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Distinctive Characteristics of Science During Environmental Crises

The examples presented reveal the importance of science during environmental crises. In addition to traditional discipline-focused tactical research, the need and opportunity for interdisciplinary strategic science is intensified during such crises: decision makers need to quickly understand the impacts on coupled natural-human systems, the uncertainties and limitations that surround findings and analysis, the cascading consequences of the event, and an accurate sense of place that links the science to “on-the-ground” (or in the water) realities associated with a specific crisis event, time, and place.

Hence, the application of strategic science during environmental crises has several distinctive characteristics that are essential requirements if it is to be useful to decision makers. Many of these characteristics may also be relevant to crises other than environmental. With all of these, it is critical to stress that science during crisis can only be effective when all relevant disciplines of science – the physical, biological, and social – are fully integrated and actively engaged. Six key characteristics are described below.

The Importance of Coupled Human-Natural Systems

Science during environmental crises benefits from recognizing the need to evaluate and respond to the crisis using a systems approach, where consequences such as dune erosion during a hurricane are not just interpreted as an environmental change and loss of habitat, but as a storm consequence that may also compromise the safety of houses (and thereby households) that rely on these natural storm buffers for protection. Models of coupled human-natural systems are especially valuable to such strategic science.

One example (among many) is the human ecosystem model (Machlis et al. 1997, see Fig. 3.4) applied during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (Department of the Interior 2010, 2012) and most recently Hurricane Sandy. It describes a reasonably detailed coupled human-natural system, including both biophysical and sociocultural variables, as well as flows of individuals, energy, nutrients, information, materials, capital, and information. The human ecosystem model originated in the 1997 paper entitled “The human ecosystem as an organizing concept” that was published in two parts in the journal Society and Natural Resources. A modest commentary has appeared (see for example Rudel 1999), and applications have included the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research Program in Baltimore, MD, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration training program, and the United Nations Environmental Program on Sustainability. Models like these are essential for achieving a holistic approach to assessing impacts and anticipating cascading consequences, particularly during crises where the full range of consequences is both unknown and uncertain.

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