Steven Manson examines the earth's skin to discover what's not skin deep
Steven Manson's research is "topical" in more ways than one. Manson trains his eye on the earth's "skin"; using a technique called "agent-based modeling," he examines the rate at which humans are altering the land surface of planet Earth. Given the alarming pace of change in the earth's surface, and given the increasingly charged debates about global warming, his work couldn't be more timely.
Manson seeks to help people understand what is happening to the earth, why it is happening, and what we might do to avert potentially disastrous changes. "The major intellectual challenge," he says, "is trying to come up with an approach that captures the complexities of human/environmental interactions."
Since joining the Department of Geography in 2002, Manson has established himself as a rising star, working in an area that professor and department chair Robert McMaster has called "of extraordinary intellectual and practical importance." And kudos are coming in. Last spring, he was awarded a prestigious 2006-2008 McKnight Land-Grant Professorship. A New Investigator grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) followed a few months later.
In essence, what Manson does is create virtual landscapes based on information about particular geographic regions. In a study of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, he collects a variety of data to describe the region, including household interviews, archival material, and satellite images. Feeding the data into a software program of his own creation, he models patterns, processes, and effects of environmental change within the region and places it in the context of global environmental change. In other words, he finds global patterns in local and regional phenomena.
The transformation of the earth's land is happening at a mind- boggling pace, says Manson, affecting everything from the price of a cup of coffee to the lives of polar bears. "Land change is the key component of climate change," Manson explains. "A quarter to a third of anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse gases originate in farming practices, including deforestation."
This is all pretty weighty stuff for a kid who grew up in the deep woods of a Canadian pulp mill town. As a boy in Kamloops, British Columbia, four hours inland from Vancouver, Manson was blessed with a streak of geekiness that longed for an outlet. "I always had something of a technical bent," he says. "I was one of those guys who was forever taking apart toasters, much to my mother's chagrin." Like many aspiring young scientists of his time, Manson was fascinated with computers as a boy in the '80s. Unfortunately, his high school had just two of them, and, combined, they had the approximate power of a modern cell phone.
Manson left Kamloops after his junior year to attend an international baccalaureate program at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C. There he was introduced into a wider world of social and scholarly concerns. Two hundred teenagers from 76 nations gathered at Pearson for a two-year program that included a strong public service component. Through this public service Manson developed a serious concern for the state of the environment, which he carried with him to the nearby University of Victoria.
At Victoria, Manson was increasingly drawn to the growing link between geography and technology--a link that would one day find expression in programs like MapQuest and automobile navigation systems. And he grew increasingly aware that "technology, in and of itself, is rather useless unless we use it to ask or answer questions about the world." Working "in the geospatial world" for Microsoft's Encarta systems, he decided to chase after those questions in graduate school at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts--where a professor named Billy Lee Turner II urged him to pursue his studies of the Yucatan Peninsula .
Working with colleagues and researchers across the social and natural sciences, Manson began collecting data for a virtual landscape program he named SYPRIA (Southern Yucatan Peninsular Region Integrated Assessment). The program could model not only actual current land use but also probable consequences. SYPRIA has since been renamed HELIA (Human Environmental Land Integration Assessment) to suggest the broadening of studies beyond the Yucatan Peninsula to embrace other geographies (e.g., in the Twin Cities). The program remains a powerful new way to examine interactions among individuals, organizations, and large social and environmental systems.
Thanks to the Land-Grant Professorship, Manson will be able to use his modeling program to examine the problems of urbanization in the Twin Cities with the same measure of detail that marked his study of deforestation in the Yucatan. He's already begun working with staff of the Twin Cities' Metropolitan Council and the University's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to begin collecting data for his future studies.
He will be using his NASA grant to continue his study of "the patterns, processes, and impacts of urbanization in the United States and deforestation in Mexico." And he already has begun implementing the K-12 outreach component of the grant: He's working with the St. Paul-based science education group Eco-Education to create a curriculum centered on human-environment research, geographic information science, and remote sensing. The outreach activities will include a new University course and K-12 classes offered in collaboration with Eco-Education.
"These outreach programs are as exciting as the research," says Manson. "And the research is pretty darn exciting."