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Society, Water, and Climate

Participating Departments

AnthropologyAtmospheric Sciences -  Biology - Economics
ENVironmental and Sustainability STudiesGeography
Geology and Geophysics - Political Science - Psychology - Sociology


Anthropology offers a broad, holistic approach to the study of climate and environment, incorporating the natural and social sciences. Faculty with research focusing on climate science, environment and ecology in the Department of Anthropology include:

  • Jack M. Broughton studies the influence of Holocene precipitation variation and its influence on vertebrate faunas and prehistoric human societies in western North America.
  • Brian F. Codding studies human-environment interactions among past and present hunter-gatherer societies in Australia and North America.
  • Kristen Hawkes investigates the interaction of ecology, resource use, and social relationships in the evolution of our lineage.
  • Leslie A. Knapp studies genetic diversity in natural populations of primates, many of which are affected by climate change and habitat destruction
  • Lisbeth Louderback explores how humans coped with environmental change during the Quaternary in arid western North America. She is an interdisciplinary archaeologist with technical expertise in archaeobotany and paleoecology.
  • Shane J. Macfarlan is a cultural anthropologist who examines the evolutionary ecology of cooperation. Currently, he is examining the human-ecosystem dynamics shaping oasis water management in a traditional ranching community in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
  • Duncan Metcalfe is an archaeologist investigating prehistoric adaptations to arid environments from the perspective of behavioral ecology.
  • Richard Paine studies relationships between human populations and their environments. He uses prehistoric demography to study the effects of population growth and the rise of agriculture and urbanism on human pathogens, especially those that cause epidemic diseases. His has also studied relationships between population growth, ecological degradation and the Classic Maya collapse.
  • Alan R. Rogers uses genetic data to study how human population size responded to ancient climatic changes.
  • Dennis O'Rourke uses molecular genetic methods to study migration and colonization in ancient populations of the Americas, and links these population movements and patterns of ancient genetic variation to paleoclimatic reconstructions.

Visit the Anthropology Department for more information.

Atmospheric Sciences

Faculty in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences perform a wide range of research focusing on air quality, the meteorological conditions that control air quality, land-atmosphere interactions, the atmospheric components of the hydrologic cycle, and climate change.

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  • John Horel is a member of the Mountain Meteorology Group and his research is centered on the observation and analysis of weather and climate processes in mountainous regions with particular attention on cold-air pools associated with poor air quality. His current research activities include further development of MesoWest, which provides access to surface weather observations for operational, research, and educational applications nationwide.
  • John Lin is the leader of the Land-Atmosphere Interaction Research group and his research focuses on using Lagrangian atmospheric models to understand the exchange of greenhouse gases, pollutants, and water between the atmosphere and the land surface.
  • Kevin Perry's research focuses on ambient air quality monitoring, instrumentation/analytical technique development, source apportionment, atmospheric dry deposition, and the climatic and health effects of particulate matter.
  • Thomas Reichler is a climate modeler and analyst who is interested in the relationship between climate change and atmospheric dynamics.
  • Court Strong's research focuses on interactions between the atmosphere and other components of the climate system, including the biosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere.
  • Dave Whiteman is a member of the Mountain Meteorology Group and investigates thermally driven flows, boundary layer processes, cold pools, and air pollution.

Visit the Atmospheric Sciences Department for more information.


swc photoThe role of water in physiology, ecology, and ecosystems is a central focus of several faculty in the Department of Biology.

  • David Bowling investigates interactions between water and carbon cycles in natural ecosystems, with a regional focus in the western United States.
  • Jim Ehleringer is a pioneer of stable isotope ecology, and founding member of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC). Jim also played a leading role in initiating the NSF-funded iUTAH project (Innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydrosustainability) that focuses on preserving Utah's water resources (
  • Thomas Kursar is a tropical ecologist who works broadly on the water relations of rainforest and dryforest trees, and their responses to drought.
  • Diane Pataki studies the role of plants and soils in human-dominated and urban ecosystems, merging plant physiology, ecohydrology, ecosystem science with social sciences and urban planning.
  • John Sperry focuses on plant water relations and adaptations to environmental stress, with a particular interest in vascular water transport and its linkage to plant performance in a changing climate.
  • Nalini Nadkarni studies the ecological roles of canopy-dwelling plants and animals in tropical and temperate rain forests. She also carries out public engagement programs to bring environmental research to scientifically underserved public audiences.

Beyond the specialties of these laboratories (all members of the GCSC), the Department of Biology includes a tremendous breadth amongst its more than 40 faculty, ranging from biomolecular biophysics and bioinformatics through host-parasite and plant-animal interactions to integrative physiology, conservation biology, and ecosystem science.

Visit the Biology Department for more information.


Sustainable water and climate policy, and the connections between the environment and the economy, are important areas of focus for research and training in the Department of Economics at the University of Utah. Several of our faculty have expertise in the analysis of these issues.

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  • Tariq Banuri served as Director of the Division for Sustainable Development for the Department of Economic Affairs at the United Nations from 2008-2011 and also as a member of the United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change from 2009-2011.
  • Haimanti Bhattacharya examines connections between economic development, population growth, and environmental degradation.
  • Minqi Li has published on energy, environment, and growth in the context of China.
  • Gabriel Lozada specializes in the theory of exhaustible resource extraction and sustainability and has also studied water infrastructure and pricing in Utah.
  • Eric Sjoberg is engaged in projects analyzing federalism and the effective enforcement of environmental policy. He is also working with geographers to connect climate data with data on conflict and cooperation over transboundary freshwater basins.

Our department is committed to a pluralistic approach to Economics as a social science. Our research and teaching activities incorporate critical analysis of a variety of theoretical approaches and the generation of applied, policy-relevant research that is informed by this broader inquiry.

Visit the Economics Department for more information.

Environmental and Sustainability Studies

Jennifer H. Watt is a paleoecologist that studies vegetation change and disturbance regimes in sub-alpine forests. Her interest is in the long-term impacts of these changes and how the information can be used to guide forest management.

Adrienne Cachelin studies environmental and food justice through a critical lens. As the University's Sustainability Education Director, she also works with faculty in all disciplines to integrate sustainability concepts and content.

Jennifer Follstad Shah studies freshwater ecosystems responses to climate change and urbanization and explores how freshwater resources can be more sustainability managed.

Brett Clark studies the political economy of global environmental change and the philosophy, history, and sociology of science.

Visit the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program for more information.


Geography is the study of natural Earth systems, human societies and their interactions, and is home to a variety of researchers working on the issues of Society, Water and Climate. We use a collaborative and integrated approach to help understand complex 21st century challenges such as climate change, globalization, sustainability, urbanization, and living with hazards. Faculty with current research relevant to the SWC include:

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  • Simon C. Brewer studies past and present climate change, paleoecology, environmental modeling, and data mining and analysis.
  • Andrea Brunelle is a paleoecologist who studies climate change, environmental change, and fire and beetle disturbance history with an emphasis on land management implications and contributions.
  • Philip Dennison uses remote sensing and geospatial modeling techniques to investigate drought impacts on vegetation and wildfire. His work deals with connections between climate, vegetation, and wildfire.
  • Richard R. Forster is a glaciologist who uses remote sensing for hydrological applications including glaciers, snowpack properties, aquifers, and ground subsidence.
  • Kathleen Nicoll researches desert hydroclimate, geomorphology and the sedimentary processes of rivers and saline lakes in aridlands.
  • Mitchell J. Power is a biogeographer who is interested in paleoecology, historical plant geography, climate history, and fire history from local to global scales.
  • Vincent V. Salomonson, studies spaceborne remote sensing of Earth-atmosphere processes and trends with emphasis on hydrological processes, regional and global snow cover dynamics.
  • Yehua Dennis Wei is an economic/urban geographer, studying regional and sustainable development, globalization and urbanization, land use and environmental change including climate change and water pollution, and GIS spatial analysis with a geographic emphasis in China.
  • Kathryn Grace primarily focuses on the population and health impacts of seasonal and annual variations in food availability among farmers and peri-urban dwellers in west and east Africa which is impacted by climate change and water availability.

Visit the Geography Department for more information.

Geology and Geophysics

Faculty in the Department of Geology & Geophysics conduct a wide range of research focusing on contemporary and water resource issues and water cycle change over Earth's history.

  • swc photoBrenda Bowen is a sedimentary geologist who's work includes the study of fluid-rock interactions and the chemistry and biology of aquatic systems in extreme environments.
  • Gabe Bowen uses stable isotope tracers and spatiotemporal data analysis to understand hydrological change across a range of systems (atmospheric, surface, human infrastructure), spatial scales (watershed to global), and timescales (modern, Holocene, and deep time).
  • Paul Brooks combines field observations, chemical and isotopic tracers, and modeling to quantify the interactions between climate, vegetation, and geomorphology that control the partitioning of snow and rain into societal and ecosystem water resources.
  • Thure Cerling uses isotopes to study processes occurring near the Earth's surface (soils, landform evolution, erosion) and to interpret terrestrial environments in the past (paleoenvironments, paleodiets, paleophysiology).
  • Diego Fernandez is interested in the application of elemental and isotopic geochemistry to environmental science and water resource problems. He directs the University's ICP-MS lab facilities and has led the development of new methods for fast analysis of Sr isotope ratios in waters via multicollector ICP-MS.
  • Paul Jewell applies hydrodynamic principles and models to problems of sedimentation and geochemistry in surface water environments.
  • Bill Johnson's research concerns the transport of contaminants in aquatic and groundwater systems, particularly related to particle transport as well as trace element cycling related to human and ecosystem health.
  • Kip Solomon uses environmental age-dating tracers (3H, 3He, 4He, CFCs, SF6, 14C) to characterized groundwater flow systems for both water quantity and water quality evaluations.

Faculty in the Geology & Geophysics department are active leaders and contributors to the Global Change and Sustainability Center and other campus, national, and international initiatives related to water resources and environmental change. The Department is home to a number of world-class, water-related research facilities providing capabilities for light stable isotope analysis of waters, water quality, suspended particulates, noble gas age dating, and multi-collector ICP-MS analysis of a wide range of elements and their isotope ratios.

Visit the Geology and Geophysics Department for more information.

Political Science

Many of the faculty and students in the Department of Political Science have great interest in the politics and public policy of water, climate change, and population demands in the arid West and across the world. A political scientist or policy scholar interested in this position might study environmental policy, environmental discourse and thought, water scarcity or energy production as a security threat and a matter of global justice, public law regarding water rights, compacts and treaties, or the politics and policy around climate change, coastal threats, urban policy and severe weather disasters. Political Science faculty who are currently pursuing research in the areas of society, water and climate include:

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    Tabitha Benney – has published on private-sector responses to climate change in the southern part of the globe and on the creation and operation of carbon markets in emerging economies. She is currently researching renewable energy in developing countries.
  • Patricia Bromley–has published on the global spread of environmental discourse through social science textbooks comparing patterns across countries.
  • Dan McCool – his research focuses on water resource development, public lands policy, and Indian water rights. He has published on American rivers, Native American water rights, settlements and treaties, federal water development and interest group politics, the power and performance of natural resource agencies, as well as the politics and policy developments around water and wilderness in Utah.
  • Chris Simon – is currently working on a book on energy security, has published on renewable energy as an issue and controversy in science and politics, and has published on sustainability in state and local government in the 21st Century.

Visit the Political Science Department for more information.


  • Barbara Brown is an environmental psychologist who studies connections between human behavior and the built environment, including processes supporting walkability, walking, Complete Streets, place attachment, and neighborhood viability.
  • David Strayer studies cognition in the wild, namely how the brain behaves in a non-digital world. It is well documented that the modern digital world places unique pressures on our cognitive abilities and levels of stress, and this is only likely to increase in the future. This raises the important question of what we can do to maintain a high level of cognitive function and quality of life, and also benefit from the positive influences of technology. Our prior work found that immersion in the wilderness absent modern technology significantly improved creative reasoning and other higher-order cognitive abilities. The goal of our current research is to develop a better understanding of the biological bases underlying cognitive restoration associated with being in natural settings (and also to understand the potential negative consequences associated with being overconnected in the digital world).

Visit the Psychology Department for more information.


The Department of Sociology has two broad substantive areas: Global and Comparative Sociology as well as Population and Health.

  • Brett Clark studies the political economy of global environmental change and the philosophy, history, and sociology of science.
  • Ming Wen examines how the physical features of the built environment and the social ecological characteristics of neighborhoods influence health outcomes.

Visit the Sociology Department for more information.

Last Updated: 9/8/16