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Von Walden Arctic

U-Idaho scientist spearheads research on world’s changing climates

Professor Von Walden works at both Poles

Climate change is happening fast, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the Arctic. To understand what is happening there, scientists are harnessing data to create global climate models, or GCMs, to help them make informed predictions about future climate conditions. 

Von Walden is an associate professor in the University of Idaho geography department. He heads a team of scientists from the University of Idaho, University of Colorado, University of Wisconsin and the University of Oklahoma that measures the atmosphere, using lidar, radar and other instruments that report on atmospheric properties like water vapor and temperature.

Walden, who has done research in Antarctica and Canada, is currently studying the atmosphere over Greenland. GCMs are dependent on the information put into them.

“GCMs are our primary tool for looking into the future,” he said. The team will spend three more years gathering information there. After that, Walden wants to place new instruments out onto Arctic sea ice.

“Sea ice is melting faster than anyone projected it would,” he said. To date, satellites are the main source of information about the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean. But they aren’t able to penetrate the tops of clouds or measure the cloud base; as a result, they can’t gather information that might improve the accuracy of GCMs. It is a project that could yield more information about how and why the Arctic is changing so rapidly. 

Closer to home, climate change affects Idahoans more directly in the water that flows through the state. Walden, who is also involved with the climate research program for EPSCoR, the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is part of a team studying the Snake and Salmon river basins. “We’re looking at how a changing climate could affect water resources across the West,” he said.

The program aims to add to the body of knowledge about how climate change alters water resources and how that could affect Idaho agriculture and the state’s economic well-being.

The program has hired 10 new professors specializing in various aspects of climate at three Idaho universities, effectively doubling the state’s research capacity in climate studies. The scientists will study precipitation, snowmelt, and erosion, preparing for how the state’s water resources might shift as climate change continues in the coming decades. 

Von Walden said: “Water resources are really important to Idahoans and to our livelihood, not only for our economic growth and our high standard of living, but also for the overall ecological health of the state going forward.”