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Working towards a healthier, more sustainable planet Learn how Notre Dame researchers are taking climate action

The continued burning of fossil fuels, increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and changes in land use such as deforestation have led to the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, a consistent rise in sea levels, and fueled the intensity of devastating climate events such as wildfires and hurricanes.

At the University of Notre Dame, researchers are working to provide solutions to society’s complex environmental challenges to minimize the trade-offs between human welfare and environmental health. Through the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI), scientists, engineers, and social scientists collaborate to tackle issues stemming from global warming, climate change, and alterations to land, water, and air that threaten the planet and human life through various research programs.

In discussing this, Jennifer Tank, director of ND-ECI and Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla Professor of Biological Sciences, said, “The Catholic character of the University calls for us to protect the planet and serve the world, and the ND-ECI has united more than 60 researchers to take action."

"Through research, education, and community engagement, we strive to understand the environment, how human activity impacts it, and what we can do to mitigate those negative effects moving into the future,” said Tank.

For Earth Day, see how Notre Dame researchers are working to provide solutions for creating a healthier, more sustainable planet as well as serving society in the face of climate change:

Predicting Impacts of Climate Change in Midwest

Climate Modeling and Hydrology

Alan Hamlet, whose research focuses on the modeling of climate, surface water and groundwater hydrology, and impacts to water resources and ecosystems, collaborated with the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center for the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment (INCCIA) to address nine areas of impact to the state as a result of climate change. He is the co-lead of the INCCIA Climate Working Group, and is a member of the INCCIA Water Resources Working Group. He also contributed to the INCCIA Energy and Recreation Working Groups. More than 100 experts contributed to the overall report.

The report shows Indiana and the Midwest are projected to include extreme heat and humidity, increasing urban storm water impacts, increases in flooding in major rivers, infrastructure damage, reductions in winter snow recreation, increases in pests and diseases, impacts to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, increases in summer energy demand, and changes in growing season and agricultural productivity.

Monitoring Coastal Wetlands of the Great Lakes

Stream and Wetland Ecology

Coastal wetlands are critical components of the Great Lakes ecosystem, yet they have been severely degraded and dramatically reduced. To aid in restoration and conservation of these unique habitats, Gary Lamberti is part of a team of researchers who are implementing the first ever basin-wide coastal wetland monitoring program. Researchers assess fish, invertebrate, bird, amphibian, and plant communities along with chemical and physical variables of more than 1000 wetlands.

In this project, researchers repeatedly monitor these wetlands to identify trends in time and space. This effort allows for a robust and sustainable long-term monitoring system that will produce information on the status and trends of coastal wetland condition across the entire Great Lakes basin.

Protecting Coastal Communities from Extreme Weather

Hazard Assessment and Mitigation

Tracy Kijewski-Correa is working with numerous partners to confront the impact of extreme weather events by understanding what motivates the public to protect themselves, providing access to information to those who need it most, and participating in post-disaster recovery efforts.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, Kijewski-Correa directs the Structural Extreme Events Reconnaissance (StEER) Network promoting more hazard-resilient communities. By surveying damage after events such as hurricanes, her teams of engineers can collect valuable forensic data that could help improve the design of buildings and infrastructure against future extreme events.

In a separate project in collaboration with the State of New Jersey, a research team of Kijewski-Correa, Andrew Kennedy, and Alexandros Taflanidis and developers at the Center for Research Computing have created NJcoast, a web-based platform that allows people to access emergency preparedness information to make better informed decisions before an impending storm.

Using Models to Forecast Ecosystems

Statistical Modeling and Paleoecology

An "ecological forecast" is like a weather forecast. It uses all available information to better predict how natural systems work, so that decision makers and the public can make well-informed decisions. Jason McLachlan and his lab are developing forecasts to help us better anticipate the impact of rising sea level on coastal erosion and the impact of climate change on forests.

To do this, the researchers combine information from experiments and long-term observations of natural systems with predictive forecasting models. As with weather forecasting, their ability to predict the future of ecosystems depends on both knowledge – the data, which are their observations of ecosystems – and wisdom – the models, which encapsulate their understanding of how ecosystems work.

Tracking Endangered and Invasive Species with eDNA

Stream and River Ecology

Jennifer Tank is an ecologist studying how humans impact freshwater ecosystems. In a new project, she is working with collaborators to develop models to improve the monitoring of endangered or invasive species in flowing waters using data collected from environmental DNA (eDNA) samples. In aquatic systems, genetic material or eDNA is left behind by different organisms and can be detected through water sampling. In collaboration with Notre Dame Professors Diogo Bolster, Gary Lamberti, and Kyle Bibby, the new models will take “positive hits” and pinpoint the source location of the target species, whether it is near the sampling site or is from a location many miles upstream.

Funded by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, this research aims to change how land managers identify what species are in streams and rivers, how many, and where are they can be found.

Improving Wind Capture for Energy Production

Transformative Wind Power

Harindra Joseph Fernando is leading field research that aims to help wind industry officials manage wind power facilities more efficiently, while also increasing renewable energy production. Results from the project, called “Perdigão,” showed that the speed and direction of wind over complex terrain at the height of wind turbine hubs differ significantly from standard weather forecasts, according to the report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Those forecasts, which wind turbines rely on, are only 40 to 50 percent accurate in regard to the annual energy production, which creates a challenge for the industry.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation with support from European Commission’s ERANET+, the Danish Energy Agency, the German Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. Fernando is also an affiliated member of ND Energy.

Reducing Disease While Addressing Food, Energy, and Water Shortages

Disease Ecology and Sustainable Development

Schistosomiasis is a disease originating in snails that feed on aquatic plants and release parasitic flatworms into the water. Where these snails reside, like Sub-Saharan Africa, people routinely come into contact with the parasites as they gather water, clean clothes, and bathe. Today, over 200 million people are infected with this disease while they simultaneously experience shortages of food, energy, and water.

Jason Rohr and his research team are using satellite imagery-based approaches to map where the snails live and highlighting disease hotspots. By clearing the submerged aquatic plants, the habitat for the snails is effectively removed, which inhibits the spread of disease. Additionally, Rohr’s team aims to use the removed habitat as compost and livestock feed, thus potentially enhancing food and energy production. The project is currently a finalist in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. In addition to this research, the Rohr team also studies biodiversity loss, climate change, ecosystem functions, and diseases of wildlife.

At Notre Dame, climate change and other environmental research branches into multiple disciplines and programs. This includes the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility (ND-LEEF) at St. Patrick’s County Park in South Bend, Indiana and the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC), with locations in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Montana. While UNDERC provides world-class destinations for environmental field research, ND-LEEF bridges the environment and laboratory with a globally-unique research facility that offers researchers a place to do large-scale experiments without the challenges posed by working in the field.

Additionally, the University houses the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, an online resource that aims to help private and public sectors prioritize climate adaptation, ultimately lowering risk and enhancing readiness. Through the Country Index, which summarizes a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges, or the Urban Adaptation Assessment, a measurement tool that assesses the climate risk and readiness of more than 250 cities in the United States, leaders and officials can gauge countries and cities on critical environmental, economic, and social factors.

For Earth Day 2020, learn what Notre Dame scientists and engineers predict what the world will be like in 50 years: research.nd.edu/news/amid-pandemic-climate-scientists-imagine-earth-day-2070.

To learn more about environmental research at Notre Dame, please visit environmentalchange.nd.edu.