UCLA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have formed a research institute to better understand and predict regional environmental and climate change and support future space missions.

By M. Abraham

The Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering will examine relationships between global climate change and Southern California weather and climate patterns and the environment. The effort combines UCLA’s strength in climate modeling and remote sensing and JPL’s strength in data collection from satellites.

“The effect of global climate change on local ecosystems, water resources and weather patterns is a critical research endeavor with profound implications on the lives of Southern Californians and on public policy,” said UCLA Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams. “UCLA’s partnership with JPL enables us to accomplish goals that neither of us could achieve on our own. We value collaborations such as this that make it possible for UCLA to ensure maximum benefit to society.”

“Understanding the causes and effects of climate change is of paramount importance globally and locally,” said JPL Director Charles Elachi. “This institute blends the unique strengths and resources of two world-class research organizations. The research results will pave the way for future Earth-observing missions and help improve the quality of life for all Southern Californians and nationwide.”

UCLA and JPL officials held a signing ceremony today (Oct. 25) on the UCLA campus to commemorate the partnership. The ceremony was followed by the first meeting of the institute’s governing board, which includes three representatives from each institution. The two institutions anticipate the partnership will serve as a platform for additional collaboration in the future.

The joint institute will serve as a center for a multi-disciplinary research unit focused on Earth systems in the Southern California region, including studies of the atmosphere, coastal ocean, land surface and the physical, chemical and biological interactions among them.

Researchers also will study the impacts of these processes on air and water quality and on the regional climate system.

The focus on Southern California will distinguish the institute’s work from other national centers for environmental and climate research, said Kuo-Nan Liou, UCLA distinguished professor and former chairman of the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, who will direct the new institute.

“One key to enhanced understanding of the climate and environment is to develop models and to use satellite data on the regional scale rather than much larger scales typical of atmospheric and climate research,” Liou said.

UCLA and JPL each will contribute $300,000 annually for three years in start-up funding while the institute seeks research grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and other state and federal agencies. UCLA will make graduate students available to JPL researchers, and JPL researchers will serve as adjunct faculty teaching courses at UCLA.

Initially, approximately 12 UCLA faculty members will be involved in the joint UCLA-JPL institute. They include researchers with the Institute of Radiation and Remote Sensing, which, under Liou’s direction, conducts remote sensing of clouds and aerosols from satellites, researches radiative transfer in clouds and aerosol atmospheres, and examines applications to climate change. Also involved are researchers with the Center for the Embedded Network Sensing, directed by professor of computer science Deborah Estrin. The center is developing sensor systems to monitor and collect information on such diverse subjects as plankton colonies, endangered species, soil and contaminants, and man-made structures such as buildings and bridges.

Among those who played significant roles in forming the joint UCLA-JPL institute were Vice Chancellor for Research Roberto Peccei; Vijay K. Dhir, dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Tony Chan, the former dean of physical sciences now at the National Science Foundation.

JPL involvement in the joint effort is initially focused on using satellite data to test and improve new regional modeling tools being developed within the institute. In addition, JPL scientists and technologists are developing new instruments for remote sensing of regional environments, studying such parts of the Earth system as the coastal ocean, atmospheric boundary layer and land vegetation. JPL scientists leading those efforts include Randall Friedl of JPL’s Earth Science and Technology Directorate and Yi Chao, Qinbin Li, Stan Sander and Duane Waliser of JPL’s Science Division.

Key support for JPL’s involvement in the UCLA-JPL institute has been provided by JPL chief scientist Daniel McCleese; JPL chief technologist Paul Dimotakis; Merle McKenzie, manager of JPL’s Strategic University Research Partnership, and professor Thomas Prince, the former JPL chief scientist, now back at Caltech.