Women in climate change: Theresa Crimmins
UArizona is celebrating Women's History Month by highlighting a few climate researchers across campus who hope to create a better future for everyone.

By Mikayla Mace Kelley and Alexis Blue, University Communications
March 29, 2022

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Theresa Crimmins
Theresa Crimmins

During Woman's History Month, University of Arizona News is spotlighting some of the many women on campus who are working on climate change-related issues in various disciplines.

In a recent commentary published in Nature, world-renowned climate scientist and UArizona Regents Professor Diana Liverman and her co-authors write that climate change will have disproportional impacts on women, who in many societies have the responsibility to provide food, water and child care but are more likely than men to lack access to land, insurance and disaster relief. Liverman and her co-authors also write that women play crucial roles in climate change research, response and adaptation.

UArizona has a long legacy of women researching climate change, and today there are outstanding women researchers working on climate-related issues in nearly every college on campus, from early career scientists to Regents and Distinguished Professors. 

"I'm so proud of the number of amazing women working on climate issues at the University of Arizona," Liverman said. "We cover a wide range of expertise – from climate science and communication to policy and art. We are making a difference in what we know and what we can do from the local to global."


Theresa Crimmins joined the University of Arizona in 2007 and is a research professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She is the director of the USA National Phenology Network, based at the University of Arizona.

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: I am very fortunate to work with an amazing team to coordinate the USA National Phenology Network. The primary aim of our program is to engage professional scientists, natural resource managers and volunteers across the country in tracking when plants and animals undergo seasonal life cycle events throughout the growing season. We and other scientists around the world use these observations to better understand how the timing of seasonal events like spring bud burst and bloom and migration are changing. It may not seem like a big deal for cherry trees to bloom a few weeks earlier than they did a few decades ago, but shifts in the timing of events like this – termed phenology – has major consequences for species that depend on those flowers as a food source to be available at a particular time. Changes in phenology actually have major implications for nearly every aspect of our lives, including human health, agriculture, tourism, wildfire and more.

Q: What originally got you excited or worried about climate issues and where do you think your work can make a difference?

A: I first got drawn into phenology by a local fixture on the Finger Rock Trail in the Catalina Mountains, Dave Bertelsen, in 2005. Dave has hiked that trail approximately once a week with very few interruptions since 1983, and has tracked every species of plant in flower within the five-mile-long segments of the trail on every hike. I met him at a local meeting, and he offhandedly mentioned his records. I was very fortunate to work with him and my husband, Mike Crimmins, a climate extension specialist here at the university, to confirm his intuitions that over the decades of his hikes, many species along the trail had moved upslope and shifted their flowering time in response to changing climate conditions. This very local and concrete work personalized the facts and consequences about climate change messages I had learned in graduate school and spurred me to pursue further research and applied work in this vein. I really love the work I and the USA National Phenology Network team do because it is very applied.

Q: What's one thing you want everyone to understand about climate change? 

A: My wish is for everyone to not feel overwhelmed and hopeless. The climate crisis is a massive challenge, requiring action on a global scale. We each need to find ways to sustain ourselves through the process, and that requires self-care. One form that self-care can take that can actually have a positive impact is to spend more time in nature, quieting ourselves and paying more attention to the plants and animals in our midst. The critters outside our doors have so much beauty to share; I am inspired and amazed every time I take a moment to step outside, quiet my mind and just look around. Just that – quieting and looking – is enough. However, if you want to take it further, that act of observing can turn into a data collection exercise, contributing to a dataset that researchers of the future can reference to provide historical context for what they are seeing. There are many great programs and apps for formally recording what you're seeing when you take a moment to look. But first and foremost, come simply looking, quieting, appreciating and learning. I wish everyone this gift.

Q: What advice do you have for young women or girls who may be interested in a career related to climate research or policy?

A: Follow your passion, go outside as much as possible and learn some coding. Following your passion and going outside will help to sustain you as you tangle with tough topics, as I said before. Coding skills are just necessary for data analysis these days. I call this out because it's not something I learned when I went to school a long time ago and have had to pick up later in my career. And, finally, if you find your career choice is just not working for you, it's OK.

Extra info

 

Other featured researchers:

Women in climate change: Joellen Russell (College of Science)

Women in climate change: Courtney Crosson (College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture)

Women in climate change: Beth Tellman (College of Social and Behavioral Sciences)

Women in climate change: Kirsten Engle (James E. Rogers College of Law)

Women in climate change: Mona Arora (Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health)

Women in climate change: Jessica Tierney (College of Science)

Women in climate change: Ellen McMahon (College of Fine Arts)

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications