Spring 2008, Issue 8

Science, Technology, and Policy – Forging Links to Improve Water Resources

Shafiqul Islam, ScD, joined Tufts in 2004 as a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is also the Bernard M. Gordon Senior Faculty Fellow in Engineering and the associate dean for research at the School of Engineering. Islam received his BS in civil engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, his MS in environmental engineering from the University of Maine, and his ScD in hydrology and water resources from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While a member of the civil and environmental engineering faculty of the University of Cincinnati from 1991 to 2004, Islam honed his skills in hydroclimatology, hydrometerology, remote sensing, and scale issues.

Islam’s research group, WE REASoN (Water and Environmental Research, Education, and Applications Solutions Network), is an interdisciplinary, collaborative partnership established to address problems of scarcity and abundance of water. Islam is working with experts around the world to establish processes by which data can be efficiently gathered, analyzed, and used to answer such pressing questions as How is climate changing? How will climate change affect water resources? and What can be done to prepare for climate changes?

WE REASoN addresses current problems in environmental research, and the projects involve Islam’s particular areas of expertise—scale issues and remote sensing of environmental data. Scale issues arise when data measured by one scale need to be combined with data measured by a different scale. For example, in order to accurately estimate rainfall over a large area, data from rain gauges (point-scale data) must be appropriately combined with data from radar or satellites (remotely sensed large-scale data). “Scale issues are critical for most climate models,” says Islam. “Climate models are running at maybe 50 to 100 kilometer resolution. So if the model tells you temperature will go up by half a degree, that is on a 100 kilometer by 100 kilometer grid, or 10,000 square kilometers. But within that area, we know the temperature will vary significantly—you may see a difference of ten degrees. So how do you know what you observe and what your model predicts are at least similar? You need different techniques to go from point (observed temperature) to large (predicted temperature) scale.” Islam and his research group are developing new techniques to take information from one scale to the other.

Current models do not capture some of the basic physical properties necessary to accurately predict climate. “Twenty-one climate models used by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) tell us that the Midwest is going to get drier,” says Islam. “Actual observation tells you that it is getting wetter. So we’re seeing an apparent inconsistency between observed trends and climate models. The models have a dry bias.” One possible reason for this bias is that climate models tend to rely on summer and winter rainfall measurements rather than fall rainfall trends. Islam is working on a new proposal that will look at fall rainfall trends in the central and midwestern United States in order to provide much-needed data for more accurate climate models.

Another climate change impact that is not being adequately addressed is rainfall frequency. In areas where annual precipitation is increasing, measurements are not capturing whether the increase is due to an increase in the intensity of rainfall—more storms—or an increase in the frequency of rainfall—more drizzle. The implications of the two scenarios are widely different. Will there be more mudslides, flash floods, and fierce storms, or will the increase in precipitation be gentler and more like the weather in London than in Hurricane Alley? The terrible 2005 season fostered predictions of more hurricanes, but in 2006 none made landfall in the United States. “So we do not understand how hurricanes are born and how they are propagated,” says Islam. “Those are the kinds of questions we are trying to address.”

“One of the reasons I came to Tufts is because I work in water, and most of the water problems cannot be solved by science alone,” says Islam. “Politics are an important part of it because resources are limited but stakeholders are many; consequently, we need to define the water problems jointly and arrive at a negotiated solution.” Islam is working with Fletcher and Arts and Sciences faculty to develop a graduate level program on water and diplomacy. The aim is to educate a new generation of professionals who will understand both the science and the politics of water resources. He invites those interested in getting involved in this program, or in any of the WEREASoN projects, to contact him.

For more information, please go to http://ase.tufts.edu/cee/reason/.


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