Society, Water, and Climate

By Guest Blogger: Andrea Brunelle, Chair, Department of Geography

The University of Utah currently has faculty members conducting research in the areas of society, water and climate; however, our faculty themselves identified this area as a research focus where some strategic hires could transform our productivity.
With support from the university administration we identified this nexus of research areas as an opportunity for the development of a research cluster. Enhancing our strength in this area at the University of Utah will allow us to contribute to solving important issues facing the Western US and many other regions around the world. Growing stronger in this area also means that we will broaden our ability to train undergraduates and graduates to lead society towards sustainable water solutions in a changing world.

Society, Climate, WaterWater is the key limiting resource for human development and for ecological and agricultural productivity in the Western US, and in many parts of the world. Climate change, water availability, and air quality are closely linked. Climate change will bring increased temperatures combined with likely increases in the severity, frequency, and duration of weather extremes, such as droughts and floods. Changes in water availability due to climate change will be further complicated by use of water for agriculture, changes in land use, and population growth. Elevated temperatures can also increase the production and concentration of photochemical oxidants, which has serious implications for human health. Furthermore, increased air pollution can affect the longevity of snowpack which affects water storage and resources. Climate change will have important ecological impacts, including changes in species distribution and ecosystem function, insect disturbance, and wildfire activity. Emissions from wildfires adversely impact air quality in downwind locations. In many regions of the world, issues centered on climate change and water availability will profoundly shape society in the next century. Addressing these issues requires a focused, transdisciplinary effort from scientists with expertise in society, water and climate.

Eight departments (Geology & Geophysics, Geography, Economics, Political Science, Atmospheric Sciences, Anthropology, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Biology) from four colleges (College of Social and Behavioral Science, College of Science, College of Mines and Earth Science, and College of Engineering) are collaborating on these hires.

Nearly 400 applicants applied for the five advertised positions. Twelve on-campus interviews are currently underway. After our first round of colleagues are hired we plan to hold a retreat with folks from across campus to map our path forward with regards to developing a roadmap for taking advantage of new funding opportunities and on campus collaborative efforts. We will follow the lead of the Families and Health Cluster and bring in leaders in the field to nucleate the existing and new researchers on campus around the planned initiatives.

More information about the cluster and positions can be found at: http://www.utah.edu/faculty/swc/.
Sustainability Showcase

Big Problems, Bold Solutions: The Transformative Excellence Program

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I view universities as the context where the most visionary, path-breaking approaches to urgent challenges should be explored. If not within the academy, where creative thinkers from a wide range of fields work in close proximity in an environment where risky work is allowed if not encouraged, then where would we hope to address societal concerns such as prevention of disease and disability, climate change, air quality, and the analysis, synthesis and application of large quantities of data?

This reasoning is what compelled us to create the Transformative Excellence Program (TEP), a faculty cluster hiring effort built around ideas that emerged from the faculty. The TEP is designed to amplify existing strengths of the university, address urgent problems, and raise the capacity, visibility and impact of Utah scholars through the highly strategic addition of a small cluster of new hires across disciplines. More than 20 clusters were proposed; submissions were reviewed by a team representing many fields. Strategic hiring within four promising clusters will be supported in this initial cycle:

• Lifespan Health and Wellness (Dean Cindy Berg, cluster leader)
• Digital Humanities (Department Chair Barry Weller, cluster leader)
• Large-Scale Data Analysis/Utah Statistical Center (Department Chair Peter Trapa, cluster leader)
• Society, Water and Climate (Department Chair Andrea Brunelle, cluster leader)

These clusters bridge departments and cross colleges, bringing together teams with varied expertise and research traditions, with the idea that these combinations have potential to advance knowledge, facilitate understanding, and promote viable solutions to pressing issues of the 21st century. The model is not unlike that of celebrated research institutes, such as Bell Labs (see The Idea Factory), and recognizes that the boundaries of university departmental structures are highly permeable.

Many, many promising ideas were submitted, and I regret that available resources did not allow us to support a greater number of good ideas in this pilot phase. I hope that this initial effort is a success and that we learn from it in order to support a “Phase 2” of the TEP where additional proposals can be solicited and selected.

Each of the thematic clusters received a small amount of funding to assemble scholars from across the campus with shared interests and expertise, though a conference, event, or high profile visitor, for example. I hope that you will take the opportunity to participate and see what is possible. If this initial round is not relevant for your work, give some thought to a future cluster proposal. Please contribute what you can to foster the success of this program. We share in each other’s success. As the University of Utah advances in achievement and visibility, opportunities increase for all. As U faculty members generate solutions to urgent challenges, we progress as a society as well as a community of scholars.