Scenarios: Using Science Fiction to Think About the Future

by Jenny Seifert

Photo Courtesy: Richard Hurd, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy: Richard Hurd, Flickr Creative Commons

Change is constant and inevitable—in jobs, in relationships, in business, and in nature. It can make us feel downright powerless to realize that nothing is certain. So why even bother trying to plan ahead?
Well, when it comes to thinking about how people might cope with big changes that will affect us all, such as climate change, planning ahead…way far ahead…could make a big difference in how future generations—you know, our children’s children—will live in a changed world.
In fact, by thinking through what is possible, we do have some power in determining how our communities react to both foreseeable and unforeseeable changes to our environment. And a diverse team of scientists at the UW-Madison is currently trying to help envision potential futures in the very region they call home: the Yahara Watershed.
The Yahara Watershed is a 536 square mile area of southern Wisconsin that, in addition to the UW-Madison, is home to 372,000 people, the state capital, and four iconic lakes: Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa. Freshwater is central to Yahara’s cultural identity, economy, and daily life.
As this map shows, land in the Yahara Watershed is used for all sorts of purposes, from agriculture to development to public open space. Managing the area for these mixed uses is a challenge.
The Yahara Watershed is used for all sorts of purposes, from agriculture to development to open space. Managing for mixed uses is a challenge. Map by: Eric Booth. Data from USDA-NASS, USDA-NRCS, USGS, WDNR, CARPC, Columbia Co., and Rock Co.

Mottled by agriculture and urbanization, the region is constantly balancing a variety of human uses and demands, and that creates uniquely thorny challenges when it comes to keeping freshwater clean and in sufficient supply. Runoff-induced algae blooms are, perhaps, the most well-known example. Understanding the potential impacts of societal and environmental changes on the region’s freshwater will be crucial if we are to preserve the health of the social and natural systems that depend on it.
To help the region anticipate change and uncertainty, the research team is creating a set of scenarios about the future of the Yahara Watershed. The scenarios speculate what the future of our water, land, and other important resources could look like in the year 2070.
What are scenarios?
Scene of climate future scenario planning at a Southeast Asia workshop. Photo Courtesy: CGIAR Climate, Flicker Creative Commons
Scene of climate future scenario planning at a Southeast Asia workshop. Photo Courtesy: CGIAR Climate, Flicker Creative Commons

Scenarios are fictitious, but plausible stories about the future. They are not predictions, but explorations of the question “what if…?” They project real data onto a canvass of the future and allow scientists to capture pictures of what the world could look like based on differing changes that might feasibly occur. The set of pictures can help decision-makers make long-term plans by generating discussion around what would be a desirable and conceivable future.
Scenarios are not unique to science. Businesses, nonprofits, and other institutions have used scenarios to chart their futures. Environmental scenarios like those the Yahara research team is creating have grown in significance as a way for scientists and decision-makers to think about how the actions a society takes over time could affect people and nature in the future. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessments and IPCC reports are examples of two better-known environmental scenarios.
The Yahara Watershed scenarios are unique in terms of scale and perspective. Few environmental scenario projects have examined change at such a fine scale: a single watershed. Also, the research team consists of a diverse crew of scientists, who bring together expertise in limnology, hydrology, natural resource governance, landscape ecology, cropping systems, and climate science. Their collaboration is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate program.

Watch one of the project’s lead scientists and the director of the Center for Limnology, Steve Carpenter, explain more below:

What will the Yahara Watershed scenarios look like?
The scenarios begin as stories, which read much like a short piece of fiction or long piece of journalism. Using input from an assortment of community members—including government officials, NGO staff, business leaders, farmers, and concerned citizens—the research team developed four stories. Each story tells a different tale of what the Yahara Watershed—its people, its built environment, and its natural environment—could look like in 2070 if the region took a distinct pathway of change.
The storylines will be enriched using biophysical computer models, which take the narrative elements, simulate natural processes, and then provide estimated measurements related to future human well-being, such as water quality, water supply, and agricultural production. In other words, the models will tell the “quantitative stories” of the conditions of our various resources in 2070.
A final piece of the project is an analysis of water governance in the watershed. The analysis provides a current and historical perspective on water quality management and conservation interventions, and will help the team speculate ways governance could change within the scenarios.
Why scenarios?
The project team hopes to start a conversation about the future of the Yahara Watershed to promote long-term thinking—an uncommon, but needed, approach in water resources decision-making. While the scenarios can’t offer any certainty about the future, they can provide regional decision-makers a tangible tool for cutting through the fog of uncertainty to see possibilities.
Around the world, potential changes in climate, land use, and human values will impact the places where we live, the benefits that nature provides us, and the ways we live our lives. Despite the certainty of uncertainty, scenario thinking gives communities, such as the Yahara Watershed, the power to envision different pathways to prosperity and to protect human well-being for generations to come.


Jenny Seifert is the Science Writer/Outreach Coordinator for the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate Project