Project to develop computational tools for coupled human-natural systems

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A $20 million, five-year project with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) looks to create a state-of-the-art framework of computational tools that will help to assess the impacts of weather-related variability and change. Penn State is one of two lead institutions on the project and will receive half of the funding. Stanford University is the other.

According to Karen Fisher-Vanden, the project’s co-director and professor of environmental and resource economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences, models are typically operated independently of one another. This project looks to integrate multiple existing models to capture important energy-water-land interactions and feedbacks between the natural and human systems.

“Under different scenarios of changing weather patterns and extremes, the impacts on the human and natural systems can vary,” she said. “Interactions between systems can be critical. Take scarce water as an example. In times of drought, more water may be diverted for agricultural use. What does this mean for water-cooled electric power plants? No longer can we rely on individual models to assess the problem. We need an integrated system of models.”

Understanding the connections and interactions among the energy, water and land systems is crucial to achieving a comprehensive, holistic view of the entire integrated system, Fisher-Vanden said.

Additionally, the project plans to produce tools that can help to assess, and ideally improve, the resilience of critical infrastructures.

“This project has real implications,” she said. “Having an integrated modeling system will allow us to assess future weather-related risks and what infrastructure changes may be needed to manage those risks.”

These risks are driven, for example, by changes in sea levels, storm surges, temperatures or precipitation.

Fisher-Vanden said the project will provide important tools and data for stakeholders and scientists all the way from local water board authorities to individuals working on international transboundary and migration issues.

Because the key innovation of this project is the integration of models, the project must comprise multidisciplinary team members who are willing to work together to figure out how to connect these systems, according to Fisher-Vanden.

“You have to know enough about the different disciplinary modeling approaches to be able to make these connections,” she said. “The innovation is on the connections and coupling of these systems which, given differences in spatial and temporal scales across models, can be very complicated.”

To do so, the project team includes economists, climate scientists, hydrologists, engineers, lawyers, statisticians and others.

“We have the full spectrum of disciplines involved because a complicated problem like this requires a multidisciplinary approach,” Fisher-Vanden said. “It requires a team of researchers from many disciplines working closely together.”

Klaus Keller, professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and a co-funded faculty member of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE), is a collaborator on the project and contributes to the area of risk analysis.

“This is an exciting project that tackles important and hard questions at the interface between many disciplines,” Keller said. “It also provides a unique opportunity for students to engage in mission-oriented basic research.”

Penn State will also be the hub for the computational facet of the project.

“Given the significant computational demands of this project, we will be relying heavily on computing resources provided by the Penn State Institute for CyberScience (ICS),” Fisher-Vanden said. “Penn State is well-positioned to provide the computational resources and expertise we will need, and the project will be making a large investment in ICS to build up the computational infrastructure resources needed to do this work.”

According to Jenni Evans, interim director of ICS, interdisciplinary projects such as this are at the core of what research ICS promotes.

“Penn State has the computational technology and resources and the diverse expertise to make a significant impact on research in this area," Evans said.

Fisher-Vanden said that ICS, IEE as well as the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute were instrumental in the success of the project proposal.

The project will involve nearly 30 collaborators from across Penn State, including faculty members, staff members, graduate students and postdocs from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Engineering, Eberly College of Science, and Penn State Law.

The project also includes collaborators from University of New Hampshire, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Boston University, University of Texas at Austin, Purdue University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College and Cornell University.

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Last Updated April 21, 2017