Back to the desert (the other extreme environment)

Returning home – Beware of the land mines

Upon arrival back in Israel, Roy and I needed to visit our more familiar extreme environment – the hyper-arid Dead Sea basin, where we are conducting a parallel study to our Cairngorms research.  We headed down to the Dead Sea – the lowest land point on earth – to learn about the ecology of the region and the impact of human activities on it from Dr. Gil Ben-Natan, ecologist with the Dead Sea – Arava Science Center.

Into the wild (at least the wild within 250 m of the car…)

Something we didn’t see in the Cairngorms; the Dead Sea delineates the border between Israel and Jordan.

While a far cry from the lush and green Cairngorms, the region has a surprising high amount of vegetation, which survives on three inconspicuous water sources – fresh water springs, seasonal floods and a high, though saline, water table.  These water sources are naturally distributed by topography, and then redistributed by various human activities, such as roads, canals and embankments.  We drive down a two lane road towards two of Israel’s most geographically isolated communities, Ein Tamar and Kikar Sedom, which are the focus of our research.  We stop on the road – on one side low badlands and on the other, a flat, gently sloped plain that proceeds down the southern tip of the Dead Sea.  Paying no heed to the “beware of land mines” sign, Gil trudges straight into the brush.  I follow, trying to step exactly in his footprints at first…). A diverse set of vegetation associations are observed in strips – first the spring-fed clusters of reed grass, then, as we walk down the salt flats, the salt tolerant tamarisk, camel grass and salt tree, and then the even more salt-tolerant (and moist soil loving) glaucous saltwort and mamoncillo. These plant communities support a diverse animal community (the Dead Sea sparrow, gerbils, ant lions, porcupines, wild boars and foxes, to name a few) – and Gil points out the footprints, the scat and other bodily signs of animal presence.

Bands of vegetation

Agriculture or salt flats?

After reviewing the spatial succession of plant communities, Gil leads us to a moist salt flat to give us the bizarre feeling of sinking into mud in one of the driest environments on earth on one of the hottest days of the year.  And then on to the evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea where agriculture run-off from the two agricultural communities mixes with flood water and Dead Sea water.  The result is visually pleasing until our attention is inevitably drawn the think swarms of mosquitoes busily producing their next generation.

IMG_8965On our way back to the main road, we drive through the communities’ agricultural fields.  Conflicts abound regarding the implications of their water use, drawing down the water table and speeding up the process of soil salination.  Further, the farmers would be happy to expand their fields onto the salt flats, but those flats also host unique ecosystems found nowhere else in the world.  In interviews with residents, we were hard pressed to find one who appreciated the salt flats as an ecosystem, or who found any particular ecosystem service that could be drawn from the flats (I’m eager to set up a meeting between our farmers and Alistair of Balliefurth Farms – maybe we will!). Many of the local residents valued the landscape, views and solitude, but none noted the salt flats in particular.  Like their contemporaries in the Cairngorms, who complained about midges, the locals here complain about the flies and mosquitoes.

This month Roy will circulate questionnaires to local residents in the southern Dead Sea region like those we completed in the Cairngorms and members of our team circulated in Russia.  Then we’ll settle into the real work – analyzing survey results, interpreting and looking for the policy implications for ecosystem service management in extreme environments.

Getting to work in the Cairngorms

Our visit to Scotland was primarily for research, so in this entry we re-focus on the actual work.

The methods

Collecting public surveys is not an easy task.  It takes a lot of initiative, a bit of “chutzpa” (a slightly unsatisfying Merriam-Webster definition is “supreme self-confidence: NERVE, GALL”), patience and determination.  And more important than anything else, one needs research assistants that have all of these characteristics when the primary researcher has naught. Take note of this and be sure to include funding for research assistants – preferably based locally – when writing a research grant for survey-based research.  Accordingly, this research trip was successful primarily due to the extraordinary work of Rachel (from the Cairngorms) and Roy (from just about everywhere else), who hit the ground running and who reached our lower goal of 200 completed surveys within 2.5 days.  Being from the area, Rachel’s added advantage was that she knows the local social and ecological terrain.  Jan was also particularly adept at this type of research.

Loch Morlich – store, cafe and bike shop. 4 to 5 completed surveys!

Often people don’t like to be bothered (certainly not for 15-20 minutes) by filling out surveys.  We overheard some respondents complaining that it was like going back to school.  People are on vacation.  People are busy at work. We offer some tips we’ve learned for successful survey collection:

  • Target people who are “loitering” and look like they want something to do.  On a rainy day, we went to an indoor play-park where Roy got a dozen parents to fill out surveys, while their kids jumped on the play castle and played games.  Also on a rainy day, Roy went through a campground, where campers’ plans for outdoor activities were delayed.  Many other respondents were caught waiting for buses or sitting in the park.  Despite my premonitions, some people were happy to do the surveys.
  • Leave surveys with store owners to be filled out during the “dead periods” of their business day. Pick them up the next day. Rachel and Roy got dozens of completed surveys this way.
  • Ask enthusiastic locals to “spread the word” by having their friends fill them out as well. A wonderful and talkative bookstore owner was a great advocate for our research goals. (But beware of generating responses from clusters of like-minded individuals.)
  • Special effort will have to be made to get specific groups.  For instance, we did not have access to farmers and foresters – two very important stakeholder groups.  So I hired another research assistant who had access to these groups, and she will be supplementing our surveys with additional surveys from farmers.
  • Hire research assistants who are adept at doing what you yourself cannot do… Did I already say that?

The other means of data collection

While I didn’t formally organize interviews ahead of time as I have done in my parallel research in Israel, some of the best bits of knowledge were gathered through conversations with various stakeholders. Considering that I prefer this type of social contact – all the more reason to include it!  Some people have a surprisingly good grasp of our research intent, and have equally good and challenging questions.

Ann of Balliefurth farm asked us during dinner an important and insightful question: How do we “weight” the opinion of particular respondents in the survey results when it is clear that some respondents have years of accumulated knowledge on the subject and some have almost no idea what we are talking about. We don’t weight our answers, and her concerns are well founded. Indeed some survey respondents obviously have far greater depth of knowledge regarding particular subjects, yet in a survey, their responses are simply added to the pile.  Their accumulated knowledge is given no more weight than, for example, a tourist unfamiliar with local environment or a store owner whose concerns and knowledge lie elsewhere.  However, some of these characteristics (years of education, length of time living in the Cairngorms, occupation) may turn out to be important independent variables once we get the data analyzed…

The cows of Balliefurth – refusal rate for surveys was exceedingly high among bovines.

A particularly precocious high-school student working in a boat rental shop had many comments for me when I came to pick up her completed survey.  “You know, this is a good way to get people thinking about the environment,” she noted.  With a half-smile, I concurred with her.  She was on to me: my understanding of ecosystem services is indeed that, aside from being a scientific concept, it is a tool for teaching the public about the importance of protecting the natural environment. By extension, this research is not only for learning, but also for teaching.  A bit of advocacy science, which is acceptable so long as I’m explicit about it!

Many survey respondents wanted to know what the research was for, who was funding it, why were we coming from Israel to research in Scotland, and what were the policy implications of our research.  Continuing the conversation with them was always rewarding insofar as we could gain further insights into people’s concerns, interests and opinions.

Without Bread there is no Torah… Even in the Scottish Highlands.

For our second blog entry, we transition from cultural anecdotes (food, energy) to our actual research.  The food-scholarship connection is captured in the title phrase taken from “Sayings of the Fathers”.


A Scottish Breakfast

The Scots like their meat (with the exception of our vegetarian research assistant).  And bread.  And potatoes.  And beans.  That seems to be most of the diet.  Yes, I tried the black pudding (I only asked what it was after I ate it) and the haggis (Roy would not relent until I tried the haggis…). Overall the food was quite good, although a radical shift from our Mediterranean diet.  Fewer cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Thanks to Jan (first-rate tour operator in addition to her scientific skills), we ate well. Most of the places we ate specialized in local fare and many advertised that they purchase locally produced, organic, and free-range meats.  Leaving aside the growing pool of knowledge linking a meat-based diet to climate change, locally-grown products are the best way to go from an environmental perspective.  We were pleased about that.

The best meals were at Balliefurth Farm and at the Grant Arms Hotel (more on that Grant-on-Spey hotel later).  At Balliefurth, Ann and Alistair hosted us around their kitchen table and where we learned about the virtues of grass- over grain-fed cattle. More Omega-3, for starters, and of course a host of environmental advantages.  Admittedly, they were ‘preaching to the converted’ but it’s great to learn more straight from the source.

On the opposite end of the health spectrum, Jan also got me addicted to “tablets,” which are essentially powdered sugar and butter.  I had far too many and there are a couple in my suitcase as I head home.

And then there is the wonderful Cairngorm beer, brewed right in Aviemore.


The British minister responsible for energy policy is actually called the Minister of Energy and Climate Change.  Now that I check, this is true of a number of countries. This seems to me an extremely productive and logical step in looking at energy policy holistically.  Certainly an idea I can advocate at home.

While we were researching in Scotland, there was constant energy buzz – a member of our research team had just finished installing solar panels on her home, and one of our survey respondents had proudly announced the same.  The Scottish government was talking about a new electricity plant powered by tidal movement, and the debate around wind was whether it should be in the mountains or off-shore (that is, everyone was in favor, it was just a question of where).  These are encouraging signs, even though Great Britain remains largely dependent on gas, coal and nuclear energy.

The research

This entire project is motivated (from my perspective) by the need to advance the state-of-the-art of social ecosystem assessments. Some questions from our research agenda:

  • How well do people understand their dependence on the natural environment (and the ecosystem services provided) in both their survival and their quality of life?  How is this understanding expressed?
  • What kinds of knowledge about ecosystem services can we generate by assessing them using methods from the non-economic social sciences?
  • What are the similarities and differences in perceptions regarding ecosystem services between populations in different extreme environments (the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland and the southern Dead Sea Basin in Israel).
Food, then work: Our research team (Roy, Jan and Rachel) minutes before heading out to collect the first of 300+ surveys.

To answer these questions, we’ve devised a survey with several batteries of questions concerning what people like and dislike about their physical and biological environment, in what outdoor activities people partake, what aspects of the natural environment people use for economic benefit, people’s environmental behaviors, people’s opinions regarding a range of environmental issues, and people’s perceptions regarding environmental change in their region.

Welcome to Scotland. Enjoy the weather.

This is the first installment of the Cairngorms Ecosystem Service Social Assessments in Extreme Environments (Eco-Sae) research team blog. Because we were as much tourists as we were researchers, so the blog will reflect experiences as well as actual research.   Hope you enjoy.

What are we doing here?

I was granted a small, but respectable, amount of money to collaborate with Dr. Jan Dick in studying ecosystem services in the Cairngorms using a social science approach that we are developing in Israel, and now, thanks to INTERACT, also in Scotland and Russia. (I believe this project has been the most economically efficient that I have ever been involved in, considering the amount of money invested relative to the amount of work accomplished thus far – but more on that later!) Basically, by conducting social research, we mean to say that we are using surveys and interviews to query local residents and tourists about their natural environment; what they like, what they dislike, what they need for their economic livelihood, etc.  We want to define what people know and how they know it, and what people feel and why they feel it – all with regards to the ecosystem services they receive from their environment.


The British drive on the left side of the road.  I don’t.  Yet, despite the overall dyslexic feeling, getting a manual car (which I hadn’t driven for years, and for which the shift is to the left of the steering wheel), the intermittent rain and the narrow country roads, I returned the car without a scratch.  My only advantage was my worldly co-pilot, Roy (also my graduate student).  In the spirit of the Olympics: Daniel – 1, British transportation system – 0.

The weather

Roy and I arrived in Scotland from Israel.  We left a hot and dry environment with 40°+ weather for the past three weeks, where we sweat all day and all night. I read with caution the weather reports from the Cairngorms – the predicted temperatures were close to zero.  Half of my suitcase was filled with thermal underclothes… in retrospect I didn’t need it.

We arrived gleefully in the Cairngorms where the weather was a comfortable 10-15° with intermittent rain showers.  A wonderful opportunity to cool down and see precipitation and lush green vegetation again.  But the locals complained.  And complained.  We repeatedly heard the rhetorical question “Where is our summer?” and the apologetic “Sorry you had to visit during such terrible weather.”  I thought to myself on the first and second days, “they don’t know how good they have it” as my wife in Haifa reported that she and the kids were sweating through another 40+ day. On our fourth day in the Cairngorms, rain fell the entire day – and we began to understand what the locals were complaining about.

But it wasn’t until we met with Alistair of Balliefurth Farms that I really understood what bad weather meant.  Alistair and his wife, Ann, raise cattle and sheep on his farm.  The constant rain has turned several of his fields to mud.  Although the vegetation is growing, the plants will rot on the ground if the soil doesn’t start draining and drying. This will cut down the amount of their land they can use for grazing and increase the amount of silage they’ll need to buy from other places. The tourists can put on a raincoat; the rain didn’t stop the heartiest of Cairngorms runners, bikers, golfers and canoe-ers. Our research will go on.  But weather is everything to Cairngorm farmers.

Glancing through our survey results – I see that summer weather scores rather poorly among the things liked by the locals and the tourists… Perhaps no surprises there.