Preparing Indiana For Environmental Change

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Hoosiers love to talk about the weather. A common saying here goes, "if you don't like it right now, just wait a few minutes." It's a funny refrain, but the weather - and more specifically, our environment - is no laughing matter when you consider the economic impact of extreme weather on the state of Indiana has totaled more than $6 billion since 2011.

We're experiencing heavier spring flooding and hotter, drier summers across our great state - and the pace of environmental change is only expected to increase. So, while some are still stuck debating whether climate change is "real," there's no denying our weather patterns have become more extreme and less predictable.

These changes pose significant threats to our state's ecosystems, agriculture, public health and economic well-being. To combat them, we need better data, more sophisticated forecasting models and the ability to translate information into solutions.

That’s why Indiana University is embarking on a $55 million Grand Challenges initiative with partners like Cummins, Inc., Citizens Energy Group, The Nature Conservancy and numerous elected officials. As part of this initiative, a new Environmental Resilience Institute will soon be in place to better predict the impact of environmental threats and facilitate much-needed collaboration between expert IU faculty and Hoosier residents, policymakers, businesses, nonprofits and the public sector.

The effort - "Prepared for Environmental Change" - will be science-based and action-oriented. We'll have natural scientists collecting critical data. We'll have social scientists developing solutions based on what we learn. And we'll have science communicators helping us come to a common understanding about what's happening around the state and why greater preparation is so essential.

This collaborative effort will be squarely focused on making our state, our economy and our citizens more resilient in the face of environmental change. It will be about protecting Hoosier farms from invasive species and stopping the spread of diseases like Lyme, Zika and West Nile, while also conserving the land that sustains us, making smarter infrastructure investments, and creating more livable towns and cities.

One of our partners - Cummins Inc. - is among our state's leading employers and a Fortune 150 company with manufacturing operations around the globe. In 2008, Cummins was hit hard by the massive flood that blanketed much of central and Southern Indiana. The Cummins Tech Center in Columbus was under three-feet of water, and the company suffered considerable damage to its engine plant.

In our conversations with Cummins, we came to understand they are a data-based company. And as they say it, "you can't make data-based decisions without the data." So, part of our work will be to provide employers around the state with the critical data they need to prepare their operations and their employees for what's to come.

We'll have a geologist telling us where rivers and storm water will flow in future years. We'll have a disease ecologist focusing on how changes in climate will change vectors for rapidly spreading diseases that can impact public health and our individual quality of life. And we'll have an invasive species ecologist looking at plants that are taking hold and having a negative impact on agriculture and wildlife.

Our task is big, but it's pretty straightforward: We must better understand how environmental change affects our state, and then we must provide our citizens, policymakers and employers with solutions that protect our health, our farms and our state's economy. Simply put, to be a "State that Works," we must also be a state that's prepared for what's to come.

Ellen Ketterson, distinguished professor of biology at Indiana University, is the initiative leader for "Prepared for Environmental Change."

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