Illustration of the Earth with magnifying glass zooming in on the Great Lakes, the shape of which looks like a sad face.
Design by Natasha Eliya.

The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Michigan a $5 million grant last month to establish the Global Center for Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Transboundary Waters. The award was part of the inaugural Global Centers Competition awards, which awarded $74.6 million to research teams to create collaborative and interdisciplinary research centers.

The School for Environment and Sustainability will house the center, which will aim to forecast and understand the impacts of climate change on ecological and social systems. The center will also work to research methods by which government systems can increase disaster resilience. Jon Allan, director of integrated research at the center, told The Michigan Daily that the center’s multi-pronged approach is a key component of its efforts.

“This work is focused on understanding climate (impacts), but also understanding how people can and should respond to (the) climate,” Allan said. “So it’s really about looking at climate through a lens of water and how water is managed across a boundary.”

Andrew Gronewold, principal investigator of the center, spoke with The Daily about some of the center’s research topics, including transboundary waters — bodies of water shared by two or more sovereign governments. Gronewold said he believes it is important to study transboundary waters because multiple parties are responsible for maintaining them, making it more difficult to investigate and address issues of climate change.

“We are targeting these transboundary areas here and ultimately around the world because we propose that those transboundary areas are where we have the least amount of coordinated climate information and we have the most poorly communicated … and coordinated plans for solving the climate crisis,” Gronewold said.

One of the systems that the center will be focusing on is the Great Lakes, which are transboundary bodies of water under the governance of the U.S., Canada and Indigenous groups. Gronewold said the effects of climate change are already impacting the Great Lakes and other water systems.

“Our region, the Great Lakes, our country, our continent and the entire world are facing a water crisis of increasing severity,” Gronewold said. “And I would argue that there has not been enough planning put in place to reconcile or to solve the problem of an increasing global population (and) a warming climate.”

According to Gronewold, while rising global temperatures have led to more moisture coming into the Great Lakes from ocean sources, they have also caused the lakes to experience greater rates of evaporation. He explained how these phenomenons necessitate coordination between the parties with jurisdiction over the Great Lakes to address the effects of climate change.

“So we have more water coming in, more water leaving,” Gronewold said. “There’s a big question of where does that leave the future of the Great Lakes. The only way we can answer that question is using data sets and computer models that are harmonized between the two countries that govern the water body.”

Because of its focus on transboundary waters, Gronewold said the project will involve many researchers outside of the University.

It’s important to note that this center involves a really broad collaboration,” Gronewald said. “So we actually call it transboundary or multinational because it not only includes partners from the United States and Canada, but also from sovereign nations, including our indigenous partners on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.”

Other institutions involved in the project include Canadian universities such as McMaster University, Indigenous institutions such as College of the Menominee Nation and other American universities including Cornell University. The Canadian government will also be providing monetary support for the center.

Richard Norton, the center’s co-principal investigator, told The Daily one of the components of the center that he found most exciting was the chance to work with researchers from multiple nations.

“(The project) created an opportunity to interact with our Canadian colleagues and really understand how (they are) dealing with these issues,” Norton said. “And then (to) bring in the Native American peoples where we have a number of tribes involved with this, and they just bring a whole different perspective to how to think about environmental science and how that ought to shape decision making.”

Norton also stressed the importance of engaging in robust and meaningful community involvement when approaching issues of climate change. 

There’s local folks that may not be trained with Ph.D.s in climate (and) shoreline dynamics, but they live there,” Norton said. “They see day-to-day how the system is changing. We call that local knowledge. That’s a really valuable way to understand the resource base.”

Allan said studying the impact of climate change on bodies of water is important because water is essential to both human and ecological systems.

“(Water is) fundamental to all systems of life,” Allan said. “It’s fundamental to the ecological functioning of the system and what can and does live there … It’s important to the structures of where humans have put themselves near and next to water. So it’s not just about water, it’s not just about fish and plants and biodiversity and ecology, but it’s also about the human systems that have placed themselves at or near water.”

Daily Staff Reporter Nadia Taeckens can be reached at  

Daily News Contributors Liam McCanny and Zena Issa contributed to the reporting of this article.