The University of Arizona

Climate Researchers Bridge Gap Between Science, Society

By Alan Fischer, April 28, 2010

Scientists are educating the public on issues such as water, drought and increasing temperatures.

Gregg Garfin
Gregg Garfin

University of Arizona scientists are using their research to help the public cope with existing and potential climate change challenges.

"A number of projects at the UA are working to bridge the gap between science and society," said Gregg Garfin, director of science translation and outreach at the UA's Institute of the Environment.

"We're doing this through direct engagement with practitioners, municipalities and state and federal agencies," said Garfin, also an assistant specialist in climate, natural resources and public policy in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

"We're working with UA scientists, who are generating basic data and analyses, to translate technical information into something that the decision makers can use to improve their operations," he said.

One example is a partnership project among researchers at UA and Arizona State University and officials with the City of Phoenix Water Services Department, Central Arizona Project, SRP and the Bureau of Reclamation.

"The major reservoirs on the Colorado River are at around half full because of an extended drought. When you combine that sort of impact with rapid Phoenix-area population growth rates and increased demand on water, there are well-founded concerns that the demand will outstrip the water supply," he said.

"We are having very frank and honest open discussion about water managers' concerns and the limitations and the prospects of science in this area," Garfin said. "By the end of the year we hope to have a better understanding of the impacts on the water supply and a strategy for decision making."

UA climate change researchers are involved in a project led by the Nature Conservancy called the Southwest Climate Change Initiative, which allows the latest scientific findings to be used by partners to develop management strategies to cope with climate change challenges.

From a forest standpoint, drought and temperature increases result in species of trees and animals stressed and possibly wiped out. Simple, small measures such as building snow fences to help delay snowmelt can improve soil moisture recharge.

More radical strategies such as assisted migration, where a species is picked up and moved to a habitat where it is projected they can live in the future, has been implemented in the eastern U.S., Garfin said.

UA's County Extension program, with a 100-year history of assisting farmers and ranchers, is another way the university is helping the public deal with climate change matters.

"Cooperative extension at the University of Arizona is one of the most progressive in the country. Within the extension system we have specialists in climate, forests and agricultural and natural resources. We also have rangeland and watershed experts," Garfin said. "There is an emphasis on better serving urban populations."

"And it is not just extension: there are dozens of projects around the university that are helping the public deal with climate, water, toxic chemical cleanup, and all sorts of other things," Garfin said.

The Climate Assessment of the Southwest is another UA effort. CLIMAS was established to assess the impacts of climate variability and longer-term climate change on human and natural systems in the Southwest, with a goal of improving the ability of the region to respond sufficiently and appropriately to climatic events and climate change.

CLIMAS offers information on topics including fire research, forecast evaluation, climate-related disease, urban water study and climate-related economics.

UA's Biosphere 2 is a great tool for offering information on climate change, said Mike Crimmins, the climate science extension specialist.

"Biosphere 2 is gearing up to working with the public from a working laboratory standpoint," he said. "People go there to see how science is done experimentally. Trying to take the research being done and applying it back out into the community is certainly happening more and more."

The outreach efforts of UA climate change researchers are making a difference in adaptation, but an overriding goal is simply to offer information to educate the public about research findings.

"That is kind of my role. Cooperative extension has existed in the communities of rural Arizona for more than 100 years so we have a lot of credibility," he said. "We are science translators, were not issue based, we don't have agendas. We're sort of the honest information brokers. We're supposed to be just communicating what the science says. So it is a very comfortable spot for me to go out and say what the science says."

UA Climate Expert Connects People of Science >