US a hotspot of environment research

21 June 2016

Cultura RM/ Alamy Stock Photo

Four of the top five universities producing the most earth and environment research in the index last year are in the United States.

1. University of Washington (UW), United States

2015 earth and environmental index score (WFC): 52.04

The University of Washington in Seattle is the leading institution publishing earth and environmental science in the index in 2015. The university’s College of the Environment, the largest unit of UW outside its medical center, acts as a hub of environmentally related studies that cover a wide range of topics – from sustainable forestry, invasive species and climate to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Launched in 2010, the college encourages cross-disciplinary research among teams in different schools, says its dean, Lisa Graumlich. The researchers “know how to ask big questions and get lots of people on board to collaborate,” she says. A recent study by different groups within the university compared the erosion rates of glaciers in the Antarctic to those in the warmer area of Patagonia, South America. They found that faster melting caused by climate change has the potential to reshape the landscape and alter the local ecosystem. Each year the college awards more than 400 degrees, from undergraduate to doctoral, from more than 20 degree programs, and it has about $125 million in annual funding.

2. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), Switzerland

2015 earth and environmental index score (WFC): 42.29

Earth and environmental researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich are known for devising and conducting novel and highly challenging experiments, says Timothy Eglinton, a biogeoscientist, who heads the university’s earth science department. This includes using seismic waves to learn what materials are beneath the surface, and examining ice cores to understand the climate thousands of years ago. The institute also has programmes that study how today’s rapidly changing environment affects ecosystems and the ability to feed a growing human population. Eglinton says the institute’s earth and environmental researchers are also renowned for advanced computational approaches to answer questions in earth and planetary science. One paper on seismology, published in March in Nature Geosciences, proposed a new theory to explain the mechanism that leads to earthquake supercycles—sets of repeated earthquakes that end with a major event, such as the quake in 2011 that triggered a tsunami that devastated northern Japan. Researchers hope their work might help identify other parts of the world that could be susceptible to such supercycle earthquakes.

3. University of of California, San Diego (UC San Diego), Unites States

2015 earth and environmental index score (WFC): 41.79

The vast majority of earth science output at UC San Diego—about 90 percent of all articles—comes from work done at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The institution, with an annual budget of more than $140 million, studies the impact of humanity on the ocean and its ecosystem, using its three research vessels, plus a 355-foot floating instrument platform. Combining data from the research vessels, aircraft, and satellites, Scripps makes computer models of the interactions among the atmosphere, clouds, and ocean. The Keeling Curve, which charts the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, comes from work begun at Scripps in the 1950s and continues. “For years we’ve been leaders in the detection and attribution of climate change,” says Margaret Leinen, director of the institution. She says Scripps aims to do science that not only advances understanding of environmental issues, but can help guide policymakers. “We want to be involved in the solutions to the big environmental problems that are vexing everyone.”

4. California Institute of Technology (Caltech), United States

2015 earth and environmental index score (WFC): 41.28

Much of Caltech’s strength in earth science comes from its affiliation with an agency mostly associated with outer space. Caltech runs the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, which builds many of NASA’s satellites, including those that look at soil moisture, ocean surface topography, and gravitational changes caused by the movement of land and water. It is also at JPL that scientists use those satellites to peer down at the planet, studying everything from atmospheric physics to polar ice sheets. “Earth observation has become a major part of NASA’s mission,” says JT Reager, a researcher studying surface hydrology at JPL. He is looking at how land masses take up ocean water and whether that can cause sea levels to rise more slowly than predicted by climate models, at least locally and in the short term. One of JPL’s collaborators is Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, which studies such areas as geology, geochemistry, and geophysics, not only on Earth, but on other bodies in the solar system.

5. University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder), United States

2015 earth and environmental index score (WFC): 34.62

The University of Colorado, Boulder’s research reaches from the ends of the Earth to the edge of the solar system, often as part of large collaborations. Boulder researchers at the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research were among a team that studied ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctic. Their work revealed that during ice ages, climate swings that caused warming or cooling in the Arctic moved across the globe to the Antarctic with a delay that averaged 200 years. The findings were published in Nature in April. Boulder scientists in the school’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics were also members of the teams analyzing data from space probes that traveled to outer planets. Data from the Cassini mission to Saturn showed that its moon Enceladus has a salty ocean beneath the ice, raising the possibility that life could exist there. The findings were also published in Nature last year. Boulder scientists were also among the researchers poring over data from NASA’s New Horizons mission collecting measurements from Pluto, as reported in a paper in Science in October.

By Neil Savage

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