Her research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies. Dr Biggs aims to contribute practical scientific theory, methods and insights that can improve society's ability to anticipate high-impact tipping points, and build resilience to undesirable changes. Her core research activities focus on the following key areas:
- Developing a Regime Shifts Database to provide a high-quality synthesis of different types of regime shifts that have been documented in social-ecological systems, their impacts on ecosystem services, and management options.
- Developing methods for assessing which areas on Earth are most vulnerable to particular regime shifts, using GIS and remote sensing methods.
- Examining the economic trade-offs associated with balancing the risk of potential regime shifts against the benefits of ecosystem exploitation, in collaboration with researchers at the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics.
Dr Biggs also initiated and co-leads the Southern African Program on Ecosystem change and Society, a network of leading social-ecological researchers working in southern Africa to develop new theory and tools and grow capacity in the SES field, and one of the core case studies within the ICSU Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).
Dr Biggs completed her PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. Her thesis Uncertainty, learning and innovation in ecosystem managemen included the use of Hierarchical Bayesian Models to show how uncertainties about the nature of ecological relationships may be highlighted by integrating results from multiple studies.
Another aspect of her dissertation work focused on the question of whether regime shifts can be detected (through approaches such as increasing variance) with sufficient lead time to change management in ways that avert undesirable regime shifts.
She also investigated, using social science methodologies, factors that encourage innovation and transformation in ecosystem management based on case studies in South Africa, Wisconsin and Sweden.
Prior to her PhD studies, Dr Biggs spent four years at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, working on the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
She was particularly involved in the scenario planning aspects of the assessment, as well as issues of cross-scale links. Her Masters thesis, which was tied to the Millennium Assessment, involved the development of a new policy-relevant indicator for assessing biodiversity condition, namely the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), published in Nature in 2005.
Dr Biggs has authored or co-authored over 30 scientific articles and 20 book chapters.
Research news | 2018-01-29
New paper frames the responsibility of being a human in the Anthropocene
Research news | 2017-06-15
How an ongoing project aims to develop positive visions of the Anthropocene for southern Africa and beyond
General news | 2017-06-07
From 8-10 May 2017, a colloquium on resilience and development co-hosted by the GRAID programme took place in Johannesburg, South Africa
Research news | 2017-01-27
Areas with high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households coincides with areas characterised by relatively low levels of human well-being
2018 - Journal / article
African savannas are increasingly affected by woody encroachment, an increase in the density of woody plants. Woody encroachment often occurs unexpectedly, is difficult to reverse, and has significant economic, cultural and ecological implications. The process of woody encroachment represents a so-called regime shift that results from feedback loops that link vegetation and variables such as fire, grazing and water availabilit...
2017 - Journal / article
Wide agreement exists that the “Anthropocene” demands new forms of engagement and responses to achieve sustainability, but different fields suggest quite different approaches. In this communication, we set out four perspectives that we argue have fundamentally different framings of the “problem” of the Anthropocene, and consequently point to very different responses to achieving sustainability. These four fields include: the e...
2016 - Journal / article
We take a social-ecological systems perspective to investigate the linkages between ecosystem services and human well-being in South Africa. A recent paper identified different types of social-ecological systems in the country, based on distinct bundles of ecosystem service use. These system types were found to represent increasingly weak direct feedbacks between nature and people, from rural “green-loop” communities to urban ...
2016 - Journal / article
Humanity has emerged as a major force in the operation of the biosphere. The focus is shifting from the environment as externality to the biosphere as precondition for social justice, economic development, and sustainability. In this article, we exemplify the intertwined nature of social-ecological systems and emphasize that they operate within, and as embedded parts of the biosphere and as such coevolve with and depend on it...