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June 8, 2011

CCNY-Led Team Gets $3M for Northeast Earth System Model

Charles Vorosmarty 

Dr. Charles Vörösmarty, professor of civil engineering and NOAA CREST distinguished scientist, is principal investigator on a new $3 million NSF grant to develop a regional earth system model for the Northeast.  (CUNY photo)

An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Dr. Charles Vörösmarty, professor of civil engineering in the Grove School of Engineering at The City College of New York, was awarded $3 million from the National Science Foundation to develop a regional earth system model of the Northeast. The effort involves partner institutions from around the region, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.

The proposed model will depict the coupled atmosphere-land-water system of a 10-state region stretching from Maine to Pennsylvania and Delaware, and link this to an economic analysis and policy-formulating process.  It would improve current capacity to forecast the benefits as well as unintended consequences of planning decisions about the region’s environment, ecosystem services, energy systems and economy through the 21st Century.

“We don’t want to judge.  Rather, we want to empower policymakers with sound information so that they can decide,” says Professor Vörösmarty, the project’s principal investigator.   Co-principal investigators are:
•    Dr. Jerry Mellio, co-director and senior scientist, The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass.
•    Dr. Faye Duchin, professor of economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y.
•    Dr. Wilfred Wollheim, assistant professor, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and co-director, Water Systems Analysis Group, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.
•    Dr. Jorge González, NOAA-CREST Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Grove School of Engineering, The City College of New York.

The eastern seaboard’s landscapes and watersheds have experienced every stage of human environmental transformation that has occurred in the United States, from settlement and deforestation to growth of mega-cities and post-industrialization.  Such changes, which the team views as persisting well into the future, will become more difficult to manage as the region experiences rapidly changing climate, Professor Vörösmarty contends.

The project will study the region’s atmosphere, land and aquatic systems, which are closely linked, with an eye toward how changes to any of them hold potential for system-wide feedbacks, thresholds and unintended consequences.   “We want to create an accounting system for these ecosystems so we can anticipate what happens when they are coupled together,” Professor Vörösmarty explains.

For example, the project would attempt to model the impact of carbon sequestration strategies on the region’s water supply and hydropower potential.  If planners want to increase local agriculture to reduce the carbon footprint of freight transportation, they will need, at the same time, to understand the effects of increased fertilizer runoff and sediment.

“No one has ever examined these multiple causes and effects together.  We want to formally create a mechanism that will enable planners to do so,” he adds.  “I am hoping we can achieve the end result, but, at a minimum, we will create a framework for finding the answers.”

The project, which is funded over three years, will also provide graduate and undergraduate students with experience using MARKAL, a modeling system used for long-range economic forecasts.  Ariel Miara, an entering graduate student working on the project who earned his bachelor’s degree at University of London, said he was attracted by the opportunity to work with MARKAL.

“I’m developing simple models to predict the consequences of decisions that may need to be addressed through policy,” he says.  “We’re looking at environmental and energy planning systems as a tool so that we will be able to anticipate things that could go wrong before they do.”

On the Internet

Professor Vörösmarty's web page
http://tinyurl.com/3ucqfg8

CUNY Environmental CrossRoads Initiative
http://www.cuny.edu/site/environmental.html

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