Saturday, September 4, 2021

Visualizing Unforeseen Results

Exponential Interactions
Computer sketch
©2021 Charlene Brown

In trying to convince some of my grandchildren that data analytics skills will be important for everybody, no matter what their career choice or field of study, it’s occurred to me it might be worthwhile to update my own understanding of data analysis -- and to explore the advantages of data visualization. 

Much has been written in recent years about the unexpected results of climate change. And during the current wildfire season even more has been written about the unforeseen results of climate change exponentially combined with other factors such as decades of fire prevention policy. Too much to comprehend, sometimes.

In Limiting data in search of information, Seth Godin points out, "It’s easy to be in favor of more data. After all, until we reach a certain point, more data is the best way to make a better decision. But then, fairly suddenly, more isn’t better. It’s simply a way to become confused or to stall."

Could data visualization, which can distill large data sets into visual graphics, make it easier to understand complex relationships?

The computer sketch above attempts to show some of the factors in the flow of results, both expected and unexpected, of the following.

Interactions between Forest Policy and Environmental Conditions

One of the unforeseen results of many decades of successful forest fire prevention in North America has been thousands of square miles of overmature, tightly packed, highly combustible conifers, particularly in National Parks — a perfect storm of wildfire hazards.

Climate change is also worsening wildfire conditions, in every possible way — increasing temperatures (especially in the North), heat domes and other extreme weather, dry lightning, pyrocumulonimbus clouds, and a longer fire season.

Meanwhile, over the twenty-year period of significant temperature rise in the Arctic, an unexpected phenomenon, a conifer-to-deciduous shift, has been detected in the taiga region of Canada. This increase in the proportion of deciduous cover has also been noted in Alaska as well, following severe and frequent fires in the boreal forest.

Quite possibly, this vegetation shift will reduce wildfire susceptibility because, as a rule, deciduous trees don’t burn as quickly or intensely as conifers, as I mentioned in my blog post, A word about deciduous trees. Over time this shift to deciduous forest may even mitigate the rate of climate change by improving carbon sequestration. Deciduous trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere much faster than conifers.

Another eventual good outcome of worsening wildfire conditions is the gradual elimination of problematic reforestation practices.

In the past, for reasons of cost effectiveness and efficiency, timber management policies have allowed:

  •       herbicide destruction of uneconomic deciduous trees
  •       clear-cutting 
  •       reforestation by planting softwood (conifer) saplings in evenly spaced rows on clear-cut land.

Instead of this, multiple species should be planted in clusters (to allow each species to develop and benefit from fungal networks among their roots) with deciduous clusters acting as fuel breaks interrupting vast swaths of conifers. The result would be a healthier, more fire-resistant forest — at a much higher cost than the old way.

Annotated computer sketch
©2021 Charlene Brown

Conclusions: The visualization at the beginning of this article, ‘Exponential Interactions,’ helped organize my thinking but is not exactly a stand-alone document. Annotations are required.

Annotated visualizations may provide more easily understood explanations than detailed text-only analytics.