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Tales of Community Science by Parvathy Prem

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What does community science mean to you? In the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, community science is adapting traditional ecological calendars to a changing climate. In five Colorado neighborhoods, community science is initiating a data-based conversation on declining air quality. These are a couple of the projects currently supported by the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), an AGU program launched in 2012 with the aim of connecting scientists and communities across the world, allowing them to work together to develop local solutions to global problems.

At TEX, community science is seen as a partnership between scientists and communities, with community members involved in all scientific aspects of a project – from defining a research problem to data collection and analysis. In practice, this translates to some diverse and compelling stories, a few of which were shared by speakers from four TEX project teams during a Networking Reception on December 18th at the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting.

In the naturally rich but conflict-riven territory of the Pamir Mountains, straddling Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam of Cornell University is working with local communities and an interdisciplinary team of scientists to recalibrate traditional ecological calendars to a changing climate. In the past, these calendars, developed by mountain communities, were finely tuned to local cultural and ecological niches, using the budding of plants, the behavior of birds and insects and the human body to track the changing seasons and plan agricultural activity. Traditional calendars were suppressed and fell into disuse during Soviet times, but are once again becoming increasingly relevant as communities adapt to climate change, relying on ecological signs (rather than the rigid cycle of the Gregorian calendar) to determine when to sow and harvest and how much seed to store or plant. The advantage of these calendars is that they are flexible enough to be adapted to the changing rhythms of a changing climate, but at the same time offer a sufficient degree of certainty, allowing communities to plan ahead. This anticipatory capacity is crucial in a region where food security and livelihoods are intimately linked to the land; a lack of predictability can cause great anxiety.

Karim has more than eight years of experience working in Central Asia and has also worked with indigenous communities in North America. The team is currently seeking proposals through the MIT Climate CoLab (with support from TEX) on how links could be drawn between traditional ecological calendars and climate science to anticipate climate change in the Pamir Mountains.

Sometimes, rather than a finely calibrated local solution, a tried and tested approach can be applied to communities in different parts of the world facing similar problems. Dr. Linda Smith is the Director of Filters for Families, a non-profit with 12 years of experience working with communities in Nepal whose groundwater is contaminated by arsenic. Filters for Families works with villagers to characterize the nature of contamination and to equip households with water filters. In 2010, the organization was approached by community groups from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota regarding another case of pervasive water toxicity.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, more than 700 open-pit uranium mines operated in the vicinity of Pine Ridge, only some of which have been remediated. Mining operations, together with volcanic ash deposits in the area, have led to a severe deterioration of water quality with stark consequences for the local community: among the Sioux of Pine Ridge and surrounding reservations, the incidence of cervical cancer is five times the national rate; infant mortality is three times the national rate and on average, members of the community live 30 years less than residents of the rest of the United States. Linda and her team are leading a two year project to characterize wells and aquifers in Pine Ridge and identify safe water sources. They plan to work with students at the Oglala Lakota College to incorporate this information into an openly available, GIS-based map that will also be distributed within the reservation. Gaining the community’s trust has taken time, partly due to the distrust created by previous unsuccessful external interventions – at one time, state authorities had water piped in to the reservation, but this was mixed with water from local sources and did little to address the problem. It is in this context that Linda’s team was invited to the area by local activists. The team remains actively engaged with the community through workshops, meetings and collaboration with the Oglala Lakota College. Soberingly, the contamination at Pine Ridge is probably beyond remediation; however, identification of safe sources and the installation of filters could provide long-term relief.

Problems such as drinking water contamination in Pine Ridge are largely localized, but in other cases, community science project teams have found that in order to address local problems effectively, they need to work on a larger scale.

Operating at a state-wide level, Scott Dobler and the Kentucky Mesonet team are providing data and building tools to allow local water management authorities to take better-informed decisions. The mesonet has been active for the last 10 years (with support from TEX over the last two), as economic development continues to make resource management a more complex problem. Through a network of 38 towers across the state, the mesonet provides accurate local information on current and historic conditions – temperature, rainfall, streamflow and other quantities of interest – through dynamic maps and web-based applications. According to Scott, a major bottleneck in making timely decisions on water management (such as when to issue a drought warning) has been the lack of real-time, accurate and holistic data. Not only does the mesonet provide better coverage than pre-existing weather networks, but its meteorological stations are situated in more strictly controlled locations, away from tree-cover and highways, so as to provide the most accurate measurements.

The project’s real success has been in building a synergy between scientists, politicians and water management authorities. In a state where water management is a critical concern for agriculture and the manufacturing industry, the response from all stakeholders has been uniformly positive.

Data from the network is publically accessible at and besides water managers, some local meteorologists also rely on the mesonet for weather information, all of which keeps the team busy fielding requests and ideas from end users. Scott notes that weather does not stop at state boundaries, and the team believes that their network is easily scalable to a national level. Not all states currently have as many stations as Kentucky, but measures such as linking the network of weather stations along interstate highways could make some of the tools developed by the team useful to a wider audience.

The sort of partnership between scientists and communities that TEX works to build was perhaps best illustrated at the Networking Reception by LaShonn Billingsley of Taking Neighborhood Health to Heart (TNH2H), a volunteer-run group that takes a data-based approach to addressing the health concerns of five Colorado neighborhoods. TNH2H has previously conducted household surveys on access to healthcare, nutrition and chronic health conditions. Currently, the group’s major concern is the impact on air quality of highway widening operations and industrial pollution (sources range from marijuana grow house emissions to perchloroethylene release from dry cleaning facilities). With support from TEX, a team of researchers and community volunteers are mobilizing to gain access to target locations and gather data on variations in air quality and the types of chemicals that are present. Work is just getting underway with volunteers learning how to acquire samples; ultimately, the collected data will be used to raise awareness, educate the community and press for remedial action where required.

LaShonn and her husband have been part of TNH2H since 2006 and have been involved in community organizing for longer still. The group comprises around 40 regular volunteers who meet on a monthly basis. Although the incentives provided to volunteers have been cut back in light of reduced availability of funding for the project, the group shares a strong social bond. “We love each other,” LaShonn says. What is particularly striking about the project is the way in which it is bridging a disconnect between researchers and the communities within which they work, with everyone learning from each other in the process. Community organizers like LaShonn bring a certain mindfulness to the table – for instance, she speaks of the need to avoid stigmatizing the neighborhoods and their residents in the process of data analysis. The more community members learn, the more questions arise (What does the presence of this or that chemical in the air mean? What is neighborhood soil quality like? Is it safe to grow vegetables?). For the scientists, this is a chance to put their training into constructive practice; LaShonn says that students especially are excited when they see the real and immediate impact of their research, and that excitement generates further ideas. It is hard not to agree when LaShonn remarks that there should be such groups everywhere.

The Thriving Earth Exchange enters its third year with several projects in progress and a variety of ways for scientists, communities and sponsors to get involved. What does community science mean to you? TEX is a place to find out.

raj pandya editor

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