U-M-based center awarded $5M to study climate change impacts on water resources across borders

Resilience across borders

University of Michigan researchers will lead a new effort to strengthen the climate change resilience of vulnerable communities that span international boundaries and jurisdictions.

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded $5 million to U-M to establish the Global Center for Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Transboundary Waters. Partners in the project include Cornell University, the College of Menominee Nation, the Red Lake Nation, and the University of Wisconsin.

The Canadian government is expected to provide additional funding for the project in partnership with McMaster University, Toronto Metropolitan University, the Six Nations of the Grand River, Brock University, and Wilfrid Laurier University, bringing total center funding to $7.75 million (U.S. dollars) over the next five years.

The new center will initially focus on climate change adaptation in the Great Lakes region — with an emphasis on Indigenous and climate-vulnerable communities — and will later expand its work to other North American multinational watersheds and beyond.

“The new center represents a unique, important, and exciting opportunity to bring together a diverse and talented group of scientists and practitioners focused on understanding and mitigating impacts of climate change on transboundary water resources,” says hydrologist Drew Gronewold, associate professor at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), which will be the center’s administrative home.

Gronewold will lead the center as its principal investigator.

“Northern North America is one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet, and Indigenous communities along the transboundary watersheds between the U.S. and Canada are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” he says. “We will focus on working with Indigenous peoples, who are critical to developing and guiding implementation of climate change adaptation measures across the Great Lakes region.”

Building capacity, advancing priorities

Graphic of U.S. and Canada detailing climate change impacts on water resources.

The new Global Center will draw on relationships and policies from transboundary watersheds and Indigenous Territories along the entire US-Canada border (orange and green regions, respectively). The Great Lakes basin (blue) serves as an initial area of focus. Directly funded project partners are identified as black dots, with Indigenous partners highlighted by a purple ring. All of North America’s transboundary basins are highlighted in light grey for reference. (Image credit: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and Office of the U-M Vice President for Research.)

The U-M-led center is one of seven Track 1 Global Centers announced by the National Science Foundation. Each Track 1 center involves research partnerships with Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom and will be supported by up to $5 million from the federal agency over the next four or five years. Foreign researchers will be supported by their respective country’s funding agency with comparable amounts.

Fourteen Track 2 Global Centers, which will provide up to $250,000 in seed funding over a two-year period, were also announced by NSF.

“NSF builds capacity and advances its priorities through these centers of research excellence by uniting diverse teams from around the world,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Global Centers will sync talent across the globe to generate the discoveries and solutions needed to empower resilient communities everywhere.”

The new U-M-led center will focus on understanding and mitigating this intensifying water crisis by addressing regional needs for management guidance and preparing communities and ecosystems for the hazards that accompany climate change.

Communities must learn to adapt, but the tools and knowledge needed for adaptation are often either nonexistent, fragmented across jurisdictional boundaries or simply too difficult to access or use.

The problem is especially complicated in transboundary water systems that encompass or intersect multiple sovereign nations. The Great Lakes region, for example, is bounded by eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces and is home to many Indigenous territories and communities — more than 30 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin alone and 133 First Nations in Ontario.

“As communities continue to see the threat to water resources due to climate change in the form of floods, droughts, worsening water quality, shoreline erosion, and damage to homes and infrastructure, we are forced to adapt,” says Gail Krantzberg of McMaster University, the new center’s Canadian principal investigator.

The project is expected to receive funding from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and its Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“The tools and knowledge for adapting to worsening extremes must be consolidated or created with direct input from practitioners on the front line,” Krantzberg says. “NSERC’s funding will enable this work.”

Focus areas

Research at the new global center will focus on three areas:

  • Developing reliable projections of the expected frequency and intensity of climate change impacts. This work will include the development of a state-of-the-art ensemble of future plausible water-level scenarios under different mechanisms of climate change, along with associated estimates of flood, erosion, and low water-level risk.
  • Improving our understanding of climate change impacts on ecosystems and diverse communities.
  • Building capacity for governance and management systems that increase disaster resilience. Much of this work will be aimed at ensuring that Indigenous communities build their own capacity to be resilient to the impacts of climate change by implementing adaptive measures for mitigation, by improving decision-making and the understanding of climate change and its effects, and by developing or strengthening partnerships.

The research team

The center’s interdisciplinary research team has expertise in the fields of climate change, ecosystem monitoring and modeling, and transboundary water science and governance. At U-M, affiliated researchers include co-principal investigator Kyle Whyte and Jon Allan of SEAS and co-principal investigator Richard Norton of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The U-M-based Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research is a collaborative partner.

Altogether, roughly 20 researchers and dozens of students from the center’s universities and colleges are expected to be involved. An external advisory board composed of globally recognized experts on Indigenous affairs, climate change, and water resources management and governance will inform the center’s research trajectory and engagement activities.

Testing, testing

Through its research program, the center will test various hypotheses about the future of water resources in the Great Lakes region, including:

  • Increases in precipitation and intermittent declines in seasonal evaporation induced by cold outbreaks will offset water lost through increasing temperatures and evapotranspiration rates over the coming decades, leading to a future characterized not by chronic water loss but instead by exacerbated water supply variability.
  • Increased variability will raise the threat of inland and coastal hazards such as storm surge, flooding, and inundation.
  • Warming temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns and evapotranspiration will have significant impacts on forest and agricultural ecosystems that will, in turn, alter regional water supplies and water quality.

Gronewold says the knowledge developed by the new center will have international relevance and will be disseminated globally.

The U-M Office of the Vice President for Research’s Bold Challenges Initiative supported Gronewold’s NSF grant proposal with strategic research development expertise and financial guidance.

The Great Lakes Basin encompasses the longest continuous freshwater coastline — about 10,000 miles — and is the largest transboundary watershed between the contiguous U.S. and Canada. It is home to 34 million people.

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