With $6M grant, researchers will explore how Southwest communities can best adapt to climate change

Sand dunes and a barbed wire fence

As climate change intensifies conditions in the American Southwest, communities will have to adapt.

Dan Ferguson

In the desert, the climate can be fickle and intense. While it's mostly hot and dry, there can also be wet and cool conditions interspersed throughout the year. On top of this variability, the desert Southwest has seen a rising trend of drought and record-breaking temperatures over the last two decades. Increased climate variability and aridity make it increasingly challenging for communities in the region to adapt.

To address these challenges, the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS, received $6 million over five years to continue solutions-driven climate research in the American Southwest.

CLIMAS is a collaboration between the University of Arizona and New Mexico State University that conducts research on Southwestern climate and its impacts while developing solutions to regional climate challenges. UArizona will get over $4.6 million of the funding, which came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Adaptation Partnerships program formerly known as RISA, or the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program.

The grant will allow CLIMAS researchers to study how water availability, increasingly arid conditions and high temperatures affect communities disproportionately impacted by climate change, and to assess how these three climate challenges affect human health.

The researchers will partner with experts in affected communities to shape research questions.

"We're trying as hard as we can to do research that's focused on creating impactful answers, so we have a whole structure in place to learn as we're going," said Dan Ferguson, CLIMAS director and UArizona assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and the Arizona Institutes for Resilient Environments and Societies. "I'm psyched for that part of it because the reality is we can't keep doing science the way we've done it. If we simply sit in our offices and keep generating new science without understanding how that might be useful, we're going to keep missing the mark."

The CLIMAS team is investigating how rainfall impacts the amount of water in the basins of the Gila River in Arizona and the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The researchers plan to work directly with communities served by these river basins, since they are often not involved in deciding what research needs to be conducted there, Ferguson said.

Another growing problem in the Southwest is aridity. Even equal amounts of rainfall across different seasons can produce drier environments. This is because as temperatures soar, water evaporates at higher rates. CLIMAS scientists are curious about how the increasing aridity that comes with high temperatures impacts Southwest economic sectors that directly rely on ranching, forest management, agriculture and recreation, as well as the communities that depend on those activities.

The researchers are also interested in how rural, isolated suburban, tribal and border communities are experiencing extreme heat. These areas are generally less equipped to deal with extreme heat events than cities, where much of the heat research and resources are concentrated, Ferguson said.

Climate health expert and associate professor of public health Heidi Brown, a CLIMAS member, will examine how these climate challenges impact human health. Brown will explore how human health could be linked to environmental processes such as worsening air quality, rising temperatures and others that have yet to be discovered, especially in nonurban areas.

"Understanding how climate challenges intersect with health helps ensure a resilient future for everyone living in the Southwest," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I'm proud that our university community is working with partner institutions in big ways to make the future more promising for all."

Partnering with tribal communities

The grant will also allow CLIMAS to bring members of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, or ITCA, into the CLIMAS team. ITCA brings together 21 tribal governments across Arizona to serve as a united voice for communicating shared issues and concerns.

"Tribes are on the frontlines of experiencing the impacts of climate change, as heat and aridity in the Southwest magnify. This five-year collaboration with CLIMAS will be an essential component in assisting tribes to prepare for evolving climate risks while cultivating responses to more immediate challenges," said Maria Dadgar, ITCA executive director. "As the Southwest continues to experience more severe climate extremes and ongoing drought conditions, tribes recognize that the stewardship of their land and resources will become increasingly critical to the health and well-being of their community members."

CLIMAS, in conjunction with ITCA, also plans to offer Indigenous Community Small Grants in about a year. The partnership will allow Indigenous communities to apply for direct funding for climate management projects in areas such as pest management and farming. The information gathered through these projects can be used to inform future research on climate.

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