Center for Climatic Research Encourages Research Collaboration Across Campus

Photo By: Gregor Schuurman // Sarah Hotchkiss and Shelley Crausbay on a pair of inflatable rafts at a lake called at Wai ‘Ele’ele in Haleakala, Maui. They built a platform on top of the rafts with a hole in the middle to collect sediment cores and examine the materials trapped within to reconstruct past water conditions.

The Nelson Institute’s Center for Climatic Research (CCR) carries a 55-year history of scientific contributions toward understanding the processes and variations of our climate system for the betterment of society.

According to Director Dan Vimont, shared concerns and passions for the earth are unifying, and the opportunity for research is proceeding at all levels of the university.

“The climate system is remarkably complex—just like sustainability is remarkably complex—and it really requires interactions between all different kinds of experts,” says Vimont. “CCR brings those people together to better understand the complexity of the climate system”

Since climate change is a broad topic, the CCR’s research is interdisciplinary, ranging from earth system science and weather to the history of climate change and the future preservation of ecosystems. The CCR partners with the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, offering a model example of how university researchers can engage with decision-makers in the public and private sectors. The Center consists of directors, research assistants, scientists, students, experts, faculty, and a variety of other affiliates.

Ecological Climate Research in the Hawaiian Islands

Professor Sara Hotchkiss initially joined the CCR in 1998 as an assistant scientist in the geology department while writing her postdoctoral research grant proposals for Stanford University.

Now an ecologist, she studies the history of ecosystems. Hotchkiss reflects on past events that created dramatic landscape changes and studies different attributes of the ecosystems, such as the types of vegetation that are resilient to disturbances in the climate system.

“By learning the physical attributes of a landscape, we can make observations to help us make better guesses about which areas will be more sensitive to different kinds of climate change. Then we can be more efficient in our planning for landscape management,” Hotchkiss says. “In Hawaii, I look also at long-term phenomena like the upper limit of the cloud forests. The cloud forests on Maui are probably the best-preserved ecosystem in the Hawaiian Islands; only half of the modern flora were introduced in the last 200 years, and most of their native species are endangered.”

Sarah Hotchkiss and Shelley Crausbay doing research in Hawaii
Photo By: Gregor Schuurman // Sarah Hotchkiss and Shelley Crausbay doing sediment core analysis at a lake called Wai ‘Anepanapa. ‘Anapanapa means glistening and Wai means water.

Hotchkiss thinks developing a richer understanding of our own limitations and dependencies of ecosystems is crucially important to having a more integrated view of how our climate works on Earth. “The reason that I got interested in climate change back in the late 1980s, when I was trying to choose a focus for graduate school, was that already by then it was obvious to the scientific community that climate change was going to become one of society’s most important challenges within the next century,” Hotchkiss says. “It seemed clear to me at the time that people who focused on climate were going to document it and see what was coming at us.”

How Can You Get Involved?

The CCR offers programming that seeks to attract students from all over campus. Anyone interested in learning more about climate change research is encouraged to attend the Climate Change Symposium on February 22nd in Union South.

All UW-Madison students are also welcome to submit a poster detailing their climatic or environmental research for the 2018 Reid Bryson Scholarship Competition by February 9th. A total of $2000 will be awarded.

By: Trina La Susa