Funded Proposal

Building Climate Resilience: Seeking Sustainable Solutions for Water, Agriculture and Biodiversity in Arid Regions.

The Grand Challenge Big Idea: Our fundamental idea is the application of new generation, high resolution climate models, integrated with land use variables, to deliver adaptation solutions to rural stakeholders. We know of no other program that has the capabilities and the emerging national and international collaborations to do this. The ability to link sophisticated high resolution global system predictive models scaled to local levels and supported by domain modeling and knowledge will anticipate and generate regional solutions to the threats imposed by climate change. The evolution of such an approach will be novel and provide cutting edge opportunities. Think super computers to sorghum.

Description of the Initiative

Climate change is happening. States, regions and nations will need to be prepared to deal with the impacts we will observe over the next 25-50 years.  This is particularly true in the globe’s vast arid/semiarid regions. Simultaneously, these areas often exhibit rapid population growth and accompanying water and land needs. This joint challenge must be met in order to preserve water security, a productive agriculture and a beneficial ecology across many such arid regions including Texas. There is a critical need to anticipate the nature of detrimental effects and develop resilience frameworks that maintain or improve regional well-being. Currently Texas A&M AgriLife and Texas A&M University together have a disjointed set of talents that collectively could carry out path breaking interdisciplinary work on impact forecasting, adaptation method development and complementary education. We propose a model and process to improve TAMUS’ overall capability to address this grand challenge while promoting TAMUS capabilities and preeminence in confronting the threat to arid and semi-arid lands. Novel aspects of the proposed initiative include the integrated modeling from physical science to human/ecological impacts, pushing the computational limits of spatial resolution in climate modeling, then linking it to human agricultural, hydrological and ecological domain models while accounting for trends in extreme climate events as well as gradual climate change in assessing impacts.

Innovative science can help mute the negative effects of climate change and complicating population growth by forecasting critically impacted entities then developing resilience frameworks through science and objective modeling in turn supporting deliberative planning through release of findings and education.  We will address this grand challenge leveraging the diverse TAMUS expertise base. Specifically we will pursue a grand challenge initiative that merges the expertise of physical climate change specialists in the College of Geosciences with the life sciences expertise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plus contributions from other TAMUS wide policy, engineering, analytical, and physical scientists. Just emerging high-resolution climate models will be applied and linked to models of the impacts of climate change on a scale meaningful for improving predictability for policy makers, farmers and natural resource managers. Enhanced and path breaking coupling of fine scaled physical climate projections with rural landscape and land use models will allow better anticipation of climate change hot spots and provide a testing laboratory for resilience/adaptation strategy development, evaluation and decision maker support.  TAMUS developed climate, agricultural, hydrologic and ecologic analytical approaches, and models will be used to conduct assessments on how key ecological and agricultural indicators respond to climatologic and hydrological regime changes.  Subsequently these models will be exploited to better identify vulnerabilities and then address/evaluate possible resilience enhancing adaptations. The results of this work will provide critical information to maintain, water security, a productive agricultural enterprise and a healthy ecology within Texas, and more broadly in many similar geographical areas with large arid regions plus place the Texas A&M group at the professional forefront.

Background on the Issue and Solutions

There are many dry, arid places across the world where today the combination of climate change and rapid population growth is stressing water supplies and water users. Such regions include South Texas, Southern California, Egypt, Northern Mexico, Northeastern Brazil and Pakistan.  These regions have large semiarid to arid landscapes where water scarcity and quality issues are always present. They also have large, climate dependent agricultural industries and valuable ecological characteristics. The regional urban expansion in these areas is projected to continue, further stressing water supplies.  For example, Texas now has four of the 11 largest US cities, with statewide 85 percent of the population classified as urban, and with over a 1/3rd increase in population projected by 2050. The Texas Water Development Board states “without additional supplies, approximately one-third of Texas’ population would have less than half of the municipal water supplies they will require in 2070.

Furthermore, climate change as projected will exacerbate the water scarcity and aridity issue. Many assert that climate change will cause arid regions to become hotter and drier, with increasing numbers of extreme drought and flood events, less soil moisture, larger pest populations, invading species, diminished water supplies and water quality, depleting influences on ground water reserves, and losses of biodiversity.  Climate change will certainly make it more difficult to maintain both population growth and agricultural/rural vitality.  At the same time it will place enormous threats to preservation efforts for the natural heritage of Texas and other arid regions.  This will threaten our culture of hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, along with the nature of the rich, diverse rural environment.  

Plan of Action: Focusing on the Actionable Scale Processes

High Resolution Climate Modeling

The proposed International Research Center (IRC) for Multiscale Earth System Modeling and Prediction that is evolving in the College of Geosciences will provide unique opportunities for this Grand Challenge on Climate Change and provide the basis for a superb interdisciplinary team coupling physical matters with impact and adaptation evaluation modeling. The IRC will be able to provide numerical model simulations of climate change scenarios at an unprecedented level of spatial resolution (currently available on a 25x25km spatial grid). Multiple scenario driven simulations will be carried out to assess the envelope of uncertainty, thereby providing end users with quantitative estimates of the probability of outcomes. Of particular interest is using the increased spatial resolution of climate model results to provide improved simulations of weather and climate extremes that have critical implications for water, agriculture and ecology. This will include simulations of extreme rainfall events, heat waves, cold spells, droughts and floods, as well as phenomena like the El Niño.

There is broad community interest in coupling Community Earth System Models (CESM), and climatological models with hydrological models such as Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), and then to national/regional land-use models (e.g. FASOMGHG or EDSIM), crop models, and ecological models. Such a coupling allows production of end-to-end projections, from global greenhouse gas concentrations all the way to local agricultural and ecological impacts. Such end-to-end projections could be used to identify points of threat and resilience enhancing agricultural practices across different scenarios.  It also allows study of ecological phenomena like wildlife adaptation and possible species extinction. One could also consider extending the CESM to model feedback effects of land-use changes and modified agricultural practices on local and regional climate patterns. Texas A&M through its strong land, crop and ecological modeling coupled with the strong physical climatological modeling operating through the IRC with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) could step into national and global prominence by achieving and using such a coupling.

This developing capacity for fine resolution modeling has not been combined with hot spot analysis and consideration of resilience enhancing adaptation development.  The Texas region provides an ideal landscape for the development, implementation and demonstration of these tools.

Elaborations on Impact modeling

The availability of fine, downscaled climate information would allow a number of analyses to be done on vulnerability and potential adaptations in key areas that are potentially vulnerable to climate change.  A number of models are available with which one could study particular issues as they affect agriculture and ecology in the southern United States, which according to most previous climate change analysis is likely to be the area highly vulnerable to climate change.  

In agricultural economics, models are available that forecast effects on a number of critical variables and processes: aquifer recharge, crop yields, crop yield variability, pesticide use, pesticide use variability, Ogallala aquifer depletion, cropping in the Missouri River basin and throughout Texas, livestock performance in terms of milk supplies and feedlot animal growth, distribution of animal breeds, income and water transfers in the Edwards aquifer region, water scarcity and management possibilities in the Rio Grande River basin, basin and locus of US crops and livestock herds. Additionally, within agricultural economics there is also a family of models in which adaptation decisions could be studied, including the US agricultural sector model, the Edwards aquifer model, the Rio Grande basin model, the Texas state level and Missouri River basin RIVERSIM model, the US grain, cotton and rice transportation models among others.  In addition, a number of other models could be developed regarding livestock performance for cow calf herds. There are also a number of models available through the spatial sciences lab and the Texas A&M Black Lands experiment station which can importantly predict crop yield and hydrological surface water flow characteristics at the River basin and hydrologic unit level.

Correlative and mechanistic models of the impacts of climate changes have been developed and applied by a number of faculty within AgriLife departments. We have developed a strong core capacity of expertise in this area, including several recently published dissertations. These models can only be used to generate large scale scenarios of extinction risk with high resolution climate models that allow for the integration of climate change and land-use change; the IRC will provide this climate modeling capacity.

Climate change studies supported by these models require regional estimates of changes in precipitation, temperature, length of dry periods, incidences of concentrated rainfall, overall drought conditions, variability in temperature, hurricane and other storm incidence, nightly lows, daily highs, and frequency of incidence of extremely hot days, among other items.  The unification of the above economic and hydrological models with a climatological model that could give regional downscaled estimates of changes in temperature and extreme events would place Texas A&M in a truly transformational position with respect to being able to handle climate change and vulnerability studies in comparison to other research groups.  There are excellent opportunities to expand our expertise into existing international agencies like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICRISAT focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa and India and has listed Climate Change Adaptation in agriculture as a big issue and one of the agencies major research themes. ICARDA also has an African and South Asia focus with programs focused on biodiversity, water/land management, and sustainable and resilient agriculture. They have a research team focusing on Geoinformatics and Spatial Solutions for Integrated Agroecosystems and would be a natural partner. Basically across the profession there is very little work on incorporating the effects of more than just change in mean temperature and precipitation conditions, such as accounting for alterations in climate extremes and examining possible adaptation decisions. Such an effort could also begin to generate important information on vulnerabilities to climate change and possible adaptations that is key to really transforming attitudes towards addressing the climate resilience issue.

Other TAMU Capabilities

TAMUS has excellent strengths in climate change analysis and resilience strategy evolution that could be unified under this program.  Below we list additional specific areas of research expertise that can be unified to carry out vulnerability and adaptation strategy development. Specifically, our joint capability can be harnessed to identify threats to and means to protect our agricultural productivity, water security, rural sustainability/economic wellbeing and natural heritage. We overview TAMUS strengths and coupling advantages in three broad areas.

Climate Science, Physical Modeling and climate outreach. Texas A&M is home to the State Climatologist and the geoscience oriented Texas Center for Climate Studies.  TAMU climate projection models span global to regional scales. The TAMUS program is home for agricultural and hydrological scientists who have focused on research relevant to climate change adaptation. TAMUS, especially in COALS/Agrilife, is the home of powerful rural economic, market, hydrological, ecological, spatial characteristic, crop and livestock models.  The outreach efforts of the State Climatologist, the AgriLife extension service and other contacts can be exploited to disseminate the project findings and educate the broader public.  

Water Resources, Modeling, Climate threats, Use and Conflicts. Most climate models and contemporary data suggest a future with greater frequency and severity of drought conditions for the subtropics including the arid regions identified above and particularly the US Southwest.  A major concern is surface water availability for human and natural systems. Research is needed to fill critical gaps in understanding of the issue now and as climate change alters water supplies plus develop adaptation responses.  TAMU, particularly AgriLife, scientists have been developing analytical approaches and models that improve assessments of how water flows, water demands and key ecological indicators respond to climatological, hydrological and extreme regime changes.

Biodiversity Impacts and Adaptation Possibilities. The world is facing what many have described as an impending 6th mass extinction caused by interaction between habitat loss/degradation and climate change. TAMUS scientists are actively involved in global efforts to extend climate change modeling and identify points of vulnerability as an IUCN Red List Partner.  We are working closely with the Climate Change Specialist Group on the new IUCN Guidance Document for assessing species vulnerability to climate change. The high resolution modeling approaches we will develop are unprecedented in extinction risk assessments.

Sustainable Expertise Unification

Climate change is the greatest challenge that coming generations will face, and it is critical that we stay ahead of the curve by increasing our knowledge of threats and stock of developed, feasible and implementable adaptation actions before crises arise.  As repeatedly mentioned above, across TAMUS there are broad but compartmentalized scientific capabilities in climate forecasting, vulnerability identification and adaptation development/evaluation. However, multi-disciplinary integration is lacking.

We envision that the funding under this project can be used to establish, enhance and widen the scope of productive linkages, especially with the implementation of the proposed IRC.  Additionally, the effort would better advance societal and scientific recognition of TAMUS capabilities on a regional, national and global scale and in turn likely increase access to support collaboration across TAMUS and externally. This would permit greater access to the opportunities major federal funding agencies and foundations have been providing regarding broad, complex problems across agricultural, hydrological, ecological and human dimensions. Climate change and resilience are increasingly gaining attention from federal agencies (NSF, NOAA, NASA, USDA, and even NIH).  This attention will evolve further as the extent of climate change advances. Agencies responsible for managing water resources, agriculture and biodiversity in the state of Texas will also need this expertise in the coming years.  

We feel it is simply imperative that science assists planning of ways to anticipate and in turn, address threats so we have an arsenal of tools, technologies and analytical capabilities ready when needs arise.  We plan to use the funding under this project to establish a network of researchers who can identify key vulnerabilities plus identify big, innovative solutions of a scale that matches the threat in support of future decision making and crisis management.

Plan of Implementation

  1. To unify the diverse TAMUS capabilities we will seek a coordinator matched with voluntary time contributions from a key group of faculty.  The Coordinator will have knowledge of the climate change issue, excellent writing skills, and team building capabilities.  This person will work with a faculty team to both appropriately enlarge and integrate a multidisciplinary team that can address threat identification, and adaptation strategy development.  This team will function across the agriculture, ecological, and hydrological domains.  The coordinator will also work with a core science team to engage TAMUS expertise in the development of broad research proposals.
  2. Host a university wide set of ½ day workshops addressing climate change issues, advanced modeling approaches, and cross-disciplinary collaborations and develop discussion groups on key vulnerabilities and adaptation possibilities.
  3. Develop two white papers. These will be circulated in various forms to relevant state and federal agencies and foundations, science groups and interested parties across arid regions.  This will be done in cooperation with TAMUS AgriLife Research and Extension plus the Texas A&M Foundation. The goal is to draw attention to the problem and ways to address it plus TAMUS capabilities to develop science-based solutions for Texas and similar regions across the globe.
    1. One will present in clear, scientifically rigorous terms the case for the disruptive impacts of climate change, points of vulnerability, and resilience frameworks, focused on Texas and other arid and semi-arid landscapes across the globe.
    2. The second will present the clear case for the broad projected impacts on Texas society, its rural economy and ecosystems should we fail to implement science-based adaptation strategies to the changing climate.
  4. Plan and organize an international conference focusing on the application of sophisticated high resolution global level predictive models scaled to generate regional solutions to climate change science-based adaptation possibilities.

Once completed, the project will yield a functioning working group plus a template for extending this effort and a platform for seeking funds and expanding collaborations on the focal climate resilience–arid region issue. Targeted programs will include the Dynamics of Coupled Human and Natural System Program at NSF, climate funding programs at NOAA and NASA, and the USDA Resilient Agroecosystems in a Changing Climate Challenge Area through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. Ultimately, we wish to become a well-recognized leader on the issue in the region, the United States and globally.