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News Release 12-185

Two NSF Sustainability Research Networks Are Each Awarded $12 Million

University of Colorado Boulder-led research network explores natural gas development effects, while Penn State-centered network focuses on sustainable climate risk management strategies

Photo of three natural gas drilling rigs.

NSF's SRN for natural gas drilling and its effects is focused on the Rocky Mountain region.

October 2, 2012

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

To explore ways of maximizing the benefits of natural gas development while minimizing potential negative effects on human communities and ecosystems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has entered into a cooperative agreement with a University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder)-led team of scientists, engineers and educators and eight partner organizations.

NSF has also entered into a cooperative agreement with another interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and educators; it supports a multi-institution research network on sustainable climate risk management strategies. The network is centered at Penn State University and involves nine other U.S. universities and research institutes.

Known as NSF Sustainability Research Networks, or SRNs, the teams will focus on the effects of natural gas development on air and water resources, and on how to adapt to and mitigate the risks of climate change, while developing new sustainability strategies in an altered world.

The SRN program is part of NSF's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment.

"Unraveling complex processes involving Earth systems, especially the coupling of human activities and climate, depends increasingly on partnerships among natural science, philosophy and ethics, economics, social science, mathematics and engineering," says Marge Cavanaugh, NSF acting assistant director for Geosciences.

"The Sustainability Research Networks will enable synergistic and catalytic interaction among these disparate disciplines," says Cavanaugh, "with the goal of finding answers to the most critical questions about sustainability."

The SRNs are supported by NSF's Directorates for Geosciences; Engineering; Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences; Biological Sciences; Computer & Information Science & Engineering; Mathematical & Physical Sciences; Education & Human Resources; Office of International Science and Engineering; and Office of Polar Programs.

"Due to national economic and energy security priorities, fossil fuels will likely continue to be a significant part of the energy portfolio in the U.S and throughout the globe for the foreseeable future," says Thomas Peterson, NSF assistant director for Engineering.

"Climate and coastal regions are likely to be at increasing risk, and water resources and air quality may also become more challenged," he says. "The objective of the SRNs is to contribute to building a sound scientific and engineering foundation for addressing such risks and challenges."

"Sustainability Research Networks combine the best of our research efforts in social and physical science and engineering into an effort to better understand the complex relationships between environmental change and the human condition," says Myron Gutmann, NSF assistant director for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences.

"The SRNs include combinations of social sciences that will guide the future of our efforts to create a sustainable planet."

NSF SEES SRN: Sustainable Climate Risk Management Strategies

Human beings live in a new age, many scientists believe, one called the Anthropocene, in which human effects on Earth's systems are powerful regulators of how those systems function. Or how they are beginning to break down.

"Our vision is to produce improved analysis frameworks, to develop and mentor the next generation of diverse researchers, and to inform decisions for managing climate-related risks in the Anthropocene," says Klaus Keller, principal investigator of the sustainable climate risk management strategies SRN and a geoscientist at Penn State.

The co-principal investigators of the network are Robert Lempert, RAND Corp.; Chris Forest, Department of Meteorology, and Karen Fisher-Vanden, Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, both at Penn State; and James Edmonds, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Scientists and policymakers have identified the potential for threshold responses, or "tipping points," in climate change.

Disintegration of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets, changes in the North Atlantic Ocean's circulation, release of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost, and a dieback of the Amazon rainforest are examples of such threshold responses.

A melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example, would cause sea-level rise that could threaten the sustainability of low-lying regions.

"Proposed approaches to the management of climate-related risks through adaptation, mitigation and geoengineering differ in their costs and benefits, and their vulnerability to uncertainties," says Keller.

"Our goal is to advance the foundations of sustainability research through an integrated and quantitative approach that links the social, economic and environmental components of climate risk management."

The economic component will contribute to research on sound foundations of sustainability, and on the potential consequences of different representations of sustainability in integrated assessment models.

The environmental component will provide assessments of these different strategies, as well as of potential definitions of sustainability.

The social component will analyze issues such as the ethical dimensions of inter- and intra-generational equity and diversity of ethical frameworks.

Earth system modeling will be used to analyze possible future scenarios and interactions among the components of our planet's systems.

In a wide range of projects conducted under the SRN's umbrella, ways of quantifying uncertainty--a central theme across the models and methods--will be used to assess climate risk management.

The SRN will provide dedicated cyberinfrastructure for collaborative modeling, data sharing and synthesis across projects, and will be integrated with a network of collaborators in the U.S. and beyond to gather the experts required to address these broad challenges.

It will engage students and teachers by sharing research results and insights through climate- and energy-focused professional development workshops and online educational resources.

The SRN will generate the knowledge and tools, say Keller and colleagues, to address the challenges of formulating sustainable climate risk management strategies in the Anthropocene.

NSF SEES SRN: Natural Gas Development and its Effects On Air and Water Resources

In the natural gas effects SRN, led by Joseph Ryan of CU-Boulder's civil, environmental and architectural engineering department, researchers will study social, ecological and economic aspects of the development of natural gas resources--and the protection of air and water resources--in the Rocky Mountain region.

"We all create demand for natural gas, so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction," says Ryan. "Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and costs of natural gas development."

The SRN team includes air and water quality scientists, social scientists, human health researchers, information technology experts, and a substantial outreach and education effort.

Partners on the project include the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Michigan, Colorado School of Public Health, and California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

The SRN will be advised by an external committee that includes representatives of the oil and gas industry, regulatory agencies, environmental organizations, local governments, academia and Native American tribes.

As part of the effort, researchers led by petroleum engineer William Fleckenstein of the Colorado School of Mines will evaluate the current state of drilling technology, the integrity of well bore casings, and natural gas collection mechanisms.

Two of the project teams will address water resources. One, led by hydrogeologist Stephen Osborn of California State Polytechnic University Pomona, will review industry practices for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep down well bores to crack rocks and free petroleum and natural gas for easier extraction. The group will also review improvements in current water treatment technology.

The second team, led by CU-Boulder civil engineer Harihar Rajaram, will investigate the hydrologic processes tied to potential risks of natural gas and oil extraction, including the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater and aquifer systems.

Hydraulic fracturing requires large volumes of chemically treated water--most wells require between 3 million and 5 million gallons of water.

The fracturing fluid left in the ground, as well as the fluid that returns to the surface, known as "flowback," present potential ecological and health risks if not handled properly, Ryan says.

The extraction of natural gas and oil by hydraulic fracturing also results in atmospheric emissions of some greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds.

But natural gas is seen as a "bridge fuel" by many that leads away from coal combustion toward cleaner, more sustainable methods of producing energy, says SRN scientist Patrick Bourgeron of CU-Boulder's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research.

Mechanical engineer Jana Milford of CU-Boulder will lead a monitoring and modeling effort to look at the potential risks of natural gas and oil development to air quality.

John Adgate of the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver will spearhead a group assessing the potential risks of natural gas development to public health.

The network's research findings will be evaluated in social-ecological system models in an effort led by CU-Boulder economist Catherine Keske.

The SRN's results also will be shared with the public through an extensive outreach and education effort led by CU-Boulder historian Patricia Limerick of the Center of the American West.

The effort includes a "citizen science" component in which the public is encouraged to take science measurements--including air quality readings with portable instruments compatible with smart phones--and share the results with the SRN research team.

"The citizen science aspect of this effort," says mechanical engineer Michael Hannigan of CU-Boulder, "will result in a stronger connection between the public and the science used to make regulatory decisions."


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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