CLIMAS Receives $3.75M to Bolster Resilience to Extreme Climate
Researchers at the UA-led CLIMAS program will assess how Southwestern adaptations to extreme climate are functioning now, how that might change in the future and how the region can support long-term socioeconomic resilience.

UA Research, Discovery and Innovation
Sept. 26, 2017

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New Mexico's Elephant Butte reservoir is one example of the kinds of buffers the CLIMAS team will study.
New Mexico's Elephant Butte reservoir is one example of the kinds of buffers the CLIMAS team will study. (Photo: David DuBois/New Mexico State University)

The Climate Assessment for the Southwest program at the University of Arizona has received a new five-year, $3.75 million award to continue its research on issues related to climate variability in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. The award comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which has funded CLIMAS since the program was established in 1998. The funding is provided by the NOAA RISA program and the National Integrated Drought Information System program. 

"Since it was first funded, CLIMAS has emerged as a premier climate research program focused on bringing the best available knowledge to bear on weather- and climate-related challenges, particularly those confronting communities in the Southwest," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "Applying research in this way is an incredibly important part of the UA's mission, and this grant will allow CLIMAS researchers and their partners from the private and public sectors across the Southwest to ensure ecosystems, communities and economies are resilient in the face of environmental change."

Over the next five years, a theme driving CLIMAS research will center on how adaptations and innovations that buffer people from the region's climate — dams, canals, the electric grid and roads — are functioning and how they likely will perform in the future.

"After all of the years of work that we've already done, there's a big, lingering question that we think is becoming more and more relevant: In a region that's already hot and dry, with social and ecological systems already buffered against those conditions, how well will these system buffers perform with the warmer, drier conditions we expect in coming decades?" said Dan Ferguson, CLIMAS director and associate research scientist in the UA Institute of the Environment.  

The Southwest is known for its extreme weather and climate and is characterized by the adaptations and innovations — the buffers — that people have developed in response to the region's harsh conditions. 

Dams across the region protect against extreme variability in rainfall by ensuring water is available even during periods of drought. Canals transport stored water to drier areas, allowing expansive urban growth and agricultural development. Southwestern cities and agricultural systems are reliant on water from distant sources. Heavy investment in the electrical grid has enabled indoor climate control, preventing summertime heat waves from triggering large-scale mortality. An expansive network of roads and inexpensive fossil fuels has enabled development across the landscape. 

These buffers have held up well, allowing communities in the Southwest to thrive despite harsh conditions. But as population growth, a warming climate and persistent drought all put increasing pressure on these 20th-century innovations, it's unclear how well these buffers will perform in the future. 

Working alongside various Southwestern stakeholders, including water managers, ranchers, indigenous communities and city planners, CLIMAS researchers will closely examine what sorts of conditions some of the region's buffers were intended to address, assess how they're currently functioning and how they are likely to perform in the future, and identify the most effective approaches for researchers to help support climate resilience in the Southwest. 

"One of the hallmarks and strengths of CLIMAS is its collaborative approach, working in partnership with communities to identify their needs and connecting experts and information to policymakers to develop practical strategies and solutions," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, the UA's senior vice president for research. "This model of direct engagement has been a key to CLIMAS' success in helping ensure decision makers are partners in every step of the research to support informed decision making."

Most of the research over the next five years will fall under one of five categories: agriculture, water management, urban planning, public health, and resilience issues of particular concern to the region's indigenous communities. Agriculture, Ferguson said, will be an important focus for CLIMAS. 

For example, CLIMAS researchers led by George Frisvold, a professor and extension specialist in the UA Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will assess how Arizona farmers are preparing for a Colorado River shortage and how a shortage would impact rural economies in the region. 

CLIMAS research will examine a number of other issues and topics, including the impacts of recent and anticipated warming on orchards and vineyards in the Southwest; what aspects of climate that lower Colorado River basin water managers are most concerned about in terms of a changing water supply; which urban water harvesting strategies have the greatest impact on conservation while limiting habitat for mosquitoes; and how state transportation departments and trucking companies can best use ongoing research on wind erosion and dust storms that can impact road safety. 

"As a research team, we're fortunate to have been able to partner with communities and stakeholders across the region for many years," Ferguson said. "In this phase of our work, we're hoping to build on these partnerships to develop useful and usable information to help ensure the Southwest remains resilient regardless of the significant changes we are expecting."


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