ESSIC Scientists to Address Climate Change, Predict Future COVID Variants, and Remediate Methane with Grand Challenges Grants

The University of Maryland today awarded $30 million to 50 projects through its Grand Challenges Grants Program, an institution-wide initiative to tackle major societal issues. 

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) received 16 Grand Challenges grants, five of which include ESSIC scientists. 


Addressing Climate Challenges for a Sustainable Earth

PI: Ellen Williams

Humanity’s home, the Earth, faces existential threats due to climate change. Monitoring, predicting, managing, and mitigating these impacts at the regional scale is a major challenge.


This initiative will use a Research-to-Impact philosophy that builds on UMD research to reimagine (a) experiential education for students that integrates across multiple disciplines and draws on the expertise of two colleges and (b) monitoring and prediction to help protect MD communities from climate impacts.


This initiative extends beyond the academic and will benefit the students and the people of Maryland. By characterizing regional vulnerabilities to extreme weather through high-resolution monitoring and predictions of time, location, and severity, the research will support regional policy and response preparation. Through correlating socioeconomic factors in agriculture and food security with high-resolution scientific data, policymakers and farmers can better optimize agriculture productivity and sustainability in the face of climate change. The team also hopes to identify causal factors, including climate change and establishing mitigations for local Air and Water quality, and the resulting health implications, and the environmental justice implications.


Global FEWture Alliance

ESSIC Team Member: Xin-Zhong Liang

Climate change, population growth, and urbanization are crippling global food, energy, and water (FEW) systems and harming public health, with low-income communities and people of color bearing the heaviest burdens. There are 1.3 billion people worldwide who are food insecure, 2 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, and 770 million people who lack access to electricity. These challenges will only grow worse over the next 30 years. By 2050, global food production will need to increase by 70%, 5 billion people will live in water-scarce areas, causing global water demand to increase by 55%, and global energy demand will increase by 50%.


To date, solutions addressing these pervasive challenges have often been siloed and inequitable. Initiatives tend to focus on food production, access to water or access to energy technologies, but often fail to take into consideration all three vital resources along with the required capacity building and educational programs necessary to sustain interventions.


The Global FEWture Alliance—a UMD-based international alliance—will scale technology-based solutions, community-driven capacity building, and experiential education focused at the food-energy-water-climate-health nexus. Through our holistic, interdisciplinary, systems-based approach, we will alleviate food and water insecurity, protect environmental and global public health, and bolster community resilience in a changing climate.


Our integrated, multi-sectoral approach will result in solutions, from local to global scales, that address at least 13 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Here at UMD, the Global FEWture Alliance will advance all four strategic commitments of the new Strategic Plan: taking on humanity’s grand challenges, investing in people and communities, partnering to advance the common good, and reimagining learning.


Bridging the Gaps in Satellite Observations of Earth Systems to Support Climate and Environmental Products

PI: Veljko Petkovic

The study focuses on development and delivery of a new, transformative, satellite observation product to support the ongoing efforts of the society to better understand and address the state and changes in the Earth’s climate and weather. 


Petkovic and his team seek to transform existing observations, collected by geostationary satellites (which provide a continuous but typically underutilized observations of Earth systems), into an information-rich product that is of same value as satellite products typically obtained by highly-sophisticated but temporally sparse low-Earth-orbiting sensors. This emulated product will help bridge the current spatio-temporal gap in low-Earth-orbiting satellite observations, allowing advancements in monitoring and prediction of climate and weather systems. 


“If we’re successful, this study is going to open a road for an inexpensive enhancement in global environment monitoring from geostationary orbit,” said Petkovic, “The impact of this study is expected to reflect through a broad range of applications, including monitoring, prediction, and addressing the climate and weather system states.”


Toward an Early Warning System for Increased Probability of Community Infection by SARS-Cov-2 Variants

PI: Augustin Vintzileos

The awarded proposal will fund research to create an early warning system for SARS-Cov-2 susceptibility that builds on the research group’s previous findings. In a seminal publication in the Spring of 2020, the principal investigators articulated the hypothesis that environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity dictated the virus’s path. As COVID-19 becomes endemic with newer variants with various degrees of lethality, forecasting information is going to become a crucial tool for monitoring the virus’ progression.


Vintzileos and his team will investigate the feasibility of providing timely, actionable subseasonal forecast information to the University of Maryland on the potential for COVID-19 flare-ups. Subseasonal forecasting is a rapidly developing science that enables forecasts for conditions weeks in advance.  The SARS-Cov-2 early warning system could trigger re-education concerning anti-COVID-19 measures, inform decisions on the mandatory use of masks, and facilitate the logistics of the reenactment of remote classrooms. 


“We are honored to be selected by the University of Maryland for this Grand Challenge Award.  As climate and weather become more variable, it’s important that we understand the impacts on all aspects of human existence, including our health,” says Augustin Vintzileos, an Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center Assistant Research Scientist and one of the project’s principal investigators, says. “This early warning system is a first attempt to create actionable information from the climate and epidemiological sciences aimed at reducing SARS-Cov-2 risks.” 


The interdisciplinary team, which combines knowledge of virology and weather and climate predictability, will be supported by the private sector. Once the system is ready for operational deployment, Prescient Weather LTD has agreed to transition the SARS-CoV-2 susceptibility early warning system-based forecasts to operations. Distribution of the early warning forecasts, once they are developed, will be provided through the World Climate Service subseasonal forecast platform.


Remediation of Methane, Water, and Heat Waste

ESSIC Team Members: Russell Dickerson, James Farquhar, Sujay Kaushal

The human impact on the environment and climate are critical concerns locally, nationally, and globally. The UMD campus is a microcosm of many of these urban and suburban environmental impacts. Stream and air contamination arises from methane emissions, CO2 emissions, pipeline water loss, and storm drains that receive heat, chemical and sewer waste. All of these are consequences of human activities and can be mitigated following adequate monitoring. 


The team envisions a student-centric project focusing on environmental and climate impact with a local campus phase, a State of Maryland phase, and a plan to leverage results into a proposal for national-scale, externally funded work. They will use geophysical instruments to identify, map, and measure air and water contaminant sources on campus, in particular methane emissions and steam/heat/water waste (in collaboration with Facilities Management). They also plan to conduct methane emission mapping excursions within the state of Maryland using aircraft outfitted with UMD methane sensors flown by pilots from the Maryland Civil Air Patrol (Auxiliary to the US Air Force). In coordination with campus and state authorities, they will analyze the results to produce recommendations for the joint remediation of coupled environmental quality challenges and develop the basis for a national strategy.