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

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): 

Colony Collapse

A new study shows that the world’s most common insecticide does not significantly harm honey bee colonies at real-world dosage levels

Apply Now

SESYNC invites proposals for collaborative and interdisciplinary team-based research projects. Proposals must be received by May 15, 2015.

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): 

Postdoc Q&A

Dr. Andres Baeza studies networks of cooperation in environments threatened by drastic and unpredictable environmental changes

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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