Geology & Geophysics AGU News

Community-Driven Science: Update on the Thriving Earth Exchange

As AGU marks its Centennial, our organization’s program that recruits volunteer scientists to help with local priorities celebrates 5 years of working in communities representing 12 million people.

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Over the last 5 years, Thriving Earth Exchange has launched more than 80 projects that share three things in common: They use Earth and space science, they make a concrete local impact, and most important, the projects are community driven. Thriving Earth Exchange empowers communities to decide what they want to accomplish and fosters scientific partnerships to help them accomplish their goals.

AGU launched Thriving Earth Exchange as part of a Centennial commitment to leverage our science to benefit humanity; however, we’ve found this community-driven approach yields real benefits for our science and scientists as well. Thriving Earth Exchange introduces previously unexplored questions and techniques to our fields. It creates new partnerships and opportunities for AGU and helps our scientists learn novel skills and expand their careers. It helps diversify science through workshops and projects that are led by women and people of color. Thriving Earth Exchange even contributes to public support for investment in science. Eboni Cochran, a community leader who is working with Thriving Earth Exchange to improve air quality in the “Rubbertown” neighborhoods of Louisville, Ky., wrote a letter of support that was read on the floor of U.S. Senate during the 2017 budget debate.

Although all projects are driven by community priorities, three main themes have emerged: reducing the impact of natural hazards, cleaning up pollution, and addressing climate change.

Reducing Natural Hazard Impacts

As the number and severity of natural disasters grow, more projects are working to prevent hazards, particularly flooding. As part of AGU’s Fall Meeting 2017 in New Orleans, Thriving Earth Exchange cohosted a tour of the city, which included a visit to one of the city’s new rain gardens. These rain gardens hold water to help keep adjacent neighborhoods from flooding. The gardens are part of a citywide effort to store water until it can flow naturally out of the city. This nature-based approach to resilience is a common feature of many Thriving Earth Exchange projects.

In the Chantilly neighborhood of New Orleans, Thriving Earth Exchange worked with ISeeChange, a locally led citizen science project, to help collect and analyze data and stories about neighborhood flooding. Scientists at the National Weather Service used those data to improve local hydrological forecasts, and Chantilly residents used them to convince the city to enlarge the footprint of a proposed resilience effort to include their neighborhood.

Approximately 1,125 kilometers east, Thriving Earth Exchange helped design a green and flood-resilient city hall in Midway, Ga. The new city hall was the initiative of the mayor, who rallied her city around beautification, efficiency, and improved city services. Students from nearby Savannah State University, working with Thriving Earth Exchange scientists, added ditches to collect rainwater, permeable paving, rain gardens, and cisterns to the city hall site plan. The results included lower operating costs and reduced flooding risk and ensured accessibility during extreme rain events. Upon reviewing the high-quality student work, a local engineering firm certified the drawings for free.

This project highlights the importance of beginning with community priorities. Local climate adaptation was enabled by the mayor’s commitment to safety and reliability and her willingness to explore new strategies to meet those goals.

Cleaning Up Pollution

One of the earliest Thriving Earth Exchange projects tackled air pollution in the northeast corner of Denver. Residents were concerned about spilled chemicals from long-abandoned dry cleaning operations that may have been transported by groundwater and were releasing gases in the basements of local homes. Although the scientific leads on the project designed a testing and mapping program, community leaders insisted the project offer individual residents options for remediation—something the scientists hadn’t focused on. The most efficient remediation option was to ventilate the basement or crawl space in the same way these spaces are ventilated for radon. By combining the testing for dry cleaning chemicals with testing for radon, homeowners became eligible for a program that helped fund radon remediation.

Not only did this eligibility help individual residents respond when tests revealed the presence of dangerous gases, but it led to a better understanding of radon as an environmental justice issue in Denver and the surrounding area. Radon is ubiquitous in Denver, and it is more likely to impact renters, older homeowners who bought their home before radon testing was routine, and low-income residents who cannot afford remediation. As a result of this project, a coalition of scientists and community and business leaders has launched an ambitious program of radon awareness and testing. In their first 6 months they have distributed radon testing kits, hosted 12 community events, and helped 42 homeowners.

One of the key lessons for this project is the importance of focusing on concrete outcomes. The map of the distribution of chemicals and its connection to remediation is what made the project impactful. Thriving Earth Exchange works to focus projects toward action, not just understanding.

Addressing Climate Change

Thriving Earth Exchange is working with communities in the Pamir Mountains, which span the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to recover traditional ecological calendars. These calendars have been used for centuries to track local conditions, as well as ecological patterns, to adjust agricultural and pastoral practices. Historically, these calendars have been constantly refined and updated on the basis of experience, but they haven’t been used for decades. In some places, the calendars were actively suppressed in favor of larger-scale agricultural planning. Decades of military activity, often by outsiders, have also thwarted traditional agriculture practices.

After recovering the calendars, local communities found them to be out of sync with the environment. The rapidly changing climate, especially in mountainous regions, meant that the cues for planting, harvesting, and pastoral activities no longer matched local conditions. Village leaders are working with climate scientists to update these calendars and then use them to develop climate-resilient agricultural and pastoral practices. Trees and bushes planted and cared for using these updated calendars bore their first fruit earlier this year.

This project highlights the importance of intellectual humility in community-driven projects. Rather than insisting that villagers adopt international climate forecasts based on Western calendars, scientists on the project opted to respectfully contribute observations and data to a far older tradition.

What’s Next

Thriving Earth Exchange envisions a day when community collaboration is as much a part of the toolbox of geoscience as numerical modeling, field work, and long-term monitoring. To accomplish this, Thriving Earth Exchange and AGU have four goals: increase the number of community science projects, including expanding our international efforts; create more varied ways for scientists and community leaders to be part of community science projects; advance community science as a scholarly enterprise; and increase recognition for community science.

If you are curious about community science, explore opportunities on the Thriving Earth Exchange website, get involved, and share your stories with the team.

—Raj Pandya ([email protected]), Director, Thriving Earth Exchange, AGU

Citation: Pandya, R. (2018), Community-driven science: Update on the Thriving Earth Exchange, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO111287. Published on 07 December 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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