Rocky Mountains in the fall

CU Denver Ecologists Earn $3.6 Million NSF Grant

February 15, 2022

CU Denver’s Katharine Kelsey and Brian Buma are principal investigators on a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project, titled, “Collaborative Research: Co-defining climate refugia to inform effective management of mountain headwater systems,” will look into how we define “climate refugia” for the Front Range.

The work is a collaborative effort with social and physical scientists from CU Denver, University of Colorado Boulder, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), University of Wyoming and Cornell University, along with a coalition of land managers at local, regional, and state levels. Each university will receive a portion of the $3.6 million grant.

The grant is part of NSF’s effort to promote “convergence research,” which integrates “knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation.”

Climate refugia are areas that are relatively buffered from climate change over time and retain the valued physical, ecological, and socio-cultural resources. But the definition of climate refugia means different things to different groups. The team’s goal is to find a definition that works for all.

“From an ecological point of view in Colorado, it could be where water tends to collect despite stresses due to topography,” said Buma, PhD, associate professor of integrative biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). “For plants that require deep snow cover, it could be a place where snow drifts collect. For humans, it’s a place we value like a stretch of fishing stream or grove of trees.”

“It will take a concerted, collaborative effort to co-define ‘refugia, which lends itself to interdisciplinary exploration,’” said Kelsey, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences in CLAS. “That’s why this grant was successful. When you’re spending on infrastructure, people are recognizing that the effort has to come from several groups at the same time.”

Defining climate refugia across disciplines will mean more than just clarity. It will give perspective to land managers about what kind of landscape components to track in order to maintain it. From a scientific perspective, it will define how to model these processes and identify things like threshold. From a social perspective, it will define the value tied to management and scientific investigation.

Beyond that, the process itself will be a big outcome, said Buma.

“We brought together modelers, ecologists, hydrologists, and advisory council,” said Buma. “That knowledge generation process and model will be a useful resource going forward. Functionally, if we can tie it to a modeling component, it could be scaled up and become a great blueprint for others.”