WSU News

NSF supports global research in sustainability

Kelsey Reese, left, WSU anthropology graduate student, Tim Kohler and Elise Alonzi, Notre Dame anthropology student, examine ceramics from a site in Mesa Verde National Park in summer 2011. (Photo by Kay Barnett, NPS)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University regents professor of anthropology Tim Kohler believes that addressing the issues of future global sustainability requires delving into the past – the deep past. As co-investigator on a new $498,885 National Science Foundation Research Coordination Networks in Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability grant, he is not alone in that thinking.
In June 2009, the NSF and U.K. Natural Environment Research Council brought together a group of key environment and geosciences funding agencies in Washington, D.C., to discuss global sustainability. The event, known as the Belmont Conference, led to global change research priorities to be addressed through cooperative efforts and posed a challenge to researchers: “to deliver knowledge needed for action to mitigate and adapt to detrimental environmental change and extreme hazardous events.”
That statement, commonly referred to as the “Belmont Challenge,” became the catalyst for international collaborative efforts in science, engineering and social science research on weather and climate change, ecosystem sustainability, and energy, health and agriculture.
Network incorporates worldwide research
During the past decade, many international funding agencies have supported regional research efforts focused on the long-term interaction between humans and their environments. These “millennial-scale” research studies, so called because they track the dynamic relationships of societies and environments over 1,000 years or more, have been carried out in the southwestern United States, coastal Alaska, North Pacific and North Atlantic oceanic islands, Scottish Highlands and islands, Central America and Caribbean.
The resulting pool of data, spanning tropical to arctic latitudes, will be incorporated into a network known as the Global Long-term Human Ecodynamics Research Coordination Network (RCN) through the NSF grant.
“RCNs allow researchers who have projects funded in other ways to meet and discuss their research, with the idea that they create ‘a whole’ that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Kohler said.
The work to develop the RCN will provide insight into global climate issues. Once created, the RCN will serve as a universal resource for future collaborative efforts.
Integrating and sharing information
The plan for developing the RCN distills the effort into three foci with interrelated objectives. Three groups will be formed, one to handle each focus.
Members of the first group will integrate the results of the long-term regional studies to compare a variety of ecodynamics aspects. This team will collaborate with the second group on building the network’s cyber-infrastructure to improve data management of the studies, providing ready access for comparison purposes.
Group two also will integrate computerized models and various visualizations of data from the regional studies and create digital resources, such as blogs and PowerPoint presentations, for the RCN.
The third group, focused on educational outreach and community-centered involvement in the regional research, will use the RCN’s digital resources to develop materials to teach sustainable development and sustainability science through social media tools like YouTube, Twitter, SlideShare and Scribd.
Modeling human ecodynamics
Kohler will be actively involved in the first and second groups. Internationally known for his pioneering efforts developing agent-based modeling as a tool for archaeologists, he received the 2010 Excellence in Archaeological Analysis award from the Society for American Archaeology for this work and for his career-long commitment to modeling human ecodynamics in prehistory. In spring 2011 he delivered WSU’s Distinguished Faculty Address on this research.
He is one of four co-investigators on the multi-institution NSF RCN led by Sophia Perdikaris, director of CUNY Global Human Ecodynamics Research Center. Although all the co-investigators are in the U.S., the effort is strongly international in character.
Kohler is also the principal investigator of the decade-long NSF-funded Village Ecodynamics Project, which is one component of the RCN. In that project he investigates the depopulation that occurred in the Mesa Verde region of the American Southwest during the late 1200s, using agent-based modeling to construct virtual landscapes that resemble the prehistoric landscape.
The model “agents” (e.g., virtual households) are placed randomly on the landscape. They interact with the landscape and with other agents according to the rules applied within the simulation. As the landscape changes over time, settlement patterns are created in the models and compared with those known from the archaeological record for accuracy and predictive purposes.
Cold, competition and depopulation
This work resulted in a new explanation for the depopulation of the northern Southwest, which is laid out in the book “Leaving Mesa Verde: Peril and Change in the Thirteenth-Century Southwest” (University of Arizona Press, 2010), co-authored by Kohler. Another volume summarizing the entire project will be published by the University of California Press in April 2012.
“Many of us now think that prehistoric farmers left the northern Southwest in the late 1200s mostly because it was getting too cold to grow maize most years,” Kohler said.
Toward the end of the area’s occupation there is widespread evidence of violence due to populations immigrating into the region. Kohler said that would have resulted in extreme competition and significant resource depletion.
“That must have been the last straw for the remaining occupants.”
Modeling in Iceland, Greenland, Scotland
The modeling techniques developed by Kohler’s team may be useful to some of the other projects involved in the RCN.
“We are examining the possibility of doing some agent-based modeling, similar to what we do in the Village Ecodynamics Project, on some of the research sites in Iceland, Greenland or northern Scotland,” said Kohler.
Work on the RCN will begin in December 2011 and is funded for five years. Some resources will be available prior to the grant’s end date.
For more information on this and other NSF RCN grants go to:
Tim Kohler, Department of Anthropology, 509-335-2698,
Media contact:
Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts, 509-335-5671,