DOD Funds UA Climate Change, Environment Projects
The UA's Rafe Sagarin and Christopher Castro are among the researchers to receive funding for their projects.

By Stephanie Doster, Institute of the Environment
Feb. 22, 2012

The U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD, has awarded four grants to University of Arizona researchers to help the agency tackle environmental challenges and manage its land in a sustainable way.

Two of the UA projects selected for funding focus on climate change impacts to installations run by DOD, one of the nation's largest federal land managers. The other two center on environmental restoration.

The climate change awardees are Rafe Sagarin, an assistant research scientist at the Institute of the Environment, and Christopher Castro, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences. They captured two of the four grants awarded nationally for climate change impacts under DOD's Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

"This puts us at the ground floor of DOD's efforts to do something about climate change now," Sagarin said. "DOD recognizes that climate change is an existential threat to its readiness capabilities, but it has a complex mission, and it wants to understand how it will differentially affect all the various things it does." 

The goal of Sagarin's $1.2 million, three-year project is to help DOD managers with such diverse responsibilities as troop readiness, flight training, built infrastructure and environmental compliance assess the agency's risk and readiness for climate change effects in the Southwest.

These effects include record-setting drought, plummeting reservoir storage, widespread vegetation mortality, rising temperatures, increasing precipitation intensity and extreme events such as flooding and more large wildfires.

"The Southwest in particular is a critical area, both because of the extreme effects of climate change expected here and because DOD is a huge landholder in the region with responsibilities to its neighboring communities, opportunities for developing alternative energy and land and species stewardship needs," Sagarin said.

Effects of climate change already are apparent at DOD installations across the U.S., and the agency wants to be able to identify vulnerable assets, assess climate change impacts, and determine how to adapt to these changes at its sites.

Military installations in Arizona include Fort Huachuca, Luke Air Force Base, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. DOD serves as steward of natural and cultural resources that exist on its lands, which are home to hundreds of listed and at-risk species and a variety of ecological systems, according to the agency's website.

The sites also provide the backdrop for training and testing missions and overall military readiness – needs that "must be met in a manner that is sustainable over long time horizons, is responsive to environmental compliance and stewardship requirements, and accounts for new challenges posed by climate change and surrounding land uses," the website said.

To help the agency meet these goals, Sagarin and his team will assess DOD managers' understanding of the risks that climate change brings to their operations; provide them with assessments of regional climate and ecological conditions and forecasting models tailored to their needs; and train them to use new strategies in how their operations are organized and how they make partnerships with other agencies to be more adaptable in their responses to climate change.

"We will be listening intently to stakeholder needs, guiding them to understand their risks and vulnerabilities, and providing them with practical science-based tools they can use to make better decisions in the future," Sagarin said.

In addition, managers will share what they learned with colleagues from other regions, who already are looking to learn from this approach, he added.

The project also will incorporate Sagarin's research, which examines how examples of adaptation and evolution in nature can be used as a guide for improving national security.

Other UA researchers involved in the interdisciplinary project are bringing expertise to bear on wildfire, climate modeling, stakeholder outreach and hydrology.

They include Donald Falk and Gregg Garfin, School of Natural Resources and the Environment; Jonathan Overpeck, Institute of the Environment; and Peter Troch, department of hydrology and water resources. John Firth, a risk management specialist from the British consulting firm Acclimatise, also is part of the team.

Castro's project also is designed to help DOD managers better grasp and plan for climate change impacts, but will use computer simulations of summer thunderstorms.

The goal of the three-year, $646,000 pilot study is to evaluate how extreme warm weather events – hail, flash floods, high winds, dust storms and lighting associated with severe storms during the North American monsoon – may change in the U.S. Southwest in the face of climate shifts, and how they could affect physical infrastructure and operational capability at DOD facilities in the region.

"This brings to the table the ability to consider change in severe weather using a dynamic model for a physical representation for the atmosphere," Castro said. "Current climate change projection data in no way have that capability, so this fills a hole in answering how the intensity of monsoon thunderstorms will change by representing storms in the model."

Castro will use high-resolution regional atmospheric model simulations of extreme weather events in the recent past and future to represent, at the scale of about one kilometer, possible changes in severe storm frequency and intensity. DOD managers will then be able to overlay data from the model with site-specific information, such as location of the base or atmospheric turbulence on the flight path, to better grasp how the changes will affect base operations.

The project enhances the existing collaborative relationship between the UA, the department of atmospheric sciences and the operational weather squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Castro said.

Castro's team includes Mike Leuthold, a systems administrator and lecturer, and Hsin-I Chang, a research associate, both from atmospheric sciences at the UA.

The projects were among 32 proposals selected for 2012 funding under the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

The other two UA projects to be selected were "Dissolution of NTO, DNAN and Insensitive Munitions Formulations and Their Fates in Soils," led by Katerina Dontsova, an assistant research professor at Biosphere 2 who has a joint appointment in soil, water and environmental science, and "Interaction of Microbial and Abiotic Processes in Soil Leading to the (Bio)Conversion and Ultimate Attenuation of New Insensitive Munitions Compounds," led by James Field, a professor in the department of chemical and environmental engineering.


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Rafe Sagarin

Institute of the Environment