Asim Zia, Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont
208E Morrill Hall, Burlington, VT 05405 | 802.656.4695 | Email:

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Policy Analysis of Complex Systems:
   arrowAgent-based Modeling of Land-use Change and Watershed Systems

This project proposal is currently under review at National Science Foundation’s Coupled Natural and Human Dynamics Program.


Understanding of complex interactions in multi-scalar environmental change and sustainability is a major research challenge in human environmental sciences. This project extends the research frontier of sustainability science by developing an integrated (continuous and discrete) model of land cover and land use change (LCLUC) and scenario-based policy analysis, coupled with a gridded hydrological model, for the purpose of assisting farmers as well as watershed and forest managers in managing the complexity of coupled human and natural systems. The Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB), which produces approximately 52% of the nation's corn and 41% of the nation's soybean exports, is selected as the study area. A multidisciplinary team of remote sensing scientists, a hydrologist, a system dynamics modeler, an environmental policy analyst, and a climate scientist will collaborate to develop a spatially-explicit integrated model of both discrete (agent-based) human and continuous (stock-flow) environmental system dynamics intrinsic to land use change and consequences in the UMRB.

To engage with sustainability science applied to land use change in the UMRB, we ask: “How do experienced and anticipated changes in climate affect hydrology and associated human decisions about LCLUC (land use type, extent, seasonal transitions, and agricultural practices)? What are the further impacts of these changes on UMRB ecosystem resilience under alternative policy scenarios?” To address these questions, we will first develop a two-decade (1985-2006) LCLUC dataset using Landsat TM imagery. The dataset, together with detailed climate data and demographic data, will be employed to calibrate an integrated land use model with decisions made by autonomous software agents (e.g. farmers, urban households, planners, government, industry, and other institutions) responding to feedback from both continuous and discrete changes in the environment. The land use data and model outcomes will be coupled reflexively to a hydrological model for the purpose of ascertaining the availability and quality of water resources. The integrated model will be used to simulate LCLUC over two more decades (2010-2030) using climate predictions under scenarios of adoption of different land use policies. Impacts of different land use policies on regional water vulnerability and sustainability of human livelihoods will be investigated with this integrated modeling system. The results from the proposed research will provide critical information for scientific understanding of sustainability, vulnerability, and resilience of land systems and their uses.

Adaptive ecosystem management requires a simultaneous understanding of system structure as well as the agency of the manager in effecting change. To build their adaptive capacity, ecosystem managers can benefit from participatory modeling tools that integrate multiple spatial and temporal scale information as well as disciplinary knowledge across the natural, physical, social and policy sciences. The diverse background of the proposed interdisciplinary team provides the complementary skills and knowledge needed to improve scientific understanding of dynamics of human-environment interactions, with the UMRB as a large-scale case study in managing ecosystem complexity. The integrated educational and research activities of the proposed project will offer unique learning and research opportunities to a number of students in the science across multiple academic levels, from secondary to graduate level students. Project results will be beneficial for several federal agencies and local governments such as USDA Forest Service, EPA, NASA, USGS, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA), and The Upper Mississippi Basin Stakeholder Network (UMBSN). A participatory workshop will be conducted in the final year of the project for UMRB stakeholders to engage with the model for the purpose of exploring alternative assumptions about land and water use into the foreseeable future.