Understanding the Consequences of Water-Use Decisions in a Dynamic Environment

Little is known about the consequences of water-use decisions in Arctic communities despite the rapid changes occurring there. This collaborative research will examine the social and environmental factors that contribute to the resilience and vulnerability of communities and will aim to forecast potential water resource consequences within a cultural and biophysical context. The investigators will test the theory of technology-induced environmental distancing, which is the loss of awareness of change in natural resources due to increasing reliance on modern technology. This theory will be used to address the rates of change and feedbacks between social perceptions and values affecting water resources and changes in surface hydrology in the Arctic. The connection between Arctic communities (whether with and without municipal water systems) and water in their environment is much closer than the connections to water for most other communities in developed nations because Arctic communities continue to rely on water for subsistence resources, such as salmon, as well as for transportation. This project will provide an understanding of how values and perceptions at local scales are linked to regional hydrological system dynamics as well as how culturally mediated decisions may result in cumulative effects at the regional watershed level. The investigators will examine these linkages through the development of an integrated, systems-level, coupled modeling and text mining framework. They will focus on Alaskan communities, addressing how values drive perceptions of water quality and quantity for water users; how rapidly changing biophysical water systems have to change before water users attempt to adapt or mitigate hydrologic change; and how changes in water values and water-use patterns lead to changes in the hydrologic system for current and future systems. They will employ a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques, including survey fieldwork, data mining, and computer modeling to understand these complex interrelationships and feedbacks between the natural and human systems.

This project will test and advance the idea of technology-induced environmental distancing and contributing to socioecological theory. It will directly link and apply qualitative data with quantitative modeling, closely integrate new information gathering techniques with complex system modeling, and examine the coupling between social dynamics and hydrologic systems. The project will identify processes through which social dynamics translate into physical changes, and it will develop and test the theory of technology-induced environmental distancing with respect to the human-hydrological system, thereby facilitating new approaches, including models that can be developed with minimal programming and that will be applicable in a wide variety of socioecological contexts. Policy makers and other decision makers will benefit from a greater understanding of how technology-induced environmental distancing affects water systems. The software tools to be developed will provide analytical interfaces that can address socioecological interactions in the Arctic. The application of text mining approaches for detecting socioecological changes will be a relatively novel development, with more direct links made between socioecological modeling and qualitative data gathering. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

Lead Investigator: