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Idaho’s three largest public universities receive $15 million NSF Grant to study climate change

September 12, 2008
ISU Marketing and Communications

It’s the kind of news that reaffirms how scientific research benefits Idahoans. On Sept. 12, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch announced the largest grant ever awarded to the state of Idaho by the National Science Foundation. The five-year, $15 million award will support new faculty and facilities at the University of Idaho, Boise State University and Idaho State University in an effort to understand the current and future impact of climate change on the Snake and Salmon River watersheds.

“This grant is an excellent example of how the state of Idaho can serve as a natural laboratory,” said Jack McIver, University of Idaho vice president for research. “It also illustrates how scientists from different disciplines and institutions can come together to tackle today’s greatest challenges.”

The grant was secured through Idaho’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). By combining the resources of the state’s major research and partner institutions, EPSCoR allows scientists to share resources and make their combined grant proposals more appealing to federal funding sources. The grant brings direct EPSCoR and National Institutes of Health Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program funding to the state of Idaho for building research infrastructure and brings total funding to more than $157 million since 1989.

“This exciting new award is an example of a lot of collaborative hard work on the parts of many of Idaho's citizens,” said Jean’ne Shreeve, Idaho EPSCoR/IDeA project director and professor of chemistry at the University of Idaho. “Included in this group is not only the research faculty from our three university institutions, but also the EPSCoR State Committee. An award of this magnitude is an achievement to be celebrated and provides a model for bigger and better awards in the future.”

It is the future that has scientists worried, sparking the new project on the effects of climate change on water resources in Idaho. According to Von P. Walden, associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho and lead co-principal investigator, the project will focus on the effects of global warming on two very different watersheds in the state.

The Snake River Plain is a highly managed water resource that feeds agriculture and communities throughout the southern part of Idaho, while the Salmon River Basin is much less managed and contains some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the continental U.S.

“It is critical that we understand how different scenarios of future climate change might impact both managed and natural watersheds here in Idaho. A big component of this project is to effectively communicate our scientific results to decision makers and water users, so that they can ensure adequate water for future generations of Idahoans,” Walden said.

The study will draw on the strengths of each university while using the NSF funds to hire 10 new faculty and purchase equipment to generate research in new areas. The diverse research team will have a unique opportunity to focus on the many ways that climate change might affect Idaho. University of Idaho researchers will be involved in all three major research components of the grant: hydroclimatology, ecological interactions, and economics and water policy.

Richard Allen, a research faculty member at the University of Idaho’s Kimberly Research and Extension Center, will focus on hydroclimatology. He will work with a team to investigate possible changes in surface and ground water under different climate change scenarios.  

“We need a better understanding of how surface and ground water are connected. We’ll be looking at how groundwater might be used sustainably to get us through periods of future drought. This is a national issue that we can study right here in Idaho,” Allen said.   

The three universities will work closely with the Idaho Department of Water Resources and other agencies, which will provide valuable input.

According to Siân Mooney, lead scientist at Boise State University, one of the unique aspects of the team is the collaboration of “hard” sciences with economics. Mooney believes a broad multidisciplinary approach is vital to understanding how climate changes have affected both watersheds now and in the future and is essential for creating effective economic and environmental policies. These changes, said Mooney, could affect opportunities for power generation, agricultural production and irrigation as well as community growth.

"This research builds on research already being done here at Boise State and brings all of our partners together on a topic that is immediately relevant to our everyone in the region," said Mooney. "You can’t really address the impact of climate change in southern Idaho without discussing its impact on agriculture. It’s this kind of interdisciplinary focus that will make this study compelling, timely and impactful."

Together, the team of scientists plans to draw on Idaho’s natural advantages and its best and brightest to take on one of the state’s biggest challenges.

“Scientific research has shifted from whether or not global warming is occurring to what effects it will have in both the short and long term,” said Walden. “We have to learn how best to mitigate the effects and adapt to a changing world.”

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This story was written by  Ken Kingery, University of Idaho Communications. He may be contacted at (208) 885-9156.  


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