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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

Protecting Marine Areas from Across Oceans

December 12, 2014

WWF International, Gland, Switzerland
Photo courtesy David Gill

Billions of people around the world  rely on fish and other marine resources for food and income. However, the health of our oceans and waterways is under threat from human activities—and those in developing countries, many of whom depend upon these resources as their primary source of protein and livelihood, are bearing the brunt of adverse impacts on marine ecosystems.

In response, there has been a surge in the investment and expansion of place-based conservation initiatives, with internationally-agreed upon targets for global conservation coverage (e.g., 10% Aichi Biodiversity Target 11). Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been hailed as a means of achieving these targets and of contributing to the conservation and restoration of social, economic, and cultural marine resources.

Currently, just over 3% of the world’s oceans are protected by MPAs. (Thomas et al. 2014) As the global community moves toward the 10% Aichi target, what do we know about the 3%? Are they delivering the social and ecological benefits they were designed to provide? If not, why? These are critical questions that need to be answered if we are going to effectively protect marine ecosystems and species through management strategies such as MPAs.

And it’s precisely these questions that motivate the current research carried out by Dr. David Gill, a postdoctoral fellow collaboratively supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute. David works with the SESYNC Pursuit “Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected Area (MPA) Performance,” which brings together a diverse group of marine scientists, governance scholars, database developers, and management experts working toward an understanding of the relationship between how we govern MPAs and their capacity to deliver ecological and social benefits. Led by Drs. Helen Fox, Robert Pomeroy, and Michael Mascia, the project is compiling and analyzing social, biophysical, and governance data from MPAs across the globe to facilitate cross-site comparisons.

The project is significant largely due to its scope. “To effectively answer questions about MPA performance and to inform effective conservation strategies and practices, we’re compiling data on MPAs from different disciplines at a global scale,” David said. “For these datasets, that’s never been done before. To understand performance at such a large scale, we need considerable support and input from experts in various geographies and disciplines.”

“Leveraging data from 14,500-plus underwater surveys, we have information on the ecological effectiveness of more than 250 MPAs in 45 countries around the world,” he added.

As part of this collaboration between SESYNC and the Luc Hoffmann Institute, David recently made his inaugural trip to the Institute’s headquarters in Switzerland to meet with the Institute’s team, including those within the Place Based Conservation Programme and Fellows Programme. The trip afforded David the chance to learn more about the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s focus on science-to-policy by bridging the academic and practitioner divide—a priority reminiscent of SESYNC’s emphasis on actionable science. 

Collaborating with SESYNC through the MPA Pursuit was an intuitive synergy for the Luc Hoffmann Institute because of the project’s implications for areas where conservation science leadership is most needed. Marine ecosystem services play a critical role in the economies of many developing countries, contributing to livelihoods and food security for millions. Yet many MPA managers, especially those in developing countries, struggle to effectively store, manage, process, and analyze monitoring data. Under the leadership of the Pursuit PIs and with crucial support from David, the SESYNC project is working toward the development of tools and standards that would address this critical need.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland and located in Annapolis, Maryland, United States, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems. Visit www.sesync.org for more information.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is an independent research hub at WWF based in Gland, Switzerland. The aim is to explore complex conservation research questions and work with the WWF global network and partners to bring science to action. Visit www.luchoffmanninstitute.org for more information.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Understanding Human–Tiger Conflicts from Nepal

November 26, 2014

Image courtesy Neil Carter

Communications Coordinator

If you ask a conservationist, tigers are dangerously close to joining a disadvantageous list that includes the moa, dodo, blue antelope, and Atlas bear.

Tigers are at risk of extinction. In the past century, their populations have dwindled from approximately 100,000 to as low as 3,200 due to human pressures that include poaching and loss of habitat and prey from Asia’s massive urban and agricultural growth. In response, countries within tiger range and other partners have committed to working toward the goal of doubling tiger numbers by 2022.

Increased tiger numbers would safeguard a wealth of important ecological, economic, and cultural benefits. But, says SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellow Neil Carter, communities and governments will also need to be prepared for the escalated likelihood of human–tiger conflicts that could include tiger attacks on both people and livestock, as well as retaliatory killings of tigers.

Dr. Carter recently traveled to Nepal to participate in a meeting hosted by WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative focused on understanding and tackling human–tiger conflicts. He presented his research on attitudes towards tigers in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park—including the role of demographic and socioeconomic factors in influencing attitude—and his work modeling and mapping those attitudes.

“WWF and other conservation organizations want to figure out where to target their education programs or interventions to the highest benefit,” Dr. Carter said. “So they probably want to target areas of greatest need—those with very negative attitudes towards tigers. Simple but effective spatial statistics can be a helpful tool for showing locations of significant clusters of negative attitudes versus positive attitudes, thereby providing a roadmap for focusing efforts.”

Each of WWF’s offices in countries within tiger range runs tiger-specific programs, but the organization is working towards developing range-wide strategies for tiger conservation and conflict mitigation. It’s an obvious challenge when dealing with locations as geographically, economically, and culturally diverse as Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to predict, mitigate, and prevent human–tiger conflicts. However, the common thread amongst these countries is a growing emphasis on involving local communities.

“Understanding human–tiger conflict is about much more than just the numbers of tigers and prey in an area,” said Dr. Carter. “The social perceptions, attitudes, and tolerances of community members are a key driver of whether they will retaliate against tigers or how well they will work with conservation agencies and support conservation policies, for example.”

The meeting resulted in the creation of a WWF working group that will develop a human–tiger conflict pilot program and strategy, as well as raise the necessary funds to implement it on the ground over the next 18 months.

To learn more about Dr. Carter and his research, click here.

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 solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Top photo: Camera trap image of a tiger in Chitwan National Park courtesy of Neil Carter.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Can Ecologists & Engineers Work Together to Harness Water For The Future?

November 25, 2014

Guest Blogger

The Pangani River in Tanzania is important for many reasons: its three major dams provide 17 percent of the country’s electricity; it sustains thousands of farmers and herders living in the basin; and its flow of fresh water supports humans, industry, and ecosystems. But most interesting might be the innovative water policies that govern withdrawals, infrastructure projects, and ecosystems along its banks.

Climate change and population dynamics could cause trouble for the Pangani Basin and many others like it. More people are expected to depend on the flow of fresh water while at the same time rainfall and glacial meltwater from Mt. Meru, Mt. Pare, and Mt. Kilimanjaro are diminishing.

Around the world, water managers are adjusting to a similar quandary. Precipitation patterns and river flows are becoming more uncertain as the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future. Planners are adjusting to changes in the water cycle by integrating policies with flexible structures and ecosystems.

Flexibility Over Scale

In the November issue of Nature Climate Change, I wrote about how leaders in sustainable water management are finding common ground with two historically antagonistic approaches: engineering and ecology.

I talked with Mark Fletcher, a water engineer and the water business leader at UK-based Arup, a global company of consulting engineers with 14,000 employees. Modular is one way to describe his brand of sustainable water work.

“We had assumed that the world was static,” Fletcher told me. “We knew that the climate was predictable. Due to climate change or due to a changing climate, it is harder to predict things. So rather than build overly conservative monolithic solutions, we now design systems that can be tweaked and twiddled.”

A good example is osmosis desalination. “You literally stack desalination units, much like you would batteries, until you solve your problem,” he said.

From Fletcher’s perspective, the world has no need for more Hoover Dams, given the uncertainty around the global water cycle of the future. I write:

Fletcher favors natural solutions. In New York City, for example, new plans for city orchards and 9,000 grassed bio-swales, which resemble marshy depressions in the land, will slow the flow of storm water from sidewalks to water catchment basins. “Think of them as green sponges all over the city. The water gets soaked up and you avoid pumping every time it rains,” he says. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Furthermore, rather than design water treatment plants that can accommodate extreme rainfall, he prefers multiple local responses that can be changed and adapted, much in the way that a Lego building block is removed and added.

Fletcher suggests that the solution to water management under climate change is beyond engineering. That’s why ecologists John Matthews, coordinator of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, and LeRoy Poff, a professor at Colorado State University, have been leading a team of 27 researchers at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Maryland. The team includes economists, hydrologists, policymakers, and engineers. Climate change, they say, has prompted the researchers to work together on an integrated approach to freshwater adaptation. Rather than isolating water management issues within a single field, such as engineering or hydrology, the team’s multifaceted work is developing solutions for decision-makers. Think of their combined work as a chemical reaction. Instead of one element, such as engineering, working in seclusion on a freshwater adaptation project, their form of synthesis science means suddenly more ingredients are added to the beaker.

The research team that Matthews and Poff lead identifies markers of resilience of both infrastructure and ecosystems in basins. They are using the analysis so that ecological principles are incorporated into future water management projects from the very beginning.

Resilience markers include variation of flow, seasonal and temperature changes, and connections to flood plains, for instance. The specific indicators vary from river to river, but the principles remain the same.

Matthews says that the Dujiangyan system in China’s Sichuan Province is a model for integrating policies with engineering and ecology in a sustainable way. Built in 256 BC, the water diversion system still operates today.

According to Kathleen Dominique, an environmental economist at OECD, flexible approaches are necessary to adjust to changing conditions at low cost.

For the Pangani Basin, leaders have established ecosystems as a priority, keeping river flow available to wetlands, riparian forests, and mangroves, and the plan is to adjust water policies with the changing needs of communities. Similarly, the European Union’s water directive is now adjusted every six years to examine all changes and uses of rivers, not only those related to climate change.

For a deeper look at how people are working to become more resilient, improve water security, and preserve ecosystems by incorporating ecological principles into water management, read the complete article in Nature Climate Change.

Lisa Palmer is a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and freelance journalist.

Sustainable Futures: Designing Dams in the Face of Climate Uncertainty

October 31, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Earlier this month, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) hosted a policy exchange on new decision-making tools for designing sustainable water infrastructure projects. The multi-institutional meeting was motivated by the SESYNC Pursuit “Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation: Decision Scaling & Integrated Eco-engineering Resilience,” led by John Matthews of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) and LeRoy Poff of Colorado State University. Representatives from World Bank, University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S. Geological Survey, Deltares, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presented on two decision frameworks that integrate stakeholder participation, risk identification, and adaptation into water resource management.

The meeting engaged a diverse community of research, financial, conservation, federal, and regulatory institutions. Attendees included representatives from AGWA, Climate Bonds Initiative, Colorado State University, Conservation International, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, OOSKAnews, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of State, and World Wildlife Fund.

The frameworks discussed at the SESYNC meeting—“decision scaling,” introduced by Casey Brown et al., and “adaptation pathways,” introduced by Marjolijn Haasnoot et al.—are decision-making guides. They can assist planners and policy makers in developing water infrastructure plans that sustainably manage water resources for both people and natural ecosystems, as well as protect costly investments. What sets these frameworks apart from conventional decision-making tools is how they integrate future shifts in climate.

“According to our internal rules, any new project—whether it’s related to infrastructure, agriculture, or water—has to be screened for potential climate change impacts,” said Marcus Wijnen, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at World Bank, “and to be sure that the project is designed in such a way that it considers, adapts to, and potentially mitigates those impacts.”

However, the type and degree of future climate variability is largely uncertain—yet decisions often need to be made before adequate information is available. Accordingly, decision makers need tools to assist with developing water infrastructure plans that are economically and ecologically resilient for years to come, under multiple future scenarios. That’s where decision scaling and adaption pathways come in.

“Infrastructure investments are being made now, but climate conditions are changing,” said Haasnoot, Senior Researcher at Deltares. “One of the main questions policy makers and planners are asking themselves is: given these changes, how can we make robust and flexible decisions so that investments are not a waste of money?”

How the Decision-Making Guides Work

The bottom–up approach of decision scaling begins with stakeholder-driven identification of threats to infrastructure performance (such as flooding, which impacts both human and ecological communities) posed by possible future climate conditions (for example, increased precipitation). Next, integrating information from climate models into this so-called “vulnerability domain” provides a sense of how likely those possible threats and impacts will be problematic. The result is a risk-to-benefit analysis, which more reliably informs water resource development and management decisions to produce sustainable infrastructure over a longer period of time.

The adaptation pathways approach describes an iterative sequence of policy actions or infrastructure investments on an as-needed basis over time. The framework identifies tipping points, or conditions at which an action or investment begins to perform unacceptably. Consequentially, additional actions are needed to once again move toward pre-specified objectives. However, each new action also has its own tipping point, so that a new strategy has to again be created. Adaptation maps (see example below) can be used to prepare a plan for actions to be taken immediately, and for preparations that need to be made in order to be able to implement an action in the future in case conditions change.

Above: Example adaptation pathways map. Source

The Ecology of Infrastructure Design

The Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation Pursuit has been exploring how ecological considerations can be incorporated into engineering design using the decision scaling framework. The idea is that water infrastructure can (and should) contribute to the alleviation of poverty—e.g., through irrigation, clean water, and energy—and at the same time promote or enhance the health of natural ecosystems. Decision scaling can help planners and policy makers determine how to maintain engineering, economic, and ecological resilience over the long lifetimes of water infrastucture in the face of climate uncertainty.

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 solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Top photo courtesy Airwolfhound via Flickr/Creative Commons

What We're Reading

October 16, 2014

"Scientific knowledge is in perpetual evolution; it finds itself changed from one day to the next."

— Jean Piaget, developmental psychologist and philosopher

Reading is a critical part of conceiving of and executing a successful synthesis effort. The following is a current snapshot of what just a few SESYNC researchers and staff have been reading—we hope you find a resource or two that's of particular interest and/or utility.


A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept

Authors: Carolina Murcia, James Aronson, Gustavo H. Kattan, et al.
Source: Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Who's reading it: Neil Carter, Postdoctoral Fellow

Informed actions: where to cost effectively manage multiple threats to species to maximize return on investment

Authors: Nancy A. Auerbach, Ayesha I. T. Tulloch, and Hugh P. Possingham
Source: Ecological Applications
Who's reading it: Judy Che-Castaldo, Postdoctoral Fellow

Food security implications of global marine catch losses due to overfishing

Authors: U. Thara Srinivasan, William W. L. Cheung, Reg Watson, and U. Rashid Sumaila
Source: Journal of Bioeconomics
Who's reading it: David Gill, Postdoctoral Fellow

Effects of distributed and centralized stormwater best management practices and land cover on urban stream hydrology at the catchment scale

Authors: J.V. Loperfido, Gregory B. Noe, S. Taylor Jarnagin, and Dianna M. Hogan
Source: Journal of Hydrology
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Quantitative Programs Researcher

Perspectives on the Use of Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management in Cleveland and Milwaukee

Authors: Melissa Keeley, Althea Koburger, David P. Dolowitz, et al.
Source: Environmental Management
Who's reading it: Kristina Hopkins, Postdoctoral Fellow

Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded

Author: Joshua Schimel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Who's reading it: Matthew LaFevor, Postdoctoral Fellow

Don't blame the beetles

Author: Cally Carswell
Source: Science
Who's reading it: Mary Shelley, Associate Director of Synthesis

Why Academics Stink at Writing

Author: Steven Pinker
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Who's reading it: Cynthia Wei, Assistant Director of Education and Outreach

Global Human Footprint on the Linkage between Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning in Reef Fishes

Authors: Camilo Mora, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, Arturo Ayala Bocos, et al.
Source: PLoS Biology
Who's reading it: Lauren Yeager, Postdoctoral Fellow

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?

Author: Verlyn Klinkenborg
Source: Yale Environment 360
Who's reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

What We're Reading archive:

Photo courtesy Rich Grundy via Flickr/Creative Commons

Partnerships for Cyberinfrastructure: Collaboratively Building Capacity

October 15, 2014

Associate Director of Synthesis

Last week, IT staff members from five of the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s BIO centers held our second annual meeting to discuss common challenges and solutions across our programs. SESYNC’s Associate Director of Cyberinfrastructure, Mike Smorul, leads the effort under a supplemental grant from NSF to facilitate collaboration on cyberinfrastructure-related issues across the BIO centers and center-like programs. This year we met in East Lansing, Michigan at BEACON to discuss new developments (technological and otherwise) at our centers and to continue work on projects started during last year’s meeting hosted at SESYNC in Annapolis, Maryland.

The biggest outcome of our collaboration thus far has been the development of a two-day “Data Carpentry” technical training workshop based on the Software Carpentry model. During the past year, Tracy Teal, a microbial ecologist and bioinformatician at BEACON, has led an effort to develop a common curriculum for teaching members of the NSF BIO research community when and how to transition out of Excel into new tools for data storage and analysis that are more robust, effective, sustainable, and reproducible. To date, four Data Carpentry workshops have been held, one each at NESCent, SESYNC, iDigBio, and BEACON. Over the next year, we’ll focus on training additional workshop instructors within the BIO center community and on developing more domain-specific lessons. For example, iPlant, BEACON, and NESCent expressed interest in modules that use a genomics-based data set to teach the core tools of SQL, shell, and R.

Another highlight of this year’s meeting were useful insights from Karen Cranston, a computational phylogeneticist at NESCent, on planning for sustainability and longevity of the myriad valuable products developed over a center’s lifetime. Unfortunately, NESCent is scheduled to close next summer, but thanks to the foresight and efforts of Karen and her colleagues, many of the datasets and tools developed during its existence will continue facilitating synthesis and discovery from other platforms and venues.


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