Combining indigenous agricultural heritage with advanced computational modeling to stay one step ahead of climate change
by Kathleen Pierce
A recent award from the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) and Amazon Web Services (AWS) gives computational ecologist Ted Wong of Bellwether Climate Strategies $15,000 worth of on-demand cloud services. Using the award, Wong and his colleagues are building on a global project that partners with indigenous communities to adapt farming practices to a changing climate.
“Plant growth is driven by environmental cues,” said Wong. “But those cues are likely to change as the climate changes.” The web services will help the group develop scalable tools to access, analyze and interpret climate projections at the local level, starting with the Lakota and Dakota people in the northern Great Plains.
The group is working to translate existing climate forecasts for the area—downscaled data based on CMIP5 global climate modeling—from a complex, technical data set into relevant agricultural variables such as growing season length or degree days. Their hope is that this simplified information can help farmers predict how their crops will grow in different future climate scenarios.
The AWS award gives Wong the storage space and on-demand computational power needed to bring his work to indigenous agricultural communities across North America and beyond. He is grateful for the simplicity of the AWS tools. “I’m not an IT expert,” he said. “It’s great to be able to outsource that to Amazon.”
Wong’s work is one component of a multinational research project led by Karim-Aly Kassam, Ph.D., international professor of environmental and indigenous studies at Cornell University, that aims to provide indigenous agricultural communities with collaborative, effective solutions to the disruptions brought by climate change.
Many indigenous communities determine the optimal time for planting or harvesting by observing small changes in their local environment. These “ecological calendars” reflect sophisticated place-based knowledge, but unprecedented climate change is disrupting the previously reliable environmental markers on which ecological calendars are based.
Kassam first encountered ecological calendars in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There, he is working with residents to reconnect with their traditional ecological heritage despite decades of imposed outside calendar systems and the shifting baselines brought on by climate change.
The work in the Pamir Mountains inspired Kassam to look for other communities facing similar climate challenges. What he discovered was that indigenous farmers around the world are struggling to adapt to a changing climate. “It is not just about the Pamir Mountains,” said Kassam. “It is about all these multiple ethnicities of indigenous peoples who are at the forefront of climate change.”
Through his research, Kassam and his team are creating a space for communities and scientists to learn from each other while tackling complex problems. “Under climate change, a single expertise is not sufficient. Diversity of knowledge, of ways of thinking, and of knowledge is central to respond to this dramatic problem,” he said.
Creating a dynamic calendar for Standing Rock Indian Reservation
Standing Rock is a Lakota and Dakota Indian reservation with roughly 9,000 residents spread out over 3,500 square miles in North and South Dakota. Although sparsely populated, it is rich in cultural heritage and ecological resources.
The residents of the Standing Rock reservation faced ecological challenges long before scientists began studying climate change. In the 1950s, for example, several dams built along the Missouri River turned the reservation’s main forests and farmland into a reservoir. Farmers were forced to relearn their whole system of food gathering and growing, and residents are still trying to regain food sovereignty today.
Kassam’s team is using a community-based, participatory research model to create a dynamic, adaptive ecological calendar that can help residents navigate an uncertain future. They are working hand-in-hand with local residents and tribal elders to collect local knowledge through focus groups, interviews and extensive archival research.
“The community is part of the research process,” said Kassam. “We are leveraging the wisdom and insights of indigenous communities, and that wisdom is based on deep and embedded empirical work in partnership with them.”
Through a collaboration with Wong and Bellwether Climate Solutions, the project aims to help residents preserve past knowledge while predicting future ecological changes. As he develops his localized climate forecast application, Wong plans to use the ecological and agricultural knowledge the team is collecting in order to understand what variables will be most useful to Standing Rock communities. A future iteration could offer even more sophisticated analysis. For example, Wong explained, “We’d ultimately like the application to be able to say, when chokecherry blooms, then it’s time to weed your corn.”
“The major motivation on their end is transgenerational knowledge,” said Morgan Ruelle, a postdoctoral researcher on the project. “Bringing this weather data together with indigenous knowledge is really exciting.”
Once the local knowledge and climate models are integrated, the team’s next challenge will be to determine what form the calendar should take to be of greatest use to Standing Rock communities. Illustrated, circular diagrams depicting seasonal shifts are often used to create an agricultural map and timetable and are well-suited for users who may not be comfortable using computers. But a printed, physical artifact would not necessarily be able to account for or adapt to inevitable climate change variations. Ideally, the team hopes to create a hybrid online-offline calendar that could bridge past knowledge with cutting-edge climate modeling capabilities and bring value regardless of how web-savvy a user is.
Looking toward the future
Even as the team continues to gather data and refine their approach, the project is already expanding beyond its initial scope. The team plans to broaden the Standing Rock calendar to include not just plants, but also animals, weather observations, spiritual practices and other recurring events. In addition, the team is collaborating with fishing and farming communities near Oneida Lake in New York State and recently won a major award to expand their work in the Pamir Mountains.
As climate variability increases, this unpredictability disrupts our innate sense of what’s normal. “We need dynamic systems in response to the dynamism of the climate,” said Ruelle. “That’s the big hope with ecological calendars – that they are more responsive to greater variability.”
Ecological calendars that can take advantage of multiple climate scenarios with accuracy and flexibility can help indigenous communities adapt and thrive. The team hopes the TEX/AWS award and advanced computational capability it offers can help them achieve just that.
Kathleen Pierce is a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.