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The Importance of Uncertainties and Limitations

During an environmental crisis, conditions can rapidly change: for example, an earthquake may trigger a tsunami, which may cause a nuclear emergency; evolving weather conditions may intensify an approaching hurricane, divert a storm track, and complicate evacuations. Working with limited knowledge and operating with uncertainty is inherent to responding to – and making decisions during – a crisis. For science during crisis to be useful to decision makers, it is essential to establish and explicitly state levels of uncertainty and knowledge limitations. For example, during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, multiple studies produced different evaluations for the volume of oil leaking from the broken pipe on the seafloor (McNutt et al. 2012). These assessments had important and immediate implications for determining the best technical solution to capping the wellhead, determining the amount of chemical dispersant to be applied, planning for containment of oil once it reached the surface, and evaluating the extent of damage to the environment (McNutt et al. 2012). Determining and communicating scientific uncertainty with the flow rate estimates was essential to guiding sound decision-making during the spill, and retrospective analysis of these estimates have provided valuable lessons learned for responding to future deep sea blowouts (McNutt et al. 2012).

Similarly, the scenarios built by the DOI Strategic Sciences Group included formal evaluations of scientific uncertainty for each consequence in a chain of consequences; the evaluation (made using expert opinion and following the precautionary principle) was adapted from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's uncertainty scale associated with climate change, and other scales (see Weiss 2003).

The Value of Cascading Consequences and Assessing Impacts

To be effective during emergency response, recovery, and restoration, science during environmental crises often requires the examination of cascading consequences over both shortand long-term time scales. “Chains of consequences” illustrate changes, effects, or impacts resulting from an event. A chain of consequences begins with an event – such as a major oil spill or hurricane – and branches out, like a flow chart or tree diagram, showing possible cascading events. Each consequence in the chain has the potential to lead to other consequences. Each consequence in the chain can be assigned a level of scientific uncertainty – an assessment used to communicate the certainty or likelihood of a consequence.

Chains of consequences can reveal unanticipated effects of different events. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, storm surge caused severe flooding in homes and businesses across the affected region. In the community of Breezy Point, New York, a flooded electrical system led to fires that destroyed more than 120 homes (New York 1 News 2012), leading to the potential release of lead-based paints and the threat of additional health risks to first responders and the community (Plumlee et al. 2012).

Examining such chains of consequences is an area of science during crisis where strategic science can be extremely valuable. While essential tactical science, such as analyzing contaminated flood sediments from a hurricane or monitoring radioactivity in local water supplies, can be on-going during and after an environmental crisis, strategic science can complement tactical efforts by evaluating the cascading effects of an event across the coupled human-natural system.

This approach is illustrated by the work of the Department of the Interior's (DOI) Strategic Sciences Working Group (SSWG) during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The SSWG convened two scenario-building sessions (the first just days after the start of the event, the second while the wellhead had not yet been capped) to build scenarios analyzing the cascading consequences of the spill. Defining boundary conditions such as a flow rate estimate, geographic extent, and time horizons, the SSWG assessed shortand long-term consequences such as the effects of chemical dispersants, damage to wetlands, and impact to the local economy (Department of the Interior 2010, 2012; Machlis and McNutt 2010).

 
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