Climate change is widely discussed these days, perhaps to the point that many people, while concerned, wonder what an individual can do about such a large-scale problem. The fact is that addressing climate change requires actions at all levels, from the individual to the international.
To take action on climate change, we must understand its practical impact on specific regions, activities, species, and natural systems and to make that understanding available to the people and agencies likely to act in those areas. This is a special challenge of a phenomenon with the scale and complexity of climate change.
Arguably, the most important tool for understanding climate change and its effects is the computer model, which allows scientists to bring together vast amounts of information and begin to understand patterns, relationships, and effects. With computer models, scientists can examine the climate implications in data from the distant past, such as ice cores and tree rings, and from recent times, using weather data that have been collected over decades. Computer models can also be used to project into the future the effects of climate change, such as annual rainfall totals, rainfall patterns, and sea level rise.
Dr. Chris Martinez, an Associate Professor at the Center for Land Use Efficiency (CLUE) specializes in using computer models to understand the practical effects of climate change, often focusing on water issues. Martinez has worked on improving water quality in the Everglades, seasonal rainfall and streamflow in Florida, and crop yields and seasonal climate variation in Iran.
To take action on climate change, we must understand its practical impact on specific regions, activities, species, and natural systems and to make that understanding available to the people and agencies likely to act in those areas.
The term “using computer models” oversimplifies a complex scientific practice. Projects of this type require a wide range of expertise and must frequently be carried out by a team of specialists, each of whom must be proficient in aspects of modeling and in the real-world phenomena the model simulates.
To begin, new models must be written or existing models must be customized. The models are based on years of scientific research and often use advanced mathematics and statistics. Applying the right model to the right problem requires a clear understanding of all of this as well as the science that the model is based on. That’s a brief description of the model part. The scientist must also understand the data that are fed into the model. These data often have limitations of their own that will affect how the model works. Data sets are carefully selected and analyzed before they are used in computer models. Special data sets may be used that are well understood to verify that the model works as the scientist expects. Once the model and data are ready, they can be used to produce output – then we move on to the interpretation phase. Models can produce surprising results, and the scientist must be able to demonstrate that the results are a valid outcome. The modeling is often repeated using different conditions to investigate “what if” questions about the system being studied.
However, despite the complex science and math at the core of Martinez’s work, he is also on the front lines of working with decision makers and water resource managers to understand and adopt the results of climate science in their daily work. With proper interpretation, the information derived from modeling has great practical value. Martinez and his colleagues are eager to demonstrate this value and make the results of their modeling understandable and readily accessible to elected officials, water managers, and others who need good information to manage water resources.
For example, working with the Florida Water and Climate Alliance (FloridaWCA), which fosters partnerships between researchers and water resource managers, Martinez led a team of researchers in a computer modeling effort to predict water availability during the dry season in Florida. Water in parts of Florida is drawn from a number of sources, including freshwater, groundwater, and desalinated water. Water resource managers must meet the needs of many different users in the region, even during dry months. Martinez and colleagues developed a real-time monitoring tool to predict the arrival and ending of wet and dry seasons based on remotely sensed soil moisture. The tool is “high resolution” in that it can provide this information for specific locations as well as larger areas. This makes climate predictions useful to local managers by bringing the predictions down to the scale that the managers need. Through FloridaWCA, this tool is readily available to water managers, and FloridaWCA can assist them in putting this tool to use. Through this direct engagement, the research also evaluates the adoption and use of such climate tools. This helps Martinez and other FloridaWCA members understand how to make the results of climate modeling and climate tools more useful and more likely to be used in decision making at the local level.
Where Martinez and the Florida WCA sought to bring climate prediction to smaller scales for use by local water managers, he has worked on the opposite problem as well: providing an integrated view of water resources for larger areas. In many cases, the actions of water users can interact with resources over large distances. Understanding these interactions and their effects requires models that encompass entire watersheds. An example is Florida’s great wetland, the Everglades, which coexists in south Florida with intense agricultural operations. The fertilizers that ag producers use help support good crop yields, but the runoff from these operations finds its way into the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and other water bodies where it promotes algal blooms and other destructive growths.
Martinez has worked in several projects to understand the sources of a specific nutrient, phosphorus, to lay a foundation for reducing the amount of phosphorus that reaches the Everglades. The same tools can be used to evaluate whether these efforts are meeting their targets and how they can be improved. This work produced valuable information for Everglades restoration, but it also produced methods that can be useful in many similar situations.
Martinez continues work on both the scientific side and “diplomatic” side of climate science for Florida, but his work has also found application in Iran, a high elevation and generally arid country, where water resource management is critical to ensure adequate food production. Martinez has worked with scientists in Iran to understand seasonal solar radiation and rainfall to help develop better support systems for agricultural producers in that country.
Like many of his colleagues, Martinez’s international work broadens his scientific insight and helps refine the tools that he uses here in Florida. Climate change is global challenge, and step by step, Martinez and his colleagues here and around the world are helping a warming planet prepare for a changing climate.
That’s UF ABE: Big Questions, Global Reach.
This article was written by: Charles Brown