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GLST 343 - Unit 2 Learning Activity

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By Elsa Awad November 15, 2023 - 5:52pm

Unit 2 Learning Activity: The Significance of Delayed Feedback in Understanding Global Environmental Change

The study of global environmental change is a complex and multifaceted endeavor, involving the examination of diverse ecological systems and the interplay between human activities and the environment. To unravel the mysteries of these systems, researchers must employ appropriate tools and concepts. One such concept is delayed feedback, which plays an important role in comprehending the dynamics of global environmental change (Hanson, 2023). In this learning activity, I will explore why the concept of delayed feedback is indispensable in this field of study.

First, it is important to understand that global environmental systems, whether ecological or human social systems, are described as complex adaptive systems (Hanson, 2023). These systems exhibit several key characteristics, including being composed of numerous interconnected elements, being open to diverse inputs from their environment, behaving in unpredictable ways, adapting to changes in their surroundings, and defying understanding by studying their individual components (Deadman, 2018; Hanson, 2023). As a result, researchers are compelled to approach these systems as whole entities, considering their interactions within the broader environmental context.

At the heart of complex adaptive systems are feedback loops, which are instrumental in facilitating the flow of information, energy, and matter within the system. Feedback loops come in two fundamental types: negative and positive (Hanson, 2023). Negative feedback loops act as moderators within a system, slowing down processes and providing stability that prevents runaway growth or collapse. These loops are essential for maintaining equilibrium in ecosystems and climate systems, as illustrated by gravity's role in moderating the ascent of an insect (Hanson, 2023). In contrast, positive feedback loops drive expansion and change, but they can also lead to instability and unexpected outcomes, exemplified by the snowball effect in the rolling snowflake analogy (Hanson, 2023). One critical aspect of feedback in complex systems is the time it takes for feedback to propagate through the system. If this time delay is too long, feedback mechanisms may be ineffective at regulating the system or could even produce unanticipated effects (Meadows, 1997; Hanson, 2023).

Delayed feedback is particularly relevant in the context of global environmental change because it implies that the environmental damage caused by human activities may not be immediately apparent, making it challenging to identify and address the causes and consequences of such changes promptly (Meadows, 1997). In fact, there can be substantial delays between environmental impacts and their visible effects. This understanding highlights the need for long-term planning and policies that consider intergenerational impact. Additionally, delayed feedback can introduce non-linear dynamics, making it challenging to predict how environmental changes will propagate throughout the system (Meadows, 1997).

Overall, the concept of delayed feedback emphasizes the importance of considering time delays when analyzing global environmental systems and making informed decisions to address environmental challenges. By acknowledging the significance of delayed feedback, researchers can work towards a better understanding of the complexities inherent in our environment, ultimately aiding in the preservation of our planet and future generations.





Deadman, P. (2018, July 11). What is a complex system? [Video file]. Vimeo.

Hanson, L. (2023). Global Environmental Change. Course Notes. In GLST 343: Global Environmental Change, Athabasca University.

Meadows, D. (1997). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Whole Earth Magazine, 91, 78–84.


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