Scientists Hunt for Clues to Post-Wildfire Recovery in Argentina  

September 23, 2022
by ISR Staff
Blog

In August, wildfires ripped through the Córdoba Province in central Argentina, leaving economic damage and a scorched forests and pasture land in its wake. Argentina is no stranger to wildfires, but climate change is making the fires more frequent, widespread and complex – and the impacts of drought and fires are stretching across borders.  

After thousands of acres in northern Argentina burned in February of 2022, ash clouds flew into Argentina’s neighbor, Paraguay, harming local residents’ health with smog-filled air. The country made international headlines just two years prior when another set of fires in Córdoba burned 60,000 hectares of flora, fauna, grassland, forests, and homes.  

Healthy farmland and soil are critical to the region, given that it relies heavily on its agricultural industry, like cattle farming. Crisis after crisis has forced the region’s leading scientists to rethink how fire-driven changes to soil properties implicates vegetation, plant regeneration and ecosystem services. And it has pushed them to work together across borders and scientific disciplines.  

“In late September 2020, it was easy to see from the Córdoba City the thick black plumes of smoke rising from the ranges, while hellish images were shown on TV and social media,” said Dr. Maria Gabriela Garcia, International Science Reserve community member and a geologist based in Córdoba. “This situation led me to wonder to what extent the fires have altered the chemical and physical properties of the soils, and ultimately, impacted their fertility and runoff control capacity.” 
 
After the 2020 fires, Argentina’s National Council of Science and Technology (CONICET) called researchers together from different disciplines to propose actions and lines of research that deal with different aspects of this crisis. Today, geologists, mineralogists, chemists, microbiologists and ecologists, are all working all together to rapidly characterize the dynamics of post-fire recovery.  

One unique collective of Argentinian scientists are on the hunt for stronger data about the soil in the aftermath of extreme wildfires. Through the NCST, Dr. Estela Cecilia Mlewski, a microbiologist, met Dr. Garcia, a professor at the National University of Córdoba. 

The team also brought on Edith Filippini, a lichenologist focused on ecological studies and biomonitoring of environments affected by fire; Romina Cecilia Torres – a specialist in postfire regeneration by resprouting and seedlings; and Daihana Argibay – a specialist in satellite image analysis. 

The group’s collected data will be fundamental to understanding the geochemical and microbiological disturbances that occur in soils of a semi-arid mountainous area of southern South America affected by forest fires, and help researchers design effective strategies for remediation of the affected ecosystems across the region. If their research can find the presence of microorganisms, for example, there is an opportunity for regrowth and regeneration of local flora – which could lessen the fires’ impact on farming or other ecological or economic activities. 

The group recently worked together on the International Science Reserve’s readiness exercise on wildfires. The ISR conducts readiness exercises – or scenarios – to bring scientists from across borders and disciplines together to prepare for crisis. The Argentinian scientists believe that the International Science Reserve can be useful for giving researchers the tools for fire prevention and support through much needed resources to predict fire behavior, and help in control and monitoring tasks against a crisis.  

“The ISR is an excellent opportunity to know researchers around the world working on similar aspects to us. It gives us the potential to generate collaborations between foreign groups and enrich our knowledge. The ISR’s readiness exercises can improve existing tools and more importantly, expand our ideas,” Dr. Mlewski recently told the ISR team in an interview. 

If you are interested in joining the International Science Reserve network and collaborating with scientists like the Argentinian group, please visit our sign-up page to learn more about becoming a member of the ISR community. 

How to Address our Climate Communications Crisis with Dr. Sweta Chakraborty

September 15, 2022
by ISR Staff
Blog

From the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change, it’s no longer a question whether effective science communication is necessary to deal with crisis and avert further disaster. The way the scientific community communicates urgent messages can make or break how the public responds to a crisis. Ineffective communications result in inertia or skepticism – and have reduced our collective ability to respond to and reduce the impacts of crisis.  

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty understood the importance of strategic communications early in her career as a scientist, long before many researchers began to reckon with the ways disinformation and misinformation are weaponized across the globe to prevent action on crises such as climate change.  

Today, Dr. Chakraborty’s work is motivated by the need for clear, credible, science communication to urgently and proactively manage the risks that threaten human security and well-being.  She is currently the US President of Operations at We Don’t Have Time, and a globally recognized risk and behavioral scientist. She is a trusted authority on proactive preparedness to mitigate against the impacts of climate change.  

Dr. Chakraborty is an advisor to the International Science Reserve and strengthens the ISR with lessons she has gained from advising scientists, policymakers, and other experts on science communications.  

Dr. Chakraborty recommends that scientists who care about responding to the multitude of crises our world faces must strengthen their ability to effectively communicate.  Experts who are clear and pitch their messages for the audiences they need to reach will ultimately have stronger results. And we will all be better off for it.  

Three Experts’ Takeaways on Gearing up for the Next Global Crisis 

August 18, 2022
by Mila Rosenthal
BlogCrisis

Since our launch in early 2022, the International Science Reserve (ISR) has rapidly expanded a network of scientists who are poised to respond to the next big crisis. The ISR aims to take action on crises that are complex, international, and where science and technology can effectively respond.  

The ISR works in two ways, one through preparing for crisis by helping scientists in the community practice how they would respond during a crisis and understand what resources they need. And two, through a coordinated response to a declared crisis where the ISR will add to existing networks and support access to specialized human and technological resources. 

With these goals in mind, the ISR brings together colleagues from a range of disciplines around the world for discussions to learn from each other in a semi-monthly webinar series: Science Unusual: R&D for Global Crisis Response.  

The first webinar in this series was “Science Unusual: Gearing up for the Next Global Crisis.” The recording is now available on-demand through the New York Academy of Science. I was honored to moderate the discussion, and our esteemed panelists included:  

  • Dr. Fulya Aydin-Kandemir, Hydropolitics Association at Ankara & Akdeniz University (Turkey)  
  • Dr. Lorna Thorpe, Professor and Director of the Division of Epidemiology, NYU Grossman School of Medicine in the Department of Population Health (United States of America) 
  • Alex Wakefield, Senior Policy Adviser, Royal Society (United Kingdom) 

It’s hard to narrow down all the lessons I gleaned from this panel, but I have three big takeaways on what the panelists learned through their own experience preparing for and responding to crises in public health and climate change.  

1) Scientists Need Stronger Networks to Connect and Coordinate Crisis Response 

Alex Wakefield began her career in science policy to help governments use evidence and science to make stronger policy decisions. When the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, the UK government needed scientific evidence – but like many governments around the world – they didn’t have the luxury of time to do long-term research. Ms. Wakefield worked under the government’s chief scientist to run scientific advisory groups that convened experts to quickly provide evidence for policymaking decisions. That mechanism existed before COVID-19 to help deal with emergencies, like major flooding events and public health emergencies, and Ms. Wakefield believes it was a real advantage of the UK’s response that this was already in place.  

Dr. Lorna Thorpe added that the energy of scientists wanting to get involved locally, nationally, and globally was one of the most important components of the COVID-19 response. She saw a robust convening and collaboration among institutions and researchers in New York City’s response, and she believes that the ISR can play a big role in facilitating these connections during the next major crisis.  

2) Open Data Sharing is Essential to Effective Analysis During a Crisis  

Dr. Fulya Aydin-Kandemir shared her own story of facilitating research during massive wildfires in Greece and Turkey in 2021. In her view, crisis research needs stronger access to public data, in her case satellite imagery, in order to respond faster and effectively to natural disasters across borders. That way, she could share her results with stakeholders, like firefighters, to help them understand real-time distribution of fires and how to stop outbreaks that can damage communities and ecosystems. 

Dr. Thorpe added that we need more coordination of networks that allow research institutions to work together, no matter what their focus issues are, on issues like data sharing.  Access to data like satellite imagery is not only important to issues of wildfires caused by climate change, but can also be important for real-time public health issues, like the urban heat effect or migration patterns. 

3) To Build Public Trust, Leadership and Communication is Key 

Research shows that the public will generally trust the government to do the right thing in a crisis. However, if there is ambiguity in leadership, Dr. Thorpe shared that she has seen the public lose trust – which makes it harder for technical leaders, like public health researchers, to do their job.  

Dr. Thorpe reinforced how important great leadership is in a time of crisis, especially among local officials like mayors or health officials. During COVID-19, there was ambiguity around data that mired the United States and caused delays. She believes that some of that can be attributed to the erosion of institutions in America, but it is really about trusting your local leaders to make the right choices. 

Ms. Wakefield believes that another way to build public trust ahead of an emergency is to consult with the public about what types of crisis responses are acceptable. Now at the Royal Society in the UK, she recently held a public dialogue series on different emergencies, like flooding and pandemics. The researchers found that the public had an expectation around government use of data – and they expressed concerns about when the emergency ends, what the data will be used for. The researchers plan to take these results and advocate for setting up stronger processes and policies for future responses.  


Do you want to watch the whole webinar? Here are three steps to rewatch Science Unusual on-demand:  

  • Register for the webinar using this link 
  • Then, click “Join Event” 
  • After logging in, select the “Schedule” menu, or the grid menu (small squares) on mobile, located at the top of your screen, then click “On Demand” 

Q&A: Why this Fire Researcher Values Collaboration Across Scientific Disciplines  

August 16, 2022
by ISR Staff
Blog

At the heart of the International Science Reserve (ISR) is a commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists to respond to some of the world’s biggest crises. To do this, the ISR regularly brings together scientists for readiness exercises, like our first scenario on wildfires, and seeks advice from experts from different scientific disciplines. 

One ISR expert, Steve Kerber, grew up in a family of volunteer firefighters and joined the fire service when he was just 16 years old. His childhood experience led him to his career in fire protection engineering, and ultimately, to research how to address the world’s unresolved fire safety risks and emerging dangers. 

He is currently Vice President and Executive Director of the Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI) at UL Research Institutes. He leads a fire safety research team dedicated to addressing the world’s unresolved fire safety risks and emerging dangers to reduce death, injury and loss from fire.  

We recently spoke with him about his experiences.  

Wildfires are getting worse, but in every country, the response is still too slow. What are the major obstacles to fixing this problem?  

Wildland urban interface fires or wildland fires that spread into communities are incredibly complex and destructive events. Our collective response to them is an interdisciplinary problem, requiring many different stakeholder groups to work together. The policies, codes, standards, research, response, enforcement and public action have not kept up with the growth of the hazard. We need to make significant progress in all these areas and more to keep pace with the scale of the danger. 

Approximately 86% of the scientists involved in the ISR to date reported that they would like to work on wildfires even if it is not their primary area of research. What does this type of multidisciplinary research look like in practice? 

I think the interesting part about studying fires is that it is inherently multidisciplinary and applied. For example, we can take my chemistry or forestry skills and apply them to a fire problem. At FSRI, we like to have a direct issue that we’re trying to resolve, and we like to work with stakeholders that can tell us exactly what the problem is that needs to be solved.

Steve Kerber, Vice President and Executive Director of the Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI) at UL Research Institutes.

We’ve got chemists, fire protection engineers, mechanical engineers, data scientists, and nuclear engineers all working together to address fire problems through multidisciplinary, applied research. For example, we have applied fire science and engineering to improve the safety and effectiveness of the fire service by conducting experiments with them to understand better the science behind their strategies and tactics.

What lessons could scientists in our network learn from UL Research Institutes?  

It always starts with studying the problem alongside the stakeholders. Our key stakeholders at FSRI include the fire service, academia, fire investigators, fire safety engineers, government, industry and the general public. We strongly believe in using the words “with” versus “for.” While we study fire safety every day, we must be humble and understand what scientific knowledge, perspective and experience we do not have as researchers. With that understanding, you can build your team and partnerships to more effectively conduct the research or respond to the challenge.   

What did you learn from the first set of wildfire readiness exercises?  

At first, I wasn’t sure how the scientists and their proposals would all fit together or collaborate, which is the heart of the ISR network and mission. But then I had to recalibrate and say, well, we’re testing and trying out a new system. I loved the international component and that scientists from all over the world were submitting their perspectives on how to solve a problem through a variety of methods. 

How could the ISR push that collaborative model further in a time of crisis?  

The state of research on wildfires is young, and many aspects of science are needed to tackle the wildland fire problem, including research areas like climate science, meteorology, data science and emergency management. There are many contributors to the research, including federal agencies like NASA, the Department of Agriculture and Interior. They are all pumping billions of dollars into dealing with wildfires.  

At the same time, it’s a very fragmented group. In many cases, you have fire departments protecting communities and homes, and the fire service protecting trees. And there is a lot of confusion in the middle. That’s where we have a tremendous opportunity to better collaborate across disciplines and agencies.  


In June 2022, the International Science Reserve released a report on our initial research and development of a model to mobilize researchers around the world and to match them with scientific, technical, and human resources to magnify their impact. The report highlights the results from the first readiness exercise on wildfires we conducted with the support of experts like Steve Kerber. Download the full report here 

Real-world scenarios prepare the ISR community for future wildfire crises

July 5, 2022
by ISR Staff
BlogCrisis

When disaster strikes, everyone wishes they were better prepared. One way to prepare is to practice in advance. This is the basic idea of scenario-based exercises in crisis preparation: take a hypothetical but realistic disaster situation. Run a simulation where different individuals, institutions, organizations, or other entities participate and work through what they would do in that situation. These scenario-based exercises are important to any preparedness program’s maintenance and continuous improvement plan, and they are a cornerstone of the International Science Reserve.

For the ISR’s first readiness exercise, we wanted to design wildfire crisis scenarios to offer scientists in our network the opportunity to practice how they could adapt their research to respond to a wildfire crisis. To design the scenarios, the ISR worked with many wildfire experts from different scientific disciplines and firefighting experiences. One of the generous experts who contributed was Sara Brown, Ph.D., of the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

Sara is the Program Manager for the Fire, Fuels, and Smoke Science Program (FFS) of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, housed at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. Sara’s Ph.D. is in ecology and she has also worked as a Professor of Fire Science in addition to her work with federal land management agencies in fire suppression and fire management.

We talked to Sara about her experience with the ISR wildfire readiness exercise.

What’s the relationship between your experience as a firefighter and your work in fire science? 

Before I immersed myself in fire science, I spent 11 seasons fighting wildland fires – forest and grassland fires – for various land management agencies. I worked on a type-2 fire crew, a helicopter crew, a hotshot crew, and as a smokejumper.

All that experience as a wildland firefighter made me aware how important it is to integrate natural and social science into land management and leadership decisions.

How did you help with the ISR readiness exercise?

I participated in selecting and designing three wildfire scenarios that could help scientists practice for possible future wildfire crises. I thought about how to propose scenarios that had some aspect of a potentially global nature, simulated a crisis that could realistically occur, and would be relevant across disciplines.

Sara Brown, Program Manager for the Fire, Fuels, and Smoke Science Program (FFS) of the Rocky Mountain Research Station

What are some of the lessons from your work in the Rocky Mountain Research Station that are important for the ISR?

I work with outstanding scientists who study a broad range of fire science, including ecologists, fire behavior scientists, scientists focusing on smoke emissions, and scientists who work to improve our wildland fire management system. Since 1960, we have been one of the world leaders in fire science. We create new fire models, tools, products and science that is used around the world. Our fundamental science aims to understand the intricacies of how fire burns and its impacts to various ecosystems, which sounds simple but is complex. We take that fundamental science and develop it into tools that land and fire managers can use. So, I knew it was important that the ISR approach would be multidisciplinary and take a holistic view of the impacts of wildfires.

The ISR’s global approach is also crucial. In my role, I am responsible for liaising with partners and collaborators outside the Forest Service. As a result, we have developed partnerships with colleagues from nearly every continent, including North America, Northern Eurasia, and Australia. As a result, we have ‘boots on the ground’ experience in multiple countries. Access to multidisciplinary research on wildfires worldwide proved essential as scenarios were chosen due to their global nature.

How did your community of scientists inform your approach to building scenarios?

From my perspective, working with all these great scientists, I considered what might be scenarios that would get the ISR program where it’s trying to go. I suggested making the scenarios fairly general and trying to hit many of the different kinds of fire we study.

I believe many wildfire scientists and non-wildfire scientists will be interested in contributing significantly if they can help. And so, for this reason, I tried to imagine how these exercises would appeal and what information might entice them.

What are the essential attributes of wildfire scenarios?

One of the critical things when designing an effective readiness exercise is to make sure that the scenarios are realistic enough to provide a challenge but not so unrealistic that they become impossible. Additionally, we must understand the global context of wildfires and consider factors like climate change, population growth, and urbanization. It’s a delicate balance, but I think ISR managed it well.

We came up with different wildfire scenarios for our readiness exercise by looking at past wildfires worldwide. For example, scientists often study three different types of fire: crown fire, surface fire and ground fire. Some of our fire scientists recently provided international support for crown fires and surface fires like happened in Greece and South America last year. By looking at these different types of wildfires, we tried to create realistic scenarios for the readiness exercise.

What problems do you see the ISR solving?

The ISR is building a network that captures and matches general skillsets associated with needs. It is unique because it is potentially enormous in scale. And the problem we are trying to tackle is large-scale. So, the ISR has a real chance of providing support far away and near if it works. It is a perfect science experiment for a worthy cause.

The Voices of the ISR

June 16, 2022
by ISR Staff
BlogCrisisMission

In March 2022, scientists from around the world participated in the ISR’s online simulation involving hypothetical wildfires in three countries. For this first Readiness Exercise, members of the ISR science community crafted research proposals responding to the three wildfire scenarios. The scientists who submitted proposals come from nine countries, including Brazil, Chile, Australia, the U.S., and the Philippines, and have varied research backgrounds, from paleoecology to behavioral science, from biology to mathematics.  

We talked to these readiness pioneers about what motivated them to take part in the ISR exercise, and learn more about what they hold dear as scientists. They told us that the readiness exercise was an opportunity to think seriously about both a specific crisis scenario and scientific preparedness more broadly. They underscored the importance of cross-border collaboration and preparing well ahead of the next crisis.  

Here are some highlights from these conversations.  

Fulya Aydin-Kandemir, Hydropolitics Association, Ankara & Akdeniz University, Antalya, Turkey
Fulya Aydin-Kandemir is based in Turkey and regularly collaborates with scientists internationally. She brings a scientific background in theoretical physics and life sciences to climate change research spanning geographic information systems, spatial analysis, remote sensing, climate change projections, and land use management. For her ISR readiness exercise proposal, Dr. Aydin-Kandemir (a graduate of Ege University Solar Energy Institute, Turkey) collaborated with colleagues from Turkey and Greece by drawing on several of these areas to elaborate a plan for GIS- and remote sensing-based mapping of regional water resources to assist both prevention and suppression of the ISR scenario’s Greek wildfire. 


Malik Padellan, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Rensselaer, NY, United States of America
Malik Padellan is an early-career bioengineer who currently works as a process scientist, focusing on optimizing manufacturing processes. He has been involved with the New York Academy of Sciences since he was in school. For his readiness exercise proposal, Malik combined the ISR wildfire scenario with another scientific interest of his to propose testing wildfire spread detection through impact on modified fungal networks. 


Roberto Dias, Scientific Director of Microbiotec, Fundação Arthur Bernardes/Petrobras, Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Brazil
Roberto Dias is a biochemist in Brazil who directs research in molecular biology, virology and biotechnology. He currently focuses on using microbiological markers to aid the recovery of areas affected by climate change. Dr. Dias and his colleagues chose to address the ISR Northwestern US crown fire scenario for their ISR readiness exercise proposal. They considered how machine learning and predictive modeling could be used to understand the effect of wildfires on soil microbiota and support regional recovery. 


Matthew Adeleye, The Australian National University, Australia
Matthew Adeleye is a paleoecologist who studies fossilized plant remains to understand long-term interactions—mainly Pleistocene and Holocene epoch—between ecosystems (vegetation and wetlands), fire, climate, and human impact. Although his current research in Nigeria and Australia focuses on terrestrial vegetation, Matthew has a longstanding interest in peatlands. This led him to address ISR’s Indonesian peat fire scenario for his readiness exercise proposal, which applied paleoecological insights and techniques to identify significant long-term impacts of the wildfire and fundamentally improve the region’s recovery.


Vinicius Albani, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil
Vinicius Albani is an assistant professor of mathematics who has a passion for combining theory and practical application. His recent international collaborations have included publications that have contributed to modeling the evolution of the covid-19 pandemic. In response to the ISR’s Northwestern US crown fire scenario, Dr. Albani and his colleagues proposed combining their expertise in mathematical, statistical and computational modeling with key wildfire data to form accurate long-term forecasts that could assist in both preparation and response. 


Daniel San Martin, Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María, Chile
Daniel San Martin is a computer scientist who designs models to respond to and prevent Chilean wildfires. For his ISR readiness exercise proposal, Daniel chose to apply a Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) framework to ISR’s Greek wildfire scenario, using mathematical models and high-performance computing to implement real-time analysis and forecasting of fire dynamics that would allow faster and better decision-making in the response efforts, as well as prepare for future outbreaks.  


Tracy Marshall, Department of Geography, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
Tracy Marshall studies households and their behaviors to assess, understand and improve their levels of disaster preparedness. She used this expertise and her professional background in risk, crisis and disaster management—including at the national level in Barbados—for her ISR readiness exercise proposal. Tracy proposed a socio-demographic, place-based household wildfire risk assessment that would save lives and make households more resilient, in response to the ISR’s Northwestern US crown fire scenario.  


Daisy B. Badilla, Palawan, Philippines
Daisy B. Badilla is a chemical and environmental engineer who has studied biofiltration as an air pollution control technology. She briefly worked for the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute as Supervising Science Research Specialist and currently helps provide safe drinking water to indigenous communities in Palawan, Philippines. She is involved with the New York Academy of Sciences as a mentor in the Junior Academy and the 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program. For her readiness exercise proposal, Dr. Badilla used her background in air quality research to explore minimizing the health impacts of the Indonesian peat fire scenario. 


Avid Roman-Gonzalez, Business on Engineering and Technology S.A.C. (BE Tech), Universidad Nacional Tecnologica de Lima Sur (UNTELS) & Universidad de Ciencias y Humanidades (UCH), Peru
Avid Roman-Gonzalez is an electronic engineer specializing in areas including image processing, bioengineering and aerospace technology. His professional background includes work for companies such as the French Space Agency (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), as well as teaching appointments at multiple universities. For his ISR readiness exercise proposal, Dr. Roman-Gonzalez built on his existing work in risk and disaster management, and suggested using satellite images to improve localized wildfire response efforts.

The past as prologue – the ISR and traditional environmental stewardship

May 11, 2022
by Nicholas Dirks
BlogCrisisMission
Treeline

Crossing the streams has always been part of my academic career. As a historian and cultural anthropologist, my own research and writing has been rooted in the value of interdisciplinary thought. I have been fortunate to draw together insights from colleagues who largely work in separate if contiguous worlds. When bridging disciplines as separate as those in the humanities and social sciences with the sciences, however, the efforts we make to connect must be even more strenuous. At the same time, the rewards that can come from this kind of exchange are even greater.

I strongly believe we need to create new ways to learn from differing perspectives and disciplines. This means more than interdisciplinary inquiry, as it can also be about linking traditional forms of knowledge with those that come from cutting edge research and analysis.

This kind of capacious thinking lies at the heart of our commitment at the New York Academy of Sciences to promote science-based solutions to global challenges through our International Science Reserve (ISR), which is designed to mobilize and use different kinds of knowledge from across borders, sectors, and disciplines.

In my own areas of expertise, I know that the decades between the 1970s and end of the 20th century saw the disciplines of history and anthropology draw closer together, with historians paying more attention to social and cultural factors and the significance of everyday experience in the study of the past.

The people, rather than elites, became the focus of their inquiry—anthropological insights into agriculture, kinship, ritual, and folk customs enabled historians to develop richer and more inclusive narratives about social structures and relationships, as well as about human relationships with the environment over the long period of time we now call the Anthropocene. In the same way, the ISR will aim to bring together not only cutting-edge scientific expertise but also past knowledge that may come from an era when we were more attuned to natural rhythms and processes than we are today, when industrialization and technological development have created new levels of autonomy from the natural world.

The ISR recently launched its first scenario planning exercise—focusing on how scientific expertise and resources can be mobilized to combat wildfire emergencies. Wildfires are not new environmental phenomena; human civilization has lived alongside the risk of wildfires for thousands of years. And so, as wildfires increase in both frequency and magnitude due to climate change, we can learn from indigenous communities and traditional forms of knowledge when it comes to environmental stewardship.

In California, which saw a record-breaking season of devastating wildfires in 2020, local knowledge from the Yurok and Karuk Northern California tribes may hold the key to managing wildfires through ‘cultural burns.’ This is a practice which involves

intentional burning designed to cultivate biodiverse landscapes, remove excess fire fuel, and ensure that the ecosystem is more resilient overall. Indigenous preparation of the land has been practiced for thousands of years but it is only recently being recognized as an effective tool to control fire risk.

After a century of fire suppression, enforced by laws which prevented cultural burning, the Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks in California’s Sierra Nevada initiated programs to manage wildfires through burning programs. A recent UC Berkeley Study of the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite showed that where traditional fire regimes were restored, there were multiple positive effects: greater landscape and species diversity, increased soil moisture, decreased drought-induced tree mortality, and more landscape fire resistance due to a reduced forest cover.

Decreased forest cover during the managed wildfire period means that when an unintended fire is started (by lightning strike for instance), the more varied landscapes – with trees, shrubland, bushes all at different heights – were more resilient to fire. In contrast, when the crowns of trees catch fire in a homogenous forest canopy, a blaze can spread rapidly along the top of the uniform tree canopy, helping the fire spread more quickly.

The view that indigenous burning can benefit forest ecosystems is gaining growing acceptance among policy makers in different parts of the world as evidenced by the Aboriginal burning regimes in Kakadu national park in Australia and Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. Meanwhile in the US, the federal Forest Service increasingly partners with Tribes to improve wildfire resilience and protect cultural resources through the Tribal Relations Program. In California, fire suppressing laws have been reversed with a new California law, effective January 1, 2022, affirming the right to cultural burns, reducing the layers of liability and permission needed to set fire to the land for the purposes of controlled forest management.

Recognizing indigenous knowledge benefits our understanding of wildfire management in the 21st century and provides insights into other challenges such as biodiversity loss, including even the hunt for new drugs such as antibiotics. This is reinforced in the findings of the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that indigenous and local knowledge plays a large part in preventing wildfire and other crises. For habitats in which indigenous people and local communities can manage their land, there is less loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function. For example, in the Amazon (region of Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia): wherever indigenous people have secure tenure, the deforestation rates are two-to-three times lower than in similar forests where they don’t have control over the forests.

Increased recognition of such knowledge will also help retain traditional culture and inform land management policy, which has historically excluded indigenous voices and banned indigenous practices.

This is why the ISR and The New York Academy of Sciences proudly aligns with ‘Open Science’ principles and welcomes involvement from everyone – regardless of discipline or geography – within our community of experts. Everyone may register to encourage project proposal submissions in relation to ISR identified crisis areas, so that we are able to benefit from the rich and diverse forms of knowledge that in some cases have been part of our heritage for centuries – particularly in terms of environmental stewardship. Indeed, our first call for proposals on the topic of wildfires included submissions from a range of countries including Brazil and the Philippines as well as the US and Australia. I strongly support the incorporation of different sources of knowledge in the service of a larger, shared culture of enquiry and practice, ultimately adapting modern and traditional modalities of knowledge for the work of science in developing appropriate and effective solutions for tackling the global challenges that we all face today.

The International Science Reserve – an ambitious future-proofing initiative for the public good

April 14, 2022
by Nicholas Dirks
BlogMission

With its long history of championing science-based solutions to global challenges, the Academy is ideally situated to establish the International Science Reserve (ISR). The ISR will be a network of networks: of communities of experts across scientific disciplines, across sectors, and across borders. The Academy is building the ISR on the model of collaboration we have embodied throughout our 200+ year history as a trusted global convener of scientists across public, private, and academic domains. The ISR reaches across those domains to speed up research and solutions to help prepare for and then ameliorate the effects of complex global crises, such as a great earthquake, a water-borne pandemic, or a cyber-attack. 

The goal of the ISR is to quickly connect scientists to scientific resources for faster and better crisis preparedness to help people and protect communities from further disaster. To do this, the ISR fosters collaborative networks and builds experience and expertise within those networks by rehearsing what would happen in a real crisis. These scenario-planning or readiness exercises will help scientists be well equipped in advance to respond to urgent challenges (as this video describes) that are not only possible but likely in future years. Filling an important gap in existing crisis response mechanisms, the ISR will not replace those mechanisms but strengthen them and make them more effective. 

In working to prepare communities of scientists and scientific resource providers to respond to many crises, The ISR will be guided by our Executive Board. The ISR builds on the design of the High-Performance Computing Consortium (HPCC) whose work during the Covid-19 outbreak provided enormous and immediate benefits. The ISR expands that work by leveraging not just high computational resources but also specialized talent, labs, databases, and networks of researchers and institutions. It, therefore, relies on our communities of scientific experts, our relationships with industry, federal agencies, and global institutions, our ISR founding partners, as well as ISR members. 

The ongoing pandemic and the range of responses around the world have shown us all the value of good preparation. In the scenario planning exercises that are a key step in pre-preparing the ISR science communities, different stakeholders can role-play what they would and could do in the event of a global crisis. The first ISR pilot exercises focus on wildfires, a phenomenon of increasing frequency and magnitude both in the United States and across the world, a direct result of climate change. The success of the pilot will be measured by the extent to which we can test current wisdom about the resources that scientists need to help protect people and nature during wildfires and to set them up for faster and more equitable recovery afterwards. We can use the valuable information coming out of the wildfire pilot to keep improving processes to identify needed resources in advance, to match scientists to those resources, and to track the projects and lessons that result. Indeed, science is a process and develops in real-time as we iterate in a constant improvement process, fine-tuning our systems of communication and collaboration. We expect to have the results of our pilot ready in mid-2022 and will announce our next ISR crisis focus areas soon after. 

While we have just begun, we are satisfied to see strong indications that a wide range of people and partners are energized by the ISR’s ideas and ambition. We have in place an Executive Board, generous funding partners including IBM, Google, UL, and Pfizer, collaborators such as the National Science Foundation, and we have already recruited over 1,000 scientists into our engaged ISR community. 

The wide range of responses we’ve seen to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the associated skepticism about scientific expertise, have shown a real need for science-informed leadership in the service of the public good – at both a national and global scale. The pandemic also revealed the need for a scientific appreciation of how existing disparities and inequalities will be worsened by these kinds of crises if public policy does not start by protecting the most vulnerable first. The ISR at the New York Academy of Sciences is stepping up to help drive evidence-based change. It is only by heeding the hard lessons from the pandemic that the world can truly prepare to respond more effectively when the next global crisis comes. It is the Academy’s ambition for the ISR to strengthen response and recovery efforts to save lives, restore services, and offer hope for better outcomes in the future. The ultimate measure of our success is not the impact of the ISR on the scientific community. The measure of success is the impact on the lives of all people and the health of our planet. 

International Science Reserve: The Evolution of a Global Scientific Readiness Force

March 16, 2022
by Dario Gil
BlogMission

By Dario Gil, SVP and Director of Research, IBM

In June 2020, we were all in one of the first waves of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which had crippled our world. And back then, neither I nor anyone else could anticipate just how much damage and dread this disease would bring – and for many, feelings of uncertainty and nervousness about the future just wouldn’t go away. 

But many of us were already thinking ahead. This crisis would eventually end, we assumed. But it most likely wouldn’t be the last one. In my conversations with leaders across governments and industries, there was a common thread from us all: we wanted the world to be ready for the next crisis ahead of time.  

Today, this vision is becoming a reality with the International Science Reserve (ISR), powered by the New York Academy of Sciences with participation from IBM and other public and private sector leaders. This new organization intends to become a nimble network of academia, industry, and government, blurring geographical borders to collaboratively prepare for the next global emergency. Although ISR is at the very dawn of our journey – I am confident we will make a difference when the next crisis strikes. 

We are confident in the ISR approach because we have a great example to learn from – the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium.  

Early at the start of the pandemic, our teams at IBM rapidly mobilized thousands of researchers to help fight the deadly virus. We weren’t working in a vacuum – a few months earlier, IBM, the White House, and the US Department of Energy had launched a new global body called the COVID-19 HPC Consortium. This organization rapidly expanded to include many partners from academia, industry, and US national labs, pooling together the world’s most powerful high-performance computing resources to offer to scientists fighting the disease.  

Working together, the HPC Consortium (HPCC) was able to quickly aggregate and open unfettered access to the power of dozens of supercomputers to scientists searching for a vaccine or treatment against the virus. The success of the HPCC demonstrated the power of what’s possible when we break down borders and red tape to quickly collaborate and accelerate science in times when it’s needed most.  

Ultimately, the HPCC delivered steady results thanks to the efforts of our members and the researchers worldwide using its computing resources. With partners including Google Cloud, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, NASA, MIT, NSF, the Department of Energy’s national labs, as well as government and academic organizations from beyond the US, the Consortium has so far helped more than 100 research teams to come up with new treatments, better understand the spread of COVID-19, and much more. Every milestone has been a testament to the crucial importance of global collaboration – and for the establishment of a new, broader, organization that would go beyond computing and enable us to prepare for future catastrophes from multiple fronts.  

At IBM, we soon began to think about how we could make this broader vision a reality. An organization… a global body… always ready for ‘known unknowns’ and large-scale emergencies we could anticipate and prepare for ahead of time… similar to a military reserve always ready to defend in case of war.  

Our world needs a reserve of scientists, of experts in different fields that would always be ready to address any future global crisis. An organization with the bottom-up nature of the reserve concept, comprised of researchers using the power of the network to prepare for a new emergency.  

We know that another pandemic is very likely, possibly with some new, unknown pathogen. That the world will continue to have more devastating wildfires and deadly earthquakes. Cyberattacks could take out infrastructure on a massive scale and asteroids could threaten the Earth. That such ongoing problems as antibiotic resistance and climate change could trigger a catastrophe at any time. And if we start preparing for the next crisis early – unlike with COVID-19, scrambling in haste and panic – then we will be much more likely to save lives. 

Over the past year, IBM has been working with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) to establish the International Science Reserve (ISR) to execute this vision. The ISR is still a very young organization, but we are gathering steam. We have a vision. Together with global talent from various scientific and technological fields, we will have an invaluable reserve of expertise – much-needed to tackle a future emergency. 

Let’s prepare for the next crisis – together.  

Why Wildfires Were Chosen as the Pilot Crisis for the International Science Reserve

January 11, 2022
by ISR Staff
BlogCrisis

We’ve faced unimaginable difficulties in public health since 2020, but the pandemic isn’t the only crisis confronting communities across the globe.

Although wildfires have been ravaging countries around the world for the last decade, many have recently seen their worst blazes in generations.

In 2020, Colorado and California made global headlines for recording their largest wildfires in history, collectively burning through almost 5 million acres of land. In a report from the National Interagency Coordination Center, the amount of land burned by wildfires in the western U.S reached 8.8 million acres—an area larger than the entire state of Maryland. Unfortunately, these disasters are not just occurring in the U.S.

Climate change exacerbates conditions that are favorable for wildfires, including hotter temperatures, longer droughts, and drier vegetation. Today, we’re experiencing these conditions in real-time as record high temperatures now occur twice as often as record lows across the United States.

As wildfires continue to increase in frequency and severity, we must be prepared for the next crisis that threatens to devastate lives.

Scientists are a crucial component of any large-scale response to a global emergency, and the current procedures around wildfire preparedness and prevention are not sufficient enough to successfully mitigate the issue. 

Over the last decade, federal investments in wildfire research have been disproportionately lower than the amount spent on wildfire suppression. For example, the U.S. Forest Service spent nearly $2 billion towards putting out wildfires in 2016, yet only received $27 million to fund their National Fire Plan Research and Development Program that same year. More recently, the ongoing health crisis has led to researchers getting reduced financial support from federal and state government agencies to help address the magnitude of fire risk and preparedness.

Outside of the need for increased research investments,  there is also a lack of cohesion between industry, academia, and government when it comes to wildfire prevention. Last year’s COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, an innovative public-private body that provided more than 600 petaflops of free computing power to the COVID-19 research effort, successfully proved that harnessing the power of industry and academia is the best way to flexibly address a future crisis.

This is why we’re recruiting scientists to join the International Science Reserve (ISR), a global network of experts working to accelerate solutions that will help mitigate global crises like wildfires. While there are existing organizations dedicated to crisis response, the ISR is specifically focused on mobilizing scientists to augment existing response organizations. This creates an engaged ‘crisis community’ which regularly participates in preparedness exercises and contributes to a better understanding of the role of science in crisis mitigation. In the long term, this could influence future policy regarding the role of science in crisis preparation and response.

The International Science Reserve will bring together an esteemed network of scientists to accelerate solutions to prepare for — and help mitigate — the impact of wildfires. 

To help slow the rapid spread of wildfires, scientists in the International Science Reserve (ISR) will address the issue with a multitude of actions. These actions may include:

  • Integrating long-term climate modelling into scenario planning so national and international organizations can better prepare for when and where wildfires are likely to be a danger. 
  • Collaborating with international scientists to examine long-term climate trends as well as organizations involved in short- and medium-term weather forecasting, such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • Partnering with the World Meteorological Organization to ensure that accessible and timely data are made available to determine impacts of smoke and air pollution stemming from the fires.
  • Conducting in-depth analyses of the responses of various organizations to wildfires, as well as highlighting best practices for actions which are known to be effective to help with future prevention.

If you or your organization are interested in learning more about the International Science Reserve and how you can get involved, please contact us at ISR@nyas.org. We need your partnership in this mission.

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The International Science Reserve is a network of open scientific communities, bringing together specialized resources from across the globe to prepare for and help mitigate complex and urgent global crises. We focus solely on preparing and mobilizing scientists to augment existing response organizations.