UA to Host New Southwest Climate Center

The center, fueled with a $3.1 million, five-year grant, will address the current and future effects of climate change on the region's natural and cultural resources.
Oct. 20, 2010
Jonathan Overpeck
Jonathan Overpeck
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The University of Arizona will head a new Southwest Climate Science Center established by the U.S. Department of the Interior to address the current and future effects of climate change on the region's natural and cultural resources.

A $3.1 million, five-year grant has been awarded to the UA to initiate the center, one of eight regional centers established or planned in the nation. It is anticipated that the total funding will increase substantially as the Southwest center ramps up in the near future.

"The Southwest is a bull's-eye for climate change in the United States, and the impacts of this climate change are already clear," said the center's principal investigator, Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences and co-director of the UA's Institute of the Environment. "The goal of the center is to help our region deal with climate change due to both natural and human causes."

Researchers say signs of climate change in the region are prevalent: rising temperatures, earlier snowmelt, northward-shifting winter storms, increasing precipitation intensity and flooding, record-setting drought, plummeting Colorado River reservoir storage, widespread vegetation mortality, wildlife declines and more large wildfires.

Adding to the catalogue of changes is the diverse topography, climate, biology, hydrology and land use in the region – a huge swath of land and coastal area stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border region north to the headwaters of the Colorado River and west to the Pacific Coast of California.

To address the complex climate change issues in the region, the UA will serve as the overall coordination hub for the center as one of six host institutions in a consortium. Other university and federal scientists and partners from the region also will be involved.

Joining UA's Overpeck in the consortium will be co-principal investigators Mark Schwartz of the University of California, Davis; Glen MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles; Kelly Redmond of the Desert Research Institute; Bradley Udall of the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Alexander Gershunov of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

The six host institutions will run the center with the Department of the Interior, but they will also tap needed expertise and capabilities at other partner institutions, including Arizona State University; Northern Arizona University; University of California, Merced; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; NASA Ames Research Center; and the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.

"The consortium headed by the University of Arizona brings a wide range of scientific and impact assessment capabilities to the Southwest Climate Center because it includes institutions located in and familiar with the incredible diversity of ecosystems and human settlements and activities that characterize the U.S. Southwest," Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The consortium is well-versed in issues such as coastal management, drought and its impacts on people and the environment, water management in the Colorado and other Southwest rivers, and the impacts of exploding populations of bark beetles on western forests.

Combining and applying knowledge on all the intertwined issues is crucial for understanding and managing the effects of climate change on America's land, water, wildlife, cultural heritage and other resources, Overpeck said.

"After extensive discussions among our universities, we unanimously agreed that this challenge is simply too large, too deep and too complex for any single institution to provide region-wide expertise on all critical levels," Overpeck said, referring to the consortium approach to meeting the needs of the Southwest. "We need to bring the best and brightest to the table from across our region."

In particular, Overpeck said, the center will apply UA's top-level climate, water, ecosystems, wildlife, decision-support, management, energy and social science expertise to focus on meeting the challenges that will define the Southwest's ability to remain one of the county's most economically vibrant and beautiful regions.

The Department of the Interior already has announced climate science centers for Alaska, the Southeast and the Northwest. The North Central, Northeast, South Central and Pacific Islands centers have yet to be announced.