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As the west dries, a new climate change research grant seeks to ‘co-produce’ local knowledge

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U.S. Forest Service

In late 2020, the Mullen Fire torched 176,000 acres in the Medicine Bow Forest of southern Wyoming. For days, smoke polluted the air in nearby Laramie and colored the sky above the University of Wyoming with a hazy red glow.

Today, on that same campus, a multitude of researchers are studying the effects climate change has on the local environment, region, and people.

Atmospheric science professor Bart Geerts said localizing the discussion is important.

"There's a lot of talk about climate change and it's mostly about global warming," he said. "But where it really matters to the interior west and particularly Wyoming is water availability, water security, especially persistent multi-annual drought."

Geerts' research sometimes involves making observations from his department's research aircraft. At other times, it involves data-heavy modeling.

"When it comes to modeling, we can look at the broader perspective, we can look at a longer timescale and a broader spatial scale," Geerts said.

Globally, models help scientists understand the changing climate. They let us know that hurricanes and record-setting 'heat domes' are growing more frequent.

But the Mountain West has a slightly different set of climate concerns. Snowpack is decreasing, which leaves the region drier. The Colorado River Basin is experiencing a historic drought. And dry conditions let wildfires like the Mullen Fire spread faster.

But these local effects are not specifically highlighted by global climate models. So Geerts is taking those global models and localizing them, using Wyoming data and accounting for regional geography.

"We will be guided by global climate change models under different scenarios and we'll basically downscale, dynamically downscale, from the global models to smaller scale models and we do that to capture the complexities of the mountains," Geerts said.

Geerts' research is one facet of a new $20 million five-year grant awarded to the University of Wyoming. The Anticipating Climate Transitions grant comes from the National Science Foundation by way of EPSCoR. That's an acronym for a federal program that supports research institutions across the country.

UW botany professor Brent Ewers is the director for Wyoming EPSCoR.

"These grants are part of how Congress tries to increase the geographic diversity of research funding so that even rural areas and less populated areas have full access to the U.S. federal research pie."

Previous EPSCoR grants have funded UW research surrounding geophysics and microbiology.

"And so in order to get one of these grants, you essentially need to make the argument that you are doing the absolute best science, that's at the cutting edge, that would compete with anybody in the United States, but it still has to be relevant to enhancing the research competitiveness of your state or jurisdiction," Ewers said.

The new grant is focused on the region's water supply - and the ways that even a slightly warmer climate will dramatically change that supply.

"Our temperatures are predicted to continue to rise, but our precipitation will stay about the same," Ewers said. "So, if we keep the amount of precipitation the same, but we increase temperature, we're going to end up with less snow. And that means we'll have less water for our ecosystems, but also for the water that needs to go downstream for irrigation and to our neighboring states."

Ideally, snowpack melts throughout the summer, slowly releasing water into the ecosystem, dampening the ground, sustaining wildlife and providing for irrigation to water crops.

But with a warmer climate, more spring precipitation is falling as rain, so it never gets locked up in snowpack and it has all evaporated by the late summer.

"That has cascading influences through ecological systems and then through social systems as well," said Corrie Knapp, an assistant professor in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Knapp studies the intersection of society and the environment - the "human component" of a changing climate.

"We're trying to work with communities to understand how we can help various stakeholders anticipate and prepare for the changes they might see in the future," she said.

To that end, Knapp will head a new Center for Climate, Water and People that she hopes will serve as a continuing resource for the people of Wyoming.

The Center will coordinate the "co-production" of knowledge. That means working across disciplines, but it also means working with non-scientists and all the people who rely on Wyoming's water to generate research and articulate the science in useful ways.

"It's an opportunity to do cutting edge science differently," Knapp said. "We have a really interdisciplinary team of 27 different team members from a wide range of disciplines from atmospheric science to religious studies and everything in between."

But Knapp added the grant is less about researchers lecturing from an ivory tower and more about figuring out what people in Wyoming want to know about the changing water supply, and figuring out how to work with less water.

That will mean scientists are doing relevant science, and lay people have input and ownership on the discoveries made or models generated.

"We're a state that's really intimately and deeply connected to natural resources," Knapp said. "What happens with water in this state is really going to impact everyone."

The grant officially started this month. It will fund research, faculty positions and outreach programs through 2027.

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