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What the FEWscapes Scenario Development Process Will Look Like

At the heart of FEWscapes is the co-development and assessment of scenarios of the future of food, energy, water, and ecosystems in the Upper Mississippi River Basin out to the year 2050, performed in collaboration with our community partners. This forward-looking approach requires a lot of conversation and trust-building to make the scenarios as useful and relevant to decision-making as possible.

We’ve reviewed the science and talked with people in the Basin about how our scenario process might unfold in ways that build trust and include differing viewpoints, and this post is our first effort to share what we’ve learned.

Our future scenario modeling process actually begins with examining the past. We do this for several reasons.

The three stages of the FEWscapes scenario modeling process include historical simulations to create baseline conditions, developing the future scenarios, and then assessing them to learn from them. Image credit: Eric Booth.

First, we need to simulate the past in order to capture historical land-use change and create the baseline conditions for the unfolding future. In FEWscapes, that baseline is focused on conditions that have profound impacts on food, energy, water, and ecosystems, and they’re lying beneath our feet: in the soil.

We often call the baseline creation “spinning up” the model. That is, the model keeps track of soil components – such as carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen – as land use and land cover has changed over the past couple hundred years. What is left at the end of this process is a legacy of the past on soil conditions, nutrients, and vegetation that varies across the landscape and can have an important influence on how ecosystems function in the future.

Second, simulating the past is critical for the model validation process, which ensures that the model is consistent with historical observations of streamflow, crop yield, and water quality. In other words, it helps us verify the model is giving us a reasonable representation of how the system is working.

And third, there is value to exploring the drivers of change in the recent past for achieving a better understanding of the system in general and, specifically, how combined changes in land use, climate, and policies have influenced the food, energy, water, and ecosystem metrics that we care about. For example, retrospective analyses of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which incentivized corn ethanol production, have highlighted tradeoffs with water quality and wildlife habitat, pointing to opportunities for improving policies in the future.

As with any modeling effort, getting the best possible data can be tricky for this validation process. Historical data can often be difficult to find for all of the inputs that our models require, but we piece it together based on different datasets (e.g., nutrients, climate) and even model outputs generated by other efforts (e.g., land use change).

Once our model of the recent past is validated, we can then turn our gaze towards the future. This is where our collaboration with community partners across the Basin becomes critical.

Scenarios are, essentially, “what ifs” for the future. Their development starts with a deliberate process of listening to the hopes and fears of a wide range of people invested in the future of the Basin, which we have already begun. Through these conversations, we hope to start co-creating a list of goals, stressors, innovations, and opportunities that are worth exploring in the scenarios.

The goals are particularly important because we can use the scenarios to assess the extent to which they may be accomplished. Our intent is for these goals to represent real-life aspirations for the region, such as nutrient reduction goals or the Sustainable Development Goals, which are an interest of the project team specifically. We will even go a step further to determine how those goals will be measured with specific metrics, many of which are direct model outputs.

For instance, nutrient reduction goals are clearly stated across the Basin with specific metrics that can be tied to our model output, such as nitrate leaching, phosphorus runoff, and sediment loads. However, other goals and their associated metrics may be less clear. This will be the subject of future workshops.

After we create the initial list of goals and metrics, the process of sketching out specific scenarios of the future begins. We envision co-creating two types of scenarios with our Basin partners: 1) stress tests that explore how sudden events or long-term trends could potentially impact FEWE negatively in the future and 2) aspirational scenarios that are focused on meeting specific future goals. In practice, a given scenario may end up being a mix of each type – e.g., more heavy rainfall (stress test) with a more resilient agricultural landscape (aspiration).

If you’ve never participated in a scenario exercise before, it might be difficult to imagine what a scenario looks like exactly. In this case, scenarios may start as a short narrative about the future that describes changes such as new policies, extreme events, and other factors that influence food, energy, water, and ecosystems. Ultimately, the goal is to convert these more qualitative descriptions of the future into specific, quantitative model inputs – in other words, what the narratives might mean for how temperature and rainfall changes, what land use looks like, and how soil nutrients cycle and move across the landscape and waterways.

What is essential about the set of scenarios we and our community partners create is that they are internally coherent, meaning all the pieces fit together sensibly; plausible based on our best understanding of how natural and social systems work; and, hopefully, different enough from each other to give us helpful points of comparison.

With our inputs in place, we will then estimate the consequences of the scenarios for food, energy, water, and ecosystems using our models, which will generate a suite of data, or outputs, including the previously identified metrics that can illuminate progress toward the goals of interest. In collaboration with our community partners, we will then use this package of information to assess whether these scenarios meet the goals and start disentangling some of the drivers of the outcomes we see and the implications for the decisions people are facing today.

There is also the opportunity for the group to iterate on the process, modifying or creating new scenarios to try to address lingering questions or ideas.

Ultimately, we envision these scenarios will help shine light on potential pathways to achieving goals for food, energy, water, and ecosystems and the unanticipated consequences (both good and bad) of land management decisions. We hope these potential pathways and unintended consequences can spark new thinking about how to achieve goals, validate the desires for existing efforts, and generally help managers, practitioners, and policymakers prepare for a future that will be different than today.

Eric Booth is a research scientist in the departments of agronomy and civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison.