What prehistoric societies can teach us about climate change

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office

The common rhetoric surrounding the contemporary climate crisis often frames the dramatic manifestations of climate change as unprecedented in their intensity. The scorching heat and record-level dryness that has plagued the Western US in recent years clearly indicates an ominous shift to a “new normal.” However, while there is no denying the evidence of climate change, archaeological data also suggests that this is not the first time the Western US has experienced similar events. To aid our contemporary fight for sustainability and adaptation, could we look into the past and learn from how ancient peoples survived through climate change?

Doug Kennett, professor of Environmental Archaeology and Human Behavioral Ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes the past can help us understand the present crisis. On Tuesday, October 22nd, from 4 – 5 PM in room 210 of the Alice B. Skaggs Biology Building, Kennett will explore how climate change in the West affected ancient peoples in his lecture, “Drought and Long-Term Sociopolitical Dynamics West of the Hundredth Meridian,” as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Kennett earned his Ph.D in archaeology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1998. During his student years, he experienced first-hand the effects of climate change as the Western US was hit by intense periods of drought. Kennett recalls thinking that “the prehistoric record probably has something to say about what these droughts have looked like in the past, and how people responded under different types of social and political conditions.”

Kennett’s initial research focused on early peoples of the Yucatan, but as his interest in historical drought grew he also began to study indigenous cultures of coastal California. Working with climate scientists, they used reconstructed climate records alongside archaeological evidence to decipher how these cultures responded to climate change. As Kennett explains, “we [now] know that in the climate system in the West, from the climate record and the archaeological record, that conditions can be much more severe with much more extended droughts.” 

His work has since driven him to dive deeper into the climate history of the West, from California’s Channel Islands to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. “I’m interested in the persistence of prehistoric societies in the face of environmental and climate change,” Kennett says. “So, in other words: what worked? But I’m also interested in when things go badly and we see the disintegration of social and political connectivity and what we colloquially call ‘collapse.'”

Kennett’s research has also led to collaborations with geneticists, in particular David Reich at Harvard University. Through genomics, Kennett has been able to analyze the genetic population structure of prehistoric peoples. This has provided insight in his research on the environmental factors that contributed to the collapse of these ancient cultures, and has been significant in his research on drought in Mayan civilization in the Yucatan.  “You may say that the Maya were in a tropical forest. How could you have trouble with water in that kind of context? In fact, there were times when there were droughts that had significant impacts on the population.”

There are far-reaching implications for this cutting-edge research in developing strategies for combating climate change in the 21st century. “From a sustainability perspective, I’m arguing that the archaeological record has great value for what’s happening today,” Kennett explained. This is especially evident in his work in the Yucatan. According to Kennett, “In the case of the Maya, with [regards to] sustainability, there were also major transformations of the landscape because they were large-scale agriculturalists. There were very well-documented geological or geomorphic changes made to the landscape associated with deforestation.” Understanding the changes that occurred in the landscape during the time of the Maya can provide insight into how the landscape has become what it is today, and how these changes affect contemporary populations.

If you’re interested in learning more about what climate change in the past can tell us about the present and future, come by ASB 210 on Tuesday, October 22nd for Professor Doug Kennett’s lecture, “Drought and Long-Term Sociopolitical Dynamics West of the Hundredth Meridian,” as part of the GCSC seminar series.


Originally posted on @theU on October 22, 2018.

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University of Utah Communications

William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology, has received one of 18 Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests.

Packard Fellows each receive a five-year, $875,000 grant to pursue research directions of their choosing. The Packard Foundation requires little paperwork connected to the grant, allowing fellows wide latitude to pursue risky and creative research ideas, dubbed “blue-sky thinking” by the foundation.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology, has received the Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests.


“I felt honored, thrilled and surprised all at once,” Anderegg said. “I was pretty overwhelmed by the exciting news.”

Anderegg arrived at the U as an assistant professor in 2015 and studies how droughts affect forests and individual trees. Most recently, he and his colleagues published a study in Nature showing how tree species diversity in forests provides resilience to drought.

“The future of Earth’s forests hangs in the balance between the potential benefits of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and the stresses from climate change,” reads Anderegg’s research statement. “Anderegg’s lab focuses on understanding and predicting the future of Earth’s forests using a mix of experiments, field measurements, and mechanistic models.”

The Packard Foundation Fellowship

Every year, the Packard Foundation invites the presidents of 50 universities to nominate two professors each from their institutions. Nominations are reviewed by an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers.

“Dr. Anderegg’s pioneering work elegantly combines field measurements with complex mathematical modeling to better predict the response of forests to drought,” said Denise Dearing, director of the U’s School of Biological Sciences. “He is the perfect fit for an award from the Packard Foundation especially in light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that we have less than 12 years to take action to lessen the most serious effects of climate change.”

“The Packard Fellowships are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used,” according to the foundation. Packard Fellows have been awarded significant prizes, the Foundation notes, including Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, MacArthur Fellowships and election to the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is really exciting and different because the funding is not tied to a specific, defined project, as is the case with most other grants,” Anderegg said. “The Packard Foundation really aims to fund individual scholars and to let these scientists pursue whatever creative or high-risk projects that they want to tackle.”

The creative latitude afforded by the fellowship embodies the sentiment of the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and the Packard Foundation:

“Take risks,” said Packard. “Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough.”

A select group of U scholars

Anderegg joins four other Packard Fellows affiliated with the University of Utah.  The most recent awardee is June Round, an associate professor of pathology, who received her fellowship in 2013.

“I am truly grateful to be part of the Packard Foundation,” Round said. She studies how communities of microorganisms, called the microbiota, in the gut affect the health of the whole organism. The Packard Fellowship, she said, enabled her to identify ways to modify gut microbiomes and expand her research. “Because this Packard funding has such flexibility this allowed us to follow up on projects and get into new mouse models of disease that involve diabetes and obesity,” she said.

“This is not to say that there is no pressure,” said John Lupton, a former professor of physics at the U now at Regensburg University and a 2008 fellow. “When you are thrown in a pool with peers like [recent 2018 Nobel Laureate and 1989 fellow Frances] Arnold, you swim. Period.”

Lupton used his fellowship to invent a microscopy technique, a wagon wheel-shaped molecule to improve OLED efficiency and the straightest molecule ever made.

“We didn’t set out to solve a particular problem,” he said, “we went on a voyage to find new challenges. Physics is not only about solving problems, but also about finding them. Such ventures are often hard to do with conventional funding which requires roadmaps with little flexibility.”

Graeme Milton, distinguished professor of mathematics, received one of the first Packard Fellowships in 1988. He used the funding to bring colleagues from the soon-to-be-dissolved Soviet Union (including current U professor Andrej Cherkaev) to the United States to work with him for a year.

“It’s a major, major award,” Milton said. “It’s across all sciences. I think it’s a terrific achievement.”

Milton attended the first meeting of Packard alumni, held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California (“a spectacular place for a meeting,” he said) and has watched the meeting grow each year since then.

Brenda Bass, distinguished professor of biochemistry and 1991 Packard fellow, noted the importance of the annual meetings. “You meet scientists who have much more scientific diversity than the more specialized meetings we typically attend,” Bass said. “This fosters thinking in new directions.”

Bass said her Packard funding was very important to her lab’s early studies on RNA editing and double-stranded RNA binding proteins. “The freedom to use Packard funding to go down any path, regardless of its perceived outcome, is truly wonderful,” she said. “Such flexibility very often leads to discovery.”

Anderegg is still working out how he’d like to use the funding. “I want to use part of it to invest in some long-term climate change research that’s hard or nearly impossible to fund with traditional grants,” he said, “and also part of it for some near-term but high-risk projects to look at how forests will respond to climate change across the globe.”

Find the Packard Foundation’s release about the 2018 Packard Fellows here.

Research to reality: Connecting scientists to policymakers

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

The effects of climate change are already impacting individuals in the West. Drier seasons and regular droughts are affecting Utahns from farmers to snowboarders as changing precipitation patterns mean less rain and snow.

Seth Arens, a research scientist with Western Water Assessment and an expert in Utah’s climate cycles, will explore the future of water and drought in his GCSC seminar series lecture, “Planning for drought and climate change in Utah: working with resource managers to develop usable science,” on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Arens has a diverse resume, having studied biology at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Utah. At the U, Arens did research on air pollution impacts in forested ecosystems in the Wasatch Mountains. After finishing his master’s degree at the U, Arens worked for the Utah Division of Air Quality for five and a half years as an environmental scientist, where he started a program researching and monitoring ozone pollution around Utah. He’s been working with Western Water Assessment for almost three years, using his knowledge of Utah to bring the latest scientific research to the people and organizations that need it most. “Rather than coming up with questions and researching them,” Arens explains, “Western Water Assessment works with decision makers, first identifying their needs and then seeking out solutions. “

Western Water Assessment is a University of Colorado-based research program that is funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program. “We seek to create usable science,” says Arens. “There’s often a disconnect between academic scientific research and the practical science that’s needed in resource management. Western Water Assessment serves as an intermediary between these groups.” He’s done this through work with organizations such as the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Salt Lake Public Utilities, and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “We’re ultimately helping them understand how future climate is going to affect how they operate.”

According to Arens, there has been much recent discussion and consideration of future water supply among planners in Utah, yet there has been less work done around drought, despite how interwoven the issues are. As drier conditions threaten to disrupt the region, the work Arens does to connect decision makers and organizations to the necessary water data is increasingly essential. NIDIS, or National Integrated Drought Information Systems, is a division of NOAA that focuses on drought research and works closely with Arens and Western Water Assessment on drought planning in Utah. Arens has also collaborated with the Utah Division of Water Resources in drought planning.

There’s no single direction ahead for Arens and his organization, who react to research and outreach needs as they arise. However, the GCSC is currently hosting Arens on the University of Utah campus, and this has opened exciting new research here. Arens is starting projects with Paul Brooks of the Geology and Geophysics department and Court Strong of Atmospheric Sciences. He’s also collaborated with Danya Rumore of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Center in the SJ Quinney College of Law.

Arens’ work addresses fundamental problems about the future of water in the West. “How do we prepare for a drought?” he asks. “If we have a drought that our water systems can’t really handle, what do we do about that?” If you’re interested to learn his answer, come to his lecture, Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.