Skip to main content

ASU, USC faculty members collaborate on climate change research

February 20, 2012

Editor's Note: Arizona State University basketball will take on the University of Southern California on Feb 25. The men’s teams will play at 6 p.m, in Tempe, and the women’s teams at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles. Read more about ASU's collaborations with Pac-12 schools.

A research partnership that began seven years ago when Darren Ruddell was an Arizona State University graduate student in geography and Sharon Harlan a sociologist in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change continues to bear fruit. 

Harlan directs the Phoenix Area Social Survey, which examine people’s values, attitudes and behaviors concerning the local environment and the impact of income and ethnic residential segregation on environmental inequalities. As a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, she hired Ruddell as a research assistant in 2005 to help with data collection and environmental research.

The two discovered a common interest in climate change and social justice research. They developed a collaboration resulting in a number of shared publications, even as Ruddell has become a lecturer for the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. 

“It’s a complementary blend of skills, because I study social systems and he bridges to physical systems,” says Harlan, who with Ruddell co-authored a book chapter in 2010, “Risk and Exposure to Extreme Heat in Microclimates of Phoenix,” and a 2011 article on climate change and health in cities in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. They have an upcoming article on public awareness of regional and neighborhood climates in Climatic Change. 

“He became very interested in the research that I do, and he became a full partner in that,” she says. “Human-environment interactions is a very interdisciplinary area of research, and he studied spatial analysis with Elizabeth Wentz (associate professor of geography) and has learned urban climatology from Anthony Brazel (retired ASU geography professor). 

“It’s been a very productive partnership. He is still an investigator on my projects, and we are continuing our collaboration. He also has a paper on the urban heat island under review, co-authored with Tony Brazel.” 

Ruddell received his doctorate in geographical sciences from ASU in Spring 2009. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability for two years before going to USC. 

Harlan is the principal investigator of a project examining urban vulnerability to climate change as a dynamic feature of systems that differentially place plants and humans at risk from extreme heat. The research is an effort to understand how various landscapes and temperatures are associated with different neighborhoods, and why we see disparities in heat-related health outcomes between low and high-income neighborhoods. 

Ruddell and Harlan have found that human exposure to high temperatures varies substantially throughout metropolitan Phoenix, and that public perceptions of climate also vary considerably by neighborhood and socioeconomic status. Mortality and illness related to extremely hot weather and poor air quality is a major public health concern for cities. Understanding public perceptions in order to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies is crucial. 

Harlan says she would like to improve the capacity of inner-city neighborhoods to adapt to climate change. She and her co-researchers are developing future climate scenarios, working with community partners to revitalize a community gardening initiative and modeling the cooling effects of neighborhood parks. They are interviewing middle school students about the ways in which high temperatures affect their families and communities.