Fellow Highlight: Collaborating to improve understanding of climate impacts on Midwest hydrology

Monday, January 19, 2015

NE CSC Graduate Fellow Evan Murdock studies the impacts of climate change on winter and spring hydrology in the Midwest at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Working with his Ph.D. advisor Ken Potter, NE CSC Consortium PI and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Evan is particularly interested in how resource managers and institutions react to scientific information on climate change and how they use that information to make decisions.  With a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Macalester College and a Master’s degree in Water Resources Engineering at UW-Madison, Murdock is well equipped to explore both the physical and social aspects of his doctoral research.

Murdock’s primary focus is on the impacts of rising temperatures on the hydrology of southern Wisconsin. Changes to summer rainfall are highly uncertain in the region, but Murdock believes that there is much to be learned about changes in winter hydrology driven by climate change. "Because snowfall, snowmelt, and soil frost formation are such important processes in this area, and because they're driven so strongly by air temperature, there is good reason to believe that rising temperatures will have a significant impact on the way water behaves during the cold months of the year," said Murdock.

Murdock is trying to bridge the gap between large-scale climate models and the kind of processes that stakeholders can consider when they make decisions. "Once made, these decisions are difficult or impossible to revisit, so it's important to get them right," said Murdock.

For instance, planners generally size infrastructure such as bridges and storm sewers based on historical rainfall patterns, but lack the tools to integrate changes in climate into those decisions.  Similarly, regulators and municipal officials need access to climate information, such as more research on rainfall patterns.  "It appears that the events used for Floodplain Regulation and Zoning do not represent what we are currently experiencing," says Miles Winkler, Water Management Engineer for the Northeast Region at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Climate change is one of the priorities in Winkler's work.  As a Water Management Engineer, Winkler reviews the hydrology of an area, comparing recent rainfall events to modeled values.  Part of Winkler’s work is to organize outreach conferences so that experts and the public have opportunities to interact and learn from each other.  One challenge he faces is how to effectively communicate complex hydrological information to the public. 

That’s where Murdock’s interest in community education comes in. Murdock and Winkler work together to figure out how to identify and meet the needs of resource managers, such as improving communication of information about future hydrologic conditions, drawing on the resources of NOAA’s Sea Grant program as well as work Murdock carried out with the NECSC. This work has contributed to the formation of a Manitowoc River Watershed planning group that seeks to coordinate the efforts of state and local leaders to help communities within the watershed build resilience to climate risks now and in the future.  This effort demonstrates that both Murdock and Winkler are committed to providing concrete information that people can act on.

In the future, Murdock hopes to continue his work to better understand the needs and views of decision-makers. He wants to help the research community improve delivery of highly relevant scientific information to the people who can use it most effectively.

By Kayla Marchetti, NE CSC Undergraduate Intern

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