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Last modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2011

NSF grant to fund study of snowmelt-dependent agricultural systems

Multidisciplinary team led by IU professor Elinor Ostrom to conduct research on impact of climate change, capacity for adaptation

Sept. 14, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Researchers at Indiana University and two other institutions have been awarded a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of climate change on water resources and the ability of governance systems to adapt to the resulting challenges.

The three-year project, which includes experts from diverse academic disciplines, will focus on the changing availability of water from glaciers and seasonal snow packs, an increasingly important source for irrigation of agricultural lands and global food supply.

Snowmelt Irrigation

Snow-capped mountains in the background provide water for an irrigation ditch at this New Mexico site, one of several included in an IU study of adaptation to climate change.

Print-Quality Photo

Elinor Ostrom, Distinguished Professor of political science at IU Bloomington and the 2009 Nobel Prize laureate in economic sciences, is the principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are Tom Evans, associate professor in the Department of Geography in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, and Daniel Cole, professor in the IU Maurer School of Law and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, along with Kelly Caylor of Princeton University and Krister Andersson of the University of Colorado.

"Much of the world's population depends on water from glaciers and snow pack, and climate change threatens to significantly alter the availability of melt-water for irrigation and other purposes," Ostrom said. "This research will help us better understand the likely impact of these changes, as well as the capacity of individuals and households to adapt to water scarcity."

Evans, Cole and Andersson are affiliated faculty with Indiana University's Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which Ostrom co-founded and serves as senior research director. In addition to her appointment in the Department of Political Science in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, Ostrom is a professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University.

Global water withdrawals have doubled in the past 40 years to support increases in agricultural irrigation: 45 percent of global food supply is now produced on only 20 percent of global cropland. As a result, more than one-sixth of the world's population relies on glaciers and seasonal snow pack for agricultural production. But climate change will have an impact on snowfall and on the amount and timing of water discharges, as temperatures and precipitation patterns change and glaciers shrink or even disappear. Systems for allocating water to users will have to respond.

The project will focus on snowmelt-dependent, semi-arid regions in Colorado and New Mexico and in eastern Kenya, providing a range of governmental and institutional arrangements to study.

The researchers will integrate methodological approaches from physical sciences, social sciences and legal scholarship, including interviews, focus groups, field hydrological measurements and GIS-based spatial modeling, to assess the vulnerability of communities to climate change and understand how they might respond to alterations in water availability. They will examine how governance systems have responded to past changes in order to gauge the resilience of institutions under different climate scenarios.

The research will develop new knowledge about the ways in which institutional diversity can contribute to effective management of water resources, providing guidance for policy makers who seek nuanced alternatives to "one-size-fits-all" resource management approaches.

The project builds on original work in understanding complex social-ecological systems produced by Ostrom and her colleagues. She shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for her analysis of economic governance, especially of resources managed as commons.

The grant comes from the National Science Foundation's Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, which promotes interdisciplinary studies of complex processes and interactions between human and natural systems at diverse scales.

The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis receives support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Indiana University Bloomington, which is dedicated to supporting ongoing faculty research and creative activity, developing new multidisciplinary initiatives, and maximizing the potential of faculty to accomplish path-breaking work.

To speak with co-principal investigator Tom Evans, please contact Steve Hinnefeld, IU Office of University Communications, at 812-856-3488 or