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NSF funds to boost sustainability research, education

Profile image of John Sabo, director of Research Development.
September 12, 2012

As population in the Sunbelt grows, water supplies are spread thin. How does this affect native species? And how does this affect the people who move here?

Arizona State University has been awarded a four-year, $505,823 grant from the National Science Foundation to study freshwater sustainability in the face of population growth and climate change. North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia are also part of the project.

The research will take place across the Sunbelt, the area that spans the lower U.S. states including all of Arizona. These states are characterized by extended summers with brief and mild winters. This type of climate, called warm-temperate, is especially critical to studying water supplies.  

“Cities across the sunbelt are growing rapidly,” says John Sabo, director of Research Development at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and lead scientist on the study. “We will need water for this growth, and allocating that water to humans may have consequences for native biodiversity, especially if supply is diminished by climate change.”

Researchers aim to understand and quantify the potential impacts of climate change and population growth on freshwater supplies and demand within the next ten to thirty years. They will collect and analyze historical hydro-ecological observations, past water management policies, and climate change projections from varying locations in the Sunbelt to influence future policies and adaptive behaviors.

“We believe that near-term projections of climate are more robust and also more relevant to policy and decision-making,” says Sabo, who is also an associate professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is why we have chosen to look at decadal rather than century-scale climate impacts.”

Influencing policy and education

“We hope to improve understanding of how society might respond and adapt to changes in water systems through policy making, technology, or other means,” says Kelli Larson, sustainability scientist and co-investigator.

In addition, faculty researchers will collaborate with honors, masters, and doctoral students to write a policy-oriented white paper based on the key findings. This white paper will become interactive podcasts to be used in middle and high school science programs as well as in key water policy institutions across the region. The data and tools developed from the project will be disseminated through each partner university, which includes ASU’s Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) and Decision Center for a Desert City.

This project is just one of six at the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) being funded by the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio of the National Science Foundation. GIOS received and administers $4.7 million in active awards from the SEES portfolio on topics ranging from food systems to ecological vulnerability.

Five related projects

Two SEES projects are currently led by distinguished sustainability scientist and professor Margaret Nelson. Nelson will be investigating resilience and vulnerability to climate change in addition to studying the tradeoffs between social and biological diversity.

Dan Childers, director of CAP LTER and senior sustainability scientist, is leading efforts on an Urban Sustainability Research Coordination Network (RCN) to influence sustainable behavior in cities. The network will integrate urban research into real-world solutions.

In another collaborative research project, senior sustainability scientist and assistant professor Ben Ruddell is leading a study on decadal climate change impacts using case studies from Phoenix neighborhoods. The study will be used to predict human health and social impacts, water and energy use, urban heat island effects, and urban flooding.

James Elser, distinguished sustainability scientist and Regents’ Professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, is leading a sustainable food system RCN. Elser and his team will be investigating the changes in ecosystem phosphorous levels and will use the results to implement new policies and farming techniques that ensure phosphorous sustainability.

For more information on sustainability research, visit

Natalie Muilenberg,
Global Institute of Sustainability