Special Report: UA’s Climate Change Research a Team Effort

University climate research involves scholars in fields ranging from Earth science to engineering, law and social sciences to public health, and agriculture to the humanities and art. Collaboration has improved the University’s public outreach efforts.
April 28, 2010
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Diana Liverman
Diana Liverman

Climate change research involves a broad spectrum of faculty members from across the University of Arizona, including scores of colleges and departments with scientists from a wide range of academic disciplines.

UA's Institute of the Environment, a campus center for coordinating climate change research, has more than 140 affiliated faculty members representing more than 55 academic departments and programs, said Diana Liverman, co-director.

Researchers at the UA are studying historic and current evidence of climate change, using analysis to predict what the future may hold and reaching out to the public with strategies for adapting to potential changes.

The UA now ranks among the top 10 in the nation for climate change research and has attracted top researchers in the field, said Liverman, UA professor of geography and development.

"We have nationally and world-renowned environmental research centers here at UA, such as the Tree-Ring Lab, our Arid Lands program and the Udall Center for Public Policy," she said.

The UA boasts a strong contingent of top climate scientists, but many other faculty members can and do get involved, Liverman said. And this collaborative cross-pollination, she said, helps move the study of climate change forward.

"We have climate researchers at every college in the University. At the UA, lawyers and public health experts are working on climate change. We have the land-grant tradition and the Agricultural College, with lots of people interested in climate," she said. "The new School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Science involves a world-class group of scientists with the unique Biosphere 2 facility where we can try to understand how different climates affect soil and ecosystems.

"If you take any one climate researcher, they may have their tenure home in one department but they may have appointments in several other departments so you might be a tenured faculty member in geography or geosciences, but you would also be associated with hydrology or with atmospheric sciences, and with arid lands or the Udall Center, and also affiliated with the Institute for the Environment," she said.

Such a collaborative atmosphere helps researchers like Mike Crimmins, climate science extension specialist and assistant professor of soil, water and environmental science.

"I do not work by myself on any project," said Crimmins, a climatologist. "Climate needs to intersect with all these other disciplines. So I work with hydrology and water resources, the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Office of Arid Land Studies and Biosphere 2. I've got team projects with as many different scientists as you can imagine.

"There is a lot of basic science going on in climate that is really important, but when you get down to the on the ground adaptation, it is not a one-person show by any means," he said. "That has been a really important strength of working here at the UA."

Liverman agreed: "I think one of the things that attracts researchers is how well the UA fosters interdisciplinary research. At UA you are really encouraged to work across departments and people are very open to it. I can have collaborations with people in atmospheric science, anthropology – even art."

Even art?

"Yes, one of the new initiatives for the institute is to reach out to the arts and humanities. And that is because in order to understand how humans will respond to climate change you need to think about the cultural, philosophical and ethical factors in how humans deal with the environment," she said.

"Professors such as Alison Deming, acting head of the English department and famous poet, and Paula Fan, Regents professor of music, are very concerned with environmental issues," she said.

"We've started to bring together people from the arts and humanities to think about climate change. This is a source of inspiration because the humanities may be able to work with the sciences to understand and communicate what is going on," Liverman said.

Crimmins said researchers – who as a group have historically been bad at sharing their findings with the public - have improved their public education efforts in recent years.

"Scientists are notoriously bad communicators. We haven't done all these things at once: communicate well, communicate in a constructive way, and communicate in a way that is going to be broad and meet people where they are at politically, economically and geographically," Crimmins said.

Liverman is quick to point out that UA work is not just centered on the issue of global warming.

"Climate change is what happened to the climate in the past, it's what's happening with drought and floods now, and its El Nino. It's all sorts of things in addition to global warming," she said. "Climate change research here has everything to do with climate's past, present and future.

"At the UA, we provide information that can help people make choices about how to respond to climate change," she said. "If people ask us for climate data or to assess the impacts of drought, we respond with the best science that we have. We're always willing to go out and talk to people about what we are observing, what is happening with the climate, or what we think may happen. We're not really out there trying to tell everybody what to think, but we do try to make sure that when we do a piece of scientific research, we let the public know about it."

UA's strength in climate change study is well supported from the top, she said.

"We have 100 percent support from the president, the provost and the deans. An illustration of that is in a time when very little hiring is happening, the provost allocated $3 million for new environmental faculty across campus," Liverman said. "It's for hiring rising stars, and we've already landed a couple of outstanding people who are coming to UA. We probably will have another dozen really great environmental researchers on campus in the fall because of the University's commitment."

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