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MacArthur Grant Supports New Model of Ecosystem Dynamics

June 27th, 2012

The MacArthur Foundation recently approved a $500,000 grant to a group of BU researchers to “support improving the scientific understanding of water and fisheries resource use in the Tonle Sap region” of Cambodia. Lead principal investigator (PI) Les Kaufman, a CAS professor of biology, sees the grant enhancing the growing study of Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) at BU.

“Our MacArthur project will help to build the science of Coupled Human and Natural Systems at Boston University,” says Kaufman. “CHANS is the interdisciplinary study of the relationship between people and nature that shapes the human condition. In essence, CHANS is the science of sustainability, of humanity’s future in a world that we ourselves are rapidly changing through overpopulation, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change.”

At the core of CHANS are computational models that forecast the ecological and economic consequences of new coastal policy, such as fisheries or coastal development, and of larger forces such as climate change and the global economy. These predictions are spatially explicit in the form of maps over time. Think of the outputs as ecological and economic weather reports predicting the likely consequences of any particular policy decision.

Kaufman and Professor of Geography and Environment Suchi Gopal have assembled a research team that is developing a model called MIMES-MIDAS (Multiscale Integrated Model of Ecosystem Services and Marine Integrated Decision Analysis System). With funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, this team has been working for the past three years with Massachusetts Coastal Zone and the stakeholder group SeaPlan.

These are the key implementation bodies for the Massachusetts Oceans Act, the nation’s first omnibus legislation for coastal ocean management. The SeaPlan project, besides providing science support for ocean management in Massachusetts, serves also as a pilot study of the science that will be needed to support President Obama’s National Ocean Policy. The BU-based group is one of four research teams working on computational models for coastal CHANS in the US.

Kaufman’s co-PI for the Cambodia project is Andy Rosenberg, who serves as chief scientist at Conservation International. Other partners include Steve Gaines of UC Santa Barbara and Mary Ruckelshaus of Stanford University.

The goal of the project is developing a new modeling platform to visualize the dynamics of ecosystem service provisioning and trade-offs as the people of the basin face new challenges due to burgeoning demands for fish protein, clean fresh water, agricultural products, and hydropower, and climate change. In other words, the project will enable planners and policy makers to predict the ecological consequences of various policy options before them.

According to Kaufman, the result will be: “a comprehensive analytical platform for assessment of ecosystem service dynamics applicable to Tonle Sap and the lower Mekong system, and other geographies.”

The ecosystem that is the focus of the project is Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. The lake is a so-called “pulse system” that expands and recedes each year according to seasonal water flows from the Mekong River. The expanded lake floods forests and croplands, transferring massive amounts of terrestrially derived nutrients to the aquatic community, which then later returns the favor. The pulse system supports the freshwater fish that in turn provide 75 percent of total animal protein intake in Cambodia.

A major goal of the MacArthur project in Cambodia is to unite their work with complementary approaches developed at Stanford University, UC Santa Barbara, and Conservation International. In the Cambodia work, Kaufman and his team will focus particularly on the impacts of dam construction and climate change on food security and biodiversity. The MacArthur Foundation hopes to translate what they learn from Cambodia to other places around the world.

BU has all the elements required to build a world-class program in CHANS science. To do so, BU researchers hope to bridge the strengths of three BU resources: The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, The Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, and the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science and Engineering.

Already, this intense focus of scholarly activity is attracting both undergraduate and graduate students, and linking colleagues within BU and the Boston community in new and exciting ways, very much in the spirit of One BU.

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