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Virtual Seattle, Virtual Puget Sound
Alex Steffen, 9 Jun 06

A couple weeks ago, I had a chance to give a talk to some of the great folks at the University of Washington's Urban Ecology Research Lab. They're doing a bunch of interesting work themselves, but they also turned me on to PRISM, the Puget Sound Regional Synthesis Model, which is essentially a digital replica of Puget Sound, and a useful means to understanding the whole, sort of a virtual San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model. Though I'll confess a fondness for the tactility of physical models, models in general are astoundingly cool -- little bits of modern magic commonplace enough that we've grown callous to both the miracle of reasonably good attempts to portray the workings of huge natural systems, and the incredible legacies of hard work that built these things: the scientists who put in long hours creating experiements, the engineers who took decades of careful readings, the geeks who created and ran the numbers for the mathematical modeling involved, etc. In our day, every one of these models is still a mini-pyramid, built by many hands.

But the models are getting better and more interesting, just as more and more data becomes available from sensors and satellites. The UrbanEco folks, for instance, are working on "an integrated model of urban development and ecological functioning." In other words, they want to be able to show how specific land use changes could be predicted to have specific impacts of given, key indicator systems. How will building three McMansions in this patch of woods, say, impact water temperature (and thus salmon-spawning) in the stream that runs through it? They're not anywhere near that level of sophistication, yet, but the trend is clear. Our mental tools for understanding the systems around us are growing sharper and more powerful.

The question of course remains as to whether we are getting any better at all at listening to what our tools tell us. Because unless we're willing to use the insight we're gaining to try to think like a salmon stream, say, and act to meet its needs, the danger always remains of what Thoreau called "improved means to an unimproved end." That is, the danger exists that we will simply more finely and accurately document the decline of what love and depend on.

But, if we can master both these sorts of tools and our own thinking, it seems to me that we could well be standing on the threshold of a golden era in conservation; that we are gaining the ability to show, in very concrete terms, not only the specific wildlife around us (the falcon nesting on the ledge of a 40 story building, the salmon swimming past the ship canal locks, the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks outside the harbor) but the systems that surround us, and of which we are a part. More, it seems we could actually begin to bring that information home: in much the way that bringing energy meters inside changes our relationship to the power we consume, bringing knowledge of neighborhood air and water quality, or natural cycles and ecosystem health could transform the way we think about where we are, and make us at home with new awareness.

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