Climate and Life Fellows

The Center for Climate and Life Fellows Program mobilizes scientists to conduct the research necessary to understand how climate impacts the security of food, water, and shelter, and to explore sustainable energy solutions. This program accelerates the knowledge creation needed to illuminate the risks and opportunities for human sustainability.

The Center supports several Climate and Life Fellows each year to lead urgent research projects on topics central to our mission. Our goal is to focus our considerable talent and resources to accelerate the knowledge we need to understand how changes in climate and life systems impact the essentials of human sustainability. The Fellows program frees our scientists to think deeply and creatively about how they can contribute knowledge for the public good.

Fellows are selected competitively and receive funding at the level of one-third their annual salary for up to three years, with additional funding for research travel and fieldwork.

Those eligible for this program include the scientific research staff from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and NASA/GISS campuses, including Lamont-Doherty, IRI, CIESIN, Agriculture and Food Security Center, and the Center for Climate Systems Research at NASA/GISS.


Laia Andreu-Hayles, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

LaiaAndreau-Hayles will investigate how global change impacts forests and climate in the tropical Andes during the past, present, and into the future. Andreu-Hayles will collect tree-ring samples in Bolivia and Peru and use a model to simulate forest productivity under distinct scenarios, such as increased temperatures or atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. These newly developed tree-ring records will fill the large gap of terrestrial paleo data in tropical South America and provide records of past temperature and precipitation variability. This project will lead to transformative changes in understanding tropical terrestrial ecosystems, with significant advances in the fields of global environmental change, paleoclimate, ecology, and applied water management policies.

William D’Andrea, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

dandreaD’Andrea seeks to bring new analytical tools to bear on the controversies and mysteries surrounding the decline of the early settlers of Easter Island, who rapidly overexploited the island’s resources through deforestation, causing their own demise. By collecting new sediment cores, with near-continuous sediment accumulation during the past 3700 years, and by applying novel analytical tools, D’Andrea seeks to determine when the first people settled Easter Island; what the timing and amplitude of hydroclimate variability was prior to and following settlement of the island; and how long after settlement the Easter Islanders began their practice of burning forests to create arable land for agricultural activity. The work will improve understanding of the interactions that took place between the people of Easter Island, their environment, and the climate of the eastern Pacific.

Chia-Ying Lee, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Chia-YingLee will addresses how wind field asymmetries and variability impact tropical cyclone risk and how asymmetries can be included in risk models. Lee will characterize wind field asymmetries using the best-available observational data as well as output from a high-resolution numerical model. This research has implications for coastal flooding: Wind drives storm surge, economic losses, recovery costs, and even planning for climate adaptation, because wind is a critical parameter for these estimates. The work will advance knowledge of the role played by wind asymmetries and a wind-asymmetry model that will benefit the larger scientific community.

Pratigya Polissar,  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

pollisarPolissar will map vegetation history using molecular fossils to examine how climate shapes Earth’s ecosystems. Polissar plans to compare recent vegetation histories with existing records of climate to illuminate the contributing factors to particular vegetation transitions. He will focus on the revolution in terrestrial ecosystems that occurred during the past 25 Ma, when ancient and long-lived forests in North America, Africa, Asia, and Australia were replaced by the iconic modern grasslands of these regions. The likely culprits for these defining events were a combination of changing temperature, atmospheric CO2 levels, and the distribution of rainfall—all parameters being altered today due to greenhouse warming. Findings from the geologic past can therefore help map out how ecosystems and human food supplies may be affected in the near future.


Michael PumaNASA GISS

michael-puma-nasa-giss280x194Michael Puma, an Associate Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will use his Center for Climate and Life funding to apply advances in network analysis to better understand the global food system and mitigate potential food-system disruptions. To do so, he will be working closely with a broad range of stakeholders involved in the global food system, including farmers, industry, non-governmental organizations and governments to address how society can reduce the vulnerability of the global food system to climate-related shocks.

“On the surface, globalization of our food system balances supply and demand across different regions, provides protection against regional disturbances, and leads to a more efficient global system,” Puma said. “However, experience with other interconnected systems like the financial sector demonstrates that seemingly minor disruptions could spread rapidly, with disastrous consequences.”


Park WilliamsLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

park-williams-280x194Park Williams, a bioclimatologist and Lamont Assistant Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will explore the influence of climate change on droughts and wildfires. The processes that govern drought’s effects are complex and difficult to simulate with computer models that could provide a forecast. With the support from the Center for Climate and Life, Williams will use world-class observational datasets to diagnose the main drivers of changes in soil moisture, snowpack, stream flow and wildfire, and the influence that human-induced climate change has had on each. He also plans to use tree-ring records to compare recent Western U.S. droughts to the megadroughts from the 800s to 1500s that are suspected of uprooting civilizations.

“Understanding the climate-change effect on these processes is critical for resource management and planning of future policy,” Williams said. “For example, western U.S. forest-fire area has tripled since the early 1980s. Government policies toward fire-fighting and fuels treatments – forest thinning, for example – would be affected if we understood the effect of climate change on fire in the past and future.”

Learn more about our 2016 Fellows.