Ecological research seeks to describe the interactions between an environment and the species living there. But there’s one important species most ecological work overlooks—us.

Human society, our histories, our economies, our politics, has played just as much hand in shaping the ecology as the migration of animals or the shifting of continents has. The darker sides of human history—war, colonialism, racism—have had especially long-lasting effects. Yet ecological research seldom attempts to grapple with these forces. Ignoring the human element within the history of a landscape has led to research and conservation efforts that are at best, clumsy, and at worse, extractive and exploitative. 

A recent paper, spearheaded by Yale Ph.D. student Gabriel Gadsden and Woodwell Climate postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nigel Golden, under the advisement of Yale University Professor, Dr. Nyeema Harris, has laid out a more interdisciplinary approach to conservation ecology, one that reckons with the negative histories affecting research sites and uses that knowledge to reduce bias within the scientific process. Failing to do so, the paper argues, perpetuates a societal “landscape of fear” — one that restricts the potential benefits of science for both wildlife and human communities.

Fear moves like a predator

In ecology, the term “landscape of fear” is used to describe animal behaviors as a product of perceived risk or fear, specifically of predation. For example, if you are an elephant, Dr. Golden suggests, one of the largest animals moving through the physical landscape, you have few predators; your risk of being hunted is low. The amount of time you can spend searching for food isn’t limited by fear.  But if you are one of the Arctic ground squirrels that Dr. Golden conducted his graduate research on, everything from grizzly bears to golden eagles to foxes and weasels, is hunting you. The elephant’s behavior is constrained by access to food and water and other resources, but the ground squirrel’s behaviors are likely more motivated by fear. Animals perceive threats within a landscape and react accordingly.

But, as Gadsden points out, “Fear is an emotion that humans deal with, too.”

Fear moves like a predator on human landscapes, creating perceptions of places and people that may be incomplete or flat out inaccurate. When science is constrained by these perceptions, everything from the methods used, to the research questions being asked, is tainted with bias. 

“If you fear a landscape, then you probably aren’t going to go there to do your research,” Gadsden explains. “If you have this dominant idea about people that maybe isn’t true, you’re not going to seek collaborations with them. Or maybe you will do research in that area, but it won’t be community-led and community-oriented. All of the unspoken restrictions that fear induces has implications on research outside of the significance of a result.” 

Like a predator, these fears often target the most vulnerable groups. In urban environments, unequal distribution of greenspace has resulted in less wealthy, often minority, neighborhoods suffering much higher risks of extreme heat and consequent health impacts. This disparity has its origins in racist housing and development policies like redlining—which limited financial services available to people deemed “hazardous to investment,” and reduced financial growth in their neighborhoods. 

At a larger scale, these biases can be seen in the types of environments that are prioritized for conservation. There is a false notion that “pristine” wilderness holds more value than areas deemed degraded or developed, an idea that ignores the fact that many “pristine” wilderness spaces were shaped for centuries by Indigenous communities.

Do your research before you do your research

Acknowledging history, Gadsden and Dr. Golden say, is a critical first step in conducting science and conservation that doesn’t play into these unequal and unjust perceptions— causing more harm, even when the intention is to help.

In the case of the first U.S. National Parks, intended to protect the country’s natural landscapes from development, the removal of Indigenous peoples has left an indelible mark on the history and ecology of the region. Not understanding that Native communities had been maintaining healthy and productive forests using controlled fire, U.S. Forest Service policies harshly suppressed fires for over a century which altered the ecological composition of the forest and allowed dry fuel to build up. This, coupled with a climate growing hotter and drier,  created the conditions for the intense and out-of-control wildfires seen today.

Examples like this are common in the field of conservation when researchers enter a new landscape without knowledge of the site’s histories. 

“We know that our science is not just informed by the landscape or the species,” says Dr. Golden. “It’s also informed by the social and political context around it.”

So Gadsden and Dr. Golden recommend scientists begin their research by asking the right questions. “Okay, so this is your study site?” says Gadsden. “How did your study site come to be?”

Recognition of these histories could be as simple as a paragraph embedded in an article, or a land acknowledgement published alongside the research, but the paper outlines additional steps for researchers to take. Including local communities at the outset of a project, especially when developing conservation plans that will impact them, can further strip back biases and help scientists better understand local perspectives on the natural environment.

“One generally would not venture into the jungle without first building a relationship with a local guide,” the authors write in the paper, pointing out that it should be equally unadvisable to venture into a community without building connections with people who can guide you through it. 

Building better science together

Their final recommendation involves collaboration across disciplines. The paper suggests that scientific research could benefit from “co-creating knowledge” with groups focused on sociological or environmental justice research to grapple with the ways societal and political forces have shaped ecology.

Dr. Golden has been applying these concepts to Woodwell Climate’s Polaris Project, which he coordinates. The project gives young scientists hands-on experience working in an Arctic environment.

“But it’s unethical for us to bring folks into Arctic science without having a clear understanding of the history of the Arctic and Arctic peoples, and how we’ve gotten to the problems that we are trying to solve today,” Dr. Golden explains. So the program is working on better understanding the history of their field site in Alaska. Polaris has partnered with the grassroots community leadership group Native Movement to conduct anti-colonial training for their participants. 

“Knowing the history and context of the communities living in Alaska is one of the guidelines that we can use for co-creating knowledge with those communities,” says Dr. Golden.

These recommendations, Dr. Golden hopes, will provide a path forward for scientists looking to reduce bias in their research, and bring forward the voices of groups historically marginalized by biased science.

“If we focus on the most marginalized, we’re more likely to produce outcomes that are equitable for everyone,” Dr. Golden says.

Woodwell workshop brings Indigenous firefighters to Brasilia

A week-long workshop encourages knowledge sharing between Indigenous Brazilian fire brigades

workshop participants on field trip in Cerrado

On March 28, 2022, firefighters from Indigenous communities across Brazil gathered in Brasília, the country’s capitol, for a week-long geography and cartography workshop. The workshop, a collaboration between the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon River Basin (COICA), IPAM Amazônia, and Woodwell Climate Research Center, walked participants through the basics of using Global Information Systems technology to monitor and manage their own lands and forests.

Forests and native vegetation on Indigenous lands have been sustainably managed for millenia, and studies have found Indigenous stewardship of forests is an effective measure for preventing deforestation and degradation. Escaped fires can present a threat to forests, and many Indigenous communities have their own brigades that work on detecting and preventing runaway fires. In some places, prescribed burns are used as a tool for shaping and cultivating the land.

Participants attended from Indigenous lands located in a variety of Brazilian landscapes—from the Cerrado to the heart of the Amazon. Despite differences, participants found learning from other Indigenous communities extremely valuable.

“People came with a variety of skill sets,” said Woodwell Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo. “What was most meaningful for participants was seeing other people like them, who do the same work and are also Indigenous people, already dominating material, knowing how to make the maps, and helping others. It gave them confidence that they could also figure it out.”

After a day of introduction to the core concepts of GIS and mapping, participants headed out to Brasília National Park to test their newfound skills. They visited burned areas from both an escaped fire and a prescribed burn, compared the two, marked GPS points, and took pictures. The data gathered on the field trip was used over the next few days to practice making maps. 

“The goal was to not only teach the theory and help them understand the steps for making maps, but also mainly to develop the skills for them to be able to apply to their own lands on their own time,” said Woodwell postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Manoela Machado, who helped organize the event.

The workshop also fostered discussions about the complexity of management when fire can be both a threat and a tool. Because fire manifests differently in different biomes, well-managed fires look different for each community.

“On the final day, we had a discussion of values. Is fire good or bad? For whom—ants, forests, human health?” said Dr. Machado. “You can’t just criminalize fire if it’s a part of traditional knowledge and used as a tool for providing food, for example. So it’s a complex issue.” 

Dr. Machado hopes the conversations will continue. She says the goal would be to host this workshop again to expand its reach, potentially beyond Brazil to include participants in other Amazonian countries.

Woodwell launches new project monitoring, combatting the effects of permafrost thaw

A $41 Million grant through The Audacious Project will fund Permafrost Pathways work

collapsing slope near water in siberia due to permafrost thaw
It’s a big idea—a pan-Arctic monitoring network for permafrost emissions—but big ideas are exactly what The Audacious Project was created to foster.

This April, Woodwell Climate Research Center was awarded 41.2 million dollars through Audacious to not only build such a network, filling gaps in our understanding of how much carbon is released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost, but also to put research to work shaping policy and helping people.

The new project, called Permafrost Pathways, combines scientific prowess from Woodwell with policy, community engagement, and Indigenous knowledge from the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), and the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in global climate calculations. Thawing permafrost is expected to release between 30 and 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100, the higher estimates on par with or even exceeding the United States’ cumulative emissions if allowed to continue at current rates. Yet permafrost is not accounted for in carbon budgets and international agreements. Permafrost Pathways will develop more complete data on permafrost carbon and deliver that research into the hands of those poised to decide how we deal with the warming Arctic.

Big problems require big solutions

Permafrost Pathways is led on the Woodwell side by Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who have both been researching permafrost carbon for years. Dr. Natali found her way to the Arctic through a desire to work in a place significant to the global carbon story. The rapid changes she has witnessed in the past decade have underscored the Arctic as ground zero for climate change.

“I’ve seen dramatic changes from one year to the next in the places where I work, and Arctic residents have been observing these changes for decades,” Dr. Natali says. “You can measure something one year and then the ground there collapses the next. The physical changes across the landscape are really startling to see.”

Drs. Natali and Rogers have seen eroded hillslopes, research trips abandoned due to wildfire, community meetings with Arctic residents whose homes are sinking—every experience reinforced the fact that there was still much more to learn about how thawing permafrost feeds into climate change and is impacting Arctic communities.

The Audacious grant will allow Drs. Natali and Rogers to pull together the threads of their prior research into a project that starts to tackle the issue on a grander scale.

“When you’re focused on individual problems or hypotheses, you’re not able to really think big about something like monitoring across the Arctic,” says Dr. Rogers. “Opening up a funding source like this lets you think at a scale that matches the problems we face.”

The project is thinking really big, with the goal of installing 10 new eddy covariance towers—structures with instruments that measure carbon flux—in key areas where data is currently lacking. Pathways will also maintain existing key towers that would otherwise be decommissioned, and augment others to measure carbon fluxes year-round.

“There are a lot of existing towers that are either not running through the winter, or they’re not measuring methane, or they’re on hold for instrumentation upgrades or lack of funding,” Dr. Natali says. “We will get even more new data by maintaining old towers than constructing new ones.”

In parallel, Woodwell will work with a team at University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a novel permafrost model that fully harnesses the data, accounting for important but currently neglected processes, and ultimately delivers more accurate projections of permafrost emissions to inform policy makers and Arctic communities.

‘It’s an awful decision’

While the science team ramps up new data collection, AIJ will be breaking down the issue of adaptation. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and it is not waiting for exact measurements to make the consequences known.

The land upon which many Alaska Native communities are located is destabilizing in the face of usteq—a Yupik word for the catastrophic ground collapse that occurs when thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding combine to pull the ground out from under them. In many places the formerly solid cornerstones of villages—houses, roads, airports, cemeteries— have had to be picked up and moved to more stable ground.

“It is an awful, awful decision that communities are being faced with because the land on which they’re living is becoming uninhabitable,” says Executive Director of AIJ, Dr. Robin Bronen.

On top of the trauma of watching their villages sink into the Earth, there is no clear path for Arctic communities deciding they must completely relocate.

“It’s become painfully clear that we in the United States have no institutional or governance structure to facilitate this type of movement of people,” says Dr. Bronen. There is no standardized way for people displaced by the climate crisis seeking resettlement to apply for funding and technical assistance for a community-wide relocation.

“If policy changes aren’t made nationally, then a lot of communities in the United States are going to be experiencing this incredible disconnect between making the decision that they are ready to leave, but having no resources to implement that decision,” says Dr. Bronen.

Permafrost Pathways will be working with Arctic residents to help them adapt to their rapidly shifting landscape. Through AIJ and the Alaska Native Science Commission, the project will connect with communities, collaborate to generate data they can use in their decision making and, if they make the choice to move, work with them to secure the resources needed for relocation.

Factoring Permafrost Thaw into our Global Future

Permafrost Pathways isn’t the first to tackle these issues but, Dr. Natali says, it does represent a unique combination of expertise that could push forward both carbon mitigation and climate adaptation policies.

Leader of the Arctic Initiative, professor, and Senior Advisor to Woodwell’s president, Dr. John Holdren understands the value of connections in making lasting change; he has been speaking to top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad for much of his career.

“All of us at the Belfer Center have been linking science and policy for a long time and communication is important to that,” says Dr. Holdren. “In my view, it’s going to remain important to have personal connections at high levels.”

Working through these connections, Permafrost Pathways will put the project’s science into the hands of policymakers to impress upon them the issue’s urgency.

“All the news coming out about permafrost carbon has been bad news,” says Dr. Holdren. “I think what we are going to find is that the high estimates are much more likely to be right than the low estimates. We’ve got to get that factored into the policy process.”

For Dr. Natali, the most important outcome of Permafrost Pathways is a future in which the threats presented by permafrost thaw are taken seriously by governments.

“I want to see permafrost thaw emissions accounted for,” says Dr. Natali. “I want to see the national and international community actually wrestle with the effects of permafrost thaw and to take action to respond to the climate hazards.”

Dr. Rogers says he hopes the collaborative nature of this already-big project will have even larger, rippling effects— paving the way for new partnerships and policy change.

“There’s the critical work that we will be doing, and then there are the new doors that a project of this scope opens,” says Dr. Rogers. “And we aren’t reaching our end goal without those open doors.”

The Audacious Project is an initiative of the non-profit TED that funds large-scale solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Every year, the Project selects a cohort of big ideas to nurture with funding and resources.

Despite centuries of successful Indigenous management, the Xingu’s fire regimes are changing

Indigenous community in the Xingu reserve


What’s new?

The first designated Indigenous land in Brazil, Território Indígena do Xingu (TIX), has been cited by studies for decades as a successful buffer against the deforestation, degradation, and fires that plague other parts of the Amazon. A recent study, co-authored by Dr. Divino Silvério, Professor at the Universidade Federal Rural da Amazônia, and Dr. Marcia Macedo, Woodwell Water Program Director, shows that fire regimes are changing in the Xingu region, leading to more forest loss and degradation.

The paper shows roughly 7 percent of the TIX has been degraded by drought and fire. Degradation is part of a feedback loop wherein damaged forests become drier and more susceptible to burning in future fires.

“I remember when I started my Ph.D., a 2006 paper showed that Indigenous lands were extremely effective fire breaks—the Xingu just never saw fire. Climate change has completely changed that story,” said Dr. Marcia Macedo.

Understanding: Changing fire regimes

Indigenous communities in the TIX have been managing the rainforest for centuries with finely adapted slash and burn cycles that create space for agriculture and promote the growth of natural species used in construction, medicine, and cooking. These cycles can last three to four decades before an area is burned again. Traditionally, burns were well controlled and the rainforests surrounding burned areas were healthy enough to prevent flames from escaping.

But over the past two decades, the paper observed, escaped fires have occurred more often within the reserve and the likelihood that forest is lost post-fire is rising, particularly in seasonally flooded forests. Indigenous management practices have not changed significantly, the paper explains, so why the increased prevalence of fire and degradation?

Climate change is drying out forests, making them more susceptible to escaped burning from management practices. The other factor driving degradation within the territory is growing population. Indigenous communities are becoming less nomadic, and village populations are rising, increasing the area of forest used for subsistence. Degradation was higher in areas surrounding villages.

“The way Indigenous people manage fire has stayed the same, but we now have a different climate,” said Dr. Divino Silvério. “Indigenous people have been in these regions for many decades or centuries. And all this time they have had their own fire management to produce food that usually doesn’t end in these huge forest fires.”

What this means for Indigenous fire management

Climate change will force Indigenous communities within the reserve to adapt traditional practices to protect the forest against more frequent, intensifying fires—despite these communities not contributing to global emissions.

Previous attempts to manage increasing fires through prescribed burning have clashed with the needs of residents of the TIX. Burning at a different time of year does not cultivate the same species, and residents were concerned it was jeopardizing the growth of plants used for medicine.

Dr. Silvério is working with residents of the Xingu to understand how to integrate changes to fire management practices with traditional strategies in a way that supports community needs. One example, he said, could be shifting the primary construction material from grasses (that grow after fire) to palms.

“Indigenous people will probably need to learn how to live in this new reality, an environment with more drought and more fires. We are trying to work in a participative way to construct solutions with them.”