Climate change is the single most pressing global issue facing society today; one estimate suggests that a climate-induced global sea level rise of just one meter will cost 28 trillion US dollars to world economies.
Humankind’s vulnerability to natural disasters dramatically increases as the climate system changes, populations grow, and economies become more intertwined. Reducing this vulnerability is a grand challenge of global scale that requires integration of a range of disciplines from science and engineering to medicine, urban planning and the humanities.
Within the grand challenge of dealing with climate change, several areas stand out. Forecasting is highly uncertain due to our inability to quantify sensitivity of systems to rapid climate change, and to understand a variety of complicated processes that serve as filters between climate change and sea level rise. It is particularly difficult to communicate hazards and risks related to climate change induced sea-level rise because of long-term persistence and extremely slow onset. Finally, it is difficult for policy makers to understand and determine what laws and policies should be implemented in the face of such a slow onset and persistence, and to be able to take appropriate action.
How citizens of the Great Lakes region will adapt to climate change while remaining or becoming more economically, socially and ecologically resilient is one of the most pressing challenges facing our communities. Although advances in climate change science will lead to better storm prediction and understanding of extreme weather causation, climate change-induced extreme weather events also have a direct impact on community quality of life and resiliency. As cities transition from post-legacy to twenty-first century, scholars are presented with an opportunity to offer insight into how to meet environmental justice goals and ensure that our most vulnerable communities stay resilient and strong in the face of growing challenges from a changing climate.
Although much scholarship in this area has focused on environmental justice, development and climate change at the global level, UB faculty are interested in looking at the way mitigation of and adaptation to climate change is related to the vulnerabilities (economic, cultural, social, environmental, etc.) of local and regional communities in Canada and the United States. For example, climate-induced extreme weather events such as flooding are forcing people to purchase flood insurance for the first time. In many communities, however, people living in the floodplain represent the poorest segments of the population, many of whom cannot afford insurance and simply are abandoning properties. For decades, indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada have been burdened with health problems linked to environmental pollutants. This reality is now compounded, as pollution is crippling some tribal cultures. Fish consumption advisories are often issued to increase public awareness and lower exposure to contaminated fish caught in the Great Lakes. However, poor and minority anglers may be less aware of health advisories and more likely to exceed the recommended fish consumption limits than white anglers. Relying on health advisories as the primary mechanism for limiting exposure may not adequately meet environmental justice goals to protect the health and safety of all people.
The University at Buffalo has long enjoyed a prominence in the core area of climate change research through historically strong research programs in the Department of Geology, i.e., investigating how climate is changing today, will change in the future and has changed in the past. Furthermore, the Buffalo community has a deep relationship with the community-based environmental movement stemming from past environmental disasters.
Currently UB has numerous faculty involved in research in climate change and socioeconomic impacts, in non-connected programs, in a variety of departments. The Department of Geology continues to maintain strong programs in ice sheet mass balance and ice dynamics (B. Csatho and Res. Prof. A. Schenk), and high-latitude climate and glacier records (J. Briner). Their work spans the Arctic as well as Antarctic. Elizabeth Thomas has just been hired into this group. She uses organic geochemical, stable isotopic, ecological, and physical proxies to understand the mechanisms that cause precipitation and temperature variability. M. Bursik (Geology), A. Patra (Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering) and G. Valentine (Geology) provide the link from physical aspects of climate change itself to quantitative hazards and risk analysis. Another recent hire, in Geography, Adam Wilson, studies ecological impacts of global environmental change, such as species distribution and ecosystem resilience, and joints a cadre of faculty in Geography that have expertise in some component of climate change and socioeconomic impacts. Expertise in Law by Jessica Owley Lippmann, Kathryn Friedman and Kim Connolly focuses on how shifting interpretations of law affect environmental values and regulation, exploring issues in land conservation in the face of climate change, and implementing appropriate laws and policies. Janet Yang (Communication) studies communication of risk information related to climate change issues. She concentrates particularly on how cognitive and affective evaluations of risk influence an individuals’ decision making. Zach Schlader, in Exercise and Nutrition Science, brings to the table studies of the mechanisms underlying human adaptive behavior during thermal stress, such as that provided by climate change. Additional expertise across UB, in Economics, Civil Structural and Environmental Engineering, Chemistry and beyond, maintain common overlap with topics in climate change science and socioeconomic impacts.
What this diverse group lacks is a deterministic climate modeling capability that could act as a center of focus for climate change research (Fig. 1). The potential for transformative improvement of coupled climate models (atmosphere, ocean, ice) exists by combining data constraints from both present and past periods of climate change. The application of the outputs of coupled climate models to sea-level rise risk assessment is virtually unknown. Sustainability in the face of catastrophic and/or chronic occurrence of climate related disasters is a persistent challenge. Integrating the skills of geoscientists, engineers, mathematician/statistician, lawyers and social scientists involved in these issues can lead to transformative impact.
Department of Geology
Jason Briner is a Professor of Geology and studies the response of ice sheets and glaciers to past climate change; he joined the University at Buffalo in 2005. Briner has traveled to field sites above the Arctic Circle more than 30 times, where he and his graduate students study the effects of climate change on glaciers in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Norway. His work specializes in reconstructing the timing of past glacier changes and relies on geological methods ranging from radiocarbon dating to lake sediment stratigraphy to cosmogenic isotope geochemistry. Briner has published more than 100 papers.
Long-term, we seek to create a cadre of graduates with world leading expertise and substantial capacity in all topics related to research, education and training in climate change, environmental justice and vulnerability, sea-level rise and global impacts and risks. For example, we have the potential to be the top university in training students to understand sea-level rise induced by climate change, and to help society map out appropriate responses for a sustainable future. Short-term, with a hire in climate modeling, UB would harbor one of the top US research groups focused on climate and ice sheet change. We thus propose the hire of an expert in climate modeling, probably focused on ice sheets, but with sufficiently broad interests and abilities not only to integrate current data-driven research within a theoretical framework, but also to bridge to the greater climate system, related hazards through a strong link with the Center for Geohazards Studies (CGS), and ultimately to environmental and societal impacts.
There is an opportunity here to provide answers to some of the most important, practical scientific questions facing humanity today. The climate is changing. Average global temperature has risen 1°C since 1900, but the mean arctic air temperature is currently rising at almost 0.5°C/decade. This rise is having devastating effects on ice masses, which hold almost 70% of the world’s fresh water supply. The extreme melting is particularly extensive in the Greenland Ice Sheet, which holds a staggering 10% of the global freshwater supply (Fig. 2). The physical link between temperature rise and melting is, however, poorly understood. Its elucidation requires precise ice-sheet extent and elevation data gathered in difficult conditions, coupled with complex numerical modeling of the entire atmosphere-ocean-ice system. As this link becomes better understood, however, we will be able to move towards less uncertain forecasting of the potential sea level rise induced by the melting. Once we have this knowledge, what do we do with it? Our current capabilities in hazards and risk analysis is geared towards phenomena that are characterized, relative to the sea-level rise problem, by extremely quick onset, and localized devastation. Coastal communities are on the front-line of the hazard and risks. According to a World Bank study, five of the ten cities most at risk from flooding damage are in the US, and New York City follows only Miami (the other cities are all in China, India and Japan). If we can begin to forecast the potential sea-level rise, and if we can begin to understand how to treat slow onset, widespread devastation hazards, what policies are governments to put into place to mitigate the damages?
We have an opportunity in this area to provide leadership capable of building on and creatively synthesizing university investments in CGS, the Extreme Events Strategic Strength, 3E projects, and previous faculty hires. This focus area should provide leadership and forums for faculty cooperation and interdisciplinary research on climate change.
Ultimately, we can set the standard for innovative, interdisciplinary research and scholarship aimed at understanding climate change and sea-level rise, mitigating its impacts, and optimizing societal resilience and a regenerative economy. The work in this focus area will build on UB’s long-standing contributions to climate change science, hazard science, and multi-hazard engineering. We can develop a cadre of graduates capable of working with and in civil defense and government to define climate change impacts and institute appropriate responses. We have the opportunity to train, here in Buffalo, at undergraduate and graduate levels, a generation of students who are strongly grounded in their main area of interest but who can understand the “languages” and needs of other disciplines that touch upon climate change.