Resiliency and the Environment

Stephen DeAngelis

June 07, 2006

In the commercial world, I preach that a resilient enterprise is agile and adaptable. It moves faster and more effectively than its competition. It responds to threats with more speed and greater accuracy than those who would put the organization at risk can hope to muster. A couple of articles in today’s New York Times provide examples of how technology and analysis can help make environmental organizations more resilient — capable of shaping consequences rather than just responding to them.

Analysis, of course, is only as good as the information upon which it is based. Garbage in, garbage out as the information age adage goes. The first article (“A Rain-Forest Census Takes Shape, Tree by Tree,” by Nancy Beth Jackson) goes to the very heart of obtaining good data that can be used to make decisions about the future of rain forests. Two ecologists, Robin Foster and Stephen P. Hubbell, have been painstakingly collecting data on a rain forest in Panama for a quarter of a century. Granted exclusive rights to 50 hectares (about 124 acres) of a biological reserve in the Panama Canal (a six-square-mile research island named Barro Colorado), administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, they have been able to count, measure, and document the fate of every tree within that area. Data doesn’t get much more accurate than that.

Foster’s and Hubbell’s little plot of land is now part of a larger network “run by the Center for Tropical Forest Science, created at the [Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute] in 1990, and it coordinates 17 other plots — now called “earth observatories” — in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with more to come.”
The article contains an interesting side note that shows how horizontal effects of vertical shocks have longlasting and unexpected consequences. According to the article, the headquarters of the Center for Tropical Forest Science was moved to Panama from the United States. The reason:

“Since Sept. 11, 2001, non-American scientists have found it easier to travel to meetings in Latin America or Asia than to the United States,” [said Dr. Stuart J. Davies, an Australian ecologist and new director of the Center.]

This is not a good thing. As I’ve noted before, globalization can only flourish when there is a relatively free movement of people, resources, and capital. Back to the environment.

When data was first collected, the scientists had to use computer punch cards. Things have changed:

New technologies speed, simplify and expand the work at the plots. Census takers can find their way in the forest with global positioning devices and access and enter information on their personal digital assistants. Canopy towers, photos from airplanes and satellites, and DNA analysis are other tools now being tapped by plot researchers.

With all that information, ecologists now face the same kind of “connect-the-dot” challenges as the intelligence community. As more and more global data is collected, the challenge will only grow. Automated rule sets and intelligence systems will be essential in helping them understand what is occurring so that appropriate action can be taken. As the article puts it, “Mapping and measuring individual trees over time and across continents will help scientists have a clearer understanding of how global change will affect the forests and what to do about it.” That is a good segue to the second article (“To Stem Widespread Extinction, Scientists Airlift Frogs in Carry-On Bags,” by Brenda Goodman).

Goodman’s article highlights how having good information can help decision makers take timely action to divert disaster — a critical characteristic of a resilient enterprise. Interestingly enough, this story also talks about Panama — specifically a “pristine national park that fills the bowl of El Valle, an inactive volcano” and the frogs that live there. In the rain forests, amphibians appear to be like the canary in the mine and there have been a number of articles over the past few years that have raised alarms about their survival. In this case, the culprit is “a waterborne form of chytrid fungus … marching down the spine of the mountain range where they live. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how the fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, kills, but it seems to break down a protein in the skin called keratin that may be important for respiration. The skin of infected animals sloughs off in layers, and within two weeks, they die. The chytrid fungus is thought to play a large role in the worldwide disappearance of amphibians, a trend terrifying to experts, who say it would be the first loss of an entire taxonomic class since the dinosaurs. Joseph R. Mendelson, curator of herpetology at Zoo Atlanta, who has discovered some 50 new species of frogs only to watch half of them become extinct in the last 15 years because of the fungus, was tired of watching helplessly as salamanders, newts and frogs were eradicated from one patch of forest after another.”

Good data and predictive tools allowed conservationists to intervene.

With the help of new data published on Feb. 28 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Karen R. Lips, a zoologist at Southern Illinois University who spent years tracking the chytrid fungus, scientists were able to predict where it would next strike.

Dr. Lips predicted there were only weeks left before the fungus spread into El Valle. As a result she was able to gather a group of scientists who understood the danger and who were willing to help her take action.

There was no time to do the meticulous studies of behavior, reproduction, eating habits and habitat that zoologists try to conduct before moving any endangered species from its natural environment. There was not even time to figure out where to keep hundreds of frogs. … They went into the forest at night, since most frogs are nocturnal, slogging down a river in hip waders and carrying powerful flashlights. After four separate trips, some lasting only 48 hours, the two men, along with a native guide who possessed stealth and fast hands, managed to gather 600 frogs, shooting for 20 males and 20 females of each species to ensure good genetic variation in their breeding colonies.

While the final outcome of this intervention is yet to be written, one thing is certain:

The chytrid fungus [has] recently been found in El Valle, as predicted, and … 90 percent of the frogs there [will probably] be gone within 90 days.

The point is, information and analysis (connecting-the-dots) allowed something to be done when doing nothing was not a viable alternative. This is what resiliency is all about. Saving tree frogs may not sound important, but if you remember, a post I made a little while ago (Business & Culture) talked about how poisonous tree frogs may contain clues to finding important medical cures. The effort seems worth it.