Interior Department’s Climate Science Centers persevere

As other initiatives get cut, these centers could ride out the Trump administration.


Will Badlands National Park have enough forage in the future for its bison herds? Can the Wind River Reservation manage tribal water storage to account for the fact that snow now melts earlier? Could flash droughts be predicted more accurately, such as the one that Montana experienced last summer that led to one of the worst ever wildfire seasons in the state?

All of these questions, and many more, are being addressed at eight regional Climate Science Centers created during the Obama administration. Their mission is to support scientific research to help public land managers and tribes respond to the multitude of climate change effects underway in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

The Alaska Climate Science Center is researching how climate change will impact fires in coming decades. The 2014 Funny River Fire burned 200,000 acres at the Kenai-Kodiak Area Forest.

President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal took a big swing at the centers, proposing to cut their numbers in half and reduce their budget by a third. But the Trump administration didn’t try to eliminate them outright as it has many other Obama climate change initiatives. The key to their resilience is that they don’t focus on the kinds of climate science that the Trump administration likes least — research into the human role in climate change and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now supporters of the Climate Science Centers believe there’s hope the centers will ride out the Trump administration.

“Even in this administration, there’s a recognition that we still need to prepare for increased flooding and drought and the knock-on effects of climate change,” says Bruce Stein, chief scientist of the National Wildlife Federation. That’s why the Trump administration’s budget also proposed adding the word adaptation to the centers’ name: Climate Adaptation Science Centers. “We believe that is an important distinction Interior is making between our work and mitigation type work; that will help the centers survive,” says Robin O’Malley, who helped found the Climate Science network and this summer became the director of the North Central Climate Science Center, based at Colorado State University.

The center uniquely focus on what climate science means for the day-to-day work of land managers as they cope with melting glaciers, deeper and more frequent droughts, longer wildfire seasons, hotter air and water temperatures, rising sea levels and more intense rainstorms. “People now are starting to get a sense of what climate will be like,” O’Malley. says. “The real question is ‘what do I do about it?’”

North Central Climate Center is helping the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service adjust grazing permits to reflect how climate change is impacting springs and other water supplies on grazing land. The center has worked with ranchers to get their insights into solutions. “We get into the weeds with these folks — dirty fingernails and wet feet — trying to figure out what the possibilities and implications of change are,” O’Malley says. “We’ve already been useful to people on the ground. That utility is being recognized by decision makers on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Although the final shape of the fiscal 2018 budget is far from certain, a draft Senate budget released in November would continue funding the centers at $25 million, approximately the current level. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the head of the key Senate subcommittee that drafts the budget is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. Her state is warming twice as fast as in the lower 48 states. “Climate change is not something in the distant future,” says Scott Rupp, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor who helps direct the Alaska Climate Science Center. “It’s something occurring right now.” 

Rupp says the center has broad support in the state because no matter who you are — a moose hunter, a city manager or a fisherman — the fact that the climate is changing is unmistakable. “We have communities that are literally falling into the ocean,” he adds. Scientists at the Alaska Climate Science Center are developing modeling tools that will be able to project the future impacts of climate change on dozens of coastal towns that are threatened by erosion, storm surges and thawing permafrost. This will allow individual villages to learn more about the risks they face, says Stephen Gray, the center’s U.S. Geological Survey co-director.

Another project underway will analyze how climate change will impact the flooding caused annually by lakes that form behind glaciers. Water builds up and eventually cascades over a glacier or lifts it up and flows underneath in giant pulses that flood homes, roads and other infrastructure. “Outburst floods are not predictable. They can be a serious danger to communities and to critical infrastructure in the state,” says Dr. Gabriel J. Wolken, who manages the state’s climate and cryosphere hazards program and is an assistant research professor for the Alaska Climate Science Center. “They’re some of the most dynamic and potentially destructive phenomena to occur in Alaska on a regular basis.” Wolken is also working on warning systems to alert the City of Valdez and Juneau, which both sit at the base of big glaciers, when floods are imminent.

Since it opened in 2010, the Alaska center has received broad support from state and federal officials. Budget cuts at the scale proposed by the Trump administration would be devastating to the work. “It would have a big impact and would trickle down to our ability to do relevant science,” Rupp says.

Beavers can help restore streams, slowing down the flow and cooling water temperatures.

Even with the uncertainty hanging over the centers, Amy Snover recently signed on to be the new academic director of the Northwest Climate Science Center, based at the University of Washington where she is also the assistant Dean of applied research at the College of the Environment. Her center is just starting to fund research looking at how to best conduct sagebrush restoration projects that will withstand the hotter, drier conditions expected with climate change. Another project will assess past efforts to rehabilitate streams by reintroducing beavers. The idea is to develop criteria for when beaver reintroductions both make good sense ecologically and likely will be supported by local residents.

“People across the West are concerned about drought impacts, wildfire and floods. They want that information now to understand how things are changing and what they need to do in the future.” Snover says. “There is a demand for this information that is obvious. That is a large part of why the mission of the climate science centers is so important and why I’m bullish about their long-term success.”


Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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