Researchers awarded $15 million to study climate change

9/30/2008 - By: Claudene Wharton

There has been a lot said about climate change, and the long-term effects it may have on our planet. There are indications that climate change may impact Nevada more severely and sooner than it will affect other less arid environments.

A climate change, interdisciplinary "dream team" of researchers from the Desert Research Institute; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; University of Nevada, Reno; and Nevada State College will spend the next five years detecting, analyzing and modeling the effects of regional climate change on our landscapes, ecosystems and water resources, and communicating the research results to policymakers and the public. The team will lay the groundwork to provide science, education and outreach infrastructure for the study of climate change and its effects on Nevada for years to come.

Nevada's National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) led the grant effort, and the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR is providing $15 million for the project to the Nevada System of Higher Education, including the Desert Research Institute; University of Nevada, Reno; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Nevada State College. The Nevada System of Higher Education is also providing nearly $6.6 million to the project from non-federal sources.

"This award allows the continued commitment that the Nevada System of Higher Education EPSCoR has provided for more than 15 years to academic research infrastructure and education," says William Schulze, director of the Nevada EPSCoR Office & NSHE Sponsored Programs Office. "This long-term collaborative partnership between the NSHE institutions will expand the academic research and development enterprise and improve student education in science and technology.”

To broaden and increase the impact of the information, Nevada has formed a tri-state collaboration with New Mexico and Idaho, who are gathering similar information. And, the educational component will reach students at multiple levels, including K-12, undergraduate and graduate students.

According to Gayle Dana, associate research professor of hydrologic sciences at the Desert Research Institute and the project's director, impacts from climate change are typically evaluated by downscaling Global Climate Models. However, this data does not sufficiently represent the complex terrain of the western United States.

"In other words, it does not take into account Nevada's diverse topography and climate zones that occur within relatively short distances - ranging from the dry desert areas to the snowy mountain ranges. These diverse environments can hardly be lumped together to predict and prepare for future climate change in our state," says Dana.

The climate change project includes six main components:

  • Climate modeling: Gather and use data to evaluate the effects of different future climate change scenarios and adaptation strategies.
  • Ecological change: Collect and analyze data on how these climate changes may affect our ecosystems, such as increasing the wildfire threat, encouraging invasive species, or increasing some plant diseases or pests.
  • Water resources: Collect and analyze data to better quantify and model changes in water balance and supply under different climate change scenarios.
  • Policy, decision-making and outreach: Provide information to and engage policymakers and the public to increase their understanding of climate change and help them make decisions to decrease its negative impacts on our society.
  • Cyberinfrastructure: Develop a data portal and software framework that will support effective interdisciplinary climate change research.
  • Education: Provide educational opportunities for K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, including the development of a climate change minor for students at the University of Nevada, Reno and University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Fund undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scholarships and fellowships.

Scott Mensing, chair and professor of geography at the University of Nevada, Reno and co-principal investigator of the project, points out that the Great Basin, which includes Nevada, is considered one of the most endangered ecoregions in the United States. This is due to numerous interacting factors including climate change, urbanization, changing land use, limited water resources, and other factors. Nevada is both the driest and the most urbanized state in the nation. The mean annual precipitation is only 10.98 inches, and 88 percent of its population lives in urban centers. And, while mountain areas comprise only about 10 percent of our landscape, they generate 85 percent of groundwater recharge and most surface runoff.

"It is essential to understand the effect that climate change may have on our environment and the state's water resources. This project will increase our ability to plan for the future and better manage our resources to support the state's environment, businesses and economy," says Mensing.

The project has many facets and incorporates various forms of technology to produce results. For example, various instruments will be placed on two "transects," or linear paths, to measure variables such as humidity, air temperature, wind speed, rainfall, solar radiation, snowfall, pollutants, snow depth, subsurface soil properties, surface runoff and more. One transect will be placed in southern Nevada, and the other will be placed in central or northern Nevada. The data will be collected and fed into a "data portal," or high-tech Web site, that will be accessible to researchers in the state and worldwide.

A software framework will also be developed to integrate the various information so that it can produce meaningful data on climate change and its effects. According to Thomas Piechota, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-principal investigator of the project, this information will be put into visual and user-friendly formats that will be available at the "Solutions Room" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"This facility will use technology to make the climate change findings available to scientists, policymakers and the public in easy-to-understand and visual ways," he says.


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