AbstractSocial and ecological systems around the world are becoming increasingly globalized. From the standpoint of understanding coastal ecosystem behavior, system boundaries are not sufficient to define causes of change. A flutter in the stock market in Tokyo or Hong Kong can affect salmon producers in Norway or farmers in Togo. The globalization of opportunistic species and the disempowerment of people trying to manage their own affairs on a local scale seem to coincide with the globalization of trade. Human-accelerated environmental change, including climate change, can exacerbate this sense of disenfranchisement. The structure and functioning of coastal ecosystems have been developed over thousands of years subject to environmental forces and constraints imposed mainly on local scales. However, phenomena that transcend these conventional scales have emerged with the explosion of human population, and especially with the rise of modern global culture. Here, we examine five broad questions of scale in the coastal zone:
(1) How big are coastal ecosystems and why should we care?
(2) Temporal scales of change in coastal waters and watersheds: Can we detect shifting baselines due to economic development and other drivers?
(3) Are footprints more important than boundaries?
(4) What makes a decision big? The tyranny of small decisions in coastal regions.
(5) Scales of complexity in coastal waters: the simple, the complicated or the complex?
These questions do not have straightforward answers. There is no single “scale” for coastal ecosystems; their multiscale nature complicates our understanding and management of them. Coastal ecosystems depend on their watersheds as well as spatially-diffuse “footprints” associated with modern trade and material flows. Change occurs both rapidly and slowly on human time scales, and observing and responding to changes in coastal environments is a fundamental challenge. Apparently small human decisions collectively have potentially enormous consequences for coastal environmental quality, and our success in managing the effects of these decisions will determine the quality of life in the coastal zone in the 21st century and beyond. Vigilant monitoring, creative synthesis of information, and continued research will be necessary to properly understand and govern our coastal environments into the future.