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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.

SESYNC Releases R Package for Working with PostGIS

May 4, 2016


Data Scientist

From geotagged social media posts to satellite-based remote sensors, the variety and volume of geodatasets – data items associated with specific spatial coordinates or areas – are rapidly growing, as is their use in socio-environmental systems research. Today, free and open source spatial analysis software offer a level of functionality and efficiency matching that of proprietary Geographical Information Systems (GIS). At SESYNC, we provide tools for and training on how to use the R programming language for spatial data analysis and visualization, and also host a PostGIS server to store larger geodatabases. PostGIS is the spatial extension to the popular open source database system, PostgreSQL. A typical workflow integrating both resources might involve importing a subset of the geodata from PostGIS into R, performing some analysis, and possibly re-exporting the output to the database.

A data table containing both geometries (spatial points, lines or polygons) and hstores (sets of key-value pairs) – Diagram made by Kelly Hondula, SESYNC

Above graphic: A data table containing both geometries (spatial points, lines or polygons) and hstores (sets of key-value pairs) – Diagram courtesy of Kelly Hondula, SESYNC

To simplify data transfer between PostGIS and R, we developed a set of functions that was recently released as a R package on CRAN. These functions automate the conversion between the PostGIS “geometry” data type and the standard spatial data types in R; they can also read and write data in the PostgreSQL “hstore” format, a flexible data type where each table cell can contain multiple named attributes. Example use cases can be found in the accompanying vignette/tutorial.

We plan to update these tools based on user needs, and thus welcome any feedback on current features or potential new features that would be of interest. For more details or to open an issue concerning the software package, please visit our Github site.

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 data-driven scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Emerging Force on Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science: Gabriele Bammer’s Mission to Join Scholarly Knowledge

April 1, 2016

Gabriele Bammer, Leader of the Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science Theme and professor in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University (ANU).

Gabriele Bammer, Leader of SESYNC's "Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science" Theme and Professor in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University (ANU).

Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding

A scholar in the 1990s played a hunch and is now giving rise to a new field of study focusing on enhancing complex team science--including socio-environmental research and education--through the synthesis of practices and theories.

No academic discipline in multidisciplinary studies existed when Gabriele Bammer received her joint BS in biology and BA in psychology/geography at Flinders University in Australia in the 1970s. But she was excited when her professors announced, “Multidisciplinarity is the way of the future!” She remembers, “At the time, no one was talking about multiple disciplinary studies.” 

After receiving her Ph.D. in behavioral pharmacology, Bammer spent the next 20 years trying to find where, exactly, these shared scholarly approaches lived at universities. She found that they were fragmented across many areas of study. Because scholars and decision-makers would ultimately benefit from a unified repository of knowledge, she developed a formal name for it: Integration and Implementation Sciences, which seeks to improve research impact on complex real-world problems. She and 26 other scholars are currently writing a paper advocating for the development of this joint knowledge bank.

Bammer is leading a new theme at SESYNC that uses Integration and Implementation Sciences to build resources for studying complex, real-world problems. The theme focuses on effective team science and addresses problems that may arise from complex, action-oriented research. For example, researchers may encounter trouble communicating both qualitative and quantitative data across academic disciplines because of differences in language or specified concept. The aim is to build a repository of knowledge so that new collaborations can accelerate discovery. “Researchers won’t need to reinvent the wheel each time,” Bammer says.

Bammer’s insights have emerged over time. She has integrated ideas, data, and methods across diverse disciplines while researching and teaching. She researched and taught in the neurosciences, where she focused on behavioral pharmacology; human sciences, where she helped students integrate the theories of Darwin, Marx and Freud in a course; and occupational health, where she investigated an upsurge in repetition strain injuries—better known in the U.S. as carpal tunnel syndrome—associated with the introduction of computers into offices. It may be no surprise to learn she moved from department to department—six different times—at The Australian National University (ANU) until she finally landed an appointment in 1989 to ANU’s National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health, where she remains today. 

The research process Bammer advocates gained prominence in the 1990s when she directed a study that spanned multiple fields while investigating the feasibility of prescribing pharmaceutical heroin to dependent heroin users as a new treatment option in Canberra, the capital of Australia. The work engaged a wide range of disciplines, including epidemiology, economics, anthropology, pharmacology, criminology, philosophy, political science, demography, and clinical science. It also engaged with stakeholders, including illicit drug users and ex-users, their families, police, drug treatment and other service providers, and policy makers. After five years of investigating every conceivable aspect, and two additional years of political debate, a limited trial was approved only to be overturned 18 days later. But all was not lost. The research informed successful trials in Switzerland and the Netherlands. 

The field of Integration and Implementation Sciences is poised to gain further traction with socio-environmental synthesis. Bammer is convening a meeting this month with one of the three Pursuits SESYNC supports under this research theme. SESYNC is also inviting proposals for synthesis projects focused on tools, methods, and other practices applicable to actionable team science. Multiple teams will be supported, and together their syntheses will contribute towards the development of new toolkits, roadmaps, curricula, and other practical advice. Applications are due May 16

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 data-driven 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): 

Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies: July 2016


Preparing students to tackle urgent and complex environmental problems is a critical challenge. Problems such as global water resource management and sustainable development are dynamic, multi-faceted issues that require interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to solve.

Conservation by the Numbers: Mathematical Models Link Illegal Wildlife Trade & Disease Risk

February 16, 2016

Above image: Wall of cages: wild and domestic birds for sale at a Peruvian animal market, courtesy of Elizabeth Daut.

Communications Coordinator

A new paper recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE by conservation medic Elizabeth Daut and coauthors is among the first to investigate the influence of illegal wildlife trade on the introduction and spread of infectious diseases.

The researchers developed two mathematical models to evaluate the hypothetical transmission of the highly infectious and fatal Newcastle disease among white-winged parakeets, Peru’s most trafficked parrot. Their results suggest that an outbreak of the disease, combined with a conservative illegal harvest rate, would lead to a nearly 25 percent population decline in two years, and up to 44 percent with higher—albeit still realistic—poaching rates.

“Introducing just one infected individual could provoke an outbreak of Newcastle disease in susceptible populations of white-winged parakeets. The conservation concern is that Newcastle-related deaths, combined with illegal harvest for the wildlife pet trade for domestic consumers, could result in overwhelming losses of these birds,” said Daut, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

The illegal wildlife pet trade is thriving in Peru—and it is also often a gateway for disease outbreaks. Newcastle disease is fairly common in Peru among birds that aren’t vaccinated, such as with backyard poultry flocks and fighting cocks. In animal markets, where chickens are housed in wire cages alongside illegally caught parrots, pathogens can easily spread from infectious to healthy birds.

After being exposed to sick birds at markets or along the transport chain, infected white-winged parakeets often make their way back to the wild, either by escape or deliberate release. In many cases, the birds are released—without any health surveillance—after being confiscated by authorities. Lacking funds to maintain the animals in captivity or to pay for diagnostic testing to rule out any worrisome infectious diseases, the authorities frequently release animals back to the wild shortly after confiscation.

When infected parakeets are released, wild populations are put at risk. The paper’s authors point out that introduced infectious diseases have previously been linked to major declines of wildlife populations (as in the case of white-nose syndrome and little brown bats), and even species extinctions (as in the case of the parasite Trypanosoma lewisi and Christmas Island rats).

But disease outbreaks in wildlife populations can be difficult to identify, especially in the dense Amazon jungle of Peru, where live animals are often difficult to observe and carcasses disappear quickly.

“That’s why mathematical models are such a valuable tool for the conservation community: they help us evaluate the interaction between illegal wildlife trade and risk of diseases that might otherwise go unseen—until it’s too late,” Daut said.

The paper, “Interacting Effects of Newcastle Disease Transmission and Illegal Trade on a Wild Population of White-Winged Parakeets in Peru: A Modeling Approach,” Elizabeth F. Daut, Glenn Lahodny Jr., Markus J. Peterson, and Renata Ivanek, was published online January 27, 2016, in the journal PLOS ONE.

Mathematical codes for the epidemic model of Newcastle disease transmission are accessible 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 accelerating data-driven 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): 

Salamanders at Risk: New Listing Protects from Deadly Pathogen

February 1, 2016

Above: The California newt is a salamander species endemic to California, in the Western United States. Photo courtesy John Clare via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Postdoctoral Fellow

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acted to protect native amphibians from a newly-described and potentially lethal fungus. The culprit—called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal—has all but wiped out some salamander populations in Europe. And researchers are worried the U.S. could be next.

The movement of Bsal from overseas to the U.S. may likely be hastened by international trade, which is a well-known factor contributing to the spread of infectious diseases (Fèvre et al. 2006). For example, outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, which devastated the livestock industry in Europe, were spread by the international transport of live farm animals. In the case of Bsal, research has confirmed that Asian salamanders, which are imported primarily for the exotic pet industry, are carriers of the fungus. As carriers, these species are resistant to the disease but are able to transmit the fungus to susceptible wild salamanders.

The USFWS has good reason to worry. From 2004 to 2014, nearly 2.5 million live salamanders comprising roughly 60 species were imported into the U.S. Wild salamander populations are at high risk of being exposed to Bsal through the release of imported, infected salamanders (Yap et al. 2015). Although to date, Bsal has not been identified in the U.S. (Berger et al. 2016), a similar fungus—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd—has devastated many amphibian species in the U.S. and worldwide, some to the point of extinction (Woodhams et al. 2011).

That’s a concern that cannot be overstated. The U.S. is a global hotspot for salamander diversity, with roughly 40 percent of the more than 650 living species. Many native salamanders are endemic to the U.S.—i.e., not found anywhere else in the world—and are already threatened (USFWS 2016). Despite being rarely seen, salamanders are considered keystone species. They are highly abundant in many terrestrial and aquatic systems and important contributors to nutrient cycling as predators of arthropods and prey for other vertebrates.

Disease surveillance and regulation in the U.S. are stringent and effective when pathogens harmful for agriculture or humans are involved. However, less attention is spent on regulating animal imports for potential pathogens harmful for native wildlife. But things are now changing.

In a bold new step to halt the spread of Bsal to the U.S., the USFWS adopted an interim rule to ban commercial importation from overseas and interstate transportation across state lines of 201 salamander species.

Under the Lacey Act, the USFWS has the authority to regulate trade in wild animals they determine as injurious to humans, agriculture, or native wildlife. Typically, the Lacey Act has been used to prevent the introduction or spread of invasive vertebrate species, such as pythons in the Everglades (USFWS 2012). This is only the second time that the USFWS has amended the Lacey Act to prevent introduction of a potential pathogen (Bsal) by regulating import and trade of its host species (salamanders). The 201 species listed as injurious under the new USFWS ruling include species from 20 genera known to be susceptible to or carriers of Bsal.

With the looming fungal threat, the USFWS opted for an interim rule that took effect on 28 January 2016, instead of a typical proposed rule, which would have allowed salamander imports to continue while providing an opportunity for public comment. Interested persons are still encouraged to submit written comments on the interim rule before mid-March. Visit the Federal eRulemaking Portal here, search for Docket No. FWS–HQ–FAC–2015–0005, and follow the instructions for submitting comments (USFWS 2016).

The interim rule is an important step toward protecting native salamander populations, but there’s still much work to be done to shield U.S. wildlife from introduced diseases spread through commercial trade. At the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), I’m working with researchers at the University of Maryland to investigate the disease risks associated with importation of exotic animals and—now that the USFWS has taken action on Bsal—to identify the next big potential threats facing native wildlife. Our hope is that this research will provide the scientific, evidence-based knowledge necessary to inform policies that best prioritize disease threat and ensure social and economic benefits from trade.

Further Reading

Berger, L., Roberts, A.A., Voyles, J., Longcore, J.E., Murray, K.A., Skerratt, L.F., 2016. History and recent progress on chytridiomycosis in amphibians. Fungal Ecology 19, 89–99.

Fèvre, E.M., Bronsvoort, B.M.d.C., Hamilton, K.A., Cleaveland, S., 2006. Animal movements and the spread of infectious diseases. Trends in Microbiology 14, 125–131.

USFWS. 2012. Salazar announces ban on importation and interstate transportation of four giant snakes that threaten everglades. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. <http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2012/003.html> (22 December 2015).

USFWS, 2016. Injurious wildlife species: listing salamanders due to risk of salamander chytrid fungus. Federal Register, Vol. 81, No. 8  Rules and Regulations.

Woodhams, D., Bosch, J., Briggs, C., Cashins, S., Davis, L., Lauer, A., Muths, E., Puschendorf, R., Schmidt, B., Sheafor, B., Voyles, J., 2011. Mitigating amphibian disease: strategies to maintain wild populations and control chytridiomycosis. Frontiers in Zoology 8, 8.

Yap, T.A., Koo, M.S., Ambrose, R.F., Wake, D.B., Vredenburg, V.T., 2015. Averting a North American biodiversity crisis. Science 349, 481–482.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Predicting Forest Recovery from Human Disturbance

December 11, 2015

How successfully can we restore the world’s degraded lands? A new global meta-analysis seeks to understand what determines forest landscape restoration success and recovery rates.

by Karen D. Holl, Paula Meli, José M. Rey Benayas, and the SESYNC/iDIV Restoration Synthesis Working Group

This blog originally appeared at IUCN.

Over the past five years there have been numerous global, regional, and national targets set for large-scale forest landscape restoration. Most notable among these are the nearly 60 million hectares of restoration commitments to the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land worldwide by 2020—commitments arriving from nearly a dozen countries and institutions spread across three continents. Restoration ambition is high, but many unknowns still exist. We know that restoration can conserve biodiversity, provide a range of ecosystem services, and support the well-being of human communities. But, we still know very little about what makes restoration successful and, in particular, to what degree ecosystems can recover from disturbance or how long it will take them to do so. Answering these questions will help guide the decision-makers now responsible for implementing large-scale forest landscape restoration, who often have large goals but limited resources.

To this end we are conducting a meta-analysis of restoration studies to determine which factors affect the degree of forest recovery across the world. We are concerned particularly with the recovery of plant and animal populations (looking at both diversity and abundance) and nutrient cycling functions. The factors we are considering include the type of past disturbance to the land (was the area mined, logged, or used for agriculture?), the existing forest type (tropical or temperate, wet or dry), the time since the disturbance has ceased, and whether humans have actively intervened to restore the degraded land.

To be clear, there are plenty of existing scientific studies on forest regeneration, reforestation, and forest recovery rates that offer limited answers to these questions. But the results of these studies are notoriously site-specific, making it difficult to draw from them general and practical conclusions. Our meta-analysis looks across these studies to find conditions that determine restoration recovery rate and success in a way that can inform the current worldwide restoration movement.

We have compiled 166 primary studies from the peer-reviewed published literature with 1,805 ecological response variables (e.g., measurements of abundance, diversity or nutrient cycling functions). These studies include a broad range of examinations from temperate and tropical and wet and dry forests covering 41 different countries. Each study includes measurements of forest quality after degradation and after restoration, as well as measurements from nearby minimally degraded forest (so called “reference” measures). We are comparing each of these measures to determine how deeply each type of disturbance (i.e., mining, logging, or agriculture) degrades a forest’s health and, on the other hand, how well restoration returns that forest to a state similar to nearby reference forests.

Our preliminary results on degradation suggest that agricultural use typically degrades forest ecosystems more than logging. In its destruction of the land mining falls somewhere between agriculture and logging. And logging proves to be the least destructive. Regardless of the kind of disturbance, our findings suggest that all post-disturbance lands prove significantly degraded when compared to reference forests.

After disturbance most logged sites are restored naturally, we have found, and these recover generally without human intervention. In contrast, mined sites are nearly always actively restored, usually by a mixture of interventions including the reconstruction of original land topography and the replanting of vegetation. Former agricultural sites are restored by a mix of approaches, including both the simple removal of the disturbance (e.g., cattle) to allow for natural regeneration and the active planting of trees.

We are in the process of determining the extent to which different kinds of degraded land recover from disturbance and, indeed, if the type of forest and style of restoration determine the rate of recovery. We will present more of our findings in a second post, here at IUCN, when our analyses are complete later this summer. Stay tuned.

This project is part of a larger study synthesizing results of ecosystem recovery and restoration across a range of ecosystem types that is funded by the U.S. National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. This study on forest recovery is funded by the Know-For-FLR project of IUCN, made possible through support from UK Aid, by the British Government.


Bonner, MTL, S Schmidt & LP Shoo. 2013. A meta-analytical global comparison of aboveground biomass accumulation between tropical secondary forests and monoculture plantations. Forest Ecology and Management 291:73–86.

Rey Benayas, JM, AC Newton, A Diaz & JM Bullock. 2009. Enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services by ecological restoration: a meta-analysis. Science 325:1121–1124.

Associated Project: 

Featured Fellow: Lisa Palmer

December 9, 2015

What does it take to reconcile the threat of global environmental change with the need to feed a growing population?

Developing countries will be the most vulnerable to changes in climate. A recent government study in India warned that the anticipated rise in global temperatures over the next three decades could reduce wheat yields in the country by as much as 23 percent. Related environmental problems—depleted groundwater, delayed monsoons, and intense rainfall—will also hurt productivity.

What this will mean for India’s food security, and especially the poor who cannot keep up with rising food prices, is the focus of Lisa Palmer’s recent reporting and writing.

Palmer, fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environment Synthesis Center (SESYNC), was in India thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. There, she looked at new strategies designed to help small farmers adapt to climate change and visited several of the country’s “climate smart” villages where farmers use technologies, communications tools and renewable energy to improve their livelihoods and resilience to climatic variability.

Palmer Reports from India

“India's climate tech revolution is starting in its villages.” The Guardian, October 12.

“A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis.” New Security Beat, November 17.

“Learning from India's 'Smart' Farming Villages.” Yale Climate Connections, November 19.

“I Went to India and Saw the Future of Climate-Smart Farming.” Nautilus, December 4.

Palmer’s work on science, the environment, agriculture, and sustainability has been featured in The Guardian, Nature, Nature Climate Change, Climate Connections, Yale e360, Slate, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nautilus, and many others. She first began to report on agriculture and the food production nexus while a media fellow at the Vermont Law School, and is now working on a book, Hot, Hungry Planet, to be published in 2016. She’s on Twitter @Lisa_Palmer.

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 data-intensive 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): 

What We're Reading

November 17, 2015

From our reading lists to yours: what National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) researchers and staff are reading.

An equilibrium theory signature in the island biogeography of human parasites and pathogens

Authors: Kévin Jean, William R. Burnside, Lynn Carlson, et al.
Source: Global Ecology and Biogeography
Who's reading it: Elizabeth Daut, Postdoctoral Fellow

Aligning restoration science and the law to sustain ecological infrastructure for the future

Authors: Margaret A Palmer and JB Ruhl
Source: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Quantitative Researcher

Time scale interactions and the coevolution of humans and water

Authors: Murugesu Sivapalan and Günter Blöschl
Source: Water Resources Research
Who's reading it: Krissy Hopkins, Postdoctoral Fellow

Equation-free mechanistic ecosystem forecasting using empirical dynamic modeling

Authors: Hao Ye, Richard J. Beamish, Sarah M. Glaser, et al.
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Kristal Jones, Food Systems Research Fellow

Collapse, environment, and society

Author: Karl W. Butzer
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Matthew LaFevor, Postdoctoral Fellow

50 years of Data Science

Author: David Donoho
Source: Tukey Conference, Princeton University
Who's reading it: Philippe Marchand, Scientific Support Specialist

Capitalism in the Web of Life: an Interview with Jason W. Moore

Authors: Jason W. Moore and Kamil Ahsan
Source: Viewpoint Magazine
Who's reading it: Jessica Marx, Research Program Manager

A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka

Author: Meera Subramanian
Source: PublicAffairs
Who's reading it: Lisa Palmer, Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding, and Mary Shelley, Associate Director of Synthesis

Model averaging and muddled multimodel inferences

Author: Brian S. Cade
Source: Ecology
Who's reading it: Lauren Yeager, Postdoctoral Fellow

Second growth: The promise of tropical forest regeneration in an age of deforestation

Author: Robin Chazdon
Source: University of Chicago Press
Who's reading it: Jenny Zambrano, Postdoctoral Fellow

A Venomous Fight Among Reptile Scientists

Author: Ed Yong
The Atlantic
Who's reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

What We're Reading archive:

From Meta-Studies to Modeling: Synthesizing a Changing Landscape

November 11, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Question? Research. Answer!

It may be simple and straightforward, yet it’s rarely how the scientific process actually works. Rather, scientific discovery is wrought with complexities that may lead to more questions than answers—but that’s precisely where things get interesting.

Take land change science, for example. From deforestation and irrigation to urbanization and restoration, humans are transforming the surface of the Earth, and on massive scales. The patchwork of landscapes covering the globe are as numerous as they are diverse. At the same time, they are linked: ecologically, socio-economically, culturally. The land use choices of a farmer, pastoralist, or housing developer both influence and are influenced by local contexts such as per capita income as well as broad-scale pressures such as climate change and economic globalization. As a result, landscapes breathe as much life and undergo as much change and growth as the people, plants, and animals living within them.

Land change scientists endeavor to make sense of it all: the various drivers of land use change, and how those changes feed back into people’s livelihoods and land use decisions. To accomplish this feat, they must overcome several challenges. First, traditional scientific experiments aren’t feasible in land change science. It’s neither ethical nor even logistically possible to manipulate the global food trade market in order to measure its influence on a village’s food security, for example. Second, the layers of complexity are all but endless. How can researchers possibly isolate the effect of a land use decision made in urban Chicago or rural China?

Here, land change scientists may very well agree with philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin: the key to understanding is in the identification of patterns.* Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, an assistant research professor at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), uses synthetic and modeling approaches to find patterns among land uses and changes. As a resource to the wider land change science community, he recently co-published a related series of articles outlining how synthesis, meta-studies, and agent-based modeling can help us understand how humans interact with and change the landscapes in which they live.

Local case studies inform much of what we know about how humans use land and how those practices change over time. But determining whether individual cases are merely anecdotal, or the extent to which they can be scaled up to explain regional or even global land use patterns, is a challenge. The research approach of synthesis is especially useful in this context: it draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods to generate knowledge that is applicable across spatial and temporal scales.

In open-access papers published in Regional Environmental Change and Ambio, Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science and identify tools to integrate diverse data sets from multiple disciplines. The papers aim to help researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what types of data they have—and then to actually do them. Specifically, the authors discuss meta-studies, which they define as “specific synthetic methods that distill the findings of many narrowly focused analyses (i.e., ‘cases’) to produce knowledge that is more generally applicable than may be derived from a single case.”

Cases of deforestation, restoration, and other global change phenomena are happening right now all across the world. But whether pasture cover is converting to agricultural land in Laos or Brazil, it has something in common: the conversions can be measured consistently, regardless of where they take place. Accordingly, these place-based changes can be compared to reveal both commonalities and differences in their causes and consequences.

Agent-based models—used as “virtual laboratories,” as Magliocca calls them—are a practical computational tool that help with such syntheses. They offer a powerful means of simulating the land use choices of individuals and groups in order to assess their interactions within a landscape. And although land use change has been studied mostly by researchers creating highly detailed, specialized models that apply to a single location and are highly context-dependent, there’s also much to be learned through comparative research across different sites.

In an open-access paper published in Environmental Modelling & Software, Magliocca and co-authors illustrate where and how meta-studies can inform the modeling process (e.g., when conceptualizing, coding, or implementing a model). And in another open-access paper published in Land, Magliocca puts it all to task by applying a generalized agent-based model to six different agricultural case studies. In this paper, he analyzed the relative importance of local and larger-scale influences on land use changes throughout the six sites. In a nutshell, he found that the more remote a location, the more sensitive land use decisions are to ecological factors such as soil quality; the less remote a location, the more sensitive they are to individual’s perception of risk and economic factors such as crop prices.

More importantly, says Magliocca, the “results demonstrate model-based synthesis as a promising approach to overcome many of the current challenges of synthesis in land change science” because it rigorously embraces complexity.

“And the insights you can gain from the land change perspective are almost always applicable to the larger socio-environmental context, because land change science is already so integrative. Whether you start with a question about fluctuations in land markets or valuation of a restoration project, the lessons to be learned through synthesis and modeling are broadly relevant,” he adds.

* Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability” (1954).

Above photo: Aerial view of center-fed farms in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Courtesy Doc Searls via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Further reading

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Thomas K. Rudel, Peter H. Verburg, et al. (2015). “Synthesis in land change science: methodological patterns, challenges, and guidelines” in Regional Environmental Change. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

Jasper van Vliet, Nicholas R. Magliocca, Bianka Büchner, et al. (2015). “Meta-studies in land use science: Current coverage and prospects” in Ambio. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13280-015-0699-8

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Jasper van Vliet, Calum Brown, et al. (2015). “From meta-studies to modeling: Using synthesis knowledge to build broadly applicable process-based land change models” in Environmental Modelling & Software. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2015.06.009

Nicholas R. Magliocca. (2015). “Model-Based Synthesis of Locally Contingent Responses to Global Market Signals” in Land. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/land4030807

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 data-intensive 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): 


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