“There are so many cultural differences to consider,” notes Dave McGlinchey. “From how the meetings proceed, to specific local sensitivities, even down to Congolese humor. Even if I was cracking jokes in fluent French, it would be impossible to get the tone right. That’s why having someone like Joseph was so important.”

In July, McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations at Woodwell Climate, traveled with members of the Center’s risk team to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a two-day workshop. The Center has been involved in community work in the country for over 15 years, led in large part by Joseph Zambo, Woodwell’s policy coordinator in the DRC. This workshop represents the latest collaboration— an initial assessment of the country’s future climate risks. Congolese professors, scientists, and government officials joined to discuss gaps in the data and to develop adaptation strategies to be included in a final report later this year.

The workshop was facilitated by Zambo who, with poignant questions, stories to recount, and of course, a bit of humor, guided the group through the tough work of planning for the future. 

Expanding access to climate risk data

The community risk work in Kinshasa is one of over 20 successful risk assessments conducted as part of Woodwell Climate’s Just Access initiative. The project produces free, location-specific climate risk analysis for cities and regions both in the US and abroad. The hope is that, by providing free access to quality data— something often offered by private companies at prohibitively high costs — Just Access can facilitate adaptation planning for under-resourced communities. 

“With Just Access, we want to remove the barrier of cost for communities that want to understand the long-term risks they are facing because of climate change,” says McGlinchey. “Often these communities are the ones already facing climate-related challenges that will worsen as the century goes on.”

Guided by a community’s particular concerns, Woodwell’s Risk team works with available data on key climate risks—flooding, heat, water scarcity, fire— and uses models to construct an image of how those events are likely to change as global temperatures climb. In the DRC, water is a core concern, both in its absence, causing drought and crop failure, and in its abundance. 

“Heavy rains cause horrific flooding in the city of Mbandaka almost once or twice a year,” says Zambo. “In the capital, heavy rains are also destroying homes, roads, electrical structures, and internet connections.”

The most pressing risks vary from region to region. Across the world, in Acre, Brazil, Senior Scientist Emeritus Dr. Foster Brown says, “the word here is ‘heat.’” In Homer and Seldovia, Alaska, increasing wildfire days featured heavily. 

But improvements in data availability and resolution, as well as refinements of climate models, have made it possible to replicate assessments for a variety of risks in places as distant and different from each other as Homer, Alaska and Kerala, India. Risk assessments can offer both region-wide crop yield estimates and street-level maps of flooding for a single city district to inform community planning.

It’s about building trust

Key to the success of municipal-level work are relationships with people like Zambo, who can offer insights into the needs of a community that can’t be approximated from the outside. Each community is different— in what information they need to make decisions, their level of technical expertise, their governmental capacity to implement changes, and in the ways they prefer to work.

So, with each new assessment, the Risk team starts from scratch, building new relationships and listening to community needs. This process takes double time on the international stage, where a history of superficial NGO and academic involvement can overshadow collaboration. 

“A main goal with these reports is trust,” says Darcy Glenn, a Woodwell Climate research assistant who organized a risk assessment and workshop for Province 1 in Nepal last year with help from connections from her master’s program. “Building trust in the models, and trust in the methodology, and in us. That’s been our biggest hurdle when working with municipal leaders.”

Building that trust takes time. Province 1 was one of an early set of communities who worked with Woodwell Climate on risk assessments. While local leaders were interested in flooding and landslide risk information, what they really wanted was to increase the capacity of their own scientists and government employees to conduct climate modeling themselves. So the project was adapted to meet that need by tailoring a training workshop. The process took over a year to complete but Glenn says, that’s relationship-building time that can’t be rushed. 

It also highlights the importance of pre-established long term connections in the places we work.

“It’s one thing to go into a new community by yourself, it’s another to go in with someone who has been there 30 years and can help navigate,” says Dr. Brown. “You have to look for the key people who can help make things happen.”

Within Brazil, Dr. Brown is now regarded as one of these “key people”. He has been living and working in Rio Branco for over 30 years and his credibility as a member of the community helped facilitate an assessment of extreme heat risk in the region. In the DRC, Zambo has been working with Woodwell Climate on various projects for over a decade. Without their expertise to bridge cultural and language gaps, completing projects in Brazil and the DRC would not have been possible. 

Working for the Future

After getting risk information into the hands of communities, then comes the hard work of putting it to use. For Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Director of Woodwell Climate’s Risk Program, “the goal of the risk assessments is to give communities every potential tool we can to build resilience for themselves and future generations. With access to the right information, the next step in the adaptation planning process can begin.”

In Rio Branco, Dr. Brown says speaking to the changes people are already noticing has helped individuals connect better to the data. He’s been using the context of heat and fire alongside information from their report to strengthen conversations about existing forest and climate initiatives, authoring an alert for the tri-national “MAP” region (Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil, and Pando in Bolivia) about heat conditions and the implications for this year’s fire season.

He has also been introducing the information from the report to the community in other ways— teaching and speaking at events. According to Dr. Brown, widespread understanding of both near- and long-term climate risks will become more important for all communities as climate change progresses and impacts each place differently. Cities and towns will need reliable information to help them practically plan for the future.

“We’re trying to get people to expand their time ranges and start thinking about the future. And this report has helped,” says Dr. Brown. “Because the people who are going to see 2100 are already here. What will we be able to tell them about their future?”

In a world plagued by rapid change and challenges, I think many of us are asking the question: “How can I help?” As individuals, it can be hard to find a way to give back and help steward the natural resources we rely on. But, for those who love fly fishing—anglers—Science on the Fly offers a path to do just that. 

Science on the Fly engages the enthusiastic and passionate fly-fishing community, in the US and abroad, as community scientists. Members of the fly-fishing community have close relationships with their local rivers—from having a favorite fishing hole, to knowing the seasonally anticipated flows of the river and when certain bugs are hatching. They also are more aware than most of the impacts of climate change on local fisheries. In states like Colorado or Montana, anglers have given up the opportunity of even casting a fly rod at some points in the summer season. Why? The trout are too stressed and lethargic due to the droughts and rising water temperatures.

Crowdsourcing climate data

Our fly-fishing community scientists are excellent resources for data collection and observation of climate trends to create a clearer picture of how rivers are changing over time. With their help, we can increase the number of rivers subject to long-term studies of water quality and watershed health. Since Science on the Fly was founded in 2019, we have collected data on nutrients and organic compounds from over 350 river sites across the United States each month.

The science collection process is straight-forward and easy. Sample locations are chosen for their accessibility and interest to fly-fishing volunteers, who are responsible for collecting a small bottle of sterile river water from each location once a month, as well as data on air and water temperature. They then freeze the bottles and bulk ship them back to Woodwell Climate Research Center one or two times a year. 

At Woodwell Climate’s Environmental Chemistry Lab, we analyze the concentrations of nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silica, ammonium, dissolved organic carbon, and total dissolved nitrogen. All data is shared publicly, and after we have a year’s worth of data, we write a report of the state of the river for those sampling locations.

A rapidly expanding network

This project got to where it is extremely quickly. A year after the program was founded, we had grown from two community scientists to 140 enthusiastic river activists. Over the course of four years, more than 7,000 bottles have been placed into the hands of our empowered community scientists. 

It is easy to see how we got here so fast; when we offer a tool-kit that is free to the passionate angler and can help them give back to their watershed, they want to get involved. While it isn’t necessarily cheap for us, at a cost equaling $100 a bottle, it is an extremely effective way to add novel data to the climate science dataset on many watersheds—information we wouldn’t be able to gather otherwise.

We’re now exploring how best to integrate Science on the Fly’s water quality sampling and community scientist model with Woodwell Climate’s important research in the Alaskan Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Located at the lowest section of the permafrost belt, this region is experiencing rapid thaw as the climate warms. We ask: Could water quality collection be done in a way that tells the story of the rivers over time? Could anglers floating down these remote rivers provide samples in a timely manner? The answers, we’ve found, are yes, but it has taken some practice to get there, and the region presented unique challenges that we didn’t encounter in other regions.

Our core team at Science on the Fly now rafts, researches, and fishes vulnerable and wild rivers in this region—including the Arolik, Kanektok, Kisaralik, Kwethluk, and the Goodnews—each summer season. Each morning of the trip, the teams gear up and take a variety of samples and water quality measurements—including the collection of our 60 mL sterile river water samples. We also install or retrieve water temperature monitoring sensors in the watershed, so we can see river temperatures from the entire year. Some samples collected during the trips are used directly for the Science on the Fly program, while others help collect data for different research projects associated with Woodwell Climate or other organizations.

Building partnerships to sustain science

These research trips are only answering some of our questions, however. We still want to see these rivers’ nutrient concentrations throughout the summer season—not just when we’re floating (which is normally 10 or fewer days per river). Like most science, it’s not cheap. It’s also not easy to logistically coordinate a river research trip—all the gear, travel, food, science supplies, safety equipment, and qualified team members to float—from afar.

PapaBear Adventures in Bethel, Alaska is our answer to the other half of the questions. PapaBear is an operation that helps the adventurous outdoors person get to the headwaters of remote rivers, and gives them the tools they need to float the rivers on their own. They have been instrumental in meeting the transportation needs of other Woodwell Climate projects like the Polaris Program, and now they are helping Science on the Fly get anglers out to the rivers throughout the summer season.

Beyond working with PapaBear on transportation, Science on the Fly now stations a team member—me or Joe Mangiafico, for now—at PapaBear for the summer months. This team member preps the research team’s trips, making sure they are properly prepared to go down the rivers with all materials needed. But their main goal is to encourage other PapaBear clients and their groups to be involved in the sampling. Pre-made kits are handed out to groups floating these rivers. After the groups get off the rivers, our team member retrieves the filled sample kits and freezes them for shipping back to Woodwell Climate.

The data that has returned from these endeavors is already exciting.

 In summer 2021, our Science on the Fly research team sampled 2 rivers, the Kwethluk and Kisaralik, and by a lucky ask to some passing groups of anglers, the Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers were sampled as well. There were a total of 45 samples collected that summer. The following summer, the combination of Science On The Fly research teams and new efforts to increase engagement with volunteer community science groups, allowed us to increase collection to 248 sample bottles. We were able to successfully increase data collection on the other rivers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and added the Arolik to our list. We hope to accomplish even more in years to come.   

Four years of Science on the Fly has shown that community scientists and community science programs can be a powerful way to collect data, conduct research, and educate the public through our reports. Now that we’ve built a solid project structure, with data coming in consistently, we are beginning to switch gears and make an impact with report writing and affecting policy—all while continuing to add to the growing body of water and climate science. We’ll be using community-collected data to create tangible reports for anglers to better understand their watersheds. We will then use these reports to help make an impact on policies, with the goal of creating or maintaining healthy watersheds, especially in the face of climate change. We look forward to continuing to give back to our community scientists and to our rivers.


To learn more about Science on the Fly, visit our website.