The unprecedented use of Earth’s resources by humans, in combination with increasing natural variability in natural processes over the past century, is affecting the evolution of the Earth system. To better understand natural processes and their potential future trajectories requires improved integration with and quantification of human processes. Similarly, to mitigate risk and facilitate socio-economic development requires a better understanding of how the natural system (e.g. climate variability and change, extreme weather events, and processes affecting soil fertility) affects human processes. Our understanding of these interactions and feedback between human and natural systems has been formalized through a variety of modelling approaches. However, a common conceptual framework or set of guidelines to model human–natural-system feedbacks is lacking.
The presented research lays out a conceptual framework that includes representing model coupling configuration in combination with the frequency of interaction and coordination of communication between coupled models. Four different approaches used to couple representations of the human and natural system are presented in relation to this framework, which vary in the processes represented and in the scale of their application. From the development and experience associated with the four models of coupled human–natural systems, the following eight lessons were identified that if taken into account by future coupled human–natural-systems model developments may increase their success: (1) leverage the power of sensitivity analysis with models, (2) remember modelling is an iterative process, (3) create a common language, (4) make code open-access, (5) ensure consistency, (6) reconcile spatio-temporal mismatch, (7) construct homogeneous units, and (8) incorporating feedback increases non-linearity and variability.
Following a discussion of feedbacks, a way forward to expedite model coupling and increase the longevity and interoperability of models is given, which suggests the use of a wrapper container software, a standardized applications programming interface (API), the incorporation of standard names, the mitigation of sunk costs by creating interfaces to multiple coupling frameworks, and the adoption of reproducible workflow environments to wire the pieces together.