Linking Science and Action Networks from Chile to California: A model for global collaboration
Lisa Micheli, president, and CEO of Pepperwood Foundation of California, toured the UC Chile network and regional stations. This column describes her experience and the collaboration opportunities available to scientists worldwide.
How can we network scientific observation stations to meet two critical goals?
First, to create a stronger foundation for empirical science and generate results needed to inform regional and global models relied upon to guide long-term public and private policies and investments.
Second, to provide critical real-time data sets for immediate application to pressing human climate adaptation and nature conservation challenges in an era of rapid environmental change.
These are the questions that guide my priorities as a leader of the Pepperwood Foundation, an independent NGO, field station, and ecology institute based in Northern California.
Pepperwood operates in the context of multiple collectives including a private-public California Biodiversity Network with the University of California.
The gift of a Global Fulbright Scholarship and generosity of my local host here in Chile, the UC Chile Centro de Cambio Global, has provided me the opportunity to step out of my day-to-day responsibilities and contemplate these questions as part of a global community of practice capable of advancing our shared goals by combining our creative resources.
The timing couldn't be better, as a series of informal Chile-California practitioner exchanges that Pepperwood has been supporting over the past five years have recently converged into an official Memorandum of Understanding between our partners at the University of California and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC Chile).
Over the past two months here in Chile as a Fulbright Fellow, I've had the privilege of touring the incredible breadth — both in terms of geography and disciplines — of field station coverage represented by UC Chile’s Red de Centros y Estaciones Regionales (RCER UC) — which translates to the Network of Research Centers and Field Stations, thanks to the logistics support of Sergio Guitart, RCER coordinator.
This journey has taken me from the extreme desert of Atacama, to the coastline, volcanoes, lakes and rivers of Central Chile, to the ice fields of Patagonia.
Conversations I had with researchers, station managers, agency personnel, and private conservation leaders reveal the shared challenges and opportunities as a global community we face at this pivotal moment.
Moving forward, how can we leverage key technology advances and new social network models to meet our mutual goal of innovating solutions for a more resilient world?
My own involvement started with hosting a workshop on climate adaptation for Mediterranean-type ecosystems in 2017 as part of the first convening of the Chile-California Conservation Exchange (CCCX) at Pepperwood.
I then came to Santiago in 2018 to share that presentation care of the International Land Conservation Network and the Pew Foundation, which included joining in the landmark dedication of the Parque Patagonia with President Bachelet and the Tompkins Conservation.
The CCCX is the brainchild of Ralph Benson, a US leader in the land trust movement, who simply fell in love with Chile and upon his “retirement” was inspired to connect conservation leaders between these two lands that share so much in common, based in part on their geographic configuration on the Western edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Benson didn't have any agenda for these gatherings or their outcomes — instead trusting that just getting bright minds together, including scientists, conservationists, legal experts, policy makers and elected officials — could stimulate some powerful magic.
There have been many “spin offs” of the CCCX too numerous to list here, but one was the opportunity to link researchers focused on monitoring the mechanisms and patterns of fog formation on the Pacific Coast, one of the dimensions of Pepperwood´s own Sentinel Site research. (We define a “Sentinel Site” as a field station dedicated to standardized, long-term collection of climate and biodiversity data.)
We had learned through our research collaborations with the University of California and the USGS that the future of fog under climate change is presently a mystery critical to the climate resilience of our coastal ecosystems and communities.
Pepperwood has been refining fog monitoring methods with research partners since 2010, and we were delighted to host UC Chile visitors and participate in sharing data last fall with the University of California Natural Reserve System (UCNRS) team at the UC Berkeley campus.
Our partners at the UCNRS, led by Dr Steven Monfort, saw in this fog research brainstorm the opportunity to strengthen the reach of our shared methods and potential applications.
As a result, these leaders jumped through the many institutional hoops required to craft and ratify an international Memorandum of Understanding between UC Chile and University of California, signed March 2022.
For a regional NGO like my own, this alignment of major research institutions provides a critical anchor for smaller-scaled regional and community-based efforts.
Monfort and I co-chair a California Sentinel Site working group in collaboration with the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife´s Science Institute, Dr Christina Sloop. Together we are discovering that aligning our scientific efforts also strengthens the potential for relationships with government agencies.
By bringing diverse practitioners into collaboration, and therefore closer to a consensus on priorities and pathways forward, it makes it easier for public agencies to assimilate scientific results.
My field trips through RCER UC stations
The extent of the immediate practical private and public applications of the research underway by the RCER UC stations that I learned about via my recent field trips was impressive.
At the Atacama Desert Research Station (Alto Patache), I was privileged to meet the founding director, Dr. Pilar Cerecedo, and the current team led by Drs. Pablo Osses and Camilo del Rio.
The station itself is a small community entirely supported by captured fog for its water supply. Now it's researchers are looking at potential applications to municipalities in this region facing less and less fresh water availability due to climate change. Local schools visit to learn about their local “fog oasis” ecosystems and to raise awareness about ways to adapt to an increasingly extreme arid environment.
At the Coastal Marine Research Station (ECIM) based at La Cruces on the Central Coast, they are celebrating a 40th anniversary monitoring coastal resources. Ecologists there are modeling the relationship between kelp, fisheries, and the fishermen who rely on sustainable harvest of both for their well-being, which in turn supports the economy of the local community.
At Centro UC Desarrollo Local (CEDEL) in Villarrica, the land of volcanoes and lakes supporting the rich agricultural heartland of Chile, researchers are looking at relationships between agriculture and biodiversity in the working lands, and learning from indigenous leaders about traditional native bamboo collection from the understory of local forests as both a cultural resource and conservation method.
Meanwhile, in Patagonia long-term monitoring of aquatic ecosystems can provide a model for those seeking metrics of ecological health and restoration success. Beneficiaries could include new national parks, including those spearheaded by the Tompkins Foundation, and newer private reserves like one recently established by Fundación Tierra Austral and Fundación Kreen.
But the reality is that directors of individual stations and reserves already have their hands full and feel resource-limited, just like my own team at Pepperwood.
What are the benefits to these teams of networking data collection efforts?
A shared challenge we have is that new technologies allow us to catch more and bigger data faster than our small teams can process: rarely is there a big data specialist available on site.
Further, the goals of university research and education are not always aligned with streamlining and standardizing research methods. In fact, perhaps quite the opposite: basic researchers are rewarded for originality and innovating new methods, not “recycling” those of others.
But the largest obstacle may be human resources, which of course translates into funding: a critical need appears to be that each of the stations could use a dedicated data manager to process vast streams of information across disciplines.
Synthesizing environmental and biodiversity data into relevant indicators for application entails managing the vast volumes of information and translating them into meaningful derivatives for society.
This requires designing a centralized data management platform and strategy.
Coincident with my visit here, I was completing a proposal to our National Center for Ecosystem Analysis and Synthesis to conduct a 2-year-long technical convening focused on answering these questions for our own California-wide network with the benefit of big data and artificial intelligence specialists.
At UC Chile, this need is being met in part with the recent addition of Rodrigo Carrasco as leader of a campus-wide data science initiative.
Carrasco noted that any successful effort requires resolution of potentially thorny governance issues regarding data sharing, publication rights, and in some cases for confidentiality around data elements.
I look forward to the next steps in growing these budding partnerships and helping to realize shared wins for the scientific and conservation communities.
Further, this experience reminds me how important it is to build pathways for cultural exchange to support the next generation of science leadership.
It is thrilling to think about a stronger network for professional development across the Americas, leveraging lessons learned about growing bilingual Spanish-English community connections and frameworks.
I know the students visiting Pepperwood will be curious to know what their counterparts in Chile are thinking, exploring, and dreaming — and today we have the power to help make that connection.
For their sake, we can all play a part in bringing science to bear on challenges facing Chile and California, including how to protect our water resources in an increasingly arid world, prevent further losses of biodiversity, meet the “megafire” threat, and guide climate-smart and equitable development for the benefit of future generations.