Money granted to professors for environmental research

Some of Minnesota’s most important environmental problems may soon be solved within the confines of UMD’s campus. UMD geology professor Dr. Karen Gran is one of four University of Minnesota researchers who were recently awarded a Water Sustainability and Climate grant from the National Science Foundation.

The $4.3 million grant spans five years and will focus on the Minnesota River Basin and how it is impacted by climate and land use.

“I’ve been working out in the Minnesota River Valley for four or five years with a really good team,” Gran said. “We didn’t get the final notice until late summer. It’s pretty exciting.”

Gran and three colleagues from the Twin Cities campus will lead the investigation of how the basin’s growing water supply is influenced by environmental and societal factors, as well as how those factors can be managed more efficiently.

The Minnesota River Basin was chosen as the project’s site because it’s an area where climate patterns and agriculture are strongly linked to the water cycle. The basin was shaped by the last glaciation and is now vulnerable to erosion from climate change and land development.

“We know climate is changing and there’s more water coming in from that,” Gran said. “We (also) know water is coming in from land use change. So that’s why hydrology became a key element in this.”

A vast majority of the earth’s freshwater is locked underground and in polar ice caps, so the preservation of lake and river water is imperative. But in Minnesota, the problem is a little more complex.

“It’s more of a water distribution (issue),” Gran said, adding that water previously contained in wetlands is now funneling into river channels. “Too much water at one time (is) getting into the rivers and causing a lot of erosion.”

In addition to Gran and scientists from the Twin Cities, graduate students and researchers from universities across the country will be involved in trying to solve this and other problems in the basin.

“The challenge,” Gran said, “is making sure that, (with) the stuff that’s going on in all these institutions all at the same, we talk to each other and make sure we’re going back and forth and not duplicating efforts.”

The grant also includes an educational initiative geared toward expanding environmental awareness among children in area schools. Researchers will also work closely with the Science Museum of Minnesota to build exhibits and display findings for the public. And Gran knows just how big an influence education can make.

“Perhaps my interest in nature was sparked as a kid,” she said. “But my interest in being a geologist didn’t come about until I started taking geology classes. It allowed you to piece together the story of how the landscape around you looks the way it does.”

Now Gran and her colleagues have a chance to inspire the next wave of scientists while offering solutions to critical problems in the process.

“Having such a wide array of researchers allows the team to approach those issues from a variety of perspectives,” Gran says. She believes employing people of different backgrounds provides insight about how the water cycle is connected to everything, from fish living in rivers to crop prices.

“It’s very fundamentally fulfilling that someone is interested in what we’re doing for research,” Gran said. “Being able to apply that to a problem society is trying to deal with is, to me, the ultimate goal of science.”


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