Philomathia Seed Fund Award 2013/14

Project Description


  • Professor Dan Kammen (Energy and Resources Group)
  • Chris Jones (Energy and Resources Group)

The goal of this project is to create a user-­‐friendly online platform for city planners, residents, businesses and other actors to quickly identify the most promising greenhouse gas reduction strategies for any U.S. city. This project will build upon work previously conducted for the California Air Resources Board to develop a Local Government Decision-­‐Support Tool (LGDST) for California. The LGDST is a spreadsheet-­‐based tool that allows cities to 1) instantly view an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from all households, businesses and local government operations in the community, 2) evaluate the greenhouse gas reductions and financial costs and savings from a list of 60+ common measures, and 3) adjust any assumptions in the tool to develop a customized climate action plan for the community.

Unlike other GHG planning tools the LGDST’s smart default settings allow analysts to instantly engage with a default climate action plan that highlights the actions with the most potential in each community. The project team specifically intends to: 1) extend the smart default settings in the tool to all U.S. cities or counties, 2) increase the number of GHG mitigation measures from 40 to at least 60, and 3) develop an integrated open source application programming interface (API) that can be used to develop multiple third party software tools, (4) create a user-­‐friendly user interface so city planners and residents can quickly develop customized climate action plans for each city, while learning from the input of other users, and 5) document the work in papers and public fora to increase transparency and public awareness of the tool’s benefits and limitations.


Project Description


  • Professor David Ackerly (Integrative Biology)
  • Professor Max Moritz (Environmental Science, Policy and Management)
  • Professor William Collins (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Earth Sciences Division)

This project team aims to develop and calibrate a new model for the occurrence and severity of large wildfires (>1000 acres) using historical data for California, and then to use the model to project the frequency and distribution of fire events under warmer future climates. The project will fill a gap in existing models of fire frequency and distribution, combining the PIs skills in modeling of vegetation, fire and global climate. The calibrated and extensible model we propose to develop would address the critical need for improved prediction of extreme events at local to regional scales enhancing societal resilience and contributing to climate adaptation planning to reduce loss of infrastructure in the face of rapid climate change.

Spring 2015 Update: Forecasting Change, Welcome or Not

By: Wallace Ravven

Two thousand California honey bees may have a story to tell.  So too, more than 10,000 deer mice, and 3,000 oaks. Specimens of these plants and animals populate massive collections in Berkeley’s renowned research museums, and are now being enlisted as guides to past episodes of habitat and climate change.

Ackerly web photo
Plant ecologist David Ackerly has calculated that some animals and plants would need to migrate as much as four miles a year to track their preferred temperature in a rapidly warming climate. Photo: Peg Skorpinski.

Researchers aim to piece together the fate of different California species and habitats dictated by shifts in weather patterns and climate over the last century. The “hindcasting” can help them develop and test models to forecast the impact of likely future climate change.

Changing climate, for example, is linked to reductions in the numbers of large trees across California, and a number of birds and mammals have moved upslope in the Sierra Nevada to higher, cooler elevations. These changes are expected to accelerate in coming decades, and pollinators, predators and other species will have to migrate or adapt in turn.

David Ackerly, a plant ecologist and professor of integrative biology, is one of the  architects of the ambitious research effort — the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology.

“The thing that has surprised everyone in this field is that data from studies around the world show the effect of climate change in just the last 50 years,” he says.

In 2009, to gain a sense of how environmental change can affect natural  communities, Ackerly and colleagues developed a model to estimate the rate at which plants and animals would need to migrate in order to adapt to rising temperatures.  The research generated eye-opening predictions, reported in the journal Nature.

Assuming a temperature increase of 0.05 degrees Celsius a year — or five degrees in a century — the scientists found that species in low-lying regions such as California’s Central Valley would need to migrate northward about four miles a year to remain in the same temperature regime that they had become adapted to over millennia.

In contrast to this startlingly high “velocity of change,” creatures and plants adapted to more rugged terrain could migrate much more slowly, since the higher, cooler elevations in mountains are only a short distance away.

It’s a sad calculation to confront, but in an era of rapid climate change, “our model shows that conservation of species in a rugged landscape would be a higher value investment than efforts in valleys,” Ackerly says.

Rising temperatures are only one potential pressure on ecosystems in the future. In California, changing fire regimes may pose an increased threat. Ackerly has begun collaborating with climate modelers at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to analyze the weather dynamics that generate “Diablo winds.” These little-studied warm air currents descend from the Coast Ranges in late summer and fall, generating hot and dry winds — classic conditions for  California wildfires.

Ackerly web photo 2
Ackerly and grad students Rachael Olliff and Andrew Weitz measure water deficits in plants as soil dries – an expected impact of a warming climate. Photo: Peg Skorpinski.

With seed funds from the Philomathia Center, Ackerly and his LBL colleagues will link historical weather data with climate models to help forecast the frequency, intensity and seasonality of these winds in a changing climate.

 “It’s very difficult to go from global climate models to local weather, but we want to, and need to do this,” Ackerly says.

The links between environmental and biological change can be startling complex. Discerning the relationships calls for sifting through a growing blizzard of information to reach solid ground. Studies draw intensely on “big data” science, such as  correlating regional and continental-scale temperature and moisture changes with vegetation patterns gleaned from remote sensing satellites.

To prepare for the future, Ackerly and eight Berkeley colleagues have launched a new NSF-funded initiative, “Environment and Society: Data Sciences for the 21st Century,” a training program designed to help graduate students develop the skills needed to take on large-scale and multi-dimensional research.

The program brings together students from computer science, biology and statistics to public policy, environmental planning and other fields, since progress in nearly all fields will increasingly require researchers to organize and integrate vast volumes of data and find otherwise unrecognized patterns and links.  “Data is coming at a rate that no one can keep up with, but we have to tackle complex problems in an integrated way,” Ackerly says.

Ackerly has established a long-term research project to track changes spanning 20 years or more in oak woodlands at Pepperwood Preserve, near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. In a set of 50 wooded plots, he has recorded the size, location and species of the dominant vegetation, from each Manzanita bush to every stringy sapling or gnarled, ancient oak. The work lays a foundation for multi-year studies of plant community change in natural ecosystems.

“Changes in distribution, density and vigor of plants in response to shifts of weather and climate are ongoing processes,” Ackerly says. “Maybe one percent of trees die in a year. It’s something we can’t see easily, but over 15 to 20 years, you really get a story.”

Clues to environmental change can come from unlikely sources as well.  Berkeley global change biologists have examined honey bees from Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology to track changes in food sources over time. A research team has sampled pollen packed onto the legs of bees collected from different regions of California over the past century. After running the pollen through an isotope facility, they have been able to distinguish the signatures of pollen gathered by the bees from wild flowers versus plants that fed on artificial fertilizers.

 “The bees are the collectors,” Ackerly says. “We’ve been collecting the bees. Animals and plants — living, dying and dead  — have a lot to teach us about the impact of climate change and how our familiar environment may change in centuries to come.”

Additional Information
Global Change Biology
Berkeley Natural History Museums
Research profile for David Ackerly
The Philomathia Center plays a key role in advancing UC Berkeley’s innovative research programs in energy and climate research. Established in 2012, the Philomathia Center represents the enduring partnership between UC Berkeley and the Philomathia Foundation in support of a common vision of improving humankind through the creative application of technology, independent thinking, and a commitment to education.