From National Science Foundation (US) : “10 NSF funded studies that show the challenges and complexities of climate change”

From National Science Foundation (US)

April 20, 2021

In a complex dance, Earth’s climate affects, and is affected by, the sky, land, ice, sea — and by life, including people. To understand climate change, which scientists believe may be one of the most important challenges humankind has ever faced, we need to comprehend Earth’s natural and human systems and how they interact. The answers may determine the future of life on our planet. For Earth Day, we look at 10 recent discoveries from U.S. National Science Foundation-funded climate change research and what they tell us about a warming planet.

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Many protected areas do not take into account the potential long-term effects of climate change. Photo Credit: Mandy Choi via Unsplash.

1. Climate change forcing a rethinking of conservation biology planning.

Creating and managing protected areas is key for biodiversity conservation. With changes in climate, species will need to migrate to maintain their habitat needs. Those that lived in protected areas 10 years ago may move outside those zones to find new areas that provide the climate and food they need to survive. Researchers looked at the amount of new protected areas in several regions, including areas where climate change is projected to be slower; areas where the terrain can shelter a high number of species; and areas that increase connectivity between protected zones, which allow species to move between them to escape adverse climate conditions. The study suggests that countries have not fully taken advantage of the potential of protected areas.

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In the Mojave Desert, burrowing mammals are weathering hotter, drier conditions. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Murray Foubister.

2. In a desert seared by climate change, burrowers fare better than birds.

In the arid Mojave Desert, small burrowing mammals such as the cactus mouse, the kangaroo rat and the white-tailed antelope squirrel are weathering the hotter, drier conditions triggered by climate change better than their winged counterparts. Over the past century, climate change has pushed the Mojave’s searing summer temperatures ever higher; the blazing heat has taken its toll on the desert’s birds. However, the research team that documented the birds’ decline also found that small mammal populations have remained relatively stable since the beginning of the 20th century. Using computer models to simulate response to heat, the researchers showed that small mammals’ resilience is likely due to their ability to escape the sun in underground burrows and their tendency to be more active at night.

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IODP researchers work aboard the ocean drillship JOIDES Resolution. Photo Credit: International Ocean Discovery Program.

3. Scientists solve climate change mystery.

Scientists have resolved a key climate change mystery, showing that the annual global temperature today is the warmest in the past 10,000 years. The findings challenge long-held views on the temperature history of the Holocene era, which began about 12,000 years ago and continues to the present. Using fossils of single-celled organisms from the ocean surface to reconstruct the temperature histories of the two most recent warm intervals on Earth, the researchers found that the first half of the Holocene was colder than in industrial times due to the cooling effects of remnant ice sheets from the previous glacial period. The warming was caused by an increase in greenhouse gases, as predicted by climate models.

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Meltwater lakes on Antarctica’s George VI Ice Shelf in January 2020. Photo Credit: Thomas Simons.

4. Extreme melt on Antarctica’s George VI Ice Shelf.

Antarctica’s George VI Ice Shelf experienced record melting during the summer season of 2019-2020 compared with 31 previous summers. The extreme melt coincided with record-setting stretches when local air temperatures were at or above the freezing point. The scientists studied the 2019-2020 melt season using satellite observations that can detect meltwater on top of the ice and in the near-surface snow. They observed the most widespread melt and greatest total number of melt days of any season for the northern George VI Ice Shelf. Understanding the impact of surface melt on ice shelf vulnerability can help researchers more accurately project the future influence of climate on sea level rise.

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The central fissure of the Laki volcano in Iceland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

5. Tree rings and Iceland’s Laki volcano eruption: A closer look at climate.

By reading between the lines of tree rings, researchers reconstructed what happened in Alaska when the Laki Volcano erupted in 1783 — half a world away in Iceland. Laki spewed more sulfur into the atmosphere than any other Northern Hemisphere eruption in the last 1,000 years. The Inuit in North America tell stories about the year summer never arrived. Benjamin Franklin, who was in France at the time, noted the “fog” that descended over much of Europe and reasoned that it led to an unusually cold winter on the continent. What happened to climate from the eruption reflects a combination of the volcano’s effects and natural variability. The research is helping fine-tune future climate predictions.

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By the late 21st century, the number of people suffering extreme droughts will double. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

6. By the late 21st century, the number of people suffering extreme droughts will double.

Scientists are undertaking a global effort to offer the first worldwide view of how climate change could affect water availability and drought severity in the decades to come. By the late 21st century, the global land area and population facing extreme droughts could more than double — increasing from 3% during 1976-2005 to 7%-8%. More people will suffer from extreme droughts if a medium-to-high level of global warming continues and water management is maintained in its present state. Areas of the Southern Hemisphere, where water scarcity is already a problem, will be disproportionately affected. The researchers predict this increase in water scarcity will affect food security and escalate human migration and conflict.

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Paleoecologist Sora Kim studies ancient shark teeth to learn about Earth’s history. Photo Credit: University of California – Merced (US).

7. Shark teeth offer clues to ancient climate change.

A character in the movie “Jaws” said that all sharks do is “swim and eat and make little sharks.” It turns out they do much more than that. Sharks have roamed Earth’s oceans for more than 400 million years, quietly recording the planet’s history. If a researcher like paleoecologist Sora Kim of the University of California, Merced, wants to “read” those records to learn about major global changes that took place 50 million years ago, she must decode the information stored in what remains of ancient sharks: their teeth. Teeth from the long-extinct sand tiger shark are providing new information about global climate change and the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates.

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Researchers stand at the entrance to a cave in Mallorca. Photo Credit: University of South Florida (US)

8. Scientists reconstruct 6.5 million years of sea level in the Western Mediterranean.

The pressing concern posed by rising sea levels has created a need for scientists to predict how quickly the oceans will rise in coming centuries. To gain insight into future ice sheet stability and sea level rise, new findings draw on evidence from past periods when Earth’s climate was warmer than today. To reconstruct past sea levels, researchers used deposits found in caves on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The scientists determined that the extent of these unique deposits corresponds with the fluctuating water table, providing a way to precisely measure past sea levels.

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The great purple emperor butterfly is one of countless insect species needing human assistance.  Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Peeliden.

9. Unsure how to help insect declines? Researchers suggest some ways.

Florida Museum of Natural History entomologist Akito Kawahara’s message is straightforward: We can’t live without insects; they’re in trouble; and there’s something all of us can do to help. Kawahara’s research has focused on answering questions about moth and butterfly evolution, but he’s increasingly haunted by studies that sound the alarm about plummeting insect numbers and diversity. One of the culprits? Climate change. In response, Kawahara has turned his attention to boosting appreciation for some of the world’s most misunderstood animals. Now, Kawahara and his colleagues outline easy ways to contribute to insect conservation, including mowing less, dimming the lights, using insect-friendly soaps and sealants, and becoming insect ambassadors.

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A satellite image of a dust plume crossing the Korean Peninsula. Photo Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

10. Will warming bring a change in the winds? Dust from the deep sea provides a clue.

The westerlies — or westerly winds — play an important role in weather and climate locally and on a global scale by influencing precipitation patterns, affecting ocean circulation, and steering tropical cyclones. Assessing how they will change as climate warms is crucial. The westerlies usually blow from west to east across the planet’s mid-latitudes, but scientists have noticed that over the last several decades, these winds are moving toward the poles. Research suggests this shift is due to climate change. Scientists developed a new way to apply paleoclimatology, the study of past climate, to the behavior of the westerly winds and found evidence that atmospheric circulation patterns will change with climate warming. This breakthrough in understanding how the winds changed in the past may show us how they will continue to in the future.

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) (US) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…we are the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

We fulfill our mission chiefly by issuing limited-term grants — currently about 12,000 new awards per year, with an average duration of three years — to fund specific research proposals that have been judged the most promising by a rigorous and objective merit-review system. Most of these awards go to individuals or small groups of investigators. Others provide funding for research centers, instruments and facilities that allow scientists, engineers and students to work at the outermost frontiers of knowledge.

NSF’s goals — discovery, learning, research infrastructure and stewardship — provide an integrated strategy to advance the frontiers of knowledge, cultivate a world-class, broadly inclusive science and engineering workforce and expand the scientific literacy of all citizens, build the nation’s research capability through investments in advanced instrumentation and facilities, and support excellence in science and engineering research and education through a capable and responsive organization. We like to say that NSF is “where discoveries begin.”

Many of the discoveries and technological advances have been truly revolutionary. In the past few decades, NSF-funded researchers have won some 236 Nobel Prizes as well as other honors too numerous to list. These pioneers have included the scientists or teams that discovered many of the fundamental particles of matter, analyzed the cosmic microwaves left over from the earliest epoch of the universe, developed carbon-14 dating of ancient artifacts, decoded the genetics of viruses, and created an entirely new state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate.

NSF also funds equipment that is needed by scientists and engineers but is often too expensive for any one group or researcher to afford. Examples of such major research equipment include giant optical and radio telescopes, Antarctic research sites, high-end computer facilities and ultra-high-speed connections, ships for ocean research, sensitive detectors of very subtle physical phenomena and gravitational wave observatories.

Another essential element in NSF’s mission is support for science and engineering education, from pre-K through graduate school and beyond. The research we fund is thoroughly integrated with education to help ensure that there will always be plenty of skilled people available to work in new and emerging scientific, engineering and technological fields, and plenty of capable teachers to educate the next generation.

No single factor is more important to the intellectual and economic progress of society, and to the enhanced well-being of its citizens, than the continuous acquisition of new knowledge. NSF is proud to be a major part of that process.

Specifically, the Foundation’s organic legislation authorizes us to engage in the following activities:

Initiate and support, through grants and contracts, scientific and engineering research and programs to strengthen scientific and engineering research potential, and education programs at all levels, and appraise the impact of research upon industrial development and the general welfare.
Award graduate fellowships in the sciences and in engineering.
Foster the interchange of scientific information among scientists and engineers in the United States and foreign countries.
Foster and support the development and use of computers and other scientific methods and technologies, primarily for research and education in the sciences.
Evaluate the status and needs of the various sciences and engineering and take into consideration the results of this evaluation in correlating our research and educational programs with other federal and non-federal programs.
Provide a central clearinghouse for the collection, interpretation and analysis of data on scientific and technical resources in the United States, and provide a source of information for policy formulation by other federal agencies.
Determine the total amount of federal money received by universities and appropriate organizations for the conduct of scientific and engineering research, including both basic and applied, and construction of facilities where such research is conducted, but excluding development, and report annually thereon to the President and the Congress.
Initiate and support specific scientific and engineering activities in connection with matters relating to international cooperation, national security and the effects of scientific and technological applications upon society.
Initiate and support scientific and engineering research, including applied research, at academic and other nonprofit institutions and, at the direction of the President, support applied research at other organizations.
Recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of basic research and education in the sciences and engineering. Strengthen research and education innovation in the sciences and engineering, including independent research by individuals, throughout the United States.
Support activities designed to increase the participation of women and minorities and others underrepresented in science and technology.

At present, NSF has a total workforce of about 2,100 at its Alexandria, VA, headquarters, including approximately 1,400 career employees, 200 scientists from research institutions on temporary duty, 450 contract workers and the staff of the NSB office and the Office of the Inspector General.

NSF is divided into the following seven directorates that support science and engineering research and education: Biological Sciences, Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Engineering, Geosciences, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and Education and Human Resources. Each is headed by an assistant director and each is further subdivided into divisions like materials research, ocean sciences and behavioral and cognitive sciences.

Within NSF’s Office of the Director, the Office of Integrative Activities also supports research and researchers. Other sections of NSF are devoted to financial management, award processing and monitoring, legal affairs, outreach and other functions. The Office of the Inspector General examines the foundation’s work and reports to the NSB and Congress.

Each year, NSF supports an average of about 200,000 scientists, engineers, educators and students at universities, laboratories and field sites all over the United States and throughout the world, from Alaska to Alabama to Africa to Antarctica. You could say that NSF support goes “to the ends of the earth” to learn more about the planet and its inhabitants, and to produce fundamental discoveries that further the progress of research and lead to products and services that boost the economy and improve general health and well-being.

As described in our strategic plan, NSF is the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, except for medical sciences. NSF is tasked with keeping the United States at the leading edge of discovery in a wide range of scientific areas, from astronomy to geology to zoology. So, in addition to funding research in the traditional academic areas, the agency also supports “high risk, high pay off” ideas, novel collaborations and numerous projects that may seem like science fiction today, but which the public will take for granted tomorrow. And in every case, we ensure that research is fully integrated with education so that today’s revolutionary work will also be training tomorrow’s top scientists and engineers.

Unlike many other federal agencies, NSF does not hire researchers or directly operate our own laboratories or similar facilities. Instead, we support scientists, engineers and educators directly through their own home institutions (typically universities and colleges). Similarly, we fund facilities and equipment such as telescopes, through cooperative agreements with research consortia that have competed successfully for limited-term management contracts.

NSF’s job is to determine where the frontiers are, identify the leading U.S. pioneers in these fields and provide money and equipment to help them continue. The results can be transformative. For example, years before most people had heard of “nanotechnology,” NSF was supporting scientists and engineers who were learning how to detect, record and manipulate activity at the scale of individual atoms — the nanoscale. Today, scientists are adept at moving atoms around to create devices and materials with properties that are often more useful than those found in nature.

Dozens of companies are gearing up to produce nanoscale products. NSF is funding the research projects, state-of-the-art facilities and educational opportunities that will teach new skills to the science and engineering students who will make up the nanotechnology workforce of tomorrow.

At the same time, we are looking for the next frontier.

NSF’s task of identifying and funding work at the frontiers of science and engineering is not a “top-down” process. NSF operates from the “bottom up,” keeping close track of research around the United States and the world, maintaining constant contact with the research community to identify ever-moving horizons of inquiry, monitoring which areas are most likely to result in spectacular progress and choosing the most promising people to conduct the research.

NSF funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. We do this through grants and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research organizations throughout the U.S. The Foundation considers proposals submitted by organizations on behalf of individuals or groups for support in most fields of research. Interdisciplinary proposals also are eligible for consideration. Awardees are chosen from those who send us proposals asking for a specific amount of support for a specific project.

Proposals may be submitted in response to the various funding opportunities that are announced on the NSF website. These funding opportunities fall into three categories — program descriptions, program announcements and program solicitations — and are the mechanisms NSF uses to generate funding requests. At any time, scientists and engineers are also welcome to send in unsolicited proposals for research and education projects, in any existing or emerging field. The Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) provides guidance on proposal preparation and submission and award management. At present, NSF receives more than 42,000 proposals per year.

To ensure that proposals are evaluated in a fair, competitive, transparent and in-depth manner, we use a rigorous system of merit review. Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers consisting of scientists, engineers and educators who do not work at NSF or for the institution that employs the proposing researchers. NSF selects the reviewers from among the national pool of experts in each field and their evaluations are confidential. On average, approximately 40,000 experts, knowledgeable about the current state of their field, give their time to serve as reviewers each year.

The reviewer’s job is to decide which projects are of the very highest caliber. NSF’s merit review process, considered by some to be the “gold standard” of scientific review, ensures that many voices are heard and that only the best projects make it to the funding stage. An enormous amount of research, deliberation, thought and discussion goes into award decisions.

The NSF program officer reviews the proposal and analyzes the input received from the external reviewers. After scientific, technical and programmatic review and consideration of appropriate factors, the program officer makes an “award” or “decline” recommendation to the division director. Final programmatic approval for a proposal is generally completed at NSF’s division level. A principal investigator (PI) whose proposal for NSF support has been declined will receive information and an explanation of the reason(s) for declination, along with copies of the reviews considered in making the decision. If that explanation does not satisfy the PI, he/she may request additional information from the cognizant NSF program officer or division director.

If the program officer makes an award recommendation and the division director concurs, the recommendation is submitted to NSF’s Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA) for award processing. A DGA officer reviews the recommendation from the program division/office for business, financial and policy implications, and the processing and issuance of a grant or cooperative agreement. DGA generally makes awards to academic institutions within 30 days after the program division/office makes its recommendation.