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UB disaster researcher supporting activities of UN agencies

Chris Renschler last summer at the U.N. office at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria.

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published January 5, 2017

“Better communication and collaboration could improve disaster response and lead to more sustainable resource management policies.”
Chris Renschler, associate professor
Department of Geography

UB geographer Chris Renschler first caught the attention of the United Nations, especially the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in 2016 while completing a Fulbright Fellowship in Vienna, Austria.

An expert in natural resources management, he also had studied and responded to a variety of natural disasters.

It was a unique mix of skills and specific expertise that the U.N. prized. In Vienna, through a seminar on “Integrated Natural Resources and Extreme Events Management: Decision Support Tools for More Resilient Communities,” the organization’s Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture asked if Renschler could assist countries in work on management of natural resources — such as land and water — and the response to extreme events, like earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.

Renschler’s answer was positive, leading to a fruitful partnership that continues today.

“In these two fields, there’s a lot of useful information that isn’t being shared,” Renschler says. “Natural resource managers have access to data that can aid in disaster response, and disasters shape the state of natural resources. Better communication and collaboration could improve disaster response and lead to more sustainable resource management policies.”

The joint U.N. division that tapped Renschler’s expertise was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) and the IAEA in 1964. While the IAEA is known for its key role in inspecting nuclear facilities worldwide to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the agency also promotes peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.

That’s where Renschler, an associate professor of geography, comes in. At UB, he directs the Landscape-based Environmental System Analysis and Modeling lab.

His team has developed a software tool that enables researchers, as well as policymakers, to model how natural disasters and other environmental changes — such as clearing of land for agriculture — may affect soil erosion. Nuclear research is key to understanding these issues. Water and sediments that originate in different places can carry different levels of isotopes of various elements, and these isotopes can be identified using nuclear techniques to trace the provenance of flood waters and sediments involved in erosion.

So far, his partnership with the U.N. division has included presenting to experts from 13 Asian countries on natural resources and disaster management. In summer 2016, he also traveled to Morocco to examine data tied to desertification and to share his model for erosion, which is being evaluated as a potential tool for guiding decisions on land/cover use.

Looking forward, Renschler has been invited to present his work and to provide guidance this coming March at a Technical Cooperation project workshop to be held at Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S., as well as another workshop this May in China.