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In April 2007, The Nature Conservancy and IBM announced a joint effort to build a new computer-modeling framework that will allow users to access, via the Web, wide-ranging data about river basins around the world, including information on climate, rainfall, land cover, vegetation and biodiversity. The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is also a partner in the project, providing data and modeling expertise.

The framework will enable users to better understand how policy and management decisions affect nature and the benefits it provides, such as water filtration, carbon storage and flood moderation.

Using data provided by the Conservancy about the Mississippi River basin , IBM is building a web-based tool that will allow users to zoom in on the watershed and view detailed information about climate, soils, topography and land cover. IBM is currently experimenting with building on existing tools such as Google Earth. Once the basic architecture is in place, IBM will expand this pilot effort to include similar types of information about other river basins around the world. Eventually users will be able to import more detailed, local data about river basins that they are interested in modeling using this tool.

Ultimately, decision makers and river managers will be able to use the tool to assess the tradeoffs of various land and water uses including crop production, hydropower, carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity. These are common issues in the majority of the world's large river basins, and the team's goal is to build a tool that will be relevant and useful to people living and working in large river basins here in the United States and around the world.

“Rivers like the Mississippi are large, complex ecosystems with many different, and sometimes competing, uses and it is hard for people to quantify the tradeoffs,” said Paul West, the Conservancy's lead scientist on the project. “The strength of the tool that IBM is creating is that it will bring ecological and land use data about a river basin together so that decision makers can plan for multiple uses.”

In October, Conservancy and IBM team members, along with Carol Barford, a scientist at SAGE, traveled to Vicksburg , Mississippi , to meet with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff that work on computer modeling and environmental issues. The team is exploring ways to incorporate some of the Army Corps' Mississippi River models into the new system.

The team is also working with Conservancy staff in China 's Yangtze and Brazil 's Paraguay-Paraná river basins to identify ways in which this tool will be valuable in advancing conservation at these two large river systems and gather ecological data to incorporate into the modeling tool.

The team will be providing demonstrations of the tool in April, and anyone interested in contributing to the project or learning more about it is encouraged to contact Paul West or Peter Hage.

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