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UNR, national laboratory to partner on research initiatives with a focus on climate change

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Top administrators from UNR and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced a new partnership Tuesday afternoon, a collaboration aimed at improving regional research into the effects of climate change, sustainable energy and water scarcity. 

Leaders from both of the institutions said the agreement was complementary, bringing together a research university with a national laboratory under the U.S. Department of Energy. The agreement, they said, would provide for joint faculty-appointments, create more research opportunities for students, access to specialized research tools and facilitate workshops.

“The complexity of challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and energy resilience demand that we forge partnerships between states, between organizations and agencies, between research disciplines,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said during a virtual meeting Tuesday commemorating the agreement, which was signed in March. 

“This also demands that we ask more of ourselves to broaden our perspective and to involve more voices from the academic and scientific community in what we are doing,” he added. 

Although climate change is a main priority of the partnership, UNR officials who detailed the plan Tuesday afternoon said other common research could focus on quantum information science, machine learning and national security.

On Tuesday, Mridul Gautam, UNR’s vice president for research and innovation, said the collaboration was designed to be interdisciplinary, bringing together faculty from across both institutions. He said the approach would encourage “new thinking, new ideas, new solutions.”

One collaboration, looking at the intersections of climate change, water and land management, is already underway. The research aims to study the effects of climate change in areas that rely on water supplies that originate from snowpack. 

When snow melts, it runs off into streams and rivers that are, in turn, used as a water supply. But across the West, climate change is affecting how much snow is banked in the mountains and how it melts. Those changes can have big consequences, not only for ensuring reliable water supplies but also for the broader forest ecosystem — and how we manage the land. 

“The wicked water problem that we’re trying to address here is the connection between our water supplies and our forests,” Adrian Harpold, an associate professor at UNR who is leading the project, said on Tuesday. “How we manage our forests affects our water supplies.”

Harpold said the existing paradigm for forest management, including how we control wildfires, is often siloed off from the management of water supplies. He said the new paradigm should look at the connections between water supply and forest heath to reduce extreme fire risk, drawing on Indigenous knowledge of how to manage forests, including through cultural burning. 

The project with the national laboratory will study a section of the Sierra Nevada that overlaps with the Truckee River watershed, a primary source of drinking water for the Reno area. The project, with funding from the U.S. Forest Service, as part of an initiative to improve restoration within the central Sierra Nevada, which includes the forests that surround Lake Tahoe. 

In particular, the research will look at how management, including forest thinning, might affect the water supply. The researchers will then send their data to economists, who will look at the issue from an economic perspective. The study will rely on a model that was developed by Mark Wigmosta, a chief scientist for watershed hydrology at the national laboratory. 

“What really excites me about this collaboration is it’s already paying dividends with this new project,” said Wigmosta, who is also serving as an adjunct faculty member at UNR.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is based in Richland, Washington and has about 5,000 employees. The facility, one of 17 Energy Department labs, focuses on a range of subjects, from fundamental science to energy and national security. 

“The U.S. government right now could not be more committed to understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change,” Tony Peurrung, a deputy director for science and technology at the national laboratory. “So the aims of this partnership are timely and noble.”


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