Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Closer Collaborations Between Scientists, Data Users Aim to Improve Decision Making

Closer Collaborations Between Scientists, Data Users Aim to Improve Decision Making

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Scientists are increasingly forming tight partnerships with water managers, community leaders, risk managers and other decision makers, collaborating in the actual design of research. Such “co-produced science” not only improves decisions, but can help scientists generate knowledge that has broader impact than a scientific paper.

Jeff Deems, a snow scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, has been mapping complex mountain snowpacks with great precision using laser systems. “It has been tremendously exciting and rewarding to experience how valuable this perspective can be to avalanche safety practitioners," he said.

During this year’s fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Deems and three colleagues from other institutions presented stories about their engagement with the “users” of scientific information. The four were among hundreds at the conference who presented results of research that involved communities or other stakeholders from the get-go. Julie Vano, a research scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who co-convened a session at the conference, analyzed 15 years of data from AGU conferences. “Fifteen years ago, there were a handful of abstracts that mentioned stakeholders or decision makers," she said. "Now there are several hundred.”

Dunes along a fenceline. Courtesy Dan Ferguson/CLIMAS/UAZ

1.) Co-Producing a Better Drought Monitoring Program with the Hopi Department of Natural Resources
Daniel Ferguson, Director of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest Program, University of Arizona
A few years ago, managers from the Hopi Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources reached out to Ferguson, concerned that the DNR wasn’t adequately tracking drought conditions across the 2,500-square-mile reservation, partly because there are so few weather stations there. Ferguson and his colleagues worked to understand how the Hopi DNR gathers and uses data and what drought issues the Tribe was facing. Then, they helped develop a pilot local drought information system that takes advantage of existing on-the-ground expertise. Range technicians, for example, routinely produce reports that are of potential use for drought planning. Now, resource managers can consult regional weather data to get a general idea of conditions, but refer to their own local information for specific drought impacts. “Our idea is to develop a hybrid regional science/local observation system to improve monitoring.” Ferguson said. “We think it’s a better way to inform drought decisions, which are typically very local.

Lidar system and snowy slopes. Courtesy of Jeff Deems/NSIDC

2.) Supporting Avalanche Control Efforts
Jeff Deems, snow scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center, CIRES, CU Boulder
What good could you do with the ability to map snowpack in exquisite detail, tracking changes from one day to another with high-precision systems? Deems and his colleagues, who are developing new applications for a  laser-scanning system called lidar, are mapping snow depth, to quantify both subtle and dramatic changes in snow depths or after avalanche control work—in Colorado’s high country, avalanche experts often deploy small explosives to loosen snow that might otherwise accumulate heavily and slide in a deadly avalanche. Today, the scientists are working closely with safety experts from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, to see if they could lessen avalanche risk. Deems’ research—now focused on slide-prone slopes near ski areas and highways—is already informing decisions about where and when to deploy avalanche control techniques, and helping evaluate their effectiveness, all in the service of improved safety for skiers, drivers, and avalanche technicians."

3.) Conspiring to Kill Uncertainty in Water Management
Thomas Painter, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
As with most Western U.S. states, California relies on snowpack as a reservoir, releasing meltwater in the spring and summer, when demand for water increases. Such reservoirs flood if snow melts too quickly. Like Deems, Painter and colleagues had been making major innovations in lidar-based snow mapping, and realized they could fly their instruments on aircraft to survey mountain areas critical to water planning in 

Water managers and scientists, a meeting of the minds. Image courtesy Tom Painter/JPL.

California, Colorado, and other Western states. Before taking to the air, they connected with the California Department of Water Resources, to better understand California’s needs: What models the water planners used, what forms of data would help them improve those models, how frequently maps of snow water equivalent and snow albedo should be updated. “When water managers use our data, their predictions are far more accurate,” Painter said. “We started to remove the hedging in water management—cutting stress, uncertainty, lost revenue and impacts on water rights’ holders. ”

4.) Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam, Cornell University and AGU Thriving Earth ExchangeOne of the greatest challenges of anthropogenic climate change is lack of predictability at the local scale of communities. Developing anticipatory capacity—the ability to envision possible futures and develop a dynamic plan to deal with uncertainties—is urgent.

Kassam working in China.

Ecological calendars keep track of time by observing seasonal changes in our habitat. The nascence of a flower, emergence of an insect, arrival of a migratory bird, breakup of ice, or last day of snow cover—each is a useful cue for livelihood activities, such as sowing crops, gathering plants, herding animals, hunting, fishing or observing cultural festivals. Kassam and his colleagues are working closely with six communities globally from Standing Rock Nation in the United States to the Shugnan Valley in Afghanistan to revitalize, recalibrate and develop new ecological calendars by integrating local and indigenous knowledge with science.

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

Media Contact: Katy Human, CIRES communications, 303-522-8961


Daniel Ferguson
Jeffrey Deems
National Snow and Ice Data Center, CIRES/CU Boulder
Thomas Painter
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam