March 28, 2011

Hopkins-wide research project addresses climate change

The Applied Physics Laboratory is leading an ambitious Johns Hopkins–wide program to study and address the potential impacts of climate change on human activity.

Called the Global Assimilation of Information for Action, or GAIA, the APL-funded initiative draws expertise from within the Lab and several university divisions to provide tools and information that decision-makers can use to consider the effects of a changing climate on their segments of society.

“Our planet is changing,” said APL Space Department head John Sommerer, whose department’s expertise in virtual observatories, knowledge sharing and collaboration are all key elements of the program. “Those changes will have potentially huge implications for human welfare, international relations and our own nation’s security. The federal government’s investment is mostly focused on measuring the degree of change, not on managing consequences,” he said. “We need to focus attention on that translational aspect of the issue, and Hopkins is a great place to do that, given the diverse strengths represented in its various divisions.”

GAIA stems from a challenge issued to APL staff by then Director Rich Roca to come up with a Lab-wide research and development project that addresses a nationally important issue.

GAIA principal investigator Larry Paxton said that climate change was an obvious target, given its enormous impact on an array of decision-makers who could range from sewage treatment designers and managers; to farmers coaxing viable crops; to urban planners; to first responders, doctors and public health officials; to government agencies and funding entities.

Since the program launched in November 2010, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, SAIS, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering have joined, and GAIA’s organizers welcome other partners. “Although APL is leading this particular effort, there will be other related initiatives to bring together the divisions to focus on the health of planet Earth,” Sommerer said.

GAIA’s virtual laboratory for researchers—called a “collaboratory”—is online, and a series of interactive workshops is planned to spark additional collaboration.

The first GAIA conference, addressing climate change and public health, will be held April 12 to 14 at the Mt. Washington Conference Center on the university’s Mount Washington campus. “We chose public health since it reflects the integrated state of our economy, culture, technology and environment,” Paxton said. “A changing climate and severe disturbances affect public health in myriad ways, some known but many unexplored.”

A second GAIA workshop, to be held in late summer, will focus on climate change and national security.

The workshops—open to all Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students—will include plenary sessions as well as tutorials that will allow researchers to delve into particular aspects of a problem. At each workshop, participants will create a research network, define a community of interest, examine the current knowledge in the field and define a path for future work. Collaborators Cindy Parker and Luke McDonald, both of the School of Public Health, are already building a virtual community dedicated to mitigating and adapting to climate change, and examining its wide range of impacts on the environment.

“We don’t have perfect data, but the objective of GAIA is not to create new data,” said Paxton, who specializes in upper atmospheric research. “Our challenge is figuring out the questions people have, determining the knowledge and models available, and applying [what we find] to the problems facing our many decision-makers.”

Faculty, staff and students should register for the Climate Change and Public Health workshop by April 1; go to for more information. The GAIA “collaboratory” website is open to all researchers.

Margaret Simon of the Space Department contributed to this article.