UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center Awarded NASA Funding Renewal

The five-year, $95 million cooperative agreement will support the center’s research efforts.


The Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) has been awarded a new five-year, $95 million cooperative agreement with NASA. Established in 1999, ESSIC is a joint center of the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that supports research, teaching and career training in Earth system science.


“We are proud to be collaborating with Goddard Space Flight Center on Earth systems science research that is addressing the pressing challenges of global sustainability,” said Ellen Williams, director of ESSIC and a Distinguished University Professor of Physics at UMD who serves as the cooperative agreement’s principal investigator. “In the next five years, we will jointly tackle the challenges of bringing multiple research streams together to make it possible to predict climate change impacts on our communities, agricultural and wilderness areas, and economy.”


The award will enable UMD to continue and expand its close collaboration with NASA Goddard, building on a legacy of more than two decades of world-class research in meteorology, oceanography, terrestrial physics, hydrology, atmospheric chemistry, ecosystem science and satellite Earth observations. The broad goal of ESSIC is to understand the relationships between Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land masses and biosphere, with an eye to the influence of human activities on Earth’s coupled systems.


“We have valued and appreciated our scientific engagement over the years and look forward to new opportunities and collaboration going forward,” said Dalia Kirschbaum, director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Sciences Division.


ESSIC links research efforts at UMD’s Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geology, and Geographical Sciences with the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. ESSIC also has a cooperative agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support satellite research focused on weather and water forecasting models and predictions. By fostering close integration within the university community and among government partners in NASA and NOAA, ESSIC serves a unique role as a collaboration hub within the national Earth system science research community.


“The University of Maryland takes on humanity’s grand challenges, and I can think of no greater validation of ESSIC’s efforts to tackle the grand challenge of climate change than receiving this renewal from NASA,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “The future health and welfare of our planet are closely linked to this important work by ESSIC scientists.”


Over the next five years, ESSIC will continue to prioritize projects within six major research themes:

    • Atmospheric composition and processes (aerosol/cloud physics)
    • Atmospheric chemistry/carbon cycle
    • The cryosphere
    • Hydrometeorology/precipitation retrieval
    • Hydrology/land surface processes
    • Numerical modeling/data assimilation


“This collaboration between NASA and the University of Maryland recognizes and builds on nearly a quarter century of trailblazing research at ESSIC,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, which administers ESSIC. “ESSIC researchers have given us unprecedented insights into the global and regional connections between land, oceans, atmosphere and human activity. We can’t wait for the discoveries that will flow from this new cooperative agreement.”


ESSIC’s 88 scientists and students funded by the current NASA cooperative agreement submitted 168 papers for publication in 2021 alone.


Some recent ESSIC research highlights include:

    • A 2022 study in the journal Science reconstructed the natural pace and pattern of carbon storage in the forests of the Midwestern U.S., finding that high-biomass species in old forests play important roles in carbon storage.
    • A 2022 study in the journal GCB Bioenergy found that growing giant miscanthus, a type of perennial biomass crop, has a strong likelihood of significantly lowering regional summer temperatures and the vapor-pressure deficit, while increasing rainfall and overall crop productivity.
    • A 2021 study in the journal Remote Sensing reported that snowfall properties measured by the cloud profiling radar on-board CloudSat and used by other satellite missions and climatological models for evaluating and comparing against their snowfall products are likely inaccurate because the radar only collects data during the daytime due to a battery anomaly. The results highlight the need to sample consistently with the CloudSat observations or adjust snowfall estimates derived from CloudSat when using them to evaluate other precipitation products.
    • A paper at the 2021 AGU Fall Meeting featured a machine learning-based model of the normalized difference vegetation index that can be used to identify large-scale changes to irrigation conditions and crop rotations.
    • A 2020 study in the journal Remote Sensing compared a global precipitation forecast provided by NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System with near-real-time satellite precipitation estimates for use in a global landslide forecasting system.
    • A 2019 study in the journal Nature Communications used high-resolution numerical modeling and downscaling of climate projections to find that as Arctic sea ice retreats and surface temperatures increase, upward surface turbulent fluxes increase dramatically, increasing the convective available potential energy and overturning in the atmosphere and thus intensity of Arctic cyclones and their associated precipitation.
    • A 2018 study in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics presented a new method for quantifying regional aerosol indirect effects on the Arctic surface energy budget, as demonstrated in a subset of clouds with high confidence in aerosol classification.
    • A 2018 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres found that the intensity and location of the subsidence branch of the Walker Circulation anomaly over the Maritime continent vary with different groups of El Niño-Indian Ocean Dipole events, and so do the resulting drought and Indonesian fires.
    • A 2018 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters details the use of satellite-based remote sensing, data from a research vessel, field samples and photographic documentation to study a newly erupted Surtseyan volcanic island in the southwest Pacific Ocean unofficially known as Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. A time series of erosion and deposition play a key role in determining the lifespan of this new island.


“These scientific results directly inform important decisions that we, as a society, are facing in addressing climate change and global sustainability,” Williams said. “The renewal of this award is a testament to the quality of the work done by our University of Maryland faculty in their collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientists.”