evolutions, including interactions and interdependencies among natural and built environments and human processes and systems?
  2. Stabilities and Instabilities. What characteristics of interacting natural and built environments and human processes lead to stabilities, instabilities and tipping points in economic and infrastructure development across systems, sectors and scales, and what role do strong interdependencies, feedbacks, influences and stressors play?
  3. Foresight. How might long-term economic and infrastructure development patterns, stabilities, instabilities and systems resilience evolve within multi-sector, multi-scale landscapes as a result of future forces, stressors and disturbances (natural and as a result of human activity), and what pathways, characteristics and risk profiles may emerge from both gradual and abrupt transitions?

DOE Award Number: DE-FG02-94ER61937

Project proposal PDF - June 2019

Project summary PDF - December 2022



Journal Article
Selin, N.E., A. Giang and W.C. Clark (2023). PNAS, 120 (40) (doi: 10.1073/pnas.2216656120)
Journal Article
Woodard, D.L., . . . , J. Morris, et al. (2023). Earth's Future, 11(8) (doi: 10.1029/2022EF003442)
Joint Program Report
Schlosser, C.A., A. Sokolov, X. Gao, T. Thomas and K. Strzepek (2023). Joint Program Report Series Report 368, August, 23 p. [PDF]

DOE Highlights

Assessing Compounding Risks

Finding ‘hotspots’ where compounding risks converge






DOE Highlight: Quantifying Socio-Economic Uncertainty

Uncertainty quantification of socio-economic outcomes can be combined with scenario discovery techniques to explore a full range of outcomes and provide insight into associated...

DOE Highlight: Representing Socio-Economic Uncertainty in Human System Models

Quantifying uncertainty in socio-economic outcomes can provide insight into the likelihood of future energy and emissions projections, thereby informing multi-sector risk...

DOE Highlight: Agricultural and forest land-use change in the continental United States: Are there tipping points?

Multi-sector dynamics modeling enables researchers to evaluate future trends and tipping points in continental U.S.

DOE Highlight: A faster, more efficient way to simulate the Earth’s atmosphere over long time periods

New modeling strategy could improve understanding of complex multi-sector interactions with the Earth system and provide a powerful risk assessment tool

DOE Highlight: Statistical Emulators of Irrigated Crop Yields and Irrigation Water Requirements

New method enables a more comprehensive assessment of the impact of climate change on agriculture

DOE Highlight: Quantifying Uncertainty in Earth-System Response to Changing Human Activity

Updated estimates will enable evaluation of complex multi-sector, economy/natural resource interactions

DOE Highlight: Projecting climate risk

Improved MIT Earth System Model an effective tool for analyzing climate risk to energy, water and land resources

DOE Highlight: Assessing the Expansion Potential of Irrigated Land

New emulator enables more rigorous assessments of regional and global water, land, energy and economy interactions.

DOE Highlight: Tracking air quality changes across space and time

Modeling advance enables more efficient and precise estimates of trends in ozone and other pollutants within selected geographical regions and timeframes

DOE Highlight: Efficient assessment of environmental impacts on crop yields at the regional level

New toolset of crop-yield emulators enables computationally efficient assessment of environmental impacts on crop yields at national and regional scales, which can be used to...

DOE Highlight: Modeling water availability for irrigation in the US

Water available for irrigation will be affected by climate and increasing demand from other sectors, with consequences for energy-water-land interactions. 

DOE Highlight: Impact of income growth on consumption patterns

A critical factor in projecting energy, water and land use.

DOE Highlight: A revival of Indian summer monsoon rainfall since 2002

Based on global climate models and multiple hypotheses, scientists expected a 50-year drying trend to continue unabated into the 21st century, but a new study in Nature...

DOE Highlight: A simpler, faster way to assess climate change impact on crop yields

Emulators provide a reliable, more computationally efficient alternative to globally gridded crop models, and can advance integrated assessment research addressing land-use...

DOE Highlight: Reducing CO2 from Cars in the European Union

The European Union could meet its climate goals and save billions of Euro by extending its emissions trading system to include the private transportation sector.

Funding Sources

Project Leaders

Administration, Faculty
Joint Program; CGCS
Research staff
Joint Program
Administration, Faculty
MIT Energy Initiative; Joint Program
Administration, Faculty
CGCS; Joint Program