What would an oil spill mean for the Arctic?

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

As climate change warms up the planet, it is the Arctic where the effects are most pronounced. According to scientific reports, the Arctic is warming twice as fast in comparison to the rest of the world. That in itself is a cause for concern. However, as the region increasingly becomes ice-free in summer, making shipping and other activities possible, another threat looms large. That of an oil spill.

©AllanHokins I Flickr

While it can never be good news, an oil spill in the Arctic could be particularly dangerous because of its sensitive ecosystem and harsh climatic conditions, which make a cleanup next to impossible. With an increase in maritime traffic and an interest in the untapped petroleum reserves of the Arctic, the likelihood of an oil spill increases significantly.

Maisa Nevalainen, as part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), is working to assess the extent of the risk posed by oil spills in the Arctic marine areas.

“That the Arctic is perhaps the last place on the planet which hasn’t yet been destroyed or changed drastically due to human activity, should be reason enough to tread with utmost caution,” says Nevalainen

Although the controversial 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound was quite close to the Arctic Circle, so far no major spills have occurred in the region. However, that also means that there is no data and little to no understanding of the uncertainties related to such accidents in the region.

For instance, one of the significant impacts of an oil spill would be on the varied marine species living in the region, likely with consequences carrying far in to the future. Because of the cold and ice, oil decomposes very slowly in the region, so an accident involving oil spill would mean that the oil could remain in the ice for decades to come.

Thick-billed Murre come together to breed in Svalbard, Norway. Nevalainen’s study so far suggests that birds are most likely to die of an oil spill as compared to other animals. © AllanHopkins I Flickr

Yet, researchers don’t know how vulnerable Arctic species would be to a spill, and which species would be affected more than others. Nevalainen, as part of her study at IIASA will come up with an index-based approach for estimating the vulnerability (an animal’s probability of coming into contact with oil) and sensitivity (probability of dying because of oiling) of key Arctic functional groups of similar species in the face of an oil spill.

“The way a species uses ice will affect what will happen to them if an oil spill were to happen,” says Nevalainen. Moreover, oil tends to concentrate in the openings in ice and this is where many species like to live, she adds.

During the summer season, some islands in the region become breeding grounds for birds and other marine species both from within the Arctic and those that travel thousands of miles from other parts of the world. If these species or their young are exposed to an oil spill, then it could not only result in large-scale deaths but also affect the reproductive capabilities of those that survive. This could translate in to a sizeable impact on the world population of the affected species. Polar bears, for example, have, on an average two cubs every three years. This is a very low fertility rate – so, even if one polar bear is killed, the loss can be significant for the total population. Fish on the other hand are very efficient and lay eggs year round. Even if all their eggs at a particular time were destroyed, it would most likely not affect their overall population. However, if their breeding ground is destroyed then it can have a major impact on the total population depending on their ability and willingness to relocate to a new area to lay eggs, explains Nevalainen.

Due to lack of sufficient data on the number of species in the region as well as that on migratory population, it is difficult to predict future scenarios in case of an accident, she adds. “Depending on the extent of the spill and the ecosystem in the nearing areas, a spill can lead to anything from an unfortunate incident to a terrible disaster,” says Nevalainen.

©katiekk I Shutterstock

It might even affect the food chain, at a local or global level. “If oil sinks to the seafloor, some species run the risk of dying or migrating due to destroyed habitat – an example being walruses as they merely dive to get food from the sea floor,” adds Nevalainen. As the walrus is a key species in the food web, this has a high probability of upsetting the food chain.

When the final results of her study come through, Nevalainen aims to compare different regions of the Arctic and the probability of damage in these areas, as well as potential solutions to protect the ecosystem. This would include several factors. One of them could be breeding patterns – spring, for instance, is when certain areas need to be cordoned off for shipping activities, as most animals breed during this time.

“At the moment there are no mechanisms to deal with an oil spill in the Arctics. I hope that it never happens. The Arctic ecosystem is very delicate and it won’t take too much to disturb it, and the consequences can be huge, globally,” warns Nevalainen.

About the Researcher

Maisa Nevalainen is a third- year PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her main focus is on environmental impacts caused by Arctic oil spills, while her main research interests include marine environment, and environmental impacts of oil spills among others. Nevalainen is working with the Arctic Futures Initiative at IIASA over the summer, with Professor Brian Fath as her supervisor and Mia Landauer and Wei Liu as her co-supervisors.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Disappearing Act: Bolivia’s second largest lake dries up

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

In 2016, Bolivia saw its worst drought in nearly 30 years. While the city of La Paz faced an acute water shortage with no piped water in some parts, the agricultural sector was hit the hardest. According to The Agricultural Chamber of the East, the region suffered a loss of almost 50% of total produce. Animal carcasses lay scattered in plain sight in the valleys, where they had died looking for watering holes.

Lake Poopo (Bolivia) before it dried up © David Almeida I Flickr

One of the most dramatic results of this catastrophic drought was that Lake Poopo, (pronounced po-po) Bolivia’s second largest lake was drained of every drop of water. Located at a height of approximately 1127 meters, and covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, what remains of it now resembles a desert more than a lake. This event forced the fishing community of Uru Uru, which depended on the lake, to either migrate to other lakes or look for alternate livelihood options.

Lake Poopo is located in the central South American Altiplano, one of the largest high plateaus in the world (Bolivia’s largest lake, Titicaca, is located in the north of the region). Due to its unique topography, the highland faces extreme climatic conditions, which are responsible for difficult lives as well as widespread poverty among the people who live there.

While Titicaca is over 100 meters deep, Poopo had a depth of less than three meters. Combined with a high rate of evapotranspiration, erratic rainfall, and limited flow of water from the Desaguadero River, Poopo was in a precarious position even during the best of times. Whatever little water flowed in from the river is further depleted by intensive irrigation activities at the south of Lake Titicaca before the water makes it way down to Poopo.

Sattelite images of Lake Poopo

Changes in water levels of Lake Poopo over 30 years © U.S. Geological Survey, Associated Press

The lake’s existence had been threatened several times in the past. However, the 2016 drought was one of the most devastating ones. According to the Defense Ministry of Bolivia, early this year the lake started recovering after several days of heavy rain, restoring as much as 70% of the water. However, since the lake is a part of a very fragile ecosystem, there have been some irreversible changes to the flora and fauna in addition to the losses to the fishing communities living around the lake.

Charting a better future

Claudia Canedo, a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, is exploring the impact of droughts and the risk on agricultural production in the light of this event, after which Bolivia declared a state of water emergency. Canedo was born and raised in the city of La Paz and experienced water shortages while growing up close to the Altiplano. This motivated her to investigate a sustainable solution for water availability in the region. With the results of her study she is hoping to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again in the Altiplano – that other communities directly dependent on ecosystem services, like that of Lake Poopo, do not have to lose everything because of an extreme weather event.

For a region where more than half the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts serve as a major setback to the national economy. “It is not just one factor that led to the drought, though. There were different factors that contributed to the drying up of the lake and also contribute to the agricultural distress,” she says.

“The southern Altiplano lies in an arid zone and receives low precipitation due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. Poor soil quality (high saline content and lack of nutrients) makes it unsuitable for most crops, except quinoa and potato in some areas,” adds Canedo. Residents also lack the knowledge and the monetary resources to invest in newer technology, which could possibly lead to better water management.

A woman from one of the drought affected communities in Bolivia © EU – Photo credits: EC/ECHO/Laurence Bardon I Flickr

One of the most critical factors in the recent drought was the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, the warming of the sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn carries the warmer oceanic winds and lowers the rate of precipitation in the highland leading to increased evapotranspiration. In 2015 and 2016, the losses due to this phenomenon were devastating for agriculture in the Altiplano, says Canedo.

In her quest to find solutions, the biggest challenge is the lack of recorded data from local weather stations for the past years. Although satellite data is available, it is too generic in nature to do a local analysis. Therefore combining ground and satellite data could enhance the present knowledge and provide consistent results of the climate and vegetation variability. If done successfully, Canedo hopes to identify a correlation between precipitation and vegetation. With this information, she can improve climate forecasting that could help the local people adapt to droughts powerful enough to turn their lives upside down.

With weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme weather events like droughts, farmers would know what to expect and would be able to plant resilient varieties of crops. This might not earn them the same profits as in a normal year, but would not result in a failed crop. Claudia aims to come up with a drought index useful for drought monitoring and early warning, which will integrate short-term and long-term meteorological predictions.

Perhaps, in the future, with this newfound knowledge, the price for extreme weather events won’t be paid in terms of lost ecosystems like that of Lake Poopo, robbing people of their lives and livelihoods.

About the Researcher

Claudia Canedo is a participant in the 2017 IIASA YSSP. She is pursuing a doctoral program in water resources engineering at Lund University, Sweden. She is interested in studying the hydrological and climatological conditions over small basins in the South American highlands. The aim of her research is to define water resources availability and find strategies for sustainable water management in the semi-arid region.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

 

 

Interview: Living in the age of adaptation

Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.  

How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career?
The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.

Prof. Adil Najam speaking at the Deutsche Welle Building in Bonn, Germany in 2010 © Erich Habich I en.wikipedia

Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this?
Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.

How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.

COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.

© Piyaset I Shutterstock

What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today?
My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.

What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers?
Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Turning Vienna into a city of science

Known to the world as a metropolis of music the science in Vienna does not receive the recognition and international visibility its excellence deserves. To change this would require not so much more money but a new mindset, agree two prominent players in scientific research in Vienna: Director General and CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat and President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) Dr. Thomas Henzinger.

How does Vienna and its scientific research community benefit from the presence of the two institutions and vice versa?

Henzinger:  Vienna is a hub for scientific research in Europe. There are a number of universities and institutions in Vienna and they all have an important part to play in the research ecosystem. In the end this profits everybody because as the critical mass of research grows the easier it is to hire people. It’s like gravity — big centers attract more of the best researchers from around the world. The Science Ball is a — uniquely Viennese — sign of this. We are now firmly “on the map”, and in Vienna you show that by hosting a ball!

Kabat:  I agree. IIASA has a number of fruitful connections with Viennese institutions. For example, IIASA and OäW have worked together to organize a series of public lectures and debates with prominent scientists for the Viennese academic and political community.  Our scientific collaborations with researchers in Vienna and Austria as a whole are also very strong, and have resulted in the publication of over 1050 scientific papers since 2008.

The Science Ball, bringing together Vienna’s diverse scientific community.

Vienna is known as the “City of Music” because of its musical legacy, but why is science not also an important part of the city’s image?

Kabat:  This is something close to my heart. IIASA is doing top-level science on transitions towards sustainability; the world is now at a cross-roads and we need to be taking steps in sectors from energy and water all the way to financial systems. Communicating this can be very difficult, so we are using new and unusual collaborations that are made possible by this fantastic Viennese environment. We are working with music, ballet, and the opera. We have partnered up with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, and with dancers from the State Opera to communicate these complex concepts. Science and the arts both have a vital part to play in Vienna’s past and future. I dream of a scientific tour through Vienna featuring collaborations between theatres, museums, and scientific institutions.

Henzinger:  There is a lot of history between the golden age of science in Vienna and today, and I think there is a large amount of effort and also a lot of progress in reviving Vienna as a city for science. Science by its very nature is one of the most borderless activities of humanity there is and it can only thrive in a completely open environment. It is no surprise that the glory days of science in Vienna were when it was the hub of a multi-national empire. I think we can only get back to that by becoming much more open-minded and much more international as a country.

The city of Vienna is not legally responsible for science funding, but it is a central research hub and the biggest university city in central Europe. What can the city do to improve its image as a center of scientific excellence?

Kabat:  I think a change is needed in the portrayal of Vienna as a whole. There is promotion of music, dance, and the arts. All these are great, but institutions like IST Austria and IIASA should also be used to show that Vienna really is one of the major science hubs of Europe and the world. Emphasizing this would require very little investment but would benefit both Vienna and science in the city. All the components are here, what it needs is a coordinated effort and a vision.

Henzinger:  Vienna has an enormous advantage in that is known as a fantastic place to live. The city needs to actively attract not only world-class researchers but all kinds of science-related businesses and organizations. Vienna as a whole must make concerted effort to advertise itself as an attractive location for students, companies, and professionals from all over the world.

Students do not know that if they come to study at Vienna University, for example, they may also be able to benefit from collaborations with scientists working IIASA and IST Austria, who may be able to advise or even co-supervise them. This dynamic and varied environment is a key part of what Vienna can offer, not only the individual institutions. The ball is the perfect step in that direction. It is very clearly an effort that transcends any particular institution.

Kabat:  We should continue this talk, not just with the two of us but with all leaders of Viennese scientific institutions, and the mayor, to have a free and frank discussion. Science brings a huge amount to the city of Vienna and it should be recognized. The ball, as you say, is an excellent occasion to bring together Vienna’s vibrant scientific community and celebrate it!

Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

By Gloria Benedikt, IIASA Associate for Science and Arts

Gloria Benedikt speaks at

Gloria Benedikt speaks at “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Palais Niederoesterreich, March 2015. Photo: Matthias Silveri

“For the real human story, history must comprise both the biological and the cultural,” wrote biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence. ”The convergence between those two great branches of learning (sciences and humanities) will matter hugely when enough people have thought its potential through”.

This elegantly summarizes why I find myself at IIASA. I’ve been splitting my life between the arts (working as a professional dancer) and academia (studying at Harvard University). Over time I started to make connections between seemingly opposing worlds: arts and science. Now my challenge as IIASA Associate for Science and Arts is to help bridge them.

Why is this important, and why now? Because the way the world is run assumes that human beings act rationally and that economic (material) well-being in itself is key in solving all major issues afflicting our world. We have focused on the biological and neglected the cultural; we assumed that satisfying basic needs to keep bodies functioning will keep people alive. In short, we looked at the body and overlooked the soul. Or as prominent Czech Economist Tomáš Sedláček framed it, “There were huge advances that were brought upon us thanks to science and also thanks to economics, but now I feel we are in a time where we see the limits of it. In the beginning, there was no analytics, just ethics. Today there is only analytics and no ethics.”

Gloria Benedikt (right) and Hussein Khadour (left) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

Gloria Benedikt (left) and Hussein Khadour (right) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

There was a time when humanity was already closer in finding a balance between the two. It was called the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment quest,” Wilson observed, “was driven by the belief that human beings can know all that needs to be known, and in knowing understand, and in understanding gain the power to choose more wisely than ever before.”

Then, for the next two centuries and to the present day, science and humanities went their own way. Complex reasons briefly summarized: albeit making good progress, scientists were nowhere close to meeting expectations and artists sought meaning in other more private venues.

Is there any value in resuming this quest of connecting arts and science now? Wilson argues that the answer is yes, “because enough is known today to make it more attainable than during its first flowering.” And yes, because the solutions of so many problems in modern life will depend on solutions for the clash of competing religions, the revival of moral reasoning and on adequate foundations of environmentalism.

So, how can this work in practice?

BenediktMiccolisAnEveningforHumanityPressPhoto

Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis in GROWTH, Kennedy Center, Washington DC, July 2014 Photo: Morgan Marinoni

For starters we should be aware that there is a common foundation. Despite science and humanities being fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do, they are complementary to each other in origin, as they arise from the same creative process in the human brain. But there is more. “Good” science is  data driven. Scientists are trained to present their findings in a neutral way. A scientist appealing to emotion is likely to be considered unprofessional.

Meanwhile, artists are masters of metaphors and of appealing to emotion. At the same time, the majority religiously avoids being explicit. “Good” art is not dogmatic. We prefer to leave it up to our audiences to find meaning for themselves.

In the past 150 years, we have seen that if we push our noble pursuits to the extreme, we risk losing our purpose because we lose our link to society. If people don’t understand how scientific findings matter to them and if artists are too scared or simply too wound up in their own world, and thus fail to articulate, our work falls short of its ultimate purpose: to serve society by revealing truths in the world around us so that people can make better-informed decisions on how to go about their work and lives and shape the direction of our planet and the over 7 billion people populating it.

Arts and science need to be free – in 2015, I believe this freedom lies in the ability to present our findings clearly and independently. This quest, coupled with a new sense of responsibility to communicate, is what can and should bring scientists and artists together in the coming years and decades. I, for one, am excited that IIASA has opened its doors for us to join hands so we can create a sustainable future together and perhaps fulfill Wilson’s vision of a second enlightenment along the way.

Please note: I use the terms ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ interchangeably here. However the term humanities is of course technically broader, as it includes not only the creative arts, but also political theory & philosophy.

References

Wilson, Edward O. The meaning of Human Existence. New York: Norton & Company, 2014

Sedláček, Benedikt, Twaalfhoven. Arts Economics and the Irrational – A debate in 3 Acts. November 29th 2015. www.vimeo.com/120531313

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.