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Global Change Sciences Cluster

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Primary objective: The School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics of the University of South Florida (USF) proposes to establish a scholarly focus area in Global Change Sciences. Researchers and scholars will work to solve fundamental questions related to rates of environmental/climate change, both in the past and future, biodiversity, resource assessment and management, and natural hazards.

A recent area of interest in global change science is also the effect of industrialization on the environment including the global consequences of human energy consumption. Research directed at possible means for mitigating the adverse consequences of fossil-fuel consumption and the development of new materials for alternative energy sources has gained increased urgency. Science plays a central role in understanding the natural and anthropogenic processes that drive global change in climate, ecosystems, sea-level, and a host of complexly interacting biological and physical systems. SNSM faculty have been extremely active in this area: publishing at least six reports in Science and Nature on these topics in the last three years, publishing a great number of articles in disciplinary journals, and achieving significant external funding. Our goal is to support this internationally recognized research and further develop USF’s reputation in Global Change Sciences through focused cluster hires.

Why is this cluster important now?- Global Change Sciences will play an increasingly central role in NSF directorates related to Geosciences, Biological Sciences, and related disciplines, and in the priorities set by other funding agencies such as NASA, EPA, DOE and NOAA. The reason for this is straightforward. The scientific community has reached consensus that dramatic changes to our planet’s climate and ecosystems are now underway. Now is the time to improve our understanding of the physical, chemical, and biological processes driving these changes. The National Research Council has recently listed grand challenges in Global Change Sciences to include: biogeochemical cycles, biological diversity and ecosystem functioning, climate variability, hydrologic forecasting, infectious disease in the environment. Similarly, the President’s National Science & Technology Council recently listed grand challenges to understand the natural processes that produce natural hazards and to develop hazard mitigation strategies and technologies. There is currently a well- recognized need that addressing issues related to global change will demand a greater emphasis on analysis of threats and remedies by teams that are interdisciplinary and that undergraduate education and graduate training should logically follow an interdisciplinary path. USF needs to capitalize on faculty expertise in these areas, and hire new faculty to bolster both our international reputation in Global Change Sciences, and faculty who can focus on regional issues (e.g. Florida and the Caribbean Basin).

Predicted changes in temperature and precipitation (climate) will have pronounced effects on ecosystems, mediated by changing distributional patterns of biota and productivity as well as the delivery of nutrients to support ecosystems. Studies on paleoclimates offer insight into past climatic events and the response of earth systems while a focus on erosion and volcanic events provides a glimpse of how landscapes can be altered and climates impacted over a short period of time. Coastal areas of the world are particularly vulnerable to changes in climate as alteration of sea level and weather patterns (hurricanes) can threaten watersheds and adjacent coastal ecosystems. Because fisheries are dependent on these critical coastal areas, impacts of global change may have implications for sustaining human populations. Environmental changes in terrestrial systems are also predicted to accompany global change with shifts in agriculture, impacts on biodiversity, and spread of disease and invasive species likely to occur in some geographic settings. Studies linked to global change will need to quantify better the source and sinks of carbon both on land and in waters. As we better understand global carbon cycles, there is an increased interest to reduce pollution from burning fossil fuels and shifts to new technologies which in turn could lead to both decreased pollution and energy efficiency and conservation. Likewise, studies of the global water cycle are necessary to evaluate how changing climate will impact water resources. Improved observational capacity and monitoring of the earth’s systems along with modeling efforts will be integral parts of research activities linked to global change.

Why USF? USF is uniquely poised to be among the leading institutions in the US to make Global Change Sciences a signature field of research/teaching. A number of factors combine to make this quite plausible with some targeted investment including:
(a) Location, location, location - USF is one of the few universities both located in a subtropical climate and in an area with a high population density. Areas along the west coast of Florida are under rapid urbanization along with the spreading of human activities that modify the environment. Human impacts are discernable on land, in freshwater, and coastal systems and these are large in extent and long in duration. Thus, a natural laboratory exists.
(b) Florida is extremely susceptible to floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires, and invasion of exotic species…all which combine with human impacts to put great stress on ecosystems and challenge the ability for natural resources to be maintained. Much of peninsula Florida will be threatened by rising sea level and accompanying flooding of coastlines, salt water intrusion into water supplies and destruction of habitat for wildlife. The state will be facing some unprecedented challenges.
(c) For similar reasons, USF faculty are uniquely positioned to address research issues in sustainability in the Gulf Coast states and the Caribbean basin, a region entirely dependent on sustaining water resources and natural habitat for economic well-being. Natural disasters directly impact the region each year. USF faculty already actively engaged in research throughout this region; (e.g. modeling the effects of water use patterns and sea-level rise on Mexican mangrove ecosystems; computer simulation and visualization of volcanic and landslide hazards; water resource management on carbonate islands). Such research in modeling complex interactions between biological and physical environments, computer simulation, and visualization is nationally and internationally recognized as crucial to development of scientific bases for sustainability. No other university is better equipped to achieve long term research success in sustainability in this geographic region than USF.
(d) Global changes in climate will have implications for the distribution and health of plants and probably disease as temperature and rainfall patterns are expected to be modified.
(e) Given the conditions outlined above, the natural laboratory for conducting sustainable science sits in USF’s backyard. USF has other assets that provide the infrastructure for innovative studies in global change sciences. There is an already nationally known group of researchers who work on many of the topics discussed above. Many of the technologies/ much of the instrumentation to address research questions is already on campus. Excellent graduate students in PhD programs have a long history of applying to USF’s programs to take advantage of its natural laboratory and established graduate training.

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