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UMBC Research Forum on Climate Change and the Environment

Forum Highlights Value of Diverse Perspectives, Partnerships

November 4, 2015 8:17 AM
UMBC’s Office of the Vice President for Research hosted “Climate Change and the Environment,” on October 30, 2015, as a forum to examine today’s most pressing environmental issues from a diverse range of perspectives, across the life sciences, social sciences, engineering, and the arts.

UMBC alumnus Robert S. Marshall ’88, mechanical engineering, delivered the opening keynote, as founder and CEO of Earth Networks. By operating the world’s largest network for weather observation, lightning detection and greenhouse gas monitoring Earth Networks collects 25 terabytes of data every day, and its popular WeatherBug app is used by 20 million people daily to stay current on severe weather. Marshall shared that Earth Networks’ data is available for free to any researcher who is interested in collaborating on new applications for it.

Marshall described how sometimes people don’t realize the potential of data to have major impacts on their research fields, on the health of the planet, and on daily life. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is utilizing Earth Networks data, observing weather from the ground up rather than via satellite, to provide early warnings of severe weather events. In the area of cybersecurity, Marshall described tackling the challenge of determining where hackers are located by measuring characteristics of their communications as they travel through the ionosphere.

After the keynote, two faculty panels explored how their work fits into the big picture of UMBC research to address climate change in Maryland, across the U.S., and around the planet. Vice President for Research Karl Steiner explained, “The challenges related to Climate Change and the Environment are incredibly complex and require thoughtful discussion across many disciplines. We are thrilled to have such a strong participation from across the UMBC community and beyond to address these issues.”

Belay Demoz, director of the UMBC’s Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET), served as moderator of the first panel discussion, “Measuring, Modeling and Understanding our Changing World.” The panel included Colleen Burge, assistant professor in the department of marine biotechnology and in the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s department of microbiology and immunology; Ruben Delgado, assistant research scientist at JCET; Jeffrey Halverson, professor in the department of geography and environmental systems; and Tim Nohe, professor in the department of visual arts.

Burge discussed the rise of marine diseases in our ever-changing oceans, while Delgado focused on air quality and how pollutants impact the local and regional environments. Nohe took a fresh approach to examining the physical and emotional connections people can have with their environments.

Halverson highlighted a paradigm shift in the study of hurricanes, where “hurricane reconnaissance becomes hurricane surveillance.” He described how, through the use of weather models, aircraft, and satellites, scientists can scan hurricane precipitation and intensity by “slicing the storms in half.”        

The second panel, “Stewardship, Mitigation, Remediation, and Adaptation,” was moderated by Claire Welty, director of UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education (CUERE). Timothy Brennan, professor of public policy and economics; Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental engineering; Upal Ghosh, professor of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering (CBEE); and Yonathan Zohar, chair of marine biotechnology, each presented.

Brennan discussed policies surrounding renewable energy and energy efficiency, and how to determine the balance between risks to the environment and costs associated with implementing or changing policy. Ellis discussed the perception that there is an environmental crisis that needs to be tended to immediately, urging the audience to get out of “crisis mode,” and to put more thought into improving the design of our infrastructure.

Ghosh described how toxic chemicals affect the environment and human beings, explaining that it is important to find effective remediation techniques—ways to clean up chemical contaminants without destroying established ecological systems. Zohar took a broad approach to exploring how scientists can use the ocean itself as a resource to addressing environmental issues, from generating clean fresh water and healthy food to discovering new medical drugs to producing renewable and bioenergy from wind, waves and algae.

The panelists and the poster presenters that followed emphasized that although there are no easy answers to the serious environmental challenges we face, the possible solutions are as varied, far-reaching, and rapidly changing as the problems themselves.

Don Engel, UMBC's Assistant Vice President for Research, reflected, “We are here to address a multi-generational, multi-disciplinary, multi-national problem. This breadth is reflected in the mix of participants in today's event and at UMBC more generally. We are positioned to make a real impact.”
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