3
How Are Climate and Other Environmental Changes Affecting the Vulnerabilities of Coupled Human–Environment Systems?

The biophysical changes unfolding across Earth’s surface are of increasing concern. Yet earth systems have always been changing and life has survived many environmental perturbations, a reflection of both biological adaptation and human ingenuity. It is thus important to view current biophysical changes not so much as raising issues of survival, as of creating differential vulnerabilities. Which life-forms are likely to be most exposed to, and negatively affected by, environmental changes? Are there significant socioeconomic changes unfolding alongside environmental changes that could leave some people or ecosystems with much greater exposure to risk? In such cases, will vulnerabilities associated with socioeconomic changes likely amplify or attenuate the impacts of environmental changes? Do some people or environments cope better with the impacts of changing circumstances than others?

The preceding questions treat people and their proximate biophysical environments as a unit—a coupled human–environment system (Turner et al., 2003b)—rather than as separate systems (cf. NRC, 1992).1 Such questions are geographical because the vulnerability of coupled human–environment systems—and, by extension their resilience (e.g., Berkes et al., 2002) or sustainability (e.g., Kates et al., 2001)—is a function of geographical differences in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity (Smit et al., 1999; McCarthy et al., 2001; Turner et al., 2003a; Gallopin, 2006). A fundamental concern of vulnerability, resilience, sustainability, and adaptation studies is to understand the conditions under which some places may be harmed by a given environmental change, even as others emerge relatively unharmed or in a better position to withstand repeated events in the future.2

Consider the Hurricane Katrina example discussed in Part I of this report. Geographical questions about vulnerability are critical to understanding what happened and to reducing associated risks in the future: Which people were, and were not, exposed to the breached levees and associated rising water levels, and why? Were all neighborhoods near breached levees equally sensitive to the rising water (e.g., did some of the exposed neighborhoods experience lesser physical and financial impacts than other exposed neighborhoods)? Of the exposed and sensitive places, which groups and individuals were able to adapt, restore their previous livelihoods, and/or reduce exposures and sensitivities to future storms? Raising and answering such questions is critical if some of the mistakes made leading to and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are to be avoided in the future (Kates et al., 2006).

1

Several terms have been used to refer to coupled human–environment systems, including coupled natural–human systems (e.g., NSF AC-ERE, 2003), coupled human and natural systems (e.g., Liu et al., 2007), and socioecological systems (e.g., Berkes and Folke, 1998).

2

Vulnerability assessments address the same general problems as inquiries into resilience (the ability of systems to cope with perturbations; see, e.g., Holling, 1973; Berkes and Folke, 1998) and sustainability (the long-term viability of systems, e.g., World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987; Kates et al., 2001). The extent of conceptual overlap among these three concepts varies depending on how the concepts are defined (Kates, 1985; Gallopin, 2006), but the concept of vulnerability speaks to key aspects of resilience and sustainability, because vulnerable coupled human–environment systems are, by definition, less resilient and less sustainable.



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3 How Are Climate and Other Environmental Changes Affecting the Vulnerabilities of Coupled Human–Environment Systems? T he biophysical changes unfolding across Earth’s Gallopin, 2006). A fundamental concern of vulnerabil- surface are of increasing concern. Yet earth ity, resilience, sustainability, and adaptation studies is systems have always been changing and life has to understand the conditions under which some places survived many environmental perturbations, a reflection may be harmed by a given environmental change, even of both biological adaptation and human ingenuity. It as others emerge relatively unharmed or in a better position to withstand repeated events in the future.2 is thus important to view current biophysical changes Consider the Hurricane Katrina example discussed not so much as raising issues of survival, as of creating in Part I of this report. Geographical questions about differential vulnerabilities. Which life-forms are likely vulnerability are critical to understanding what hap- to be most exposed to, and negatively affected by, envi- pened and to reducing associated risks in the future: ronmental changes? Are there significant socioeconomic Which people were, and were not, exposed to the changes unfolding alongside environmental changes breached levees and associated rising water levels, and that could leave some people or ecosystems with much why? Were all neighborhoods near breached levees greater exposure to risk? In such cases, will vulnerabili- equally sensitive to the rising water (e.g., did some of ties associated with socioeconomic changes likely am- plify or attenuate the impacts of environmental changes? the exposed neighborhoods experience lesser physical Do some people or environments cope better with the and financial impacts than other exposed neighbor- impacts of changing circumstances than others? hoods)? Of the exposed and sensitive places, which The preceding questions treat people and their groups and individuals were able to adapt, restore their proximate biophysical environments as a unit—a previous livelihoods, and/or reduce exposures and sen- coupled human–environment system (Turner et al., sitivities to future storms? Raising and answering such 2003b)—rather than as separate systems (cf. NRC, questions is critical if some of the mistakes made lead- 1992). 1 S uch questions are geographical because ing to and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are to the vulnerability of coupled human–environment be avoided in the future (Kates et al., 2006). s ystems—and, by extension their resilience (e.g., Berkes et al., 2002) or sustainability (e.g., Kates et al., 2Vulnerability assessments address the same general problems 2001)—is a function of geographical differences in as inquiries into resilience (the ability of systems to cope with perturbations; see, e.g., Holling, 1973; Berkes and Folke, 1998) exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity (Smit et and sustainability (the long-term viability of systems, e.g., World al., 1999; McCarthy et al., 2001; Turner et al., 2003a; Commission on Environment and Development, 1987; Kates et al., 2001). The extent of conceptual overlap among these three 1Several terms have been used to refer to coupled human– concepts varies depending on how the concepts are defined (Kates, 1985; Gallopin, 2006), but the concept of vulnerability speaks to key environment systems, including coupled natural–human sys - aspects of resilience and sustainability, because vulnerable coupled tems (e.g., NSF AC-ERE, 2003), coupled human and natural human–environment systems are, by definition, less resilient and systems (e.g., Liu et al., 2007), and socioecological systems (e.g., less sustainable. Berkes and Folke, 1998). 

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 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET role oF The geograPhical scieNces Understanding vulnerabilities associated with discrete events such as Katrina can illuminate more Since the 1980s, global environmental change has general vulnerabilities and associated adaptation op- emerged as an important research area in many aca- tions and constraints that are tied to long-term changes demic disciplines. Geographical scientists have played in climate. Climate change is expected to produce major roles in a variety of international and inter- changes in patterns of precipitation and water avail- disciplinary environmental-change initiatives, and have ability (Figure 3.1), but it is unclear what vulnerabilities taken a leading role in bringing vulnerability issues these changes may produce without first assessing how to the fore. Their research draws on a rich tradition sensitive local populations are to such changes, and of geographical work concerned with how humans how effectively people may respond to the impacts are transforming Earth (Marsh, 1864; Sauer, 1925; of the changes. It is also important not to focus so Thomas, 1956; Glacken, 1967; Turner et al., 1990a). much attention on climate events that we lose sight The approach of the “Chicago School of environmental of how coupled human–environment systems may risks and hazards” has been particularly influential. be vulnerable to nonclimate stresses or perturbations. The Chicago School is based on the pioneering work A variety of natural occurrences and social processes of Gilbert White (e.g., White, 1945), who sought to can increase the vulnerability of peoples and places, explain why, in early 20th century United States, ag- including tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, toxic waste gregate flood-related damages were rising, not falling, spills, nuclear contaminations, economic globalization, despite expanded technological interventions aimed deforestation, and HIV/AIDS. Complicating matters at reducing flood damage. To answer this question, further is the fact that these developments do not White focused on people’s decisions, asking what necessarily operate in isolation, and that some of them informational or psychological limitations led people (e.g., economic globalization) present potential benefits to approach environmental risks and hazards in a way as well as pitfalls. FIGURE 3.1 Global map of projected changes in annual runoff (water availability, in percent) for the period 2090­2099, relative to 1980­1999. Values represent the median of 12 climate models using the Special Report on Emissions A1B scenario. White areas are where less than 66 percent of the 12 models agree on the sign of change, and hatched areas are where more than 90 percent of the models agree on the sign of change. SOURCE: IPCC (2007).

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 VULNERABILITY that produced suboptimal outcomes (cf. Burton et in the future). What unites these five characteristics of al., 1978). geographical vulnerability studies is that the particular Several recent major global research initiatives interconnections among processes found in different have grown out of the Chicago School’s concern with places are privileged rather than assumed away. the risk–hazards relationship, including sustainability Two recent studies illustrate what the geographi- science (e.g., Kates et al., 2001), socioecological resil- cal sciences bring to the study of vulnerability. In one ience studies (e.g., Berkes and Folke, 1998), adapta- study, Cutter and Finch (2008) analyze temporal and tion science (e.g., Smit et al., 1999), and coupled spatial changes in social vulnerability via the Social human–environment system vulnerability studies (e.g., Vulnerability Index (SoVI), which measures the McCarthy et al., 2001; Turner et al., 2003b). These social vulnerability of U.S. counties to environmental four intersecting agendas define the core vulnerability- hazards (originally introduced in Cutter et al., 2003). related research domains to which the geographical sci- The SoVI is a score assigned to each unit of analysis ences are currently contributing. The contributions of (in this case, U.S. counties) derived from a principal the geographical sciences have focused particularly on components analysis of variables hypothesized to re- understanding how people (and ecosystems) produce, flect various social vulnerabilities to natural hazards. and respond to, changing environmental conditions Cutter and Finch draw on decennial U.S. Census (e.g., Dow, 1992), and the social and political processes data for the period 1960-2000, but their study is also that produce differential exposures, sensitivities, and forward looking. They examine trends in the historic adaptive capacities, even in the absence of changing data to project SoVI values for the year 2010, and environmental conditions (e.g., Wisner et al., 2004). they compare maps of SoVI scores for each past cen- A geographical perspective on vulnerability ex- sus year with the projected year (Figure 3.2). Future hibits five basic features (Schröter et al., 2005). First, vulnerability studies of this sort could benefit from geographical studies of vulnerability situate the unit data at a finer spatial resolution (in some parts of the of analysis within the coupled human–environment country, the county represents areas that are so large system, rather than solely within the human or the and populous as to mask important local variations), environmental system. Accordingly, the methodologi- and from data reflecting the effects of multiple haz- cal basis for these studies tends to be interdisciplinary, ards in a given location. These types of data could be involving not only researchers from different academic correlated with the SoVI; stakeholders could also backgrounds, but also stakeholders (i.e., those involved be polled to comment on the utility and accuracy of in making decisions about the processes under consider- the model results. ation). Second, the scale at which the coupled human– A second study by O’Brien et al. (2004) illustrates environment system is studied is generally “place- an approach to studying vulnerability that treats it as based,” meaning that local-scale human–environment the product of multiple interacting stressors. Their case processes and outcomes are emphasized—although not study looks at the interrelated vulnerability impacts of to the exclusion of processes and outcomes at other globalization and climate change in India (see also the scales. Third, because the general unit of analysis is discussion of this line of research as it relates to in- the coupled human–environment system, the drivers equality, in Chapter 8). They collected secondary data of system change are understood to be multiple and reflecting multiple biophysical, social, economic-trade, possibly interacting. Fourth, the analytical concern and technological features of individual Indian districts, and analyzed the data using geographic information with exposures and sensitivities of multiple systems to system (GIS) map algebra. This approach allowed them multiple stressors at multiple scales means that central to produce a set of district-level maps of exposures, attention is given to the differential abilities of places sensitivities, adaptive capacities, and vulnerabilities to adapt to stresses. Finally, recognition of the dynamic that highlighted districts that are doubly exposed to the nature of the interactions that shape coupled human– negative impacts of globalization and climate change environment systems translates into a concern with (see Figure 8.4). The authors further sampled three shifting vulnerabilities across time (how vulnerabilities of these doubly exposed districts for further in-depth have changed in the past and what they might look like

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 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET FIGURE 3.2 Maps from the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) illustrate the results of bringing the geographical science perspective to the study of vulnerability. SoVI scores are place­based because, by construction, a county’s SoVI score is only meaningful in rela­ tion to an entire set of county scores. When the scores are mapped, they illustrate the geographical variation in social vulnerability, and highlight potential uneven capacity for disaster preparedness and response. The scores can be used by both policy makers and practitioners to determine resource allocation for disaster preparedness. SOURCE: Cutter and Finch (2008). local examination, using participatory rural appraisal also consider how legal and administrative realities techniques, including surveys and interviews. Future may be amplifying or attenuating the components of vulnerability studies could benefit from a sensitivity vulnerability. analysis to elucidate the relative importance of different As the foregoing examples suggest, the geographi- stressors in producing vulnerability. Such studies should cal sciences approach to vulnerability recognizes that

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5 VULNERABILITY vulnerabilities are dynamic across space and time, and geographical research linking urbanization and envi- are most meaningfully examined at a local scale, pro- ronmental change in different settings. Researchers in vided larger-scale influences are not ignored. The geo- Phoenix, Boston, New York, and Baltimore have exam- graphical science approach to vulnerability engages not ined, in parallel efforts, the spatial relationships among only expert scientists, but also other people who belong changing urban land uses and land covers and a variety o f human–environment outcomes (Guhathakurta to and know intimately the peoples and places under study. Research advances are likely to come from investi- and Gober, 2007; Kirshen et al., 2008; Boone et al., gations that both fill in gaps in our understanding of 2009; see also, e.g., Law et al., 2004; Rosenzweig et al., 2005; Ruth et al., 2006).3 These research projects, particular places and address questions of resilience, sustainability, and adaptation. The following illustrative which are diverse in methodological approach, could subquestions provide examples of the types of research be expanded through a coordinated effort to examine the human–environment impacts of land-use and land- that would be particularly productive to pursue. cover changes under different climate change scenarios, and by focusing not only on physical outcomes, but on research suBQuesTioNs social response options and constraints. The extent to which urbanizing areas in general, and how will climate change affect patterns of urbanizing coastal zones in particular, will be vulnerable vulnerability and resilience in rapidly urbanizing to the effects of climate change will depend not only on areas? the range of technological and policy options, but also Human land uses and land-use changes are im- on the feasibility of implementing those options. Feasi- plicated in global environmental change and resulting bility is, of course, a function of cost, but cost is not the patterns of vulnerability (Turner et al., 1990b; Rindfuss only constraint. Political, social, and cultural barriers and et al., 2004; Foley et al., 2005). Yet the precise links opportunities may also be important in the decision- between land-change processes and vulnerability are making calculus. To identify the presence or importance not well understood (Turner et al., 2005, 2007). Most of such opportunities and constraints, research needs to land-change research has underemphasized one or more be undertaken that is aligned with the needs of decision of the five criteria for vulnerability assessments outlined makers—both individual citizens and people in posi- above, and has focused on a specific type of land change tions of authority (e.g., infrastructure managers, elected (typically forest conversion for harvesting, agricultural, officials). The prospects for such alignments grow when ranching, and/or settlement purposes) in a specific type the science is coproduced with the potential end users of the research—an undertaking that is not simple and of setting (often tropical or subtropical locations) (e.g., usually requires a sustained relationship-building effort Moran et al., 1994; Rudel, 2005). The extraordinary among the different constituencies (White et al., 2008; growth of cities in the contemporary era, however, Gober et al., In Press). points to the need for land-change research using a The conceptual frameworks, theoretical bases, vulnerability approach in rapidly urbanizing locations. and methodological approaches employed in tropical Coastal zones are important sites for research land-change research may need to be adapted for use because many of them are urbanizing rapidly and will in examining the land-change–vulnerability link in likely face impacts from climate change (Chapter 4). urbanizing zones.4 Data are needed that can facilitate Will rapid urbanization render coastal ecosystems particularly vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise and tropical storms in the 21st century? How will 3These studies have looked at a wide range of variables including people’s culturally driven preferences for certain types water use, urban heat islands, natural resource decision making, urban infrastructure management, flooding, vegetation type, crime, of urban vegetation, such as turfgrass, affect urban social capital, hydrological flows, and nitrogen cycling. coastal ecosystems? Most important, how will these 4One reason tropical deforestation studies may not be directly coupled human–environment systems respond and transportable to the urban coastal context is that most of the tropical adapt to shifting exposures and impacts? Efforts to studies are set in low-income, primary-economy settings, whereas many of the urbanizing coastal zones are in relatively high-income, address these types of questions can build on recent tertiary-economy, or residential settings.

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6 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET analysis of the interconnected impacts of urbaniza- well established in general terms (Meyer et al., 1992; tion and climate change on local hydrological flows, Bian and Walsh, 1993; Easterling, 1997; see also, e.g., nutrient concentrations, flora and fauna, and human Moellering and Tobler, 1972; Openshaw and Taylor, health. In urbanizing coastal zones, research is also 1 979; O’Neill, 1988; Root and Schneider, 1995), needed on land-change–vulnerabilty links, including and particularly in the land-change literature (e.g., studies of estuarine eutrophication and associated Geoghegan et al., 1998; Lawrence et al., 2005). Yet to impacts on marine-related livelihoods (e.g., fishing, date, there have been few vulnerability studies in which tourism) and assessments of the prospects for different multiple, nested scales are analyzed simultaneously mitigation strategies (e.g., of reducing nitrogen inputs (cf. O’Brien et al., 2004, for an exception). Moreover, into streams). A key overarching concern should be there have been no systematic attempts to pool exist- the trade-offs that people are likely to face in different ing vulnerability results from varying scales to produce places as environmentally destabilizing climate change generalizations about scale dependencies, a challenge becomes more acute. discussed in the next illustrative subquestion. For Answers to these questions can advance scientific example, for the municipality of New Orleans, were understanding and address management and policy Katrina-related vulnerabilities at the household level needs. Effective decisions require data on the full suite significantly associated with municipal-level land-use of human and environmental variables implicated in policies? If so, were these relationships more important these human–environment processes: household-level in certain neighborhoods than others? data on individual characteristics, attitudes, and be- To advance understanding of cross-scale vulner- haviors; community-level data on general governance ability dynamics, two historical obstacles need to be structures and specific land and resource management confronted: (1) the lack of availability and high cost policies; and state-level data on economy and society. of high-spatial-resolution data and (2) inadequate Using GIS, for example, social variables can be exam- resources for processing those data (see discussion ined spatially alongside environmental variables (e.g., in Part III). For vulnerability studies requiring land- land cover, climate, hydrology, topography). The types cover information, assessing household-level processes of research teams needed to collect and analyze such has been limited by the spatial resolution of satellite data are similar to those participating in several past, imagery, often with pixels that are 30 m on a side (i.e., 900-m2 areas). This level of resolution does not current, and future interdisciplinary research programs allow direct statements to be made about individual supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. household-level processes and outcomes when, as is Forest Service, and NASA, such as Coupled Natural- common, multiple households are collocated within Human Systems, Decision Making Under Uncertainty, a given 900-m2 area. For those cases where high- Human and Social Dynamics, Long-Term Ecological resolution data have been available and affordable, Research, Urban Long-Term Research Areas, and Re- the resources required to process the data—for broad search Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences. Like geographical extents—has represented another research the work being done under the aegis of those programs, obstacle. Processing high-resolution aerial photographs the tools and techniques of the geographical sciences (i.e., <1 m) has been prohibitively expensive, even for are essential to the task of integrating the data that need municipal-scale studies. to be analyzed across space and in particular places. In recent years, however, the costs of very high resolution imagery (i.e., with pixels <1 m) and the how can we better measure and integrate the software required to process such imagery quickly have impacts of processes operating at different scales on declined, and this trend is likely to continue. These cost vulnerability and resilience? reductions make it easier for researchers to use high- As noted in Part I, scale is a bedrock geographical spatial-resolution data to examine processes and out- concept. Geographical scientists have shown that the comes at multiple scales simultaneously. In the coming relationships observed at one scale do not necessarily decade, our understanding of cross-scalar dynamics can mirror those observed at other scales. This idea is be greatly enhanced if geographical scientists develop a

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 VULNERABILITY series of municipal-level vulnerability studies that draw taken up, the vulnerability concept could evolve into from high-resolution environmental datasets that can an appealing idea with limited applied scientific value capture the scale of the household. In this way, house- beyond providing spatially and temporally contingent holds need not be sampled from a given municipality, findings from a set of noncomparable case studies. and a more representative picture can emerge of both It follows that a major research need for the com- household- and municipal-level processes. ing decade is to inventory the existing vulnerability and resilience literature, and to determine whether the studies Of course, remote sensing data represent only a can be compared using a meta-analytic framework for subset of the potentially necessary data for the study the purposes of drawing broad conclusions about of coupled human–environment system vulnerability vulnerability—even when the data and the methods used and resilience. Other means of data collection and to collect and analyze the data differ. There is a well- analysis (e.g., interviews, surveys, focus groups, par- ticipant observation) have proved valuable as well. developed meta-analysis literature in the social sciences, Such methods can be effective for making observations specifying how to pool results from independent studies about exposures, sensitivities, and adaptive capaci- into a larger dataset that permits more powerful infer- ties, at multiple scales. Indeed, the data generated by ences and generalizations. Meta-analysis is most helpful such approaches are often rich in information about and easiest when the predictor and outcome variables are cross-scale interactions, and can shed light on how the similarly defined and measured. For example, medical outcomes that are observable at one scale are associated studies of the effects of smoking on human health can be with factors at other scales. Developing methods for readily pooled because a person’s smoking behavior and assessing these cross-scale interactions would advance health are variables that lend themselves well to common our understanding of the challenges faced by coupled definitions and measurements. human–environment systems. Building on past vul- Extending classical meta-analytic techniques nerability studies that use a variety of data collection would be useful in the case of vulnerability, where the and analysis methods, and on geographical technolo- definitions and measurements of variables are often not gies that identify or estimate the variable impacts of comparable across studies. Geographical scientists have multiple processes in individual places, the geographi- contributed to an allied effort in recent years, attempt- cal sciences are well positioned to test the long-held ing to draw systematic comparisons across studies of geographical hypothesis that “scale matters” in the tropical deforestation that look at different variables vulnerability domain. and employ diverse methods. Notable examples of such meta-analyses include Geist and Lambin (2002), Misselhorn (2005), and Rudel (2005). None of these how can studies of vulnerability and resilience on applications, which use techniques such as qualitative qualitatively different topics be compared to make comparative analysis (QCA; Ragin, 1987), address valid broader generalizations about vulnerability? vulnerability as such, but they hold promise for vul- Vulnerability and resilience assessments are wide- nerability research. Research is needed to demonstrate ranging. Some studies have examined agricultural whether a creative blending of techniques and methods dynamics in developing countries, whereas others have (e.g., coupling QCA with the vulnerability scoping dia- focused on urbanization challenges in Western Europe. gram [Polsky et al., 2007]) can facilitate the production The topical diversity of studies makes it difficult to of vulnerability meta-analyses. Geographical scientists draw comparisons and make generalizations from inde- are well positioned to contribute to this undertaking. pendent study results. To move forward, research is T hey could pool results from the emerging body needed that can facilitate efforts to specify the general of knowledge on, for example, the land-use-policy/ conditions under which coupled human–environment coastal-storm vulnerability relationship in the New systems become vulnerable to the effects of human– Orleans area and test the applicability of the common environmental changes, document and assess the geo- themes that have emerged in that domain to other graphical patterns of these vulnerabilities, and analyze coastal-zone metropolitan areas exposed to similar why such patterns emerge. If this challenge is not environmental hazards (e.g., Miami, Houston).

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 UNDERSTANDING THE CHANGING PLANET summarY looks for patterns and processes across geographical spaces and scales. Advances in our understanding are The geographical sciences recognize that vulnerabilities most likely to be achieved through investigations that are dynamic across space and time. Opportunities to examine issues of resilience, sustainability, and adapta- expand our understanding of the changing patterns tion at local scales, and their relationships to larger of vulnerability in response to environmental change scale processes. are most likely to come through research focused on underexamined contexts and through research that