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Feature Stories

Modeling Climate Science
Forecasting future climates for the Northeast Region
Scenes of climate change effects - flooding, drought, and extreme weather events

“Our goal is to change how climate science informs resource management in the Northeast.” 
- Richard Palmer

Since Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar appointed UMass Amherst host to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Northeast Climate Science Center (NECSC), local ecologists, conservation biologist, engineers, and climate scientists have busily aligned projects and data sets to get the largest of these national centers up and running. One of eight centers nationwide devoted to providing the scientific tools necessary to better prepare for the impacts of climate change, the Northeast region was one of the three final centers to be chosen as part of Secretary Salazar’s national climate change strategy initiated in 2009.

Richard Palmer, civil and environmental engineering, directs the center’s academic efforts and with NECSC’s first permanent federal director, Mary Ratnaswamy, has been working to bring center partners online as well as bridge communication between the NECSC and other federal and regional centers. Partners in the northeast consortium include the College of Menominee Nation, Columbia University, Marine Biological Laboratory, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, and the University of Wisconsin, in addition to UMass Amherst.

The Northeast region faces perhaps the biggest challenge to climate modeling and climate change management, with 22 states, 41 percent of the U.S. population, and a wide array of ecosystems. The region holds an important piece to the national climate puzzle; information collected will determine how the federal government will prepare and respond to climate change.

The UMass team was victorious in the highly competitive center selection process due to a strong proposal and national research expertise. Distinguished Professor of Geosciences and climate scientist Raymond Bradley is a co-principal investigator (PI) for the center. Bradley co-authored the paper that highlighted the “hockey stick graph”—a finding that clearly demonstrated the current warming period as dramatically uncharacteristic in the context of thousands of years of natural history, stirring worldwide controversy in the late 1990s. The center’s other co-PIs, Curtice Griffin department head of environmental conservation, and environmental conservationist Keith Nislow, bring outstanding strengths in environmental conservation and resource management.

Richard Palmer, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Recent events acutely demonstrate the need for these national climate science centers. The Northeast region has seen increases in extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, wetter weather and habitat shifts. In the last two years, events include Hurricane Irene, which swept across the Northeast region of the U.S. in August 2011 killing 15 people and causing $7 - $10 billion dollars of damage to farmland, roadways, and bridges; and super storm Sandy, which overwhelmed the Northeast region in October 2012, killing more than 100 people, flooding major cities, and devastating coastal communities. At an estimated $30 - $50 billion in damages, Sandy was a record-breaking storm in terms of economic costs and environmental and cultural impact.

These effects are expected to intensify over the coming years, so the DOI hopes the center will provide legislators and resource managers with the information they need to best preserve water resources, wildlife and human habitats, and natural landscapes. “Our goal is to change how climate science informs resource management in the Northeast,” Palmer says.

Palmer and the other PIs are building the center with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Engineering, conservation planning and management, and field investigations will be as important as the climate science.

“The center is not about university researchers deciding what science managers need. The center’s researchers are listening and learning from natural resource managers about the real problems they face today and what problems they anticipate in the future due to climate change. Our goal is to make sure the proper information and tools are developed to help them answer some of their most important questions,” Palmer says.

Each of the eight regional centers is tasked with determining how climate change will impact their broad regions and, in many cases, estimating how climate change will impact specific areas, like watersheds and ecosystems. One of several approaches to this task includes the downscaling of Global Climate Models (GCMs) and Regional Climate Models (RCMs) so they are relevant on a smaller spatial scale.

“What we have to do is refine the information that comes from these large scale climate models down to a scale that is useful for resource managers,” Palmer says.

Bradley is leading the geophysical aspect of the center by continuing to run climate models that can be used to forecast future temperature trends. Meanwhile Kevin McGarigal, environmental conservation, is conducting field research that will directly inform NECSC projects. This is one of seven stakeholder-defined research projects funded during the center’s first year of operation.

McGarigal is building models for climate-driven landscape change using sophisticated simulation software. He is using the models to map climate impacts on habitats in the Northeast Terrestrial Habitat Map, which he is now extending into Atlantic Canada. McGarigal says that he always takes climate into account when modeling landscapes and habitats. “If we’re trying to forecast changes to landscapes and their effects on ecological integrity, it would be a big mistake to ignore climate change.”

Among the other projects funded this year is a two-year project looking specifically at water systems and the effects of climate change. The Great Lakes are an international resource with an economic footprint of about $7 billion annually. Center researchers will be looking closely at water temperatures in the Great Lakes and consequential effects on fish populations and migration. In addition, other projects are developing temperature models for rivers and streams in the region and examining water levels in relation to fish populations, hydrological power and flood control.

Palmer and the team are dedicated to connecting people in the United States with tangible information to better inform the future. Palmer says that the center’s primary focus is to address what is happening and look for ways to better adapt to the changing world. “The funding of this center is just one of many ways in which the importance of this research has been recognized.”

Amanda Drane '12