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SESYNC
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. We support new interdisciplinary collaborations that pursue data-driven solutions to pressing socio-environmental problems. SESYNC features a range of services from project inception through results dissemination, including supporting the team science process, meeting planning and facilitation, travel and logistical support, and cyberinfrastructure resources. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

Congratulations to SESYNC’s Outgoing Class of Postdocs

July 13, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) congratulates its outgoing postdoc class on the successful completion of their fellowships! We wish them the best of luck in their future research and teaching endeavors—and look forward to seeing some of them back at SESYNC for synthesis team meetings.

Harish Padmanabha

PhD: Entomology, University of Florida
SESYNC project: Global Change & Health
Moving on to: Universidad del Norte, Colombia
Position: Research scientist, Center for Human Development Research; Lecturer, Departments of Psychology and Public Health
What he’ll be doing there: Synthesizing ecological and psychological approaches to how humans cope with uncertainty, and teaching courses in human adaptation and evolution

Andres Baeza

PhD: Natural Resources, University of Chile
SESYNC project: Cooperation in Semi-Desert Environments
Moving on to: Arizona State University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Sustainability
What he’ll be doing there: Modeling human decisions and adaptation to climate change in Mexico City

Lorien Jasny

PhD: Sociology, University of California, Irvine
SESYNC project: Dynamic Belief Networks
Moving on to: University of Exeter, United Kingdom
Position: Lecturer, Q-Step Centre
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in statistics and social network analysis, and pursuing research and grants related to the linkage of social and environmental networks

Mary Collins

PhD: Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
SESYNC project: System Vulnerability
Moving on to: State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF)
Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Studies
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in environmental health and environmental health management, and pursuing research that examines the social structures that give rise to extreme patterns in the production of pollution and that links pollution to human health impacts

Neil Carter

PhD: Conservation Biology, Michigan State University
SESYNC project: People and Biodiversity
Moving on to: Boise State University
Position: Assistant Professor, Center for Human-Environment Systems, College of Innovation and Design
What he’ll be doing there: Integrating different sciences to examine how people and wildlife interact with the goal of using that knowledge to better inform decisions that both protect wildlife and sustain (or improve) human well-being

Elise Larsen

PhD: Biological Sciences, University of Maryland
SESYNC project: Spatiotemporal Patterns in North American Butterfly Abundance and Phenology Using Citizen Science Monitoring
Moving on to: Georgetown University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Biology Department
What she’ll be doing there: Statistical methods for analysis of citizen science insect monitoring and museum collection data

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Model Policies

A new spatially-explicit agent-based model developed by SESYNC postdoc Neil Carter may help us design better tiger conservation policies

Using Agent-Based Models to Design Better Conservation Policies

July 9, 2015

A tiger caught on a motion-detecting camera trap in Nepal, courtesy Neil Carter.

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

In a technical paper recently published in Ecological Modelling, conservation scientist Neil Carter and coauthors introduce a new spatially-explicit agent-based model of tiger population dynamics shaped by different territorial behaviors of males and females.

The devil is in the details. To Neil Carter, that means more effective conservation policies can be designed by zooming in and looking closely at how tigers, on an individual scale, interact with the landscape and with each other.

Dr. Carter, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), is interested in conservation forecasts. He wants to know how different human activities—such as forest degradation and fragmentation, poaching, and road building—may in the future affect the globally endangered Panthera tigris so that we may know how best to protect them (and the people who live alongside them).

“Human–tiger interactions are characterized by complex feedbacks that begin with overlapping use of land and, in their deadliest iterations, can lead to tiger attacks on people and livestock and retaliatory killings of tigers,” says Carter. “In these interactions, people and tigers are making decisions with respect to one another. Policies that both improve human well-being and advance conservation therefore require a deep understanding of human and animal decision making integrated together.”

Agent-based models (ABMs) can help facilitate such understanding. ABMs are sophisticated computational tools useful for exploring how these decision making processes play off one another without having to actually manipulate them in the real world. And insights gleaned from these models can help researchers make data-supported predictions about outcomes from different management scenarios, Carter says.

But making predictions from computational models that are useful to policy makers benefits tremendously by looking tiger-to-tiger.

"We might have numbers-based expectations for how a tiger population will respond to urban development or protection of natural habitat: a certain amount of land and a certain number of animals should elicit a certain response. But sometimes populations don’t respond how we expect, because there are one-on-one interactions within populations that influence responses to changes in the landscape," explains Carter.

The one-on-one interactions Carter refers to are territorial behaviors. Territoriality impacts the size and age composition of tiger populations in an important way—for example, as natural habitat shrinks from human development and tigers are pushed closer and closer together, rates of infanticide (male tigers killing cubs sired by another) may rise. Infanticide leads to fluctuations in the number of tiger young, potentially making the tiger population more susceptible to human-caused threats.

Infanticide and other territorial behaviors are normal interactions among tigers in a spatially heterogeneous environment, yet they are interactions previous models were unable to capture. So Carter set out to build an ABM that could capture these complex dynamics at high resolution. It was no small feat: it took him and his collaborators one year to build, verify, and validate the model. Carter and his coauthors applied the model to Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a biodiversity hotspot for which there exists a wealth of site-specific data. But because the ABM is based on basic principles of territoriality (e.g., resource requirements and dominance relationships), it can be applied to any site for which habitat-specific empirical data such as territory sizes and tiger and prey densities are available.

The utility of the model is in applying what we already know about tiger behaviors to possible future scenarios, providing data-supported “if, then” predictions.

“The paper is our introduction of the ABM to the modelling community in all its gory detail. So, hack away—and we can then begin to build on it to explore policy relevant questions in hotspots for human–carnivore conflict,” says Carter.

The paper, “Modeling tiger population and territory dynamics using an agent-based approach,” Neil Carter, Simon Levin, Adam Barlow, and Volker Grimm, was published online June 24, 2015, in the journal Ecological Modelling.

The model will be accessible via OpenABM, and code for the model can be downloaded via the paper’s supplementary data.

Visualization of a model scenario showing changes in female (orange) and male (blue) tiger territories, courtesy Neil Carter.

Above graphic: Visualization of a model scenario showing changes in female (orange) and male (blue) tiger territories, courtesy Neil Carter.

Top photo: A tiger caught on a motion-detecting camera trap in Nepal, courtesy Neil Carter.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

ESA 2015

Join us for a reception at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland

Advancing the Role of Psychology in Environmental Sustainability

June 25, 2015

Figure: Mechanisms of climate change impact on human well-being. Reproduced with permission from ref. 98, © 2014 APA and ecoAmerica.

Figure: Mechanisms of climate change impact on human well-being. Reproduced with permission from ref. 98, © 2014 APA and ecoAmerica. doi:10.1038/nclimate2622

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Scientists, management agencies, and a broad spectrum of leaders across many aspects of society caution that global changes in climate—such as increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns—can no longer be ignored. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions; safeguarding our agricultural economy and food supply; building stronger, safer water infrastructure; and preparing for climate-related public health crises are at the forefront of discussions and debates worldwide.

But the fields traditionally associated with climate change research—such as geophysics, oceanography, and paleoclimatology—only reveal part of the picture. The natural sciences can’t answer questions about how cognitive processes and social relationships influence the public’s understanding of and engagement with climate change science.

In a new paper published in Nature Climate Change, a team of researchers makes the strong case for the role of psychology in responding and adapting to climate change. Individual behavior ultimately drives social change, the researchers explain, including the adoption of new technologies and support for policies. But research focused on factors that influence decisions and behavior at the individual level hasn’t received the attention it deserves in the debates on climate change.

Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and lead author of the paper, says that psychology is critical to understanding cognitive and emotional tendencies and how they affect human behavior. Integrating psychological research into climate change discussions can help decision makers avoid misunderstandings about human behavior that can lead to ineffective or misguided policies.

“Public perceptions of climate change are affected more strongly by social identities, belief systems, and motivational biases than by scientific knowledge about the topic,” she said. “The psychological perspective is uniquely placed to understand individual factors of human interactions with a changing climate.”

Clayton points out that we’re at a transformative moment for thinking about how human values influence responses to climate change. It’s an important opportunity for psychologists to “lean in” to the climate change dialogue.

“Psychology has more to contribute to the conversation about climate change than has been fully realized,” she says. “Our team encourages psychologists to expand their engagement with important environmental issues through multiple research approaches in order to further their understanding of human behavior, contributions to human well-being, and relevance to other disciplines and to society.”

This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

The paper, “Psychological research and global climate change,” Susan Clayton, Patrick Devine-Wright, Paul C. Stern, et al., was published online June 24, 2015, in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Urban Flow

New paper from SESYNC fellow: the timing of a city's peak growth sets the stage for high-flow events and floods for decades to come

Linking Changes in Stream Flow to Urban History

June 11, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Ask any long-term resident of Baltimore, Boston, or Pittsburgh: a lot has changed over the past 60 years. Streets have spread and buildings have blossomed, covering each city with more and more of the hard, impervious surfaces that lead to surges in rain and snowmelt runoff.

Past research has shown that urbanization of a landscape significantly changes the streams that flow through developed and developing areas. But studies that look at how urbanization has impacted a stream over time are rare. After all, long-term datasets on stream flow can be hard to come by.

New research published by SESYNC postdoctoral fellow Krissy Hopkins and co-authors takes a temporal approach to understanding the urban stream syndrome in six study sites throughout Baltimore, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The researchers found that the timing and magnitude of hydrologic changes are driven by the timing and intensity of urban development. In other words, the timing of a city's peak growth sets the stage for high-flow events and floods for decades to come.

“Cities, and the streams affected by urban development, are in a constant state of change. But our research pinpoints periods of time that are critical to understanding the health of an urban stream, because the data show that the most intense period of historical growth is the primary driver of the timing of stream flow changes we observed,” Hopkins said.

The authors explain that this is most likely because the time at which peak development took place determined the dominant type of stormwater infrastructure built. For example, developments built in Maryland prior to 1985 were not required to install management practices that reduce polluted runoff. In these older developments, stormwater is piped directly to local streams without treatment. With the passing of Maryland’s first Stormwater Management law in 1982, developments constructed after 1985 are required to install practices that treat the “first flush”—i.e., the first half inch of runoff from impervious surfaces.

The researchers' results underscore the importance of understanding the dynamic development patterns of individual cities to improve predictions of future impacts on stream ecosystems. Context is king—and knowing the unique history of a city can help explain major hydrologic events such as high flows and floods.

Hopkins points out that these insights are only possible with the kind of long-term data studies her team used, and she stresses the value of retrospective research to understand the drivers of change to urban streams. So what’s the next step? Hopkins says the six watersheds have different development patterns, stormwater infrastructure, and even natural landscape features that make direct cross-comparisons difficult. But a closer look at how these areas stack up against one another could help city planners develop effective water management strategies as urban areas continue to expand.

This work was supported by the Long-Term Ecological Research program’s Network Office (NSF #0832652 and #0936498) via an Urban Aquatics Working Group; the Central Arizona–Phoenix (NSF #1026865), Baltimore Ecosystem Study (NSF #1027188), and Plum Island Ecosystems (NSF #1058747) LTERs; and the University of Pittsburgh.

Above image (click to enlarge): Time lapse of development in the Gwynns Falls watershed, Maryland, courtesy Kristina Hopkins/SESYNC.

The research paper, “Type and timing of stream flow changes in urbanizing watersheds in the Eastern U.S.,” Kristina G. Hopkins, Nathaniel B. Morse, Daniel J. Bain, et al., was published online June 11, 2015, in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org.

Follow SESYNC on Twitter at @SESYNC and Dr. Hopkins at @kghopkin.

Top photo: An aerial view of Baltimore, Maryland, courtesy David Wilson via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

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