$4.3 million NSF grant supports novel research on landscape vulnerability assessment


MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (9/17/12) – The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $4.3 million Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) grant to a group of investigators, with the University of Minnesota as the lead institution, to develop a framework for sustainability studies by identifying and/or predicting processes, locations and times that are most susceptible to climate and human-induced changes. The goal of the NSF funding is to develop a better understanding of the interactions between water and land-use systems and specifically to develop a means to predict their response to changes in climate and human land and water management.

The image shown here highlights surfaces with greater than 3 meters of relief in the Le Sueur River watershed.

Based on a unique hypothesis called human-amplified natural change (HANC), this project will explore the concept that areas most vulnerable to human, climatic and other external changes are those experiencing the highest natural rates of change. The ability to more easily identify these so-called “hot spots” of sensitivity to change could enhance targeted response, including remediation and management, for potential issues of water scarcity and quality. The proposed project will develop a framework for quantifying feedbacks between changing watershed-scale dynamics, local processes that can factor into these changes, and socio-economic factors that affect decision making. The research group will develop this predictive framework by combining state-of-the-art hydrologic-morphodynamic modeling, high-resolution topography data, sediment dating, sediment fingerprinting, innovative measures of aquatic ecosystem function, and a field-scale agro-economic land use model, among other factors. 

The framework will be used to test the HANC hypothesis thoroughly in the Minnesota River Basin (MRB) before it is exported to other systems. The MRB, a 44,000 km2 agriculturally-dominated watershed in the upper Midwest encompasses an extremely broad spectrum of natural and human-induced rates of change and sensitivity to land-use practices. Of particular interest is the interaction between land use and river network processes, which has already resulted in severely impaired waters for sediment and nutrients. 
To better understand which land and water management efforts are most effective to produce sustainable and resilient environmental systems, the study will explore in-depth the following issues:
  • Sediment production rates throughout the Minnesota River Basin and their correlation to natural versus external changes;
  • Features in the landscape and water system that accelerate change and how these features can be factored into the assessment framework;
  • The relationship between human-amplified natural changes in the geomorphic system and ecological changes in the Minnesota River Basin; and
  • Methods and means to include the assessment in decision-making processes so that sensitive regions can be identified and targeted for monitoring and management activities.
Led by Efi Foufoula-Georgiou, professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and director of the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED), an NSF-funded Science and Technology Center, the project involves several investigators and institutions, including: Gary Parker and Praveen Kumar, professors of civil and environmental engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Peter Wilcock, professor and associate chair of geography and environmental engineering, Johns Hopkins University; Jacques Finlay, associate professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, University of Minnesota; Karen Gran, assistant professor of geological sciences, University of Minnesota-Duluth; Patrick Belmont, assistant professor of watershed sciences, Utah State University; Catherine Kling, professor of economics, Iowa State University; Sergey Rabotyagov, assistant professor of environmental economics, University of Washington; and Gillian Roehrig, associate professor of science education and director of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center, University of Minnesota. 
“Development of this assessment tool will provide landscape and water policymakers and management practitioners with a significant resource for decision-making to sustain and enhance water supply and quality,” said Efi Foufoula-Georgiou. “We look forward to collaborating closely with stakeholders across a broad spectrum of agencies and organizations to produce a toolkit that can support effective and sustainable land and water policy and management.”
Contact: Debra Pierzina, National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, pierz001@umn.edu, 612-624-4606.