CHANS-Net at AAG 2010

Details of plans for CHANS-Net activities at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in Washington, D.C. have been posted.

Presentations and a workshop are expected to synthesise across CHANS research projects, potentially leading to publication. The CHANS-Net website also indicates there are opportunities for junior scholars to receive financial assistance.

Deadline for abstract submission to the AAG meeting is 28th October 2009 (submissions to the CHANS events are due by 20th October).

US-IALE 2009: CHANS Workshop

Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) research is all about relationships – that seemed to be one of the main conclusions of the Challenges and Opportunities in Research on Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems workshop at the US-IALE meeting in Snowbird, UT. The processes of identifying relationships between system elements and fostering them between researchers are key to realizing successful CHANS research. The workshop followed-up on a symposium in which principle investigators from several NSF-funded CNH projects presented their work, and was an opportunity to ask questions that went unasked during that symposium. The workshop was also the kick-off event for the CHANS-Net website.

In my notes below I have not identified individual workshop participants, both because I may have mis-interpreted their actual opinions or thoughts, but also because in some cases I can’t identify from my notes who said what. The workshop started with a panel discussion (the panel composed of the symposium speakers) followed by break-out groups to continue the discussion.

The first question from the audience asked how the panel approaches the dichotomy between abstract and contextualised research. Just as many dichotomies are false, it seems this one is also not always appropriate. For example, one response was that just because we can explain some characteristic about a specific place does not mean we didn’t use any theory whilst arriving at that explanation. Talking to local people can generate interesting, if contextualised, questions and one panel member highlighted the usefulness of ‘stakeholder steering groups’ (composed of local decision-makers and actors) to identify diverse opinions and direct research in ways that may not have happened otherwise. Another suggestion was that communication tools (such as role-playing, hypothetical scenarios, model output, etc.) are useful as a starting point for discussion, even if the theory underlying those tools is not discussed. To summarise the responses to this question I’ll paraphrase one of the panel members; ‘it was Louis Pasteur that said the question is not about whether the science is abstract or applied, but whether it is good science or bad science’.

A subsequent question along similar lines touched on the interplay of theory and practice; “what happens when your research proposal does not match ‘messy reality’? How do you explain why you ended up doing what you did do [to the people that accepted your proposal]?”. No original research goes entirely to plan – as some famous scientist once said; ‘if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research’. In reality, there is always ‘wriggle-room’ in resolving this issue – if you start with a broad question it is easier to stay with a research theme even if the details get modified. Similarly, it is useful to make sure your research question is more important than the place where you will address that question. One panel member described how a research project they worked on needed to change the country in which is was situated. By focusing on the general research question they were able to negotiate this seemingly insurmountable problem. Other respondents from the panel got into more ‘messy’ details about the execution of such research. For example, in a project that involved both social and physical scientists there was initially confusion about how the two different types of scientists perceived and undertook measurements. A useful suggestion was to read your colleagues synthesis/review papers from other disciplines or backgrounds. Through commitment and patience in working together, an objective should be to identify a common language between researchers that can then push the research goals forward. Again, the importance of relationships was stressed.

An issue that came up both in response to this theory versus practice question, and frequently throughout the workshop, was the importance of good project management. One panel member suggested that an individual needs to be designated with the task of keeping the project on timeline, and that this person may need to take tough decisions (e.g. to drop researchers from the project) if deadlines or standards are not met. Finally, changing research can be a healthy thing – there will be frequent opportunities to extend research in new directions because new questions will arise as understanding develops. We shouldn’t be afraid to pursue those new directions.

One participant wanted to talk about fields that remain under-represented in CHANS current projects. They asked; “what about landscape architects and other ‘professional’ individuals?” A variety of missing experts and knowledge were suggested: the built environment, technology, environmental psychology, historians, political scientists, and communications experts (cartographers, public relations consultants, etc.) amongst others. The need for greater engagement and strengthening of relationships with political scientists seemed to be particularly important to several participants: under what conditions does a policy succeed or fail? How do we achieve good governance of the systems being studied? The US EPA (for example) are making decisions all the time – how are CHANS researchers engaging and influencing them?

Another workshop participant suggested that the presentations in the symposium had highlighted several different ways to conceive the relationship of humans with their environment, from ‘invaders’ to ‘managers’ to ‘components’. “How do we cross the boundaries between these different conceptualizations?” The first respondent suggested that researchers tend to pick a perspective (on the relationship between humans and their environment) and stick with it throughout their research – a better approach might be to consider different perspectives within the same project. However, the discussion quickly moved on to address the entire concept of ‘coupled’ human-natural systems. Several panel respondents voiced concerns about the coupling metaphor – one suggested that (human-natural) systems are not coupled, rather there is just one system. Another highlighted how the US perspective [remember this was the US-IALE meeting] on the human-nature relationship is rather unique – Europeans arrived with ideas of wilderness, protection and exploitation which differ from those in other places. Many of our ideas about how humans are related to their environment, one panel member suggested, likely stem from the Judeo-Christian philosophy which states that man was given dominion over nature. During the development of that philosophy humans got separated [in their minds?] from ecosystems and a difference soon emerged between a perspective in which humans rightly dominate nature versus one in which humans are viewed as being part of nature [which might be more consistent with Eastern religions such as Taoism or Buddhism].

To conclude the panel discussion someone asked; “what direction does CHANS research need to go in?” I thought the most interesting response was that CHANS research should be about easing transitions between different environmental conditions, and not trying to stop those transitions. The speaker suggested that CHANS research needs to focus on the sustainability of communities in the face of environmental transitions, adopting a perspective closely aligned with the view that humans are a part of nature rather than a controller of nature. A second respondent (possibly a geographer) identified the problem of scale. Whilst pretty much every presentation in the symposium contained a ‘spider diagram’ depicting a system as arrows linking boxes of elements, scale didn’t figure much. Yet, the respondent argued, all the systems presented were to some degree scale-dependent (but note there are cases where scale-invariant behaviour is manifest [.pdf]).

The workshop then broke up into groups to discuss some the issues outlined above in more detail. Correspondingly, there was plenty of feedback when the groups re-convened. Put in the most simple terms, our group decided that there are four things that characterize CHANS research:

  1. It is hard (e.g. issues of coupling systems, scaling, policy work, management, interdisciplinarity, and many more)
  2. It’s all about relationships (both in the systems of study and between the researchers studying those systems)
  3. Face-to-face interaction is key (between researchers themselves, and between researchers and other stakeholders – policy makers, managers and importantly the people in the systems and places being studied)
  4. It takes time (because of all of the above)

This last point was emphasized in several places; it takes time to generate links between disciplines. And it can be frustrating. For CHANS research to be successful, one of the key steps is to identify individuals that are willing to make the same leap across a disciplinary divide that you want to. CHANS researchers aren’t alone in having these kinds of discussions right now, and there are lessons to be learned from many different groups investigating the web of human-environment relationships. That’s where the workshop ended in Utah, but no doubt the discussion about relationships will continue – possibly in forums like that offered by CHANS-Net.

A Companion to Environmental Geography: Brief Review

A couple of weeks ago I received my copy of ‘A Companion to Environmental Geography‘ to review for Progress in Physical Geography. I’m still working my way through the edited volume’s diverse material, and on the review, but I thought I’d post a brief outline here along with a few thoughts.

The diversity of issues and approaches demonstrated in the Companion is a result of both the editors’ objectives to demonstrate the size, breadth and multiplicity of geographical work at the people-environment interface, and definition of environmental geography; “any form of geographical inquiry which considers formally some element of society or nature relative to each other” (p.6). The chapters address issues ranging from ‘Complexity, Chaos and Emergence’ and ‘Uncertainty and Risk’, through ‘Landscape, Culture and Regional Studies’ and ‘Ecosystem Prediction and Management’ to ‘Marxist Political Economy and Environment’ and ‘Environmental Discourse and Representation’.

The editors’ broad definition of Environmental Geography is, in part, a response to the increasing specialisation of science in general and geography specifically. Their definition is also a result of the perceived need to think more clearly about the relationships between the sub-discplines of geography rather than just the simple human/physical dichotomy, as I have discussed previously. Increasing research specialisation has resulted in a growing irrelevance of (and difficulty of achieving) the traditional view of ‘symmetric’ Environmental Geography in which both humans and their environment receive equal attention and treatment. Research in contemporary Environmental Geography is largely asymmetrical (i.e., research focus is generally more on either the human or environmental dimension) as demonstrated by the many of the chapters in the Companion.

Such a broad definition also allows the emphasis of what is seen as a traditional strength of Geography – the possibility of multiple diverse approaches to examine human-environment interactions. Indeed, editors Castree, Demeritt, Liverman and Rhoads suggest that “Environmental Geography’s plurality can make it a player in such grand endeavours [as addressing global environmental chage and sustainability] yet without sacrificing its capability to offer multiple insights and perspectives on human-environment relations” (p.12). A player it may be, but other human-environment researchers are now arguing that their more systematic approaches move beyond Environmental Geography and, as Billie L. Turner’s chapter highlights, the geography is no longer necessarily the primary domain of the study of coupled human-environment systems; “the immediate future appears to be one in which geographic practitioners of land systems are drawn increasingly into integrative science programmes, while geograghic pedagogy, more so than at any other time in the past, opens to practitioners from beyond the formal discipline” (p.174).

The Companion, is certainly more than a Dictionary – each of the 32 chapters following the introduction from the editors provides an introduction to key ideas, methods and debates that will be accessible to advanced undergraduates and beyond. The chapters are divided into four sections – Concepts, Approaches, Practices, and Topics – some tackling questions at the cutting edge (e.g., what are the interlinked social and environmental implications of commodifying nature, and of commodification more generally?), some calling for advances or changes in perspective (e.g., current consideration of uncertainty and risk is a facade on deterministic approaches) and others providing more benign, yet no less stimulating, introductions to the issues. Such is the diversity of human-environment issues covered that not all chapters will be of interest to all readers. However, the book will be a useful reference for all scholars of human-environment interactions, whether to provide inspiration for potential research approaches or as a teaching tool to introduce students to the breadth of topics in Environmental Geography.

I’ll post again with a link to the final review once it’s published.

Buy at Amazon

PEST or Panacea?

Although some may say blogging is dead, the editors at Nature think it’s good to blog. The Nature editors discuss the place of blogging in scientific discourse, focusing on the reporting of results from papers in press (i.e. accepted by a journal for publication but not actually in print yet). They suggest that if the results of an article in press are reported at a conference then they are fair game for discussion and blogging. And they argue that “[m]ore researchers should engage with the blogosphere, including authors of papers in press”.

I wish I had more papers in the in press pile. Unfortunately I’ve got more in the under review pile (see my previous post), but at least I’m adding to it. Earlier this week David Demeritt, Sarah Dyer and I submitted a manuscript to Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. The paper discusses public engagement in science and technology and examines some of the practical challenges such a collaboration entails. One of the examples we use is the work I did during my PhD examining the communication of my model results with local stakeholders. It’s only just submitted so I’ll just post the abstract for now. As we get further along the review process toward the in press stage (with this and other papers) I’ll return to see if we can spark some debate.

David Demeritt, Sarah Dyer and James Millington
PEST or Panacea? Science, Democracy, and the Promise of Public Participation
Submitted Abstract
This paper explores what is entailed by the emerging UK consensus on the need for increased public engagement in science and technology, or PEST as we call it. Common to otherwise incompatible instrumental and de-ontological arguments for PEST is an associated claim that increased public engagement will also somehow make for ‘better’ science and science-based policy. We distinguish two different ways in which PEST might make such a substantive contribution, which we term ‘normative steering’ and ‘epistemic checking’. Achieving those different aims involves engaging with different publics in different ways to different ends. Accordingly, we review a number of recent experiments in PEST to assess the practical challenges in delivering on its various substantive promises. The paper concludes with some wider reflections on whether public engagement in science is actually the best way of resolving the democratic dilemmas to which PEST is addressed.

Publishing in Geography

Got a Geography paper you want to publish? You would do well to read the RGS guide to publishing in Geography. In fact, it’s got some good tips for anyone wanting to learn more about publishing in academia. And if you really aren’t bothered about academia or publishing you should still check it out because it has one of the nicest online document readers I’ve seen in a while.

Reading the RGS guide gave me the idea that maybe I should write up my blog on David Demeritt’s TIBG Boundary Crossing piece for submission as a commentary. So I’ve been reading and thinking about that and will hopefully have something submitted in February. I’ve also been asked to help re-write the Human Decision-Making chapter of Wainwright and Mulligan’s Environmental Modelling ready for its second edition. I’ll be working on that throughout 2009.

Other things I’ve been working on recently are the spatial deer density modelling manuscript (in draft) and the Deer browse/mesic conifer planting experiment (also in draft). I’ve nearly compled the revisions for the paper on my Landscape Fire Succession Model and should be able to return it to EMS soon. The Mind, the Gap paper still isn’t back from the reviewers, and who knows when I’ll ever get round to looking at the narratives paper again.

Not this weekend that’s for sure – Saturday is paper revisions and then on Sunday we’re heading north to our Michigan UP study area to meet with the timber companies (Plum Creek and American Forest Management) that have helped us with our fieldwork over the last two summers. Between the meetings we’ll drive through the study area and maybe jump out at one or two of our sites to take a look at them in the winter snow. I’ve been up there during Spring, Summer and Autumn, so this trip will check off my final season. I’ll take my camera and hopefully have a few pictures to post here next week.

Walking Bristol

I found the video below on the walkit.com blog. If you’ve ever used Google Maps to get your directions from one city to another, walkit.com can do the same for you if want to walk in any of 12 British cities (more coming soon). It even tells you how many calories you will burn and how much CO2 you will save by not driving. You can choose between direct or less busy routes – the latter option will probably be useful for cyclists too as it accounts for traffic levels. Those options are nice, but what walkers (and cyclists) in hilly cities like Bristol and Sheffield could really do with is a ‘less steep’ option!

So, what’s this video I found? It’s the latest film from Urban Earth, a project to (re)present human habitats by walking across some of Earth’s biggest urban areas. One of the main aims of UrbanEarth is to show what the world’s cities are really like for the people who live there – something that mainstream media can give a distorted or incomplete image of. Each UrbanEarth film is composed of thousands of photographs, one for every 7 steps (5 metres) of a person’s walk through a city. It’s kind of like a walker’s version of Google’s StreeView. They’ve done London, Mumbai, and now their latest film, which you can watch below, is my home town of Bristol, UK. If you know the area, see if you can track the route the walker takes (click the ‘fullscreen’ option if the window is too small).

http://blip.tv/play/go4o3vI6keUo

I have to admit that I had no idea where the route started, but then by the time they got to Totterdown I knew where I was – those colourful houses on the steep hills overlooking the centre of the city gave it away. From there on I knew where I was going. If you’re still lost (or don’t know the area), here’s a map of the route.

Or, you can see the route traced on a ‘map of deprivation’. This map illustrates one of the vagaries of the shape of Bristol’s urban growth. Note the (inverted) crescent shape of the city – the southwest quarter of the city is ‘missing’. This is attributed to the Avon Gorge which cut off the growth of Bristol to the southwest. Not until Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened in 1864 could you quickly and easily access the southwest (rather than trekking down into Cumberland Basin and up the other side. You can also see the effect of the gorge from aerial photography – note how areas around Abbots Leigh and Leigh Woods appear much greener and less urban even though they are only about a mile from the centre of the city. In contrast, look at how the urban area expands relatively contiguously to the east for five or six miles into South Gloucestershire (Oldland, Warmley, etc). These areas aren’t officially ‘Bristol’ but they’re contiguous and have the same postal and dialing codes.

Anyway, that’s enough about the geography of Bristol. If you’re going to be walking around the city in the future, walkit.com may help plan your route (remember it doesn’t account for hills – but luckily it does know where the gorge is), and check the UrbanEarth blog for new films of other cities coming soon (maybe Bath would like to be next).

Geographical Perspectives: Externalities, Inputs and Participation

One of the most enjoyable things about studying as a post-graduate in a UK Geography department was the diversity of conversation topics I could get myself into in the corridors, over lunch, and after work in the pub. Investigating social, economic, cultural, atmospheric, geomorphological, and ecological patterns and processes (too name just a few) geography departments contain scholars with interests and skills that span the globe’s physical and social environments. This variety of backgrounds and worldviews can lead to widely differing perspectives on the current affairs of any particular day.

In many ways my PhD studies, funded by an interdisciplinary research studentship from the ESRC and NERC, allowed (demanded?) me to search out these differing perspectives and engage in these conversations. However, this diversity of perspectives isn’t appealing for faculty members focused narrowly on their own particular research specialism and the current paper they are writing about it. Maybe they just don’t have time. Or maybe there’s something deeper.

The distinction between the social sciences (human geography) and natural sciences (physical geography) has led to somewhat of a divide between these two ‘sides’ of Geography. As my former tutor and advisor Prof. David Demeritt highlights in the latest volume of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, ‘human’ and ‘physical’ geographers have become so estranged that dedicated forums to initiate ‘conversations across the divide‘ of Geography now occur regularly at annual conferences. Demeritt’s article discusses how ‘Environmental Geography’ is often touted as having the integrative research potential to bridge the human-physical divide.

Environmental Geography (EG) explicitly sets out to examine human-environment interactions and is generally understood to be the intersection of Human and Physical in the Geography Venn diagram. Essentially, EG is the Geographical version of the Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) research program that has become prominent recently largely thanks to NSF funding. Whereas CHANS emphasises systemic concepts (thresholds, feedbacks, resilience etc.), EG emphasises concepts more at home in the geographical lexicon – scale, space and (seemingly most often absent from CHANS research) place. This is not to say that these concepts are exclusively used by either one or the other – whether you do ‘CHANS research’ or ‘Environmental Geography’ is also likely to be determined by where your research funding comes from, what department you work in, and the type or training you received in graduate school.

One of the main points Demeritt makes in his commentary is that this flat distinction between Human and Physical Geography is not as straight forward as it is often made out to be. Friedman’s world may be flat, but the Geography world isn’t. Demeritt attempts to illustrate this with a new diagramtic 3D representation of the overlap between the many sub-disciplines of Geography (most of which are also academic disciplines in their own right):

Demeritt's 2008 three dimensional interpretation of the relationship between sub-disciplines in Geography
Thus, “Rather than thinking about geography just in terms of a horizontal divide between human and physical geography, we need to recognise the heterogeneity within those very broad divisions. …within those two broad divisions geography is stretched out along a vertical dimension. … Like the fabled double helix, these vertical strands twist round each other and the horizontal connections across the human-physical divide to open up new opportunities for productive engagement.” [p.5]

This potential doesn’t come without its challenges however. Demeritt uses EG to demonstrate such challenges, highlighting how research in this field is often ‘framed’. ‘Framing’ here refers to the perspective researchers take about how their subject (in this case interactions between humans and the natural environment) will be (should be) studied. Demeritt highlights three particular perspectives:

1. The Externality Perspective. This perspective might be best associated with the reductionist mode of scientific investigation, where a specific component of a human-environment system is considered in isolation from any other components. Research disregards or ignores other work in sub-disciplines, whether horizontally across the human-physical divide or vertically either side, and concentrates on understanding a specific phenomena or process.

2. The Integrated Perspective. We might think of this perspective as being loosely systematic. Rather than simply ignoring the connections with other processes and phenomena considered in other sub-disciplines, they are used as some form of ‘input’ to the component under particular consideration. This is probably the mode that most closely resembles how much CHANS research is currently done, and how most ‘interdisciplinary’ environmental research is currently done.

3. The Participatory Perspective. This third approach has become more prominent recently, associated with calls for more democratic forms of science-based decision-making and as issues expertise and risk have come to the fore in environmental issues. This mode demands scientists and researchers become more engaged with publics, stakeholders and decision-makers and is closely related to the perspective of ‘critical’ geography and proponents of ‘post-normal’ science.

Demeritt discusses the benefits and challenges of these approaches in more detail, as I have briefly touched on previously. Rather than go over them again, here I want to think a bit more about the situations in which each of these modes of research might be most useful. In turn, this will help us to think about where engagement with other disciplines and sub-disciplines will be most fruitful.

One situation in which the externality perspective would be most useful is when the spatial/temporal scope of the process/phenomena of interest makes engagement between (sub-)disciplines either useless or impossible. For example, reconciling economic or cultural processes with Quaternary research is likely to extraordinarily difficult (but see Wainwright 2008). A second would be when investigation is interested more in ‘puzzle solving’ than ‘problem-solving’. For example, with regards research on Northern Hardwood Forests the puzzler would ask questions like ‘what is the biological relationship between light availability and tree growth?’ whereas the problem-solver might ask ‘how should we manage our timber harvest to ensure sufficient light availability allows continued regeneration of younger trees in the forest understory?’.

The integrated approach has often been used in the situation when one ‘more predictable’ system is influenced by another ‘less predictable’ system. One system might be more predictable than another because more data are available for one than another, because less assumptions are invoked to ‘close’ one system for study than another, or simply because the systems are perceived to be more or less predictable. A prime example is the use of scenarios of global social end economic change to set the parameters of investigations of future climate change (although this example may actually have slowed problem-solving rather than sped it).

The participatory perspective will be useful when system uncertainties are primarily ethical or epistemological. Important questions here are ‘what are the ethical consequences of my study this phenomena?’ and ‘are sufficient theoretical tools available to study this problem?’. Further, in contrast to the externality mode, this approach will be useful when investigation is interested in ‘problem-solving’ rather than ‘puzzle solving’. For example, participatory research will be most useful when the research question is ‘how do we design a volcano monitoring system to efficiently and adequately alert local populations such that they can/will respond appropriately in the event of an eruption?’ rather than ‘what are the physical processes in the Earth’s interior that cause volcanoes to erupt when they do?’

Implicit in the choice of which question is asked in this final example is the framing of the issue at hand. Hopefully it is clear from my brief outline that it is a close relationship between research objectives and the framing or mode of the research. How these objectives and framings are arrived at is really at the root of Demeritt’s commentary. Given the choice, it will be easy for many researchers to take the easy option:

Engaging with other perspectives and approaches is not just demanding, but also risky too. … Progress in science has always come precisely from exposing ourselves to the possibility of getting it wrong or that things might not work out quite as planned’. [p.9]

Thinking clearly about the situations in which different modes of study are most useful might help save both embarrassment and time. Further, it also seems sensible to suggest that most thought should be done when researchers are considering engaging non-scientists in the participatory mode. If it is risky to expose ones self to fellow scientists, who understand the foibles of the research process and the difficulties of grappling with new ideas and data sets, it will be even more risky when the exposure is to non-scientists. Decision-makers, politicians, ‘lay persons’ and the general public at large are likely to be less acquainted with (but not ignorant of) how research proceeds (messily), how knowledge is generated (often a mixture of deductive proofs and inductive ideas), and the assumptions (and limitations) implicit in data collection and analysis. So when should academics feel most confident about parachuting in from the ivory tower?

First, it seems important for scientists to avoid telling people things they already ‘know’. Just because it hasn’t been written down in a scientific journal doesn’t mean it isn’t known (not that I want to get into discussion here about when something becomes ‘known’). We should try very hard to work out where help is needed to harness local knowledge, rather than ignoring it and assuming we know best (this of course harks back to the third wave). For example, while local farmers may know a lot about the history and consequences of land use/cover change in their local area, they may struggle to understand how land use/cover change will occur, or influence other processes, over larger spatial extents (e.g. landscape connectivity of species habitat or wildfire fuel loadings). In other situations, local knowledge may be entirely absent because a given phenomena is outside the perception/observation of the local community. In this case, it will be very difficult (or impossible) for them to contribute to knowledge formation even though the phenomena affects them. For example, the introduction of genetically modified crops will potentially have impacts on other nearby vegetation species due to hybridization, yet the processes at work are at a scale that is unobservable to lay persons (i.e genetic recombination at the molecular level versus farmland biodiversity at the landscape level).

The important point in all this however (as it occurs to me), seems to be that the ‘framing’ one researcher or scientist adopts will depend on their particular objectives. If those objectives are of the scientific puzzle-solving kind, and can be framed so that the solution can be found without leaving the comfy environment of a single sub-discipline, engagement will not happen (and neither should it). The risks it poses means that engagement will happen only if funding bodies demand it (as they increasingly are) or if the the research is really serious about solving a problem (as opposed to solving a puzzle or simply publishing scientific articles). As the human population grows within a finite environment the human-environment interface will only grow, likely demanding more and more engaged research. As I’ve highlighted before, a genuine science of sustainability is more likely to succeed if it adopts an engaged, participatory (post-normal) stance toward its subject.

Engaging researchers from other (sub-)disciplines or non-scientists will not always be the best option. But Geography and geographers are well placed to help develop theory and thinking to inform other scientists about how to frame environmental problems and establish exactly when engaging with experts (whether certified or not) from outside their field, or even from outside science itself, will be a fruitful endeavour. Geographers will only gain the authority on when and how interdisciplinary and participatory research should proceed once they’ve actually done some.

Demeritt, D. (2008) From externality to inputs and interference: framing environmental research in geography Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(1) 3 – 11
Published Online: 11 Dec 2008
doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2008.00333.x

Michigan UP Seedling Experiment

I’ve been back from our study area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for over a week so it’s about time I posted something about what we were doing up there.

One of the main issues we will study with our integrated ecological-economic landscape model is the impact of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) herbivory on tree regeneration following cutting. Last November we spent a week planting 2 year-old seedlings in Northern Hardwood forest gaps created by selective timber harvest (like the one in the photo below).

Our plan was to return this spring to examine the impacts of deer browse on these seedlings. In particular, we wanted to examine how herbivory varies across space due to changes in deer population densities (in turn driven by factors such as snow depth).

To this end we selected almost 40 forest sites that would hopefully capture some spatial variation in snowfall and that had recently been selectively harvested. At each site we selected 10 gaps produced by timber harvest in which to plant our seedlings.

In each gap we planted six trees of each of three species: White Spruce (Picea glauca), White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). We chose these coniferous species as these are examples of the mesic confer species the Michigan DNR are trying to restore across our study area, and because we expected a range of herbivory across these species.

At each site we would also undertake deer pellet counts in the spring to estimate the number of deer in the vicinity of the site during the winter (during which time the browse we were measuring would have occurred).

On returning to the study sites a couple of weeks ago we set about looking for the trees we had planted to measure herbivory and count deer pellets. In some cases, finding the trees we planted was easier said than done. We tried to get our field crews to plant the trees in straight lines with equal spacing between each tree. In general, this was done well but on occasion the line could only be described as crooked at best. Micro-topography, fallen tree trunks and limbs, and slash from previous cutting all contributed to hamper the planned planting system. However, we did pretty well and found well over 90% of the trees.

We haven’t begun analyzing our data as yet, but some anecdotal observations stand out. First, the deer preferentially browsed Hemlock over the other species, often removing virtually all non-woody biomass as shown by the ‘before and after’ examples below (NB – these photographs are not of the same tree and this is not a true before/after comparison).

In some cases, the deer not only removed all non-woody biomass but also pulled the tree out of the ground (as shown below).

In contrast, White Pine was browsed to a much lesser extent and White Spruce was virtually untouched (as shown below).

Having a species that was unaffected by deer (i.e. spruce) often made our job of finding the other trees much easier. Finding heavily browsed Hemlock that no longer had any green vegetation was often tricky against a background of forest floor litter.

The next step now is to start looking at this variation in browse through a more quantitative lens. Then we can start examining how browse and deer densities vary across space and how these variables are related to one another and other factors (such as snow depth and distance to conifer stands).

All-in-all the two weeks of work went pretty well. There were some issues with water-logged roads (due to snow melt) meaning we couldn’t get to one or two of the sites we planted at, but generally the weather was pretty good (it only rained heavily one day). I’ll write more once we have done more analysis and stop here with a shot I took at sunrise as I left for home.

US-IALE 2008 – Summary


A brief and belated summary of the 23rd annual US-IALE symposium in Madison, Wisconsin.

The theme of the meeting was the understanding of patterns, causes, and consequences of spatial heterogeneity for ecosystem function. The three keynote lectures were given by Gary Lovett, Kimberly With and John Foley. I found John Foley’s lecture the most interesting and enjoyable of the three – he’s a great speaker and spoke on a broader topic than the the others; Agriculture, Land Use and the Changing Biosphere. Real wide-ranging, global sustainability stuff. He highlighted the difficulties of studying agricultural landscapes because of the human cultural and institutional factors, but also stressed the importance of tackling these tricky issues because ‘agriculture is the largest disturbance the biosphere has ever seen’ and because of its large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Presentations I was particularly interested in were mainly in the ‘Landscape Patterns and Ecosystem Processes: The Role of Human Societies’, ‘Challenges in Modeling Forest Landscapes under Climate Change’ and ‘Cross-boundary Challenges to the Creation of Multifunctional Agricultural Landscapes’ sessions.

In the ‘human societies’ session, Richard Aspinall discussed the importance of considering human decision-making at a range of scales and Dan Brown again highlighted the importance of human agency in spatial landscape process models. In particular, with regards modelling these systems using agent-based approaches he discussed the difficulty of model calibration at the agent level and stressed that work is still needed on the justification and evaluation phases of agent-based modelling.

The ‘modeling forest landscapes’ session was focused largely around use of the LANDIS and HARVEST models that were developed in and around Wisconsin. In fact, I don’t think I saw any mention of the USFS FVS at the meeting whilst I was there, largely because (I think) FVS has large data demands and is not inherently spatial. LANDIS and HARVEST work at more coarse levels of forest representation (grid cell compared to FVS’ individual tree) allowing them to be spatially explicit and to run over large time and space extents. We’re confident we’ll be able to use FVS in a spatially explicit manner for our study area though, capitalising on the ability of FVS to directly simulate specific timber harvest and economic scenarios.

The ‘multifunctional agricultural landscapes’ session had an interesting talk by Joan Nassauer on stakeholder science and the challenges it presents. Specific issues she highlighted were:
1. the need for a precise, operational definition of ‘stakeholder’
2. ambiguous goals for the use of stakeholders
3. the lack of a canon of replicable methods
4. ambivalence toward the quantification of stakeholder results

Other interesting presentations were given by Richards Hobbs and Carys Swanwick. Richard spoke about the difficulties of ‘integrated research’ and the importance of science and policy in natural resource management. He suggested that policy-makers ‘don’t get’ systems thinking or modelling, and that some of this may be down to the psychological profiles of the types of people that go into policy making. Such a conclusion suggests scientists need to work harder to bridge the gap to policy makers and do a better job of explaining the emergent properties of the complex systems they study. Carys Swanwick talked about the landscape character assessment, which was interesting for me having moved from the UK to the US about a year ago. Whilst ‘wilderness’ is an almost alien concept in the UK (and Europe as a whole), landscape character is something that is distinctly absent in the new world agricultural landscapes. Carys talked about the use of landscape character as a tool for conservation and management (in Europe) and the European Landscape Convention. It was a refreshing change from many of the other presentations about agricultural landscape (possibly just because I enjoyed seeing a few pictures of Blighty!).

Unfortunately the weather during the conference was wet which meant that I didn’t get out to see as much of Madison as I would have liked. Despite the rain we did go on the Biking Fieldtrip. And yes, we did get soaked. It was also pretty miserable weather for the other fieldtrip to and International Crane Foundation center and the Aldo Leopold Foundation (more on that in a future blog), but interesting nevertheless.

Other highlights of the conference for me were meeting the former members of CSIS and eating dinner one night with Monica Turner. I also got to meet up with Don McKenzie and some of the other ‘fire guys’, and a couple of people from the Great Basin Landscape Ecology lab where I visited previously. And now I’m already looking forward to the meeting next year in Snowbird, Utah (where I enjoyed the snow this winter).

Google Earth GeoData

Previously, I highlighted work my old colleague and friend Pete Webley has done using Google Earth to model volcanic ash plumes. Another former King’s College colleague (and teacher) has been also been working with Google Earth. Mark Mulligan has posted online a large collection of KML files for a wide variety of geodata including satellite data on cloud climatology, a database of global place names, urban climate data, tropical land use change data, and much more.


KML files are used in Google products, such as Google Earth or Google Maps, to display geographic data. The data Mark has posted on the King’s server are freely accessible to all for non-commercial use. you can visualise the data in Google Earth and, in many cases, links to the actual downloadable GIS files also provided. Many of the datasets are works in progress and new data will continue to be posted in the future, so keep checking back.

The availability of data such as these, and projects such as Pete’s, really show how Google Earth can be used for so much more than virtual tours of other places or previews of you next holiday destination… [Speaking of which, I’m off to Utah snowboarding next week so hopefully I’ll have some new pics to post on my own Google-enabled photos page.]