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Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water

Focus Area Lead

Joe Atkinson

Director of the Great Lakes Program

Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences


Professor Atkinson's Biography

Dr. Joseph Atkinson is a Professor in the Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering Department and Director of the Great Lakes Program at the University at Buffalo, where he has been on the faculty since 1984. He also is currently Associate Chair and Director of Graduate Studies for the Department. His background is in environmental fluid mechanics and he has worked for nearly 20 years on Great Lakes issues, focusing primarily on hydrodynamic and water quality modeling. He is a registered Professional Engineer in New York State.

Dr. Atkinson earned his B.S. at Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA) in 1973 in an independent program of studies, his M.Eng. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) in 1979, and his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA) in 1985. He has had several visiting appointments at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, with support as a Fulbright Senior Scholar and as a Lady Davis Fellow, has been a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, MA, and a visiting professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He headed the Environmental Technical Working Group for the recent International Joint Commission Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River water level study, and served as a member of the Science Advisory Group for the New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council. He currently sits on the Council of Fellows for the Cooperative Institute for Limnological and Ecological Research at the University of Michigan, and recently concluded an appointment as Technical Review Coordinator for development of the Onondaga Lake Water Quality Model (Syracuse, NY). 

With formal training in stratified flow and mixing processes in natural environments, Dr. Atkinson’s work has expanded to include nearshore hydrodynamics, water quality, and sediment transport, multidisciplinary, integrated model development for aquatic ecosystem management, and application of engineering principles to stream restoration. Recent and current projects include development of a coupled hydrodynamic and particle tracking model to delineate circulation and spreading patterns in the Lower Great Lakes, fine-grain sediment transport in the Buffalo River (Buffalo, NY), mixing in surface waters, interactions between turbulence and suspended sediment, nested hydrodynamic models to evaluate nearshore water quality problems in Lake Ontario, and coupling hydrodynamic and aquatic ecosystem models to better understand the occurrence of harmful and nuisance algae blooms. He is the author or co-author of over 100 journal publications, technical reports, books and book chapters, and another 100 conference proceedings and presentations.

Vision and Objectives

The overall societal and scientific challenge we will address is sustainable management of freshwater coastal ecosystems, including ecosystem services for human and ecological health, and maintaining coastal geomorphic and socio-economic resilience in the face of future and uncertain stressors. These issues span a wide range of topics that require multidisciplinary approaches. “Grand challenges” that will guide development of this focus area include:

·         What do we need to know to manage coastal sustainability?

·         How do humans interact with freshwater ecosystems?

·         How can we predict, plan for, prevent, and mitigate the impacts of HABS?

·         How can we insure coastal health and resilience?

·         How can we optimize the economic benefit of freshwater resources?

The long-term goal is development of an internationally recognized interdisciplinary center of excellence for freshwater coastal ecosystem science, engineering, management, and socio-economic impacts, with a focus on the Lower Great Lakes region.

This vision includes topics in freshwater quality and quantity, pollution source identification and reduction, modeling fate and transport of pollutants while developing advanced capabilities for forecasting with uncertainty and contributing to adaptive management, human/natural system interactions, and support of the “blue economy”, among others.

Primary long-term objectives include:

·         Integrate human/natural system interactions in a modeling framework to better understand the role of water on human and ecological health under uncertain future climate scenarios, and to support management decision-making;

·         Integrate expertise in uncertainty quantification and hydrodynamic/ecological modeling to create a unique intellectual resource that can impact understanding and modeling of the Great Lakes and other freshwater systems, to evaluate impacts of water use and extreme event management;

·         Develop effective management strategies for freshwater resources, and promote adaptive management;

·         Become a global leader in transdisciplinary and trans-boundary water governance; and

·         Create infrastructure and innovation to support a “blue economy” for Buffalo and Western New York.



This focus area is a collaborative effort among faculty representing a wide range of expertise across several decanal units to address broad issues in resource management of coastal freshwater ecosystems, particularly considering uncertain future environmental conditions. These issues include the following system components:

·         Physical – coastal hazards, extreme meteorological events, geomorphological impacts,

·         Chemical – pollution from nutrients and persistent organics, emerging contaminants,

·         Biological – eutrophication, algae blooms food web interactions, invasive species, and

·         Social – economic resilience, human health, policy, and management.

Our initial focus on the New York portions of Lakes Erie and Ontario and their watersheds, serves as an important living laboratory and provides a place-based focus. This focus on freshwater coalesces a strong existing base of diverse faculty to develop coordinated, multidisciplinary approaches for research, education, and outreach in the science and management of coastal ecosystems. Near-term anticipated faculty hires in areas including aquatic ecology, limnology, air pollution, coastal engineering, and environmental economics will extend our ability to address a wider range of problems and compete for multidisciplinary funding opportunities.

The long-term goal of this focus area is development of an internationally recognized center of excellence in freshwater coastal ecosystem science, engineering, and policy, focusing on ecosystem quality and services, sustainable management, human and ecosystem health, and local and global responses to a changing environment. The major underlying theme is the reciprocal relationship between the human and natural subsystems. Human activities impact water quality through generation and dispersal of pollutants into the environment, which in turn have a direct impact on the coastal ecosystem. Direct and indirect anthropogenic loadings (industrial, municipal, agricultural, and stormwater runoff, air pollution), are the main pollutant sources, and the main contributors to degraded water quality. Water quality, along with natural system drivers, strongly impacts coastal ecosystem health and sustainability, affecting responses such as harmful algal blooms (HABs) and the ability of the system to sustain human and environmental health, and provide a variety of ecosystem services. Coastal resiliency is considered a function of the interactions between ecosystem (human and natural) health and natural processes such as geomorphological changes that might affect coastal protection and development. Managing this system involves controls on pollutant input and physical changes within the context of uncertain natural driving forces, including climate change. This focus area seeks to promote understanding of the relationships affecting coastal resilience, as and how resilience can be managed.

View Focus Area Presentation at the RENEW Roll-Out Meeting on May 25th, 2016