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RDCEP Irrigation Project Joins White House Climate Data Initiative

By Rob Mitchum // December 9, 2014

Today, the White House announced the latest branch of its Climate Data Initiative, focusing on new open datasets and tools for two important components of climate change: ecosystem resilience and water. As with a previous call for new climate research resources, scientists from the CI’s Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP) will support these efforts with a new project focused on the role and future of irrigation in agriculture, hydrology, and climate.

Agricultural irrigation is the leading human use of freshwater, and a critical factor driving global supplies of food and water. But scientists have yet to fully explore the relationship between climate change and irrigation, and downstream effects upon areas such as hydrology and farming. Research in this area has been constrained by a lack of high-resolution data on irrigation, with the best available dataset gathered in surveys conducted at the county level every 5 years by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) — data that is too infrequent and sparse for use with advanced computer models of climate, hydrology, and agriculture.

Working with collaborators from Penn State, NASA, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), RDCEP scientists will convert existing USGS data into a higher-resolution dataset more appropriate for use in these modeling efforts. By interpolating the 5-year USGS data down to 1-year increments and also improving the spatial resolution of the data (where and how much irrigation water is used), this new data will help drive studies of the evaporative cooling effect of irrigation, aquifer levels and water availability, and crop yield.

The first version of the data will be created using models of seven major North American crops (maize, soy, wheat, cotton, barley, sorghum, and canola), running in the pSIMS framework, created by CI fellow Joshua Elliott and other RDCEP scientists. The work is supported by the 1896 Pilot Project, a University of Chicago initiative designed to enable groundbreaking research on energy, climate, and the environment.

“We’re excited for this opportunity to provide high-resolution data for applications in climate and hydrologic systems modeling as well as for vulnerability analysis, risk management, and decision-making at a variety of spatial scales,” Elliott said.

The Climate Data Initiative (CDI) was launched in May 2014 to release federal datasets and new tools for visualizing and analyzing this information, while encouraging similar new efforts from federal agencies and private-sector organizations. In July, RDCEP supported the agriculture-focused phase of the CDI by announcing the availability of several new tools for climate research, including the climate emulator, ATLAS, and FACE-IT.

“The newly released datasets—which include critical information about streamflow, soil, landcover, and biodiversity and are complemented by tools to overlay and visualize them—will be extremely valuable to natural-resource managers faced with day-to-day and long-term strategic decisions about how to operate in the context of climate change,” wrote Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, in today’s White House announcement.

[Image: “Crops Kansas AST 20010624” by NASA. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.]