Linda Stewart Ball
From the tropical rain forests of Venezuela to a freshwater lake in Denton County and the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas, University of North Texas researchers are stalking Mother Nature.
But they mean her no harm. Michael Monticino, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics, and Miguel Acevedo, Regents Professor and coordinator of the proposed biological and environmental engineering program, are observing and analyzing her progress and setbacks. The professors are using math and computer models to assess the behaviors and motivations of the humans who interact with nature.
Determining how people will respond to various environmental situations — including man-made and natural disasters — can have a major effect on public policy and planning, these researchers say.
Americans need only recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to know that social and fiscal circumstances can have a great impact on human reactions in an emergency and can keep even the best plan from being successfully implemented.
But what if governments, politicians and other community stakeholders had a reliable way to explore policy options and their potential implications before unintended consequences occur?
Making that possible is one of the reasons Monticino and Acevedo are centering their research efforts in this area and planning a UNT Institute for Modeling and Policy Assessment of Complex Systems.
Such an institute could assess shortand long-term outcomes of environmental policy, land-use change, natural disasters and resource management decisions, as well as policy relevant to social behavior and value analysis.
Many of those areas have been the focus of Monticino's and Acevedo's research in recent years — research that already is being funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service.
"Human social system and ecosystem dynamics have been traditionally treated as if they progressed independently. It is now accepted that social systems and ecosystems must be studied as a whole to be fully understood."
- Michael Monticino
Monticino is the lead investigator in the IMPACS effort. He's using his expertise in statistical and decision analysis models to tackle environmental concerns.
"Our focus so far has been in land-use change and its effect on water," Monticino says, noting that includes water supply, quality and quantity. This water research specifically takes into account suburban sprawl and its impact on municipal infrastructure and the environment as new developments come online.
Land-use changes often come into play as owners of undeveloped lands decide to sell and the natural environment is replaced with residential, commercial or industrial developments, which impact not only the environment but also future residents of that area.
When heavy rains come — as they did last year in Denton, for example — the researchers can examine how rain run-off patterns may change due to development. They surveyed Denton residents to determine whether they attributed the historic flooding to increased development and whether they would be more likely to protest future development. The researchers then incorporate the survey results into decision models to represent feedback loops between development effects and residents' actions.
"We benefit from their research in a practical way," says Kenneth Banks, manager of the city of Denton's division of environmental quality. "Anything that provides more data for us, so we can better understand how systems respond, is really helpful."
Acevedo, a key collaborator, is using real-time technology to monitor the environment and gather data. He is working with an international team of researchers to study the effects of human actions — such as urbanization or deforestation — on the natural ecosystems in the Lake Ray Roberts/ Lake Lewisville Greenbelt Corridor and Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and in South America's rain forests. This work would continue under the auspices of IMPACS and could be replicated elsewhere.
UNT's planned Institute for Modeling and Policy Assessment of Complex Systems will serve as a resource to municipal, state, federal and international agencies to provide timely assessments for environmental policy, land-use management, disaster effects and immigration pressures on housing and municipal resources.
Researchers, who already have secured funding from federal agencies for their work, study the complex interactions between environments and humans, focusing on how human decisions affect the environment, and how those effects influence subsequent decisions. The work also provides interdisciplinary training to students.
The institute would reach beyond traditional environmental impact studies, the researchers say, by considering models of human behavior with state-of-the-art science system models. Such pairing of human and nature systems produces a more sophisticated and informed policy analysis — one that could be tailored to meet the information needs of decision makers.
"This whole notion of coupling models of human decision-making and models of natural systems is fairly new," Monticino says. Traditionally, scholars focused on either nature or society separately, says Acevedo, explaining that the new work tries to pull the two together in a responsive way.
UNT researchers are trying to create a totally interactive system in which humans receive feedback from the environmental systems model and react based on that information. Forest landscape models, for example, can show the effects that land-use decisions will have on land cover over time, allowing for more informed decisions that are more likely to help sustain the environment.
The modeling framework can be used in a variety of settings. In a proposed project involving the Texas Gulf Coast region, the researchers would model the physical and social structure damage from hurricanes, including wind and flood assessment and social surveys of individuals affected by such storms. They hope to learn about human perceptions and reactions regarding forecast uncertainties and evacuation directives during these natural disasters so that policymakers and local governments can better prepare evacuation and disaster relief resources.
One of the key functions of IMPACS would be to offer the research on a wider scale, making it more accessible to local, state and national policy-makers and institutions in this country and others. The institute would provide timely assessments on a variety of environmental concerns such as land-use management and disaster effects and perhaps even immigration pressures on housing and municipal resources.
"Nowadays, there is an enormous amount of data," says David Hunter, who has worked with UNT researchers in his role as watershed protection manager for the city of Denton. "We all have information overload.
"Part of this project is to find ways to get this information to leaders in a more streamlined format so they can look at it quickly, see what's going on, swiftly make a decision about budget and determine what projects they're going to support."
Uniting the talents of natural and social scientists, policy analysts, mathematicians and engineers to assess consequences of high-impact policy decisions, the work also provides unique interdisciplinary training to undergraduate and graduate students to prepare them to be the next generation of scientists and policymakers.
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