11 January 2011

Statement of Interest, Declaration of Purpose

A short time ago I posted a statement from the EOS Institute at the University of New Hampshire calling for applications to an available Ph.D. program in Water, Sustainability and Climate funded by the National Science Foundation. The student's program would be focused primarily on water resources and related societal issues in Central, South, East, and Southeast Asia. Readers of this blog have seen some of my interest in that very region, the Himalaya and its environs and so much of the global population located downhill and downstream: I've posted about water issues in ethnic Kurdistan, war-torn Iraq, and the Indus basin in disputed Kashmir and troubled Pakistan.  I've started a series on what I see as a "tri-axis" in South and East Asia that will affect the balance of power in the region, and the world, for generations to come.

These, and many other topics that I have not yet covered here, are what I believe to be some of the defining policy issues in water resource management and allocation, and thus hydrologic sciences, in the coming decades. I feel strongly that the American community of academics and professionals, with all of our knowledge and strengths in responsible governance of natural resources, and through our understanding of and innovation in Earth system sciences, has emerged with a responsibility for the beneficial export of that leadership as a vital element of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, there is a global pool of expertise from which we Americans ought to be learning, if not already in the academic community then also in commercial and industrial practices. If more people at the level of policy-making would just recognize that we are not the only country in the world, that we need not re-invent the (water) wheel in many cases, and that civilizations elsewhere have been around a lot longer than America has even approached, there is so much that we can accomplish collaboratively and collectively. The transfer of knowledge on water resources and its constituent and related sciences are not controversial export issues, like the responsible use of defense weapons or nuclear power, or even the proprietary industrial and commercial technology that keeps America among the top economies in the world. These are scientific and engineering innovations oriented on the survivability of peoples and the sustainability of resources, economies and countries.

So, it was in this spirit that I submitted my application for the Ph.D. program at UNH. I haven't heard from the program sponsors yet, and the deadline for admission is fast approaching, and in the meantime I'm just bursting with the desire to get some of my letter of interest out here into the world so that more of you, my dear readers, can know where some of my interests are oriented. I won't bore you with academic background right now--some of those tales are worthy of posts of their own anyway. We'll jump to my first "real job" after my M.S. programs:
These programs were followed by four years as a Research Associate in the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I contributed to distributed land surface modeling (LSM) projects that combined physically-based hydrologic- and energy-balance processes in natural settings at a variety of spatial scales. I developed tools and methods for spatial interpolation of precipitation observations, which contributed to some advancement in LSM applications and produced my first peer-reviewed publication in a major journal. That effort is now a software application that I continue to work on as a test-bed for several ideas on the spatiotemporal representation of precipitation events. For a collaborative project with NCAR scientists, I developed runoff accumulation methods for stream routing simulation, helping to transform the traditional application of LSMs as 1-D cells over a simulation area to a quasi-3-D system with a stream network, from which flow estimates could be compared with gauge records. One of my career goals remains to develop and demonstrate the potential accuracy and utility of a comprehensive hydrologic and hydraulic river basin model using such physical and distributed modeling structures with which I had the opportunity to work then.
I've dubbed that application "MIST," a Module for Interpolation in Space and Time, also in partial reference to rainfall as my preferred subject of interpolation. It is admittedly a very touchy-feely subject to approach, the interpretation of precipitation, its behavior in space and time, but that's exactly where much of my background in Atmospheric Science comes in. I'll explain more about it later, and for now just say that it provided the basis for my first publication as first-author while I was at GSFC, that it worked as designed and showed us many new possibilities, and that I'm still eager to add and improve on what is already built. I'd say it currently stands at v1.4, and I have the upgrade concepts planned out through v4 or so...
While at GSFC I was also involved in collaborative planning efforts for model development and improvement between NASA, NCAR, NOAA NCEP and the Air Force Weather Agency in order to address issues in the modernization of AFWA forecasting and applications projects. Though AFWA provides global observational analyses and forecasts to the military, their principal external customer is actually the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. Though interaction with investigators there, I developed a keen interest in the elements of FAS forecast activities and assistance efforts, in conjunction with USAID, in regions such as central and southern Asia that have remained of heightened national interest. It was primarily to ponder and address such interests, outside of my normal work duties, that I started a weblog around that same time. Some of my earliest posts, including an article on ethnic Kurdistan, remain among the most-read entries on my blog.
Remember that I am applying to a graduate program that focuses on water issues in Asia, so the reference to my early post on Kurdistan was intended to be materially relevant to the demonstration of my interests. I also now have series started on water issues due to war and civil unrest in Iraq and in the interactions among nations in South Asia, including Pakistan, India and China, and their neighbors in Southeast Asia.
My principal AFWA collaborator while I was at NASA-GSFC has since moved to a position at the USACE Cold Regions Research and Environmental Laboratory in Hanover, NH. It was in preparation for my own interview for that very position, almost a year ago, that I began to bring many of my ideas into alignment regarding the importance of water resource and sustainability studies for the southern and eastern Asian continent. These ideas formed over some time and under various influences, including discussions with author and global strategist Thomas Barnett (in whose latest book I was acknowledged), colleagues in various agencies that I met through my work at NASA, and my growing interest in the activities of the American military, intelligence and foreign policy communities around conflicts with natural resource disputes at their core. Since that time, my interests and outspokenness have brought me into contact and conversation with many and more diverse people in science and policy that I might not have otherwise ever had the pleasure to know. I am not afraid of disagreement or opposition among colleagues, only of the ideas within our grasp that could help people but have foundered for lack of expression and realization.
As for my interview at USACE CRREL, I delivered a great presentation on my interests in cold regions that is a still to be shared on this blog. Overall, this part of my statement of interest forms the crux of my purpose: my work, my blog, my contacts with colleagues, my eagerness to continue in the face of doubt and opposition and simple apathy in various places. Some would say that my "outspokenness" is a mark against me, but I think just the opposite: not enough attention has been given to these topics, and now we have ways to address them coherently and comprehensively, and I can see a way forward through the tangle of information and methods and naysayers. With a better knowledge base, conflict is defused and cooperation can proceed. This is an essential aspect of the adaptation of our inner desires, our dreams and hopes for the way we wish the world to be, to the reality that each of us represents only a fraction of the collective intelligence we can bring to easing the burden that we have placed on our planet in an unconscious and often stumbling quest for true sustainability. That effort is not a race to the "zero-footprint" at which we might hope static balance will ensue, but rather a constant vigilance to observe, interpret, and maintain the dynamic balance of a complex system of which we are still in the infancy of understanding, and still at the point of preconception regarding control.
Over the past two years, I have served as the Project Manager for the Arizona Hydrologic Information System (AHIS) at the University of Arizona. Originally developed as a keystone project of the Arizona Water Institute, a consortium of the three state universities and three of the most prominent state agencies in Arizona, AHIS demonstrated the capability for aggregation and dissemination of water-related information to and from all users: the public, academia, state regulatory agencies, and policy-makers in government. The AHIS project adopted its geographic and informatics context in this period of leadership, aimed at developing new insight into water-related issues throughout the state by the combination of information resources in a map-based interface to facilitate correlation and causality in scientific investigation.
I've left out some of the material I provided regarding the end of that project, which I have covered to some detail here in my blog. I had fantastic partners across the state during my first year on the AHIS project, but the end of AWI was the end of funding for dedicated work on AHIS for most of them. My own position continued, but it was not as collaborative an effort as the first year.
AHIS is, at its essence, a small-scale example of the GWater (originally "Google Water") concept of information collection and organization that I once proposed to Google’s philanthropic division and recently published on my blog. This principle, that the spatial context provided by embedded information and analytical products in platforms such as ArcGIS and Google Maps/Earth are essential to the better understanding of local, regional, and international conflict over natural resources, has become an overarching theme of my work. The inherent capacity of a map as a medium, and the multi-dimensional content now available with the programmability of web-based tools such as Google Earth, is a revolution in the presentation and understanding of information and its interpretation by massive, diverse audiences and users. However, it remains the work of scientists like us, with our scales of interest and altitude of vision, to develop such information stores and improved, multidimensional and intrinsically functional analytical products while retaining an unforgiving eye for detail and a working knowledge of the underlying complexities of a combination of science and policy issues.
You see, lots of ideas have come together for me in the past couple years. GWater was an idea from my time at GSFC, but the opportunity to build some of it did not come until my time in Arizona. So then, I enter the denouement of my statement:
Shared natural resources, especially water, can develop as sources of conflict in times of scarcity and high demand. With sharing and use come risk and uncertainty: the quantity and quality of available water is so often at issue where countries and societies interact, where the people interface with their government within a country, and where a society interacts with its environment. Climate change will alter spatiotemporal patterns and magnitudes of heating and precipitation, and will thus have an impact on the reliability of water supplies, not least in the regions surrounding the Himalaya ranges. Of the most obvious changes in climate will be changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of glaciers and the patterns of precipitation and runoff generation leading to dynamic evolution in the depth and extent of permanent and seasonal snow cover, especially in mountainous regions, where previously reliable stores of water may disappear entirely.
It is basic climate science, the models for which we are constantly trying to improve and the results of which we are still attempting to interpret, that tells us that one of the greatest impacts of climate change in our lifetime will be on changes in the distribution of precipitation and evaporation, and hence on the quantity and availability of water resources. When we combine the solid foundation of knowledge on atmospheric dynamics that goes into climate modeling with the complexities of land and ocean, clouds and mountains, forests and deserts, one might consider the problem intractable. Not so, for the dedicated scientists with whom I have had the great pleasure to work over the years. Thus, a statement on my learning from those around me in the tools of observation and analysis in Earth sciences, and their application toward solving the problems at hand in hydrology and water resources:
With the sparse worldwide availability of suitable surface-based observations sites due to geographic, topographic, economic and political constraints, the overhead aspect provided by satellite remote sensing platforms is ideal for the supplemental (or sole) observation of precipitation in many parts of the world. In combination with gauge and radar networks of suitable configuration, satellite-derived precipitation fields provide an opportunity for the spatial distribution of relatively accurate “ground-truth” observations to less-monitored regions. However, biases and complications still exist in the retrieval of over-land precipitation with passive microwave sensors. With global climate change and its variable impacts on hydrometeorological conditions, examinations of retrieval performance in remote land areas of the global domain become more important. While progress is evident toward comprehensive precipitation retrieval algorithms for current (POES, TRMM) and upcoming remote sensing missions (GPM, NPOESS), more sophisticated methods using land surface models (LSMs) oriented on mass and energy balances may be possible. LSMs have their own inherent limitations, however quickly we continue to overcome those, and their combination with evolving remote sensing retrieval methods constitute a "wicked problem" in science whose solutions will directly affect our understanding of the hydrologic cycle as well as practical decision-making in applied water resource issues. I can think of few better places on the Earth to develop such comprehensive assessment capabilities than the areas of southern and eastern Asia, where billions of people can benefit from improved information availability and the potential for conflict abatement that such investigations can provide.
And finally, a summation in the most relevant terms:
Over time and with experience, I have acquired various levels of expertise in Earth sciences, weather and climate analysis, surface hydrology, programming and numerical modeling, remote sensing, geography, data collection and analysis, authoring for reports and publication, and information management for web-based visualization and dissemination. My interests span a range of scales, from detailed physical modeling of land surface hydrological processes, to the special and complex considerations of hydrometeorology in mountainous regions at the watershed and larger scales, to regional and global issues in hydrology and water resources. I am interested in the nexus of science, society, and policy where they meet to address the problems of water scarcity and allocation. With an inherently interdisciplinary approach, and always eager to learn about another aspect of how the water cycle works, I consider it my career work to investigate and explain how water science can make freshwater availability more sustainable in the context of this nexus and under the influences of land use and climate change.
Where from here? I'll let you know...

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