Helping cities adapt to climate change

Q&A with Nancy Selover

Nancy Selover

Nancy Selover is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability, a research professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning (College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), and State Climatologist at the Arizona State Climate Office. As a climatologist with an interest in water supply issues, she is co-chair of the Drought Monitoring Technical Committee of the Governor’s Drought Task Force, a member of the Arizona Flood Warning System, a member of the Applied Climatology Committee of the American Meteorological Society, and Arizona’s state coordinator for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a nationwide citizen-scientist network of precipitation observers.

How did sustainability become part of your research focus?

The issue of sustainable water supply became immediately apparent in 2005 when I joined the Governor’s Drought Task Force as a member of the Monitoring Technical Committee. This group watches Arizona drought conditions statewide and guides the National Drought Monitor reports for Arizona. As a climatologist, I was acutely aware of the scarcity of water resources in desert regions, but as a part of this group I learned how the recharge rate of groundwater is highly variable across our watersheds. So, while the Phoenix area has access to renewable surface water from the Salt, Verde, and Colorado rivers, other parts of the state are not as fortunate. For them, water conservation and sustainable use are critical issues.

What is your most important sustainability-related research project?

In my role as State Climatologist for Arizona, I communicate with public and private agencies, school and community groups, and the media to inform them about climate issues in Arizona. I also provide climate information and data to researchers.

In my work with the Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges (the Climate Center) at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, I distill the research on local climate effects into useful information for policymakers. This is a new model of climate research. Our mission is to produce tools and services that urban policymakers and practitioners need to help them plan for and adapt to climate variability and uncertainty. To accomplish this, we engage with more than 30 partners, including the Mayo Clinic, U.S. National Climatic Data Center, National University of Singapore, and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

A major asset of the Climate Center is our location. The Phoenix area is one of the world’s most studied urban “heat islands” — places where intense urban development significantly increases nighttime warming. While the excessive heat of these urban hotspots threatens vulnerable populations and takes a heavy toll on water and energy resources, it also provides a perfect laboratory for researchers to test climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. We can then provide test results to policymakers and practitioners.

How will your research affect policy or other important decisions?

One of the prime goals of the Climate Center is to understand the needs of leaders, practitioners, policymakers, and the public so we can produce timely and relevant information they can apply to real-world threats. Our work will inform their decision-making by helping them understand the potential trade-offs and impacts from a range of strategies.

What is the world sustainability challenge that concerns you most?

Water. As a member of a drought task force, I not only see drought conditions advance and retreat, but I also see the dramatic impacts of floods. Whether we have too little or too much, water holds the power to affect our food security, health, transportation, energy, and economies. For this reason, managing our water supplies will remain a top sustainability challenge.