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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.

Restoring Degraded Coasts with Living Shorelines

April 21, 2015

Communications Assistant

Imagine you’re visiting your grandparents’ oceanfront home for the first time since you were young. You take a careful seat on the water’s edge, your nostalgia interrupted by the sharp, unfamiliar rocks lining the shore. You’ve changed since your last visit—and so, it seems, has the landscape.

Many coastal regions have experienced similar transitions as a result of growing populations and accompanying economic development. Biscayne Bay, Florida is one such region. The area’s natural beauty has attracted more and more residents and visitors, which spurred the rapid urbanization of Miami and the surrounding area in the 20th century. The flood of people ushered in a slew of environmental impacts such as pollution, loss of habitat, and shoreline erosion over time. Although these impacts aren’t unique to this area, the threat they pose to the region’s natural resources are cause for concern.

Mangrove forests, known for their dense tangle of prop roots, are native to Biscayne Bay. The root systems trap and filter out sediment, making mangroves important for both coastline protection and providing habitat to a wide variety of aquatic life and shoreline birds. These unique habitats have in many places been degraded or destroyed by urban development. Restoration efforts have included living shoreline techniques (i.e., supplementing hard structures such as sea walls and retaining walls with mangrove trees) to stabilize the shoreline and to provide an environment for wildlife to utilize.

A study recently published in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of Marine Science by Joseph Peters of Portland State University, Lauren Yeager of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Craig Layman of North Carolina State University analyzed the ecological impacts of riprap installation (i.e., rock or other material used to armor shorelines against erosion) combined with mangrove plantings. They were specifically interested in the differences of fish assemblages between artificial riprap mangroves and natural mangroves in northern Biscayne Bay. The researchers found that overall, restored shorelines had the most species-rich fish communities, therefore demonstrating the potential to improve degraded shorelines and successfully support aquatic life.

They did, however, find a caveat. Riprap is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“There are benefits to planting artificial mangroves—but the mangrove root structure is somewhat changed by the rocky riprap, and as a result the roots cannot perform many of their natural functions,” Peters explained. “We anticipated that there might be a difference in the fishes that utilize the riprap versus natural mangroves. But among certain fish species, it appears that riprap mangrove habitats don’t add any value. We think it’s because the artificial rock–root structure doesn’t provide equal protection for certain fishes against predators as compared to natural mangroves.”

Coastal communities are working to find ways to cope with shoreline degradation, prevent further damage from erosion, and design restoration projects in a sustainable way. Living shorelines are emerging as a preferred restoration method—their environmental benefits are plenty, and they’re often more adaptable to potential impacts associated with climate change. Since 1987, more than $11 million has been spent on coastal habitat restoration and exotic plant removal in Biscayne Bay alone.

Restoration can be expensive. But the economic costs may be a fair trade to prevent the total destruction of coastal shorelines, leaving generations to come without the important ecosystem services they provide. We’re at risk of losing more than our nostalgia—if we don’t look closer into restoration solutions, we’ll have bigger fish to fry.

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 at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter at @SESYNC.

Top image: Riprap mangrove restoration, courtesy Joseph Peters.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Simulating Sprawl: What Economists Can Learn from ABMs

April 2, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Mainstream economics has yet to embrace the potential of agent-based modeling to accelerate our understanding of how humans impact systems. But evidence that this tool is useful for exploring environmental-economic problems is easy to find.

Nicholas Magliocca, a computational research fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), uses agent-based models (ABMs) to investigate the dynamics of human–environment interactions and their consequences for environmental and economic sustainability. In a nutshell, that means he uses computers to simulate how individuals behave, and how the interactions of their behaviors lead to large-scale outcomes.

ABMs are critical tools, Dr. Magliocca explains, for researching questions that might be otherwise unethical or impossible to explore. He points to his recent research on how urban development patterns are influenced by economic variables—for example, a home buyer’s income (unethical to manipulate in the real world) and/or preference for lot size (difficult, if not impossible, to manipulate in the real world).

In a paper recently published on the research, Magliocca and his co-authors—Virginia McConnell and Margaret Walls of Resources for the Future—explain that communities across the United States have invested in a variety of programs and policies to combat urban sprawl, which is associated with consequences such as increased air pollution, reduced access to natural areas, and loss of local farmland. But how do communities determine which of these investments are effective? It’s complicated, because the urban development process itself is so complex. Hailing a single policy as a key solution seems inconceivable: there are endless arrays of physical landscapes, consumer preferences, and market fluctuations to consider, after all.

While it may be human impulse to reduce complexity, ABMs embrace it. Magliocca and his colleagues’ model incorporates three types of agents (consumers who purchase houses of various types, a developer, and farmer/landowners who choose between farming and selling their land) and simulates a series of market events (buying land, building houses, setting asking prices). The agents’ decisions are governed by a set of mathematical algorithms—learning rules based on cognitive models so consumers, developers, and landowners can adapt over time, as they would in the real world.

The ability to manipulate the otherwise unethical or impossible reveals why ABMs are so useful. Tweaking the agricultural productivity of a farmer’s land here, or a consumer’s preference for travel/commute time there, results in an entirely different model scenario with entirely different outcomes. The researchers ran the model 150 times in all, with each small change unleashing a slew of varying feedbacks between agents and markets.

The most surprising result? Early development patterns are dictated by agricultural land value—but eventually become dominated by farmers’ land price expectations.

“In a very rural area, the value of land is tied pretty tightly to its agriculture productivity,” Magliocca explained. “All a developer needs to do to buy is determine that value threshold and make a slightly higher offer. But at some point, when and where land is developed is more about farmer’s reactions to changing prices and development patterns rather than some set economic standard.”

“Our model points to the importance of people’s expectations and behaviors,” he added. “It highlights the need to take more than just economic fundamentals into account when designing development policy.”

Although agent-based modeling has been deemed an “uninteresting” or “fringe” approach by many mainstream economists, many others tout it as a tool worth developing. It turns out there are some questions that agent-based modeling can answer that mainstream economics simply cannot on its own.

The research paper, “Exploring sprawl: Results from an economic agent-based model of land and housing markets,” was published online March 25 in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Economics. It can be accessed for free until May 14, 2015, by clicking 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 scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Top image courtesy La-Citta-Vita via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Replumbing Cities from Gray to Green

March 25, 2015

Guest Contributor

As we go about our day, most of us never stop to think about the steady flows of fresh and waste waters that happen every moment just a few feet beneath the sidewalks and streets. Kristina Hopkins, postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), wishes that more people would do so—because in many cities, the systems that handle those flows are beginning to fail.

Increasingly, failing infrastructure, flash flooding, and poor water quality—problems likely exacerbated by climate change—affect the health of rivers and streams flowing through our cities. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems a D grade. It’s estimated that an investment of nearly $300 billion will be required to restore our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, while drinking water supply systems will require a $1 trillion investment over the next 20 years.

At SESYNC, Dr. Hopkins is studying how cities are addressing these problems by investing in “gray” infrastructure, which includes the installation of pipes and large storage tunnels and the upgrading of sewage treatment plants, and “green ” infrastructure, which uses soils and vegetation to slow down and filter stormwater at the source using features such as rain gardens. Working with Abby York and Nancy Grimm of Arizona State University, Hopkins is using data and reports from local agencies to determine how and why four cities—Phoenix, AZ; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; and Portland, OR—are investing in green infrastructure. Hopkins seeks to answer two overarching questions:

  1. How have stormwater infrastructure systems changed over the last 20 years?
  2. What socio-political factors trigger transitions in management strategies?

At a recent seminar presented at SESYNC, Hopkins explained her hypothesis: that the ability of cities to change their management strategies to incorporate green treatment solutions depends on the amount of coordination between various civic entities and the degree to which administrative power is distributed. Cities in which a single authority oversees all elements of the water cycle and in which the planning process flows from the bottom up, Hopkins argues, are the most likely to successfully transition to new management approaches.

To better understand these dynamic relationships, Hopkins is creating a database that captures the characteristics of each city’s water service area (size, climate, infrastructure types), governance characteristics (infrastructure ownership, policy instruments, incentive programs, administrative arrangements), and performance metrics (environmental conditions, access to green infrastructure, community engagement). To test her hypothesis, Hopkins hopes to perform qualitative and quantitative analyses to identify the links between different types of governance structures and the outcomes of efforts to adapt water management approaches.

Hopkins says her work at SESYNC will advance the field of socio-environmental synthesis by identifying policies and financial investments that catalyze transitions towards resilient, stormwater management systems.

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 at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Agricultural Terracing: Steps to Conservation

March 11, 2015

Guest Contributor

For the last several thousand years, humans have used agricultural terracing—the leveling of sloped land into “steps” that serve as planting beds—as a means to grow food where flat land is hard to find. Today, scientists believe that those same techniques can be adapted to help agricultural communities to conserve water and reduce soil erosion. Matthew LaFevor, postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), wants to find the best ways to do that.

Dr. LaFevor’s research focuses on the use of semi-terracing, also called ditch-and-border terracing or zanja y bordo, as a means of water and soil conservation and to restore degraded landscapes and restore biodiversity in Latin America. Zanja y bordo, explains LaFevor, “has become an all-purpose strategy to repair degraded hill slopes, whether for producing agricultural goods or producing environmental services.”

LaFevor explains that his research seeks to answer four questions:

  1. Is zanja y bordo terracing an effective, sustainable means of soil and water conservation?
  2. What are the potential socio-environmental impacts of government terracing programs in Latin America?
  3. What can a global synthesis of data on terracing tell us about how forms function in different environments?
  4. How can synthesis research on terracing be used to improve environmental management?

At a recent seminar presented at SESYNC, LaFevor described two of the projects he’s working on: a global synthesis of data on hill-slope terracing—the first comprehensive analysis of its kind ever conducted—with Alexandra Ponette-González of the University of North Texas, and a study of the role of conservation terracing in the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) with Nick Magliocca of SESYNC. The results of these studies, LaFevor believes, will help government planners to improve their country’s environmental management techniques.

Terracing is an effective means of soil and water conservation, says LaFevor, but its effectiveness depends on both the design of the terracing and the environment in which it is used. The government of Mexico, for example, is using zanja y bordo terracing to restore degraded hard-pan surfaces throughout the country to preserve soils, but in some cases the use of this technique is actually exacerbating the problem. Without periodic maintenance, terraces can fail and cause landscape-level degradation.

To better understand the dynamics of terracing programs in Mexico, LaFevor is using data collected by that country’s largest land-development program to date, the Program for Sustainable Agriculture and Restoration of Degraded Lands (PIASRE), which ran from 2001 to 2007. He is analyzing the project’s database to identify the various terracing projects by state and establish their characteristics. Overall, LaFevor says, the data suggest that very little consideration was given to the type or location of terraces, which will likely lead to problems in the future.

LaFevor’s global synthesis of hill-slope terracing involved the creation of a database of over 800 scientific studies culled from scientific journals as well as studies published by NGOs and government agencies—and even historical maps that show agricultural features. LaFevor then uses a technique called thematic coding to highlight key information to make it easier to identify significant patterns and trends, and to present them in charts and tables that are easy to understand.

LaFevor’s research raises several important social and environmental questions. Different cultures use different terracing techniques; will these characteristics be visible in maps of terrace intensity? Do sociocultural differences in terrace design, such as spacing, have implications for water runoff and soil erosion? How do maps of terracing intensity in Mexico overlap with maps of conservation hazards and erosion? These are questions that LaFevor hopes to be able to answer as he continues his research at SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Q&A with Dr. Andres Baeza: This is Why We Cooperate

March 4, 2015

Communications Coordinator

To compete or to cooperate? That is the question.

In arid regions, where communities are threatened by drastic and unpredictable environmental changes, water scarcity should pit farmer against farmer. But in the semi-desert area that lies between the Atacama Desert and the fertile agricultural valleys of central Chile, families are working to share the labors of farming and to together restore the degraded land.

Understanding how these networks of cooperation first emerged, and whether they can be sustained in the face of increasingly rapid globalization and climate change, is the impetus for Dr. Andres Baeza’s research. As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), he is studying how ecological and economic changes influence cooperation behaviors amongst pastoral farming communities in Chile.

Below, Andres answers a few questions about his work … and a few questions just for fun.

Name: Andres Baeza
PhD: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan
Hometown: Santiago, Chile

What is your field of study?

Quantitative ecology.

Can you describe the ecological component of your SESYNC research?

The region in Chile that I study used to be a forest—what they call Matorral, a semi-desert type of forest with small shrubs—that was very dense and very well adapted to the regional climate. But there have been a lot of changes there, particularly after the arrival of the Spanish, who completely altered the landscape with activities such as livestock grazing mining and agriculture. The livestock in particular ate the native bushes and facilitated the establishment of a particular invasive species called Acacia, which transitions the forest to a savanna-type environment. This transition may happen very quickly, and if you maintain the presence of these livestock animals, the transition may be irreversible.

So I’m studying the dynamics of this phenomenon over time with a spatially-explicit model to identify signals for the transition from forest to savanna. I’m combining these vegetation dynamics with livestock dynamics to then try to determine the best strategies for maintaining the forest while at the same time maintaining the livelihoods of the pastoral communities that depend upon the land.

Can you describe the social component of your SESYNC research?

Pastoral communities have shared the land within this semi-desert region for more than 100 years, and they engage in livestock and agriculture production to generate income that fluctuates depending upon factors such as rainfall and price variability. Based on past and present conditions, families make decisions for managing the livestock and agricultural land to increase gains and decrease costs. These decisions are constrained by rules for maintaining the viability of the community, including quotas of livestock that each family is allowed to have in the common area. There are also instances of cooperation between families. For example, families share both the labor and the costs associated with the farming and grazing activities.

I’m using a spatially-explicit agent-based model to study how these networks of cooperation first emerged, how they are maintained, and how they have changed over time as the land has been degraded.

What questions does using a model enable you to answer that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?

From an ecological perspective, most of the land in central Chile has been completely depleted, and not much of the semi-desert forest remains. It’s important to protect what’s still left—the model allows me to explore different degradation scenarios without actually causing damage to the ecosystem.

From a social perspective, the various scenarios that I’m studying have real-life consequences for Chilean communities and families. I can use the model to test scenarios to see which ones are most likely to be successful, rather than manipulating and possibly jeopardize these people’s livelihoods.

What do you find most important about your research?

I think it’s important to understand the dynamics between social–environmental systems in a formal and rigorous way. When you can identify the connections that maintain vicious cycles in social–environmental systems—one example is poverty and disease—that’s when you can actually act in a meaningful and effective way. That’s when you can modify those connections to escape those vicious cycles.

The same applies to my project at SESYNC. How do we maintain over time both the social structure of these pastoral communities and the ecological sustainability of these ecosystems? Understanding the underlying connections and interactions can help us preserve both.

What do you like most about being a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC?

Goofing with Neil [Carter, SESYNC postdoctoral fellow and my officemate].

But seriously, it’s the community and opportunities to work with other fellows and researchers at SESYNC. For example, Neil and I are working with Nick [Magliocca, SESYNC computational research fellow] to combine our expertise in modeling social and ecological dynamics to understand how the actual risk of human–carnivore conflict is influenced by social networks. The idea is to provide some insight into how we can reduce the amplification of perceived risk of conflict as compared to actual risk.

What do you think would surprise people most about your work?

I think a lot of people outside of academia think of ecology only as a field-based activity where you go outside, look at birds, and take notes. Theoretical ecology and quantitative modeling can be difficult to explain, at times to researchers in other disciplines, too.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t let your work pile up, and never let any work that you do go unpublished. Get it off your desk and out into the world.

And now for your James Lipton moment: What’s your favorite science word?


What’s your least favorite science word?

“Heterogeneity.” Because it took me about three years to learn how to pronounce it properly, and I use it all the time.

Learn more about Andres and his work by visiting his SESYNC profile 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 scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Top photo: Chilean landscape, courtesy Francesco Fiondella.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

New Study: Ocean Acidification Threatens Coastal Communities in 15 U.S. States

Anticipated Economic Impacts More Widespread than Previously Believed

Annapolis, Md (February 23, 2015) – The first nationwide vulnerability assessment for ocean acidification shows that coastal communities that depend on the nation’s approximately $1 billion shelled mollusk (e.g., oysters and clams) industry are at long-term economic risk from ocean acidification.

Connecting the Dots in Policy Networks

February 3, 2015

Communications Coordinator

The San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta presents a classic example of governance conflict. More than 23 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland rely on the Delta for all or part of their water supply. Countless species depend on it for their habitat. Individuals and organizations, both public and private, represent a dizzying array of interests and interdependencies—and they make decisions about Delta water use and management that may impose unintended and/or negative impacts upon others throughout the system.

Water governance is an inherently fragmented process. Different organizations have overlapping responsibilities for policy issues that span administrative boundaries, or they work independently on issues that are in fact related.

In these contexts, certain individuals or organizations emerge as brokers to facilitate negotiations between those with varying, and at times competing, interests. Essentially, brokers serve to “connect the dots”—they bridge previously detached or uncoordinated organizations on an issue of mutual consequence. For example, a broker might mediate negotiations about a proposed water infrastructure project between an energy company and a recreational group located down river.

Brokers also have access to certain information that non-brokers do not, and they control flows of information between organizations. For these reasons, brokers are associated with greater influence over the policy process. But how does the structure of these networks—i.e., which organizations are connected by which brokers—affect policy change?

Part of the key to answering this question, says SESYNC postdoctoral fellow Lorien Jasny, is embracing the complexity of policy networks—and specifically, acknowledging the role of policy forums (called “venues”) that bring together organizations (called “actors”). Venues too perform an important brokerage function by linking previously disconnected actors that attend jointly to negotiate decisions.

In a new study published online February 3 in the journal Social Networks, Jasny introduces a new theoretical and analytical approach in social network analysis that she developed: two-mode brokerage. The scientific paper, co-authored by Mark Lubell, professor and Director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at UC Davis, expands on earlier notions of brokerage by integrating analyses of how venues are linked by those who participate in them.

Jasny and Lubell applied the two-mode brokerage analysis to examine the complex institutional system of water governance in the San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta. They identified a significant amount of venue brokerage that, they say, evolved over time as groups struggled with the fragmented policies that address complex water problems in the region.

“Policy decisions made on issues such as water supply, water quality, or fisheries affect each other on the ecosystem level,” said Lubell. “Sometimes water policy actors can find mutually beneficial solutions; sometimes all they can do is try to avoid hurting each other. So, actors build new, collaborative venues that allow them to cooperatively address interdependent management issues.”

These venues take many different forms, such as scientific, regulatory, and local planning forums. Likewise, each venue attracts different actors, among them federal, state, and regional governments; environmental groups; and business and industry groups. The researchers say that integrating venue brokerage into a network analysis may help explain why certain actors are more likely to work together or how certain decisions are made. Eventually, the insights gained from these types of analyses could be used to inform brokerage practices in water policy networks.

“Public policy—especially for environmental issues—is essentially created within systems of conflict,” Jasny said. “We need to be studying how these systems are structured, because policy actors are constantly negotiating decisions that have significant implications for others.”

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to understanding complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 


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