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.

How clean is green gas?

By Piera Patrizio, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Biogas–renewable fuel that can be produced from a variety of natural materials including manure, food waste, plant matter, and other organic matter–has the potential to solve a number of environmental challenges simultaneously: It can reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases  such as methane (for example, from manure storage) and is the only mature type of renewable energy that can be directly used in electric power generation, heat generation, and transport sectors, and it leads to reduced impacts of pollution from waste disposal.

Biogas can be produced from crops like maize as well as waste and ohter organic materials © Giuliano Del Moretto | Shutterstock

However, biogas is not without impacts of its own. The environmental benefit of using agricultural biogas in particular may be smaller than previously thought, because of the farming activities required for the production of suitable biogas feedstock (such as maize, wheat and triticale), which in turn generates local airborne pollution. Such factors are not adequately reflected in current energy measures.

In other words, existing policy instruments that have been adopted so far in Europe do not reflect the environmental impact associated with the production of certain biofuels because they do not account for other relevant environmental burdens generated along the supply chain.

This is especially the case for biogas, whose production contributes to several environmental burdens such as land use, traffic, and local emissions from the intensive use of fertilizers.

To overcome this issue, my colleagues and I have proposed the adoption of a monetization procedure through which the so-called external costs are incorporated in energy wholesale prices. This method, allows to allocate a cost to the environmental damage associated with emissions of a wide range of pollutants, which can be consequently incorporated in any economic optimization model.


Biogas production plant, Italy © Roberto Lo Savio | Shutterstock

In a new study, which I conducted with Sylvain Leduc and Florian Kraxner, we took a look at the biogas situation in my home country, Italy. We incorporated the total internal and external costs of different biogas utilization pathways in the BeWhere model—a model used for optimizing renewable energy systems–and compared with the performance of the current Italian energy mix.

We found out that, although each type of biogas leads to reduced CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels, such environmental benefits are sharply reduced when we take other pollutant emissions into account. .

In particular, farming activities generate high non-carbon emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide, and particles. Most of this pollution comes from chemical fertilizers and diesel combustion in farming activities–and these emissions corresponding to almost 6% of the energy content of the raw biogas produced.

The second cause of external costs is transportation of the biomass, which mainly produces local emissions of NOx.  Local concerns about this issue, are a main source of opposition to new plants, and based on our study, these concerns appear reasonable.

Our results suggest that carbon emission mitigation alone is not always a satisfactory measure to evaluate the sustainability of biogas technologies in order to define energy policies. Other environmental burdens need to be considered when we discuss the environmental sustainability of energy production processes.


Patrizio PLeduc S, Chinese D, & Kraxner F (2017). Internalizing the external costs of biogas supply chains in the Italian energy sector. Energy 125: 85–96

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.

What will it take to trust scientific data from citizens?

By Linda See, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

One of the biggest questions when it comes to citizen science is the quality of the data. Scientists worry that citizens are not as rigorous in their data collection as professionals might be, which calls into question the reliability of the data.  At a meeting this month in Brussels on using citizen science to track invasive species, we grappled with the question: what it will take to trust this data source, particularly if it’s going to be used to alert authorities regarding the presence of an invasive species in a timely manner.

This discussion got me thinking about what other types of data are supplied by citizens that authorities simply trust, for example, when a citizen calls the emergency services to report an incident, such as a fire. Such reports are investigated by the authorities and the veracity of the alert is not questioned. Instead authorities are obliged to investigate such reports.

Yet the statistics show that false alarms do occur. For example, in 2015, there were more than 2.5 million false fire alarms in the United States, of which just under a third were due to system malfunctions. The remaining calls were unintentional, malicious, or other types of false alarms, such as a bomb scare. Statistics for calls to the emergency services more generally show similar trends in different European countries, where the percentage of false reports range from 40% in Latvia up to 75% in Lithuania and Norway. So why is it that we inherently trust this data source, despite the false alarm rate, and not data from citizen scientists? Is it because life is threatened or because fires are easier to spot than invasive species, or simply because emergency services are mandated with the requirement to investigate?

Volunteers monitor butterflies in Mount Rainier National Park, as part of the Cascade Butterfly Project, a citizen science effort organized by the US National Park Service © Kevin Bacher | US National Park Service

A recent encouraging development for citizen science was the signing of an executive order by President Obama on 6 January 2017, which gave federal agencies the jurisdiction to use citizen science and crowdsourced data in their operations. Do we need something similar in the EU or at the level of member states? And what will it really take for authorities to trust scientific data from citizens?

To move from the current situation of general distrust in citizen science data to one in which the data are viewed as a potentially useful source of information, we need further action. First we need to showcase examples of where data collected by citizens are already being used for monitoring. At the meeting in Brussels, Kyle Copas of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) noted that up to 40% of the data records in GBIF are supplied by citizens, which surprised many of the meeting participants. Data from GBIF are used for national and international monitoring of biodiversity. Secondly, we need to quantify the value of information coming from citizen scientists. For example, how much money could have been saved if reports on invasive species from citizens were acted upon? Third, we need to forge partnerships with government agencies to institutionally embed citizen science data streams into everyday operations. For example, the LandSense citizen observatory, a new project, aims to do exactly this. We are working with the National Mapping Agency in France to use citizen science data to update their maps but there are many other similar examples with other local and national agencies that will be tested over the next 3.5 years.

Finally, we need to develop quality assurance systems that can be easily plugged into the infrastructure of existing organizations. The EU-funded COBWEB project began building such a citizen science-based quality assurance system, which we are continuing to develop in LandSense as a service. Providing out-of-the-box tools may be one solution to help organizations to begin working with citizen science data more seriously at an institutional level.

IIASA researchers test the Fotoquest app, a citizen science game developed at IIASA. ©Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

These measures will clearly take time to implement so I don’t expect that the discussion on the quality of the data will be removed from any agenda for some time to come. However, I look forward to the day when the main issue revolves around how we can possibly handle the masses of big data coming from citizens, a situation that many of us would like to be in.

More Information about the meeting: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/event/workshop/citizen-science-open-data-model-invasive-alien-species-europe

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.