State of the Planet

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Taking Undergraduate Research on the Road

By Erica Bower

Erica BowerWhen I enrolled in the Sustainable Development Capstone course last September, I would never have imagined that this class would take me to a Systems Dynamics Conference in the Netherlands.

As the capstone project of the undergraduate major in Sustainable Development, co-taught by Professor Radley Horton and Diane Dittrick, this course requires students to act as researchers and consultants for a client- driven project. Our client was the United States Military Academy at West, Point, N.Y.  Bruce Keith, professor of sociology in the Department of Systems Engineering, was West Point’s faculty client representative. Our collaborative research effort aimed to assess the impact of climate change on water scarcity in the Nile River Delta. My team was tasked to identify approaches to incorporate climate variables into an existing systems dynamics model created with Vensim. Vensim is simulation software that enables analysis of dynamic systems—including environmental, social, and economic systems—and provides a fascinating tool to assess policy discussions on topics related to sustainable development.

This experience taught us not only about climate modeling, quantitative research and analysis, but also about the dynamic process of working with a client and with a team. After months of hard work, our team—Nikhil Krishnan, Perihan MacDonald, Alex O’Hagan, Andrew Pinelli, Etsegenet Wakjira and I—presented our findings to fellow students and faculty at Columbia and to the team at West Point. Beyond the initial capstone presentation, this project has blossomed into continued collaboration between Columbia and West Point—including additional capstone projects in the spring semester.

While no longer enrolled in the course, I remained involved with the research process and contributed to a paper titled “Estimating the Effect of Climate Change on the Hydrology of the Nile River in the 21st Century.” This paper assessed the impact of predicted precipitation and temperature variability on water capacity (or stream flow) for four regions (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and the Victoria basin) and three 30-year interval time periods (2010-2030, 2040-2069 and 2070-2099). In this region of the world, where water scarcity and conflict pertaining to natural resource management are already serious concerns, our findings indicate that climate change will further exacerbate tensions towards the end of the century. This has important policy implications for the fill rate of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and water scarcity throughout the region.

To our excitement, this paper was accepted to a Systems Dynamics conference held in Delft Netherlands on July 21-24. Alongside Bruce Keith and Cadet Jonathan Lee, I had the opportunity to co-present the body of research at the conference. Our presentation itself was well attended, and sparked fascinating conversations with other researchers who utilize a systems dynamics approach to assess water resource management for populations around the world. In many ways, these interactions spurred more questions than they provided answers. However, attending this conference was an invaluable opportunity, and enabled exposure to the diverse applications of a systems dynamics approach with regard to natural resource management, climate change adaptation and the emerging discipline of sustainable development.

Reflecting on the conference, I am inspired by how the systems modelling approach can enhance collaborative discussions and inform policy analyses across disciplines and specific topics. For instance, since graduation I have joined the secretariat at the Nansen Initiative, a state-led consultative process working toward consensus on a “protection agenda” for persons displaced across borders by natural hazards and the adverse effects of climate change—people who have been termed “climate change refugees.” Since attending the conference in Delft, I am increasingly interested in how a “systems” modelling approach can be applied to the climate change-human mobility nexus, as well as many other issues in complex environmental and social systems.

Presenting this paper in Delft and learning more about the field of systems dynamics has been an invaluable experience in shaping my academic and professional pursuits, and further reinforces the importance of the Capstone Workshop experience. After four years of coursework in the sustainable development major, this workshop enables students to see the practical applications of the emerging discipline outside the classroom.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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