interfaculty collaboration into sustainability and global water distribution
Utrecht University researchers are working on a global climate and water model
Climate researchers Marc Bierkens and Michiel van den Broeke are hopeful that a global water model will be the standard in climate research a few years from now, and that Utrecht University will have made a major contribution to the model.
Heading up Water, Climate and Ecosystems – one of the three sub-themes within the Sustainability research theme – are polar meteorologist Michiel van den Broeke (Faculty of Science) and hydrologist Marc Bierkens (Faculty of Geosciences). The two professors are facilitating an interfaculty collaboration into sustainability research. ‘Something is sustainable if you can maintain it without damaging the system,’ says Van den Broeke. ‘We can regard the earth as such a system.’ Bierkens expands on this: ‘Sustainability for me is about leaving our planet in a habitable state. Not just after our own lives, but for two or three generations to come.’
Something is sustainable if you can maintain it without damaging the system.
Sustainability for me is about leaving our planet in a habitable state. Not just after our own lives, but for two or three generations to come.
Bierkens and Van den Broeke are looking for answers to some big questions. Within Utrecht’s sustainability research, they are working together on a global climate and water model to enable them to make precise predictions about changes to the climate and water cycle. The model is made up of various components, including the oceans, atmosphere, plants and ice masses, which all react to each other interactively. The professors are not doing this alone. Together with nine colleagues, they are creating and improving a selection drawn out of all those components. ‘It’s an open source project,’ explains Van den Broeke. ‘Everyone around the world can use, improve and return the model. We’re now part of the community working on it.’
Global water cycle
‘We want to improve the description of the hydrological cycle in the model,’ adds Van den Broeke. The global water cycle is what both Bierkens and Van den Broeke specialise in. Both professors are researching global water availability. Van den Broeke is looking at all the water stored in glaciers, while Bierkens is studying our groundwater. ‘In my research, I’m trying to find out where global water shortages will arise in future,’ says Bierkens. ‘What influence will that have on groundwater? And on surface water?’
‘I’m more focused on the water stored in the polar regions in the form of ice,’ says Van den Broeke. ‘How is the ice responding to a warmer atmosphere and warmer ocean? And what does that mean for global sea levels and for everyone living in coastal regions?’
In my research, I’m trying to find out where global shortages of groundwater and surface water will arise in future.
I’m focused on the water stored in the polar regions in the form of ice. How is the ice responding to a warmer atmosphere and warmer ocean?
‘These are all still theoretical questions,’ says Bierkens. ‘But it’s precisely these limits to the viability of our water system that we can start researching with a global model like this.’ Van den Broeke adds: ‘Before a policymaker decides whether to invest in dike reinforcements, or whether it's actually better to move sections of the population to higher ground, he'll of course want to see really precise predictions.’
In the future
The Water, Climate and Ecosystems theme is being funded by the university itself for the next 2.5 years. The research will carry on for longer, but that is not a problem, according to Van den Broeke. ‘For us this is an investment to make the first step towards the leading international position we’re aiming for in this research. After 2.5 years we will need to have demonstrated that this has been a very worthwhile investment and that we can also start to attract external funding to carry on the research.’ Bierkens adds: ‘We may not have a fully joined-up system, but I do think that we’ve developed a number of components which can easily communicate with the large models. And we have a number of young researchers who will be able to carry on through personal grants and who can excel in this.'
Internal and external collaboration
It is not just the Faculties of Geosciences and Science that are involved in the project. Bierkens: ‘We’re making the predictions and can say what we could do from a technical point of view. But how do you get things moving in political circles? And is the legal system capable of translating new insights into effective laws to support the measures? That’s why we’re working with the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. They’re studying the information we provide to see if it can be useful in achieving more effective laws for supporting the issue of sustainability.’
‘And it’s not just other faculties we’re working with,’ Van den Broeke points out. ‘As well as strengthening our interfaculty collaboration, this research is also strengthening our ties with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.’
Utrecht University and sustainability
Sustainability, one of Utrecht University's four Strategic Themes, plays a key role in research, teaching, valorisation and business operations. In the context of social responsibility, Utrecht University actively contributes to a sustainable society, from an environmental, economical and social standpoint. It believes it is its social responsibility to raise awareness among students and staff of the challenges we face with regard to sustainability and to contribute to solving these challenges through research. More information