Coupled Natural-Human Systems


A Rural Coupled Natural-Human System

Coupled Natural-Human Systems

Conceptual overview of the climate-LU/LC-carbon storage- policy system in a dynamic, rural, coupled natural-human system. Hypothesized feedback mechanisms occur along four paths: climate, agro-technology, market, and policy. Modeling of different feedback mechanisms and development of ecosystem-economic feedback distributions are the primary methodological approaches.

In recent decades, there have been significant increases in infrastructure of rural communities making them more accessible and providing new opportunities for them to take control of their economic future with the primary goal of producing sufficient food, feed, and fiber for a growing population. But along with these opportunities, rural communities have experienced drastic re-organization of their social, economic, and political resources (which define the human system) through the movement of migrant workers, farm concentration into mega-agribusinesses, and stiffer international competition for food markets. Recent demands, however, for increased fuel production here at home and around the globe are placing additional pressures on rural communities for increased use of their natural system, defined by the resources in land, air, water, and soil, as well as by the biodiversity of both crops and animals.

As rural communities respond to these increased demands it is important to know not only know how their actions will re-shape the natural world, but also how the natural system will react. We feel that a rapid land conversion to meet increased needs for fuel, which is lopsided and poorly managed, will jeopardize many core contributions that rural communities make to a region (like the Midwest), nation, and around the world in terms of food-feed-fiber security, a sense of land stewardship to protect natural resources, and maintenance of biotic and abiotic diversity. The disruption of these core contributions has direct ramifications on the quality of life in rural communities, which we define as the collective representation of provisions associated with highly productive agricultural soil, the extent of environmental pollution, and economic benefits. We argue that ongoing and projected shifts in natural and human systems due to a rapid land conversion formulate a new rural perspective that is worthy of exploring. This new perspective demands that humans co-exist and co-evolve, synchronically and diachronically, with the natural system without compromising rural resources; otherwise, these resources will eventually deteriorate and deplete.

As we face this developing reality, we must re-examine how our agro-ecosystems are responding to these changes in climate, ecology, economics, and policy, as well as how we are interacting with the natural world. Currently, watershed management plans that have been developed to address these concerns call for implementing many Best Management Practices (BMPs), such as buffer strips, grassed waterways, and conservation tillage. But, in several instances, these BMPs produced little improvement in downstream pollution for more than 10 years after installation. In the meantime, we are left wondering “are the practices ineffective or does it just take several years to see their downstream benefits?”

Our Approach

The conceptual view of our rural, coupled, natural-human system is founded on Aldo Leopold’s concept of “land or environmental ethic”. We argue, in effect, that conservation efforts limited only to market based approaches without regard for how they fit or what they do to other services in rural systems are lopsided and are bound to fail because they compromise valuable natural resources, which are needed for achieving a harmonious balanced system. In our approach, a land ethic is not only treated as an ecologic necessity but as an evolutionary possibility because of a moral response to the natural environment. The ecological necessity provides a synchronic link, or a sense of social integration between human and non-human nature. Crops, plants, animals, soils, and waters are all interlocked in one humming community of cooperations and competitions. The evolutionary possibility provides a diachronic link of human and non-human nature codified into a body of principles and precepts that are constantly modified in response to intense human activity, market forces and climatic shifts.  We consider the Life Cycle Assessment of a coupled  natural-human system. Hypothesized feedback mechanisms occur along four paths: climate, agro-technology, market, and policy (shown in the conceptual figure). Modeling of different feedback mechanisms and development of ecosystem-economic feedback distributions are the primary methodological approaches.


Where we are going

All our prior research has re-emphasized the growing need, observed by many others, for more integrated studies that consider not only the human and natural systems, but also the complex interactions between them.  We have since developed partnerships with other researchers in the socioeconomic, behavioral and natural sciences with expertise in soil erosion and Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) modeling, bioenergy crop physiology and ecohydrology, geography and geographic information science (GIS), agroeconomy and policy, public opinion (e.g., surveys and focus groups), social dynamic statistics, and extension services to address the above questions and develop an improved modeling framework for assessing rural quality of life.

We hypothesize that SOC, due to its close and well-established relation to local soil biogeochemical controls and processes, as well as local/regional socioeconomic/policy and behavioral drivers, is the appropriate measure for quantifying and assessing the effects of rapid land conversion on natural and human resource re-organization and the quality of life in rural communities.  We will develop a new modeling paradigm that is integrative in that it will look at the biogeochemical, socioeconomic/policy, and behavioral dimensions of the rural system, in conjunction with one another to quantify effectively the effects of rapid land conversion on the quality of rural life.  In this new integrative modeling framework, the adoption of land stewardship will not only be based on economic incentives, but also on a moral sense of payment.  We will treat SOC as a potential crop to use a term with which farmers, who are the target group in this study, are comfortable.  We can then discuss with them carbon yields from various production practices and their potential to grow carbon without sacrificing profit.

Our overarching research and pedagogical goals are the following:

Objective 1: Promote the phenomenological understanding of how the integrated biogeochemical, socioeconomic/ policy, and behavioral components of rural systems dynamically respond to land-use changes such as rapid land conversions between corn and emerging bioenergy crops.

Objective 2: Formulate parsimonious functions or indices for soil quality; for net revenue of different crop management plans aimed at SOC sequestration; and for behavioral intent/attitude towards land stewardship, all of which collectively will be utilized for assessing overall quality of life.

Objective 3: Develop a process-oriented, integrative modeling framework using both upward and downward approaches that accounts for the spatial, temporal, and organizational complexity in all three dimensions of the rural system, as well as treats humans as actors and accounts for their multi-directional dynamic feedbacks.

Objective 4: Educate the community at our study sites with formative research to develop outreach in the forms of extension and educational programs by partnering with Iowa State University (ISU) extension, local offices of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the non-profit groups Soilmates and IOWATER volunteer water quality monitoring program (see letters) to bring about a sense of land stewardship where the symbiosis of biotic and abiotic entities in a rural community should not be treated as synchronic but as diachronic.

Getting the point across

Thanos Papanicolaou and Christopher Wilson educate citizens on landscape-related sciences

Thanos Papanicolaou and Christopher Wilson educate citizens on landscape-related sciences

Another persistent roadblock in achieving sustainable agriculture is that most people are simply uninformed regarding all benefits and consequences of different production systems.  Only with a complete knowledge of the ecological, economic, and ethical aspects of our agro-centric ecosystem under different production systems can stakeholders make a conscientious and informed decision regarding land stewardship.  The hallmark of this initiative will be an interactive outreach program that emphasizes the three key dimensions of a rural system i.e., biogeochemical, socioeconomic/policy, and behavioral.

We will provide to local stakeholders sound, quantitative indices to make educated decisions regarding land stewardship and overall quality of life in rural systems.  To facilitate our outreach, we will utilize our already-strong collaboration with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU (LCSA)  to help deliver the message regarding the benefits of advanced land stewardship.  In conjunction, we will utilize the outreach component of the Iowa State Extension Service, as well as the IOWATER water quality monitoring program.  Our goal through these collaborations will be to provide the conservation-minded citizens with information showing the linkages between soil and water quality, fostering a more holistic view of our natural capital.

Other avenues of outreach will include community-based demonstrations, such as the Iowa State Fair.  Team members in conjunction with LCSA recently conducted an interactive exhibit at the fair, where visitors performed simple experiments measuring CO2 emissions with an in-situ gas chamber from different pots representing different management practices to improve their understanding of carbon cycle science.

We have also teamed up with the Soilmates program run by Scott Koepke for the new Pioneer Food Co-op, in Iowa.  Through the Soilmates program, Mr. Koepke visits K-12 classrooms and runs summer camps for these children, during which he provides lectures and interactive demonstrations promoting positive land stewardship to the younger generations. We are planning joint demonstrations with the Soilmates program in hopes of influencing positively the future generation toward conservation.

Project team member Christopher Wilson explains to Iowa state fair visitors how CO2 rates change due to different management practices.

Christopher Wilson explains to Iowa state fair visitors how CO2 rates change due to different management practices.

Interactive learning with Scott Koepke and his Soilmates

Interactive learning with Scott Koepke and his Soilmates


1. “Cultivating” Conservation: Bridging Ecology, Economics, and Ethics Together
2. Development of a Subgrade Drainage Model for Unpaved Roads
3. Hydrologic Impacts of Drainage Systems
4. Hydraulic Design of Streambank Protection Structures Along the Des Moines River
5. Integration of vegetative practices, sediment basins and alternative tile intakes with risk assessment tools to manage and optimize nutrient loads in the Clear Creek, Iowa Watershed
6. EPSCoR: Agricultural soil erosion and carbon cycle observations in Iowa: Gaps threaten climate mitigating policies
7. Quantifying Infilling Rates and Differentiating Sediment Sources Using Isotopic Tracers in the Alec River-Black Swan Lake System for Targeting Restoration Efforts
8. Identifying the primary sources of sediment in an anthropogenically altered watershed
9. Exploring the role of multifunctional agriculture on the future of agriculture and rural development
10. Clear Creek Watershed Erosion and Flood Mitigation Project
11. Flint Creek NPS Watershed Hydrologic Study
12. Hoover Creek Watershed NPS and Flood Reduction Project
13. The Effects of Climate Change on Soil Organic Matter and Soil Quality in Iowa
14. Design Procedures and Numerical Modeling of a Combination of Submerged Barbs, Riprap Lining, and Iowa Vanes Used for Streambank Protection of the Raccoon River
15. Iowa’s Multiscale Carbon and Nitrogen Studies (IMCANS): Combining remote and in-situ approaches in agricultural landscapes
16. Transport of Sediments and Pollutants into the Terrestial Regions of a Small Urban-Industrial City: The June 2008 Flood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa
17. Impacts to the Land-Water-Human System of Rural Iowa from High-Intensity Continuous Maize Production
18. Determination of sediment sources in ARS CEAP Benchmark Watersheds
19. Large-Scale Environmental Research and Analysis Network of the Upper Mississippi River Basin(UMRB): Hydrology, Sediments, Nutrients and Emerging Chemical Contaminants
20. Design Procedures and Field Monitoring of Submerged Barbs for Streambank Protection
21. Sediment Identification and Origin in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed
22. Field and Laboratory Investigation of Hydraulic Structures Facilitating Fish Abundance and Passage through Bridges in Western Iowa Streams
23. Coupling a Two-Dimensional Hydrodynamic and Sediment Routing Model to Predict the Environmental Impacts of the Alec River System on the Black Lake System, Alaska


Abaci, O., and A.N. Papanicolaou. 2009. Long-term effects of management practices on water-driven soil erosion in an intense agricultural sub-watershed: monitoring and modeling. Hydrologic Processes. 23:2818-2837.

Dermisis, D., A.N. Papanicolaou, B. Abban, D.C. Flanagan, and J.R. Frankenberger. 2011. The coupling of WEPP and 3ST1D numerical models for improved estimation of runoff and sediment yield at watershed scales. World Environmental and Water Resources Congress, EWRI, ASCE, Palm Springs, CA.

Fox, J., A.N. Papanicolaou, B. Hobbs, C. Kramer, and L. Kjos. 2005. Fluid-sediment dynamics around a barb: an experimental case study of a hydraulic structure for the Pacific Northwest. Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering. 32(5):853-867.

Papanicolaou, A.N. 2011. A Training Demonstration Project For Current And Future Workforce In A Coupled Natural Human Agricultural Ecosystem. EUCEET Conference, European Civil Engineering Education and Training Association, Petras, Greece, Nov. 24-25, 2011.

Papanicolaou, A.N., C.G. Wilson, O. Abaci, M. Elhakeem, and M. Skopec. 2009. Soil quality in Clear Creek, IA: SOM loss and soil quality in the Clear Creek, IA Experimental Watershed. Journal of Iowa Academy of Science. 116(1-4):14-26.

Papanicolaou, A.N., C.G. Wilson, and K.M. Wacha. Quantifying the collective effects of rainfall- and tillage-induced erosion on an SOC budget in southeastern Iowa using WEPP and CENTURY. Soil & Tillage Research. In preparation.

Papanicolaou, A.N., P. Diplas, N. Evaggelopoulos, and S. Fotopoulos. 2002. A Stochastic Incipient Motion Criterion for Spheres under Various Packing Conditions, Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, ASCE. 128(4):369-380.

Papanicolaou, A.N., A. Bdour, N. Evangelopoulos, and N. Tallebeydokhti. 2003. Watershed and instream impacts on the fish population in the South Fork of the Clearwater River, Idaho. Journal of the American Water Resources Association. 39(1):191-203.

Papanicolaou, A.N., M. Elhakeem, and R. Hilldale. 2007. Secondary current effects on cohesive river bank erosion. Water Resources Research. 43:W12418, doi:10.1029/2006WR005763.

Papanicolaou, A.N., J.T. Sanford, D.C. Dermisis, and G.A. Macilla. 2010a. A 1-D morphodynamic model for rill erosion. Water Resources Research. 46:W09541, 26 pp., doi:10.1029/2009WR008486.

Papanicolaou, A.N., C.G. Wilson, and M. Elhakeem. 2010b. Flint Creek watershed flood reduction project. U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service, Des Moines County, IA, Soil and Water Conservation District Final Report. Burlington, IA.

Papanicolaou, A.N., C.G. Wilson, K. Wacha, and T. Moorman. 2011. Watershed scale carbon cycle dynamics in intensively managed landscapes: bridging the knowledge gap to support climate mitigation policies. 34th International Association of Hydraulic Engineering & Research (IAHR) Biennial Congress, Brisbane, Australia.

Strom, K., A.N. Papanicolaou, N. Evangelopoulos, and M. Odeh. 2004. Microforms in Gravel Bed Rivers: Formation and Effects on Bedload Transport. Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, ASCE. 130(6):554-567.

Wilson, C.G., A.N. Papanicolaou, and O. Abaci. 2009. SOM dynamics and erosion in an agricultural test field of the Clear Creek, IA watershed. Hydrology and Earth System Science Discussions. 6:1581-1619.

Wilson, C.G., A.N. Papanicolaou, and K.D. Denn. 2012. Quantifying and partitioning fine sediment loads in an intensively agricultural headwater system. Journal of Soil and Sediments. 12:966-981, doi:10.1007/s11368-012-0504-2.