Is this normal? An adaptive monitoring framework for identifying change

Environmental monitoring has a long history. As you may expect, the local effects of various human activities have changed over time. Early unintended consequences were far more obvious than today. Now, changes in our ecosystems are subtler, but detecting them remains equally as valuable—as long as we pay attention. 

Researchers, including COSIA scientists Drs. Tim Arciszewski and Kelly Munkittrick, are examining a more effective way to observe change called adaptive monitoring.  

“One of the biggest challenges in monitoring is being able to know when to intervene and when not to,” said Tim. “Most of that confusion is explained by a lack of context, but the tools and practices we use to identify change are usually insufficient or poorly understood. There’s often an expectation that change can be readily identified and fixed, all with a single sampling program. Through an adaptive monitoring framework, we focus our attention on one problem at a time. First we want to identify a change, and then we want to understand that change so we can make better decisions.”

Tim explains the adaptive monitoring framework by relating it to how we deal with health issues. For example, if you have had a pain in your left foot for over a week, you may be concerned that you’re not healing as quickly as you normally would. You may decide to see a doctor who agrees the rate of healing is unusually slow and performs a series of tests to determine what may be the cause. The doctor finds that your left foot is slightly swollen compared to your right foot and prescribes rest, ice and elevation and to return for further testing if the swelling or pain persists or worsens. That’s an adaptive process. 

When applied to monitoring, an adaptive framework applies cycles, or tiers, when a change is observed, with each successive tier narrowing attention, asking specific questions and using specialized tools, if necessary. The tiers are surveillance, confirmation, focused, investigation of cause, and investigation of solutions.

To move from one tier to another, the data is evaluated against certain triggers to understand the relevance of any observed change. 

Triggers can be defined by asking the question, what is normal? When we observe something unexpected, it means either something is happening, or we don’t understand what we are observing. Both conclusions lead to the same action: pay more attention. The tiers in the adaptive monitoring process help to discriminate between a real difference and a lack of understanding. They also include other mechanisms to address potential mistakes, like missed effects. 

“Just as we designed mechanisms to pay attention, there are also mechanisms to reduce attention, but not to the detriment of the program,” said Tim. “Overall the adaptive monitoring system really has two goals: identify change and enhance our ability to do so.”

In the oil sands, environmental monitoring is integral to responsible development. Through the adaptive monitoring framework, COSIA is making strides to accelerate the pace of environmental performance improvement in the oil sands. In fact, the paper Tim developed on this framework was recently named Best Paper of 2015 in the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) journal of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management.  

For more information on the development of the adaptive monitoring framework, view the full research paper through SETAC.