BY ANTON CAPUTO
At least 1 out of every 4 new Americans between now and 2050 will be a Texan, according to current projections.
Let that sink in. Put another way, Texas’ population is on track to reach 50 million or more by midcentury, nearly doubling the amount of people in the state today. Do you see any potential problems or issues with that kind of growth? If so, you’re not alone.
From providing a sustainable supply of clean water and energy, to feeding and housing a booming population, the challenge posed by the expected growth is enormous. Throw in a changing climate in which intense droughts such as the one we experienced in 2011 are projected to become more common, as are devastating floods and massive storms such as Hurricane Harvey, and the challenge grows.
It is what The University of Texas at Austin has termed a grand challenge, one so large that it’s too big for any single sector or academic discipline to take on. That’s why the university chose the issue for its first Bridging Barriers Grand Challenge. The university-wide initiative introduced by President Gregory L. Fenves in his 2016 State of the University address brings together experts from across the university to address pressing problems facing Texas, the nation, and beyond.
“The toughest questions facing humanity and the world cross the boundaries of existing knowledge, and we must take an interdisciplinary approach to address them,” Fenves said.
“Breakthroughs happen when we break down silos of knowledge. And we are doing that now.”
Planet Texas 2050 is the first grand challenge initiative to be announced. It’s tying together faculty members and scientists from 14 schools throughout the university so they can begin looking at how Texas can support the enormous growth of the next three decades in a way that allows its communities, economy and environment to thrive.
The project was chosen from hundreds of potential concept papers that researchers from throughout the university submitted to the Office of the Vice President for Research. Planet Texas 2050 is largely based on a concept submitted by eight UT researchers, including two in leadership positons at Jackson School research units and programs: Michael Young, a Bureau of Economic Geology senior research scientist and associate director for environment; and Jay Banner, Jackson School professor and director of the Environmental Science Institute (ESI).
“The two driving factors, climate change and population change, those aren’t unique to Texas. What’s unique to Texas is that we really hit those factors on all cylinders,” Banner said.“Coming up with a way to plan for a more resilient Texas, that’s what this is all about.”
The Jackson School is playing a key role in this project, but the geosciences are far from alone. In addition to Young and Banner, the organizing team includes experts on indoor environments and air quality from the schools of Architecture and Engineering, a community health expert from Dell Medical School and a researcher from the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), which will be using its supercomputer to crunch the massive amounts of data gathered during the process. TACC is represented on the organizing committee by Suzanne Pierce, a research scientist at TACC who is also an assistant research professor at the Jackson School-affiliated ESI.
Beyond the sciences, there are also representatives on the organizing committee from the humanities and social sciences who will be helping determine how to communicate information to policymakers and the public at large, as well as bringing other points of view to problems that will almost certainly require new approaches. The group includes a classics expert who specializes in ancient civilizations that have dealt with environmental change and water shortages in the past, and an English professor who focuses on how we understand and respond to environmental crisis. Both are from the College of Liberal Arts. In addition to this core group, 100+ researchers from 14 colleges are helping with the effort in some way.
Their work will focus on understanding the interconnectedness of four critical resource systems:
• Water – Scientists will conduct a number of research projects, from measuring current water availability today to understanding the processes by which urbanization affects watersheds, with the goal of using that data to build an integrated modeling platform that produces accurate long-term water resource projections;
• Energy – Researchers will focus on gaining a comprehensive understanding of the state’s energy sources and production capabilities, and they will build simulations that replicate the energy needs of entire cities throughout seasons and weather events. Their work will help engineers and architects design urban centers.
• Ecosystem Services – Healthy ecosystems are critical because they provide crop pollination and shade, water filtration and natural carbon sequestration. Planet Texas 2050 researchers will map Texas’ most vulnerable areas and study the effects that population growth and weather extremes have on the ecosystems that Texans rely on.
• Urbanization – Researchers will examine energy and water use within single buildings and across metropolitan areas. Other projects will focus on the connections among transportation corridors, air quality and health outcomes. The goal is to find common ways that all of Texas’ 25 major metropolitan areas can better manage water distribution, improve transportation planning, mitigate traffic-related air pollution, and improve the prevalence and affordability of energy-efficient construction. This issue is vital because all of the state’s projected growth is coming into the urban areas, particularly in the corridor stretching from Dallas-Fort Worth to the Rio Grande Valley and the Houston area. Conversely, the population of rural Texas is projected to remain flat.
The ability to use a large state for a laboratory of this kind of effort is unique, said Young. Texas is the only state in the contiguous United States where nearly all of its water and electricity are generated within its borders. Most of the state’s rivers begin and end within Texas, as do the recharge zones of most of aquifers. The same can be said of the state’s energy, which is virtually all generated and used within its borders. Texas is also the only state in the continental U.S. with its own self-contained power grid. This means these factors can be studied in Texas without outside influence, a key feature in helping model and predict how Texas communities and environments will be affected by change. Young’s ultimate goal is to help create a model platform that integrates these resources and that can help decision makers plan for the future by looking at different growth, resource and climate scenarios. For example:
“If we got the 2011 drought in 2050, and we’re down to 28 percent in the Highland Lake’s system — what are we going to do?” Young said. “Are we going to desalinate water and pipe in water? Because building that pipeline takes time, so we need to think about longterm planning.”
Just as important, what researchers at the university discover will have applications that extend far beyond Texas. The team plans to share its findings, tools and processes with researchers across the U.S. and the world who are facing similar challenges.
With Planet Texas 2050 just starting up, it’s too early to know what form most of the research will take. One of the issues that Banner said he is most excited about is the prospect of tracking and predicting the health impact a changing climate and rapid growth can have on Texas communities, which is an issue he wouldn’t have had much exposure too without the interdisciplinary nature of the project.
Some of the early research is revealing interesting connections between human-made and natural environments. For instance, Banner is working on a project with students looking at the water supply of Austin’s Waller Creek, which seems immune to the droughts that dry up most area creeks. By tracking the strontium isotope signature of the water, Banner’s team discovered that the urban creek does so well during droughts because, when it’s not raining, as much as 90 percent of the water may come from leaky water pipes in central Austin. And while this isn’t particularly good for water conservation, it may mean that some components of the environment and ecosystem supported by the creek are largely immune to the otherwise harmful effects of droughts.
Among the many challenges still to be overcome are how to communicate the research and results to the public and how to get the tools in the hands of decision makers in a way that will help them determine the best paths forward for their communities and the state as a whole. These include companies and industry in Texas, many of whom Young and Banner are currently visiting to assess their interest in the project.
Given the scope of the challenges at hand, Young said that generating support during the early stage of the project is key.
“We’ve not really seen anybody try to do anything of this scale in a state this size,” Young said. “This is really big for the university.”
For more information, go to: https://bridgingbarriers.utexas.edu.