Environmental scientist to prove socioeconomic impact on climate change

November 7, 2013 | News, Research, UToday, Natural Sciences and Mathematics
By Meghan Cunningham

A University of Toledo environmental researcher is out to scientifically prove the human impact on global warming by studying the interactions of natural and human systems in the Mongolian Plateau.

Dr. Jiquan Chen, UT professor of ecology, is studying global warming in the Mongolian Plateau.

Dr. Jiquan Chen, UT professor of ecology, is studying global warming in the Mongolian Plateau.

“Climate change is happening. We cannot stop it, but we can adapt to it,” said Dr. Jiquan Chen, UT professor of ecology. “We will not stop pollution or carbon dioxide from impacting our planet. That goes against human nature. Populations will continue to increase, and people will live the lifestyles they are accustomed to.

“In the future, what we can and need to do is slow climate change down and come up with mitigation plans, but we need to understand the human impact before we can adapt to it.”

Chen is leading a five-year project, “Ecosystems and Societies: Divergent Trajectories and Coevolution,” funded with a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Mongolian Plateau is a “crossroad hot spot” for the scientific community to explore the coevolution of human and natural systems, Chen said, because of the similar ecological systems and contrasting socioeconomic systems in Inner Mongolia of China and Mongolia.

The region, about one-third of the land mass of the continental United States, is vulnerable to global warming because of its high elevation and high latitude. Previous research by Chen and colleagues has shown that the air temperature in the region is rising while precipitation is decreasing across the area.

The Mongolian Plateau was once part of the same country with predominately nomadic Mongolians, but the two countries have had contrasting political systems since 1979. Inner Mongolia, influenced by the Han Chinese, has experienced much more rapid technological change with more large urban centers, while Outer Mongolia has been influenced by the former Soviet Union and continues to be mostly pastureland, which is at risk of being overgrazed.

Natural system changes, such as precipitation and carbon loss in the region, will be examined along with corresponding human system changes, including economic and population growth, technology advancement, and lifestyle changes. A structural equation-modeling framework will show the direct and indirect causal relationships.

Chen and his team hypothesize that the human influences have exceeded the natural climate changes in the region. The theory is that in the long term, the two countries will catch up with Inner Mongolia, slowing down its rapid industrialization with Mongolia catching up, Chen said.

“Our goal is to better understand the relationship between natural and human systems, which could lead to lessons on future adaptation plans that are holistic and therefore able to make a difference in adjusting to the changing climate,” Chen said.

This research project was funded as part of the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program, which promotes collaborative research across diverse disciplines, particularly between social scientists and natural scientists.

Chen is leading the ecological and natural systems part of the study while Dr. Yaoqi Zhang, professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, will lead the socioeconomic and human systems part.

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