Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Research and Reality - Social isolation cont..

This winter I've been focusing on the physical research part of my project. Developing a computer model of the catchment to represent a known flood event which will be used to look at water behaviour in alternative scenarios focusing on different tree based things...

But it's still a real world project (even if you ignore the integral social research aspect), about a real life catchment, involving real people; and I'm a real person living in the real world. I mentioned the impact of the flooding in October, but haven't addressed the extreme weather that hit us in the new year. I live inbetween the Severn and the Wye and my catchment is in monmouthshire, so the impact was throughout my personal and professional life.
And that was all before we went into lockdown due to a global pandemic...

Research into the real world always has to adapt with the changes, with new knowledge, little things all the time. You think you're up to date on the research and a new paper is published; you have all the data and then an extreme weather event 'physically shifts the ground you had measured'; you have spent six months learning about individuals, groups, families and social background of the catchment and then a....
wait
wtf
like, someone important dies and the scenario changes, or a farm is sold, or a large market shifts sales to somewhere else, or policy changes.... these things happen all the time and research is designed to integrate change. But a global pandemic?!?!

There are three things I want to write about here:

1: impacts of being continued solitary confinement due to 'lockdown' after three months of solitary confinement due to 'data input' and why I will not be going out to catchment any time soon

2: Why I can see that still doing this research is important even though I want to hide in a corner

3: Where I am with the computer model and what the next steps are now that I can't go back into catchment for 3 months


1 - Solitary confinement continued....


So, computer modelling (see below for more info on what I'm actually doing) is really interesting... once you have something to analyse. But it involves a lot of sitting on your own working at a computer, and as I'm in the 'social geography' office, rather than the 'physical geography' office (they're the next floor up), I couldn't even ask for help. Most people couldn't understand why I had two computer screens and would laugh when they saw what was on them...
So I've spent a lot of time working from home, it was less depressing and with an hours commute, gained me over two hours extra time in total.

I was really looking forward to some sunlight, an office larger than a cupboard, and getting back out into catchment to meet people, investigate the policy scenario, get some physical data measurements and get back onto farms. The floods delayed my physical measurements, as I don't actually need readings for these particular floods, and going anywhere near a river in that condition would have been really really stupid.

But I was struggling.

I was really really getting lonely, and I was struggling with new data formats that I didn't understand, and R coding that was quite beyond my current skill level.
I'm also not very good at asking for help. Despite chatting to my supervisors I wasn't making the progress I should have been and finally worked myself up into getting onto the unknown floor and asking for help. And it was great, code was sent, offers of help and support set up, it was going to be fine... and then pandemic

Now, I am in a very safe, very comfortable position. Don't get me wrong. Yes my computer died, but we've set up an old one, Yes my office was too small for the old computer, but we've built a new desk in the spare room etc.. I am so very very lucky.
But I'm not going to lie about still being lonely, and scared, and over anxious. I was so excited about getting back out, and now I can't. Not because I'm at risk, but because of the many many people, including my family, I would put at risk by being out and about. And somehow that's worse.

This is not a cry for help. I have support, I have plans, I have a dog who insists I keep my mental health stable because she doesn't like my sad face.

But to everyone who is sad, or lonely, or panicking, and doesn't feel justified in feeling like that.. well you're not alone. It's okay to not be okay.

Also, a note on the position of a researcher: the whole point of last year was to develop an understanding, a level of objective empathy (?) with the people who lived and worked in the catchment I was studying. I have put myself in the position where I am challenged to try and see the world from their perspective, in regards their experience, needs, preferences. I am also human. This means I care about these people. The best thing I can do to help, is to stay away.

2 - I am not an essential worker, but this work will still be important. Later.



So all this doesn't mean I'm now going to shut down and stop. The world priorties are different right now, but at the other end of this we will still need to manage our landscapes, deal with extreme weather and tackle a climate crisis. The priorites of land management may change, but if we don't take into account what we've learnt about sustainability for our communities and culture as well as for our resources, we will end up with different problems later down the line.
I still believe that woodlands, woodland management, targetting landscape management, farming practices, water behaviour in catchment; all these things are going to be there. As will culture, communities, situated expertise about the physical and social environments. As our world changes, these things will change, but they aren't going to go away. So understanding them better will still be important.
So I'll carry on building my models, I'll do my writing and my reading. I will do my catchment work - even if it's 3 months, or 6 months later than planned.

3 - What am I actually doing...



In summary, and I will write more about this separately.. I am using a computer model called SHETRAN, built to investigate water and sediment behaviour in landscapes.
It's what's called a 'physically based, spatially distributed' model. Which means it's actually trying to represent physical processes going on, and is kind of like a 'map' of the catchment.
Basically you look at the catchment as if it's different layers; bedrock, soil properties, vegetation, slope and height etc. then you divide the catchment up into a grid of squares. For each square the computer calculates what happens when a certain amount of rain falls (in relation to evapotranspiration, sort of how much plants take out of the system). Then how that relates to the square next to it etc.
You could theoretically do this by hand, but you'd be dead before you'd finished. Hence the power of computers.

It's a great model to use because it's well evidenced in UK catchments, with clear and accessible data sets. It can also look at sediment loss which is potentially of interest in the catchment I'm investigating. The base model will be callibrated (measured data is used to set parameters of some of the datasets) and validated (checked against further measured data that it does actually represent some kind of reality). Then I can use interviews, hand drawn maps etc. to create new scenarios for only the vegetative layer, and see how that affects everything else e.g. what would the water have done if there was a hedge here..

A note on models: it's not a crystal ball to tell the future, it's a model. Like, if I build you a model of a house, it will tell you a lot about how a house should look (hopefully) and how it might behave under certain circumstances. But it's not actually a house...

The biggest problem I've had is not the SHETRAN model; this is pretty easy to set up - there's a GUI, windows version pretty much anyone can have a go at, but even the larger version is fairly logical. The biggest problem has been dealing with all the different data sets, and getting them into a format suitable to input into the model. Each layer has involved me learning new skills, different coding and different software, which is frankly a brain ache. It doesn't help that sometimes you have to 'clean up' data when metadata (information about what the data is and how it should work) turns out to be wrong etc. etc.

But I'm getting closer to a working, representative model.. It'll be a step up from something I can build out of clay. The proof in the pudding will be whether it can represent something of the living character of the catchment (people +), or at least can provide new knowledge that can support decision making. That's what we need.
If, out of all of this, we can do something within catchment, supported by policy, led by those who live and work there. That'll be the cherry on top.

Right, well, back to work then....


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