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Photo by Isaiah van Hunen.
Photo by Isaiah van Hunen.

Puget Sound’s known unknowns: The Grand Uncertainties Matrix

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By Jeff Rice

When people hear about Puget Sound’s Grand Uncertainties Matrix, they aren’t always sure what to make of it. “What’s that?” they ask. It sounds vaguely existential. Like something out of a Wachowski brothers film.

But it turns out that this particular matrix doesn’t star Keanu Reeves and you don’t have to wear sunglasses and a trench coat to experience it.

It is a journey into the unknown, but a practical one designed to save orcas and restore beaches, to clean up the water and to improve the overall health of the ecosystem. The matrix came about as a response to a series of EPA-funded “Implementation Strategies,” which take common sense, science-based approaches to specific problems related to Puget Sound recovery.

I spoke with the Puget Sound Institute’s lead ecosystem ecologist Tessa Francis, who created the matrix, to try to find out more about what we know we don’t know.

Tell me about the Grand Uncertainties Matrix. It has a catchy title.

The Grand Uncertainties Matrix, or the “GUM” is essentially a way for us to keep track of the biggest questions that we have related to Puget Sound recovery, questions that arise while developing implementation strategies.

It is a compilation of things that we are uncertain about. Gaps in our knowledge that come up during the process of working on these strategies.

How did it come about?

We were talking through the process of building implementation strategies and we recognized that along the way there will be questions that arise, unknowns about how the Puget Sound social-ecological system works. Probably they will range from questions we don’t have the answers for immediately — but the answer is out there somewhere — to large science gaps that require research to resolve. We really wanted to be able to capture all of those, because all of them are barriers to progress in some way. We thought if PSI starts to collect those and rank them, we can start to address them and move the implementation strategies forward.

It’s not just a bunch of random things that we don’t know, right? There’s actually some logic to this.

Yes! The logic is that they come from a consensus process of experts who are thinking about how we might recover Puget Sound. Implementation strategies are formed around the Puget Sound Vital Signs. And as we move through our ideas about how to achieve recovery for each of them, occasionally we face things we don’t know.

How do you go about the process of identifying these uncertainties?

In the process of designing a recovery strategy for something — let’s say you are trying to improve water quality — there are a set of actions that you’d like to tackle.

Built into that process is a series of assumptions: For example, one strategy might be to take management action ‘a’ that will have response ‘b.’ Maybe that response is a hypothesis. That would be identified as an uncertainty and added to the matrix.

Ultimately, you get a list of uncertainties that is developed within the IS process. At the end, we present that list to the team that’s developing the IS to make sure that everyone agrees that we have identified true unknowns. It’s sort of an expert evaluation of uncertainties and unknowns associated with a particular topic. Hopefully it’s a true unknown because you have a lot of experts in the room.

One thing that PSI does with the list is choose high priority unknowns to address and resolve and check them off the list. Sometimes it’s just chasing down some information; sometimes it’s conducting an in-depth analysis. That information feeds back into the IS process so that our recovery strategies are more solid, based on best available information, and progress towards can be made.