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News Release 18-084

NSF awards $15 million to understand how people can better interact with the environment

New projects continue mission of Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program

A new CNH project looks at urban stormwater; better management may help downstream algae blooms.

A new CNH project looks at urban stormwater; better management may help downstream algae blooms.

September 24, 2018

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A toxic red tide, or harmful algae bloom, is killing swaths of marine life and affecting the health of people living along Florida's southwest coast. Nationwide, harmful algae blooms cost an estimated $50 million each year. Excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing downstream act as fertilizer, sparking these blooms in waterbodies such as the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie and Chesapeake Bay.

Paul Leisnham of the University of Maryland, College Park, is working to find out whether better management of nutrient-laden stormwater in urban areas can help. Leisnham has received one of 13 new grants from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program. Total funding for the 2018 CNH awards is $15 million.

Since 2001, the CNH program has funded projects that look at the complex interactions between human and natural systems. CNH is part of NSF's Environmental Research and Education (ERE) portfolio, and awards are made through the directorates for Geosciences (GEO); Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE); and Biological Sciences (BIO).

"The CNH program continues to break ground with grants that explore new directions in coupled human and natural systems," said Richard Yuretich, the CNH program director at NSF, representing GEO. "For example, CNH research is viewing the past through historical and archaeological methods to develop a picture of the relationship between people and Earth's environment."

CNH awardee David Breshears of the University of Arizona will investigate the connections among wildfires, drought, bark beetle infestations and other factors leading to tree die-offs across the country. Breshears and colleagues are looking at the economic impacts of forest loss on agricultural yields and crop values.

Jan Boll of Washington State University, another CNH awardee, will link hydrology, climatology and human development in headwater stream watersheds across North and South America. The amount of water flowing from headwaters to downstream cities, towns and villages is predicted to shift with environmental change.

And CNH grantee Joseph Manning of Yale University is studying the connections between long-ago volcanic eruptions and summer flooding of the Nile River to better understand the effects of volcanic eruptions today and in the future.

CNH considers humans and the environment as one interconnected system. This year's grantees will look at the ways people deal with environmental processes in a range of settings, including coasts, forests and cities.

"Improving knowledge about the complex ways humans interact with natural environmental phenomena and processes is a focus of the CNH program," said Thomas Baerwald, CNH program director representing SBE. "Projects examine how these interactions can enhance human well-being and environmental quality."

Addeds Liz Blood, CNH program director representing BIO, "CNH projects are focused on understanding how coupled natural and human systems are linked, and how these connections affect responses to changing environmental conditions -- a key challenge for the 21st century."

Among other topics, 2018 CNH grantees will study tourism and mosquito-borne disease transmission in the Americas; links between reef fisheries and human health; and black carbon, or "soot," at the arctic ice edge.

All will lead to a new understanding of how people can best interact with the environment on a planet with limited -- and often irreplaceable -- resources.

2018 NSF CNH Awards


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 2022 budget of $8.8 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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