Climate Science Center Tackles the Big Job of Climate Change

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The new campus-based Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC), part of a federal network of eight such Climate Science Centers, is hard at work meeting the considerable challenges of climate change in our region. The NE CSC, in operation for less than a year after being created witha $7.5-million federal grant from the Department of Interior, has selected its first director, Mary Ratnaswamy, is developing a sweeping Strategic Science Agenda to determine the research goals and priorities of the NE CSC, and is already deeply involved in critical research projects. The NE CSC mission is to “provide scientific information, tools, and techniques that managers and other parties interested in land, water, wildlife, and cultural resources can use to anticipate, monitor, and adapt to climate change in the Northeast region.”

According the NE CSC, climate change is already impacting the physical and biological environments of the Northeast. Temperatures have risen by about .7 degrees Centigrade over the last century and are projected to rise by a further three to five degrees under probable emission scenarios. The Northeast region has recorded higher amounts of precipitation over the last 50 years, with a greater frequency of extreme events. All model simulations for the future point to wetter winter and spring conditions, but much drier summers and falls.

The dramatic changes are only expected to intensify in coming decades. As a consequence of increasing temperatures, sea level will rise by at least one meter this century, with even greater coastal impacts from storm surges in areas that have seen major population increases. For a reality check, think Hurricane Sandy.

The super storm, with its destruction stretching across the Northeast, Midwest, and beyond, is exactly the type of incident for which the NE CSC was established. Many NE CSC scientists are already conducting research that will be helpful in the weeks and months to come, as emergency managers deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and look to prepare much more effectively for future extreme events.

UMass Geosciences Professor Raymond Bradley, a NE CSC consortium member and director of the Climate Systems Research Center here, said in a newspaper interview that with higher sea-surface temperatures caused by man-made global warming, “when storms develop, when they do hit the coast they are going to be bigger, and I think that’s a fair statement that most people could sign onto.”

Considering this whole scenario of critical climate changes, it’s high time for the establishment of the NE CSC. The seven institutions in the NE CSC research consortium include the University of Massachusetts Amherst, College of Menominee Nation, Columbia University, Marine Biological Laboratory, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri Columbia, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Northeast region, as defined by the mandate of the NE CSC and its work, is an area of enormous variety in geography, climate, biological diversity, and human land use. The region contains 22 states, numerous “eco-regions,” and a human population of 131,000,000, or 41 percent of the U.S. population.

The first order of business at the new NE CSC was to find a talented director, which it did during the summer of 2012 by appointing Ratnaswamy, who had been a research manager since 2008 at the largest biological science center of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

"The consortium is extremely lucky to have the leadership of Mary Ratnaswamy as our first permanent director of the Northeast Climate Science Center," said Richard Palmer, the principal investigator for the center and head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at UMass Amherst. "Mary brings an uncommon combination of research skills, management experience, and personal grace to this position. We feel confident that Mary will be an exceptional director."

Another key step for the new center is creating a Strategic Science Agenda, a document which will pilot the research conducted within the Northeast Climate Science Center. This guiding plan will focus on the most important climate research topics in the Northeast region and will be ready for implementation in 2013.

The Strategic Science Agenda is currently being formulated in a massive collaborative effort by the seven institutions in the NE CSC consortium in consultation with federal and state agencies, various Native American tribes, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations, landowners, and business groups with concerns about regional climate impacts. This master plan will identify a core of critical research projects to carry out, in addition to the seven that are already underway, which you can view here: Directed Research Initiatives.

What all this research will be dealing with is the many unique challenges for understanding, adapting to, and mitigating the effects of climate change in the region. These issues include extreme differences in environments, from rapidly expanding and developing coastal regions and urban areas to depopulating rural communities. Another challenge is a pattern of land ownership and administration dominated by relatively small, privately- owned parcels and limited federal lands. In other words, decision-making will often be in the hands of a wide and diverse array of local stakeholders.

Increasing temperatures have also affected altitude and range shifts in species and earlier seasonal migrations for migratory animals, a trend that will continue into the future.

In addition, climate changes will have profound impacts on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems across the region, changing forest types and aquatic environments while affecting fish community structure and the timing of migratory fishes. Understanding how climate affects habitats and other conditions for fish and wildlife populations will be essential for decision makers challenged with balancing multiple land uses, including agriculture, forestry, water allocations, energy, and transportation.

As we look at this vast regional picture, then, obtaining the best calculations for a range of probable climate-change scenarios is a critical task to aid natural resource managers and other stakeholders throughout the Northeast.

The NE CSC recently held two successful Stakeholder Outreach and Science Planning meetings, one in Amherst and one in Minneapolis. The purpose of these meetings was twofold: share and receive feedback on the draft science themes and priorities and how they fit with the climate science needs of NE CSC stakeholders and partners; create new and expand existing communication networks to exchange and disseminate climate science research and seek input about preferred methods of engagement between NE CSC and stakeholders

Both meetings attracted a broad and diverse array of approximately 150 natural resource management stakeholders from federal institutions such as US Fish & Wildlife, US EPA, and NOAA to municipal leaders, non-governmental organizations, and tribal representatives. The meetings were structured around paired presentations from both consortium scientists and representative stakeholders according to seven science themes, all related to climate change adaptation through natural resource management. All participants provided comments on specific science needs essential to their organization in planning for climate change. The NE CSC will incorporate feedback from these discussions into the 5-year Strategic Science Agenda, which will guide the future science directions of the center.  

It seems obvious that the Northeast Regional Climate Science Center has its work cut out for it as it as it attempts to transform a climate of dramatic change into a climate of predictable and manageable outcomes. That’s why the multi-disciplinary task force of researchers from across the Northeast Region is gearing up so energetically for the crucial campaign to come.


Article from UMass College of Engineering