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Understanding, communicating and managing uncertainty and risk related to future changes in catchments.

Virtual Catchments and CCN

It is the end of a long intense week at the NERC Virtual Observatory Sandpit.  The aim of a sandpit is to bring together a collection of researchers (including a number of others with links to CCN: Phil Haygarth, Sim Reaney, Paul Quinn) to produce a draft consortium proposal that is then assessed by a committee as to whether it should go to a full proposal.  The committee, in this case, included a number of potential users of the virtual observatory, for example, Defra, the EA, and Water Industry.  The first issue at the sandpit was, of course, to try and clarify what might be meant by the concept of a virtual observatory (VO).  There was a common vision of the long term concept: a readily accessible representation of the landscape processes in the UK that could be used to inform a wide variety of users (from farmers to schools to the water industry to national policy) making use of the latest techniques in computer science, particularly cloud computing concepts.  The objectives of the VO would include making data readily available to different communities; allowing what-if scenario evaluations in management, planning and policy; hypothesis testing of model process representations; and building up different portals and “communities of practice” for different types of application.

Initially the project proposal will be only for a proof of concept over a period of two years.  This will not be long enough for all the issues of making data readily available to be sorted out, nor for all the issues of defining realistic process representations at the local scales needed to be resolved. Thus, the capability of the system will be developed within a synthetic, virtual, catchment (although it might well be based on the characteristics of an existing research catchment or one of the new Defra Demonstration Test Catchments).

At the end of the sandpit, the project team were given the go-ahead to develop a full proposal which should lead to a project to start next year.  The long term potential of the VO project to provide tools for evaluating the impacts of catchment change will clearly overlap with the aims of CCN and hopefully there may be the possibility of organising some joint workshops in the near future for the overlapping communities of practice.

The sandpit was my second one this year (the first led to the EQUIP climate impacts project). In each case the process was facilitated in a way that produced lots of post-it notes but not much clarity about what research problems needed to be addressed to make real progress -or perhaps more correctly the problems may have been identified on the post-its but there was no real opportunity to discuss them in depth.   Perhaps it was the collection of people involved in each case, perhaps it was the nature of the facilitation programme, perhaps it was the constraints of the particular subject areas but in both sandpits the process led to a collaborative proposal within the “normal paradigm” of the science. This was a little frustrating, particularly in the case of the VO project (I realised during the week that I published my first virtual hillslope paper in 1977, and a full virtual catchment study of the 500 km2 Little Washita catchment in 2002, and have thought a lot about some of the issues in implementing the “models of everywhere” that the VO will require).  It certainly left the feeling that the process could have been organised better as a science workshop to focus on some of those difficult research issues…though whether this would have led to a better proposal for the initial phase of the VO is probably debateable.

Don’t watch it here shout at us, we didn’t make the word up

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