Environmental Sciences Initiative team members featured in Science, Daedalus and Global Environmental Change on global water systems

Five papers written by members and affiliates of The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Advanced Science Research Center’s (ASRC) Environmental CrossRoads Initiative have been published recently, including three in Science magazine.

“We’re very proud of the exemplary work from Environmental CrossRoads led by Dr. Charles Vörösmarty at the ASRC,” said Dr. Gillian Small, CUNY Vice Chancellor for Research and Executive Director of the ASRC. “The three articles in Science and the five publications overall are a testament to the quality of the Initiative’s recent efforts.”

“Each of these articles focuses on an aspect of global water systems that have the potential to affect hundreds of millions of people,” Vörösmarty said. “It is essential to understand the natural and human factors affecting these systems because the long-term costs — both the financial and environmental costs — of these choices are monumental.”Of the papers in Science, two were featured as part of a three-part “water debate series“ on geographic and research issues of freshwater use and management. Vörösmarty and a team of international researchers began the debate series by considering issues of scale with water governance. Their article “Fresh Water Goes Global”, published on July 31, argues that it is critical to acknowledge that local actions could cause global-scale problems in order to provide context and recognize commonalities between micro and macro conditions.

“Despite the importance of water to local prosperity, social fabric and the environment,” Vörösmarty argues in his paper, “the World Economic Forum declared proliferation of water crises as the greatest collective risk to the global economy.”

They further note that both local and large-scale water governance have proven unable to sufficiently address the myriad factors affecting the water trade. As large-scale governance has focused on transboundary surface waters, nexus issues involving food, energy and climate change have been ignored. The virtual trade of water used or transported as part of agriculture and industry is “essentially invisible”, as it is regulated by trade agreements for commodities and not water. “Much of the world’s water use and pollution is dedicated to production for global trade, which embodies impressive flows of virtual water,” he argues in the article. “Such trade exacerbates local over-exploitation and provokes potential conflicts over water.”

Dr. Balazs M. Fekete, a faculty member of Civil Engineering at the City College of New York, contributed to the final, third part of the debate, which considers the methods, or the how, of monitoring water resources. His article “Time for in situ renaissance”, published on August 14, argues that a reemphasis of in situ, or on-the-ground, monitoring of water will be necessary in the near future to have improved and more accurate observation on the global water situation.

Earlier data collection efforts focused on in situ measurements that were labor intensive, but provided high data accuracy and reliability. However, the past four decades have seen a rise in observations using satellite remote sensing, which have allowed researchers to perform studies on a global scale. This ability came with several drawbacks, though, particularly accuracy and frequency on the local scale; satellites in geostationary orbit often have low spatial resolution, while satellites in low Earth orbit frequently have higher spatial resolution but at the cost of more infrequent observations as they pass over a given area. Additionally, many other satellite measurements are the result of calculations from complex algorithms that are potentially subject to error.

“Sustained coordination and maintenance of in situ observing networks is far more challenging than flying a few satellites but could improve the quality of observations and serve as a positive precedent of international collaborations that fosters trust among nations,” Fekete discusses in the paper. “Succeeding in coordinated efforts for improved earth observations could encourage commitments to larger goals like combating climate change.”

The third Science publication from the CrossRoads team appeared in the August 7 issue and was led by Postdoctoral Associate Zachary Tessler, with several co-authors, including Vörösmarty. This work — “Profiling Risk and Sustainability in the Coastal Deltas of the World” — analyzes an integrated set of global environmental, geophysical and social indicators to quantify the risks facing river deltas around the world.

Their results show that present-day strategies may not be sustainable. “Future environmental, geophysical, and societal changes will reposition, in many cases greatly, most of the world’s deltas into a future space of elevated risk,” the study states. “…Although the time horizons are long, acting now will be essential given that rehabilitation will be difficult if not impossible to realize once ground is lost to rising seas.”

While coastal deltas are already highly sensitive to local human activities, land subsidence, regional water management, global sea-level rise and climate extremes, many wealthy countries effectively ignore the long-term risk by creating unsustainable coastal defense investments.

Vörösmarty also had a study on human-water interactions featured in a water-centric issue of Daedalus, entitled “Impair-then-Repair: A Brief History & Global-Scale Hypothesis Regarding Human-Water Interactions in the Anthropocene“. The study — co-written with Michel Meybeck of the French National Center for Research and Christopher L. Pastore of the University at Albany, State University of New York — addresses the need to recognize the pandemic-level of challenges humankind faces with the usage of freshwater, and the failings of modern water management schemes.

“(The) strategy of treating symptoms rather than underlying causes is practiced widely across rich countries but leaves poor nations and many of the world’s freshwater life-forms at risk,” the study’s authors state. The paper focuses on rivers and the past, present, and possible future of human-water interactions, concluding that the current “impair-then-repair” water management strategy must also be used to discover innovative solutions.

The final publication from the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative was led by Senior Research Associate Pamela Green, along with Vörösmarty, Fekete, and others, and was printed in Global Environmental Change. This work — “Freshwater ecosystem services supporting humans: Pivoting from water crisis to water solutions” — focuses on potential investment strategies to sustainably protect and manage freshwater challenges faces in different global regions.

The majority of the world’s population is dependent on freshwater from threatened upstream sources — 82 percent — and while industrialized countries have an increased ability to reduce the threat of the compromised freshwater, the least developed countries are only able to reduce the threat by less than 20 percent.

The paper argues that improving the management of the threatened upstream freshwater sources in the less developed countries would allow the majority of the global population to move away from short-term and expensive engineering solutions.

With the past month’s outpouring of research generated out of the ASRC and the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative, Vörösmarty wants to build on the initiative’s growing standing in the scientific community.

“We’ve made great strides in terms of getting the research we’ve been conducting at the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative out into the larger scientific conversations taking place in these journals,” he said. “As our research team and others at both the ASRC and CUNY at large become more established, the standing of the University in the scientific community will only improve.”


About the ASRC: The new CUNY Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) is a University-wide venture that elevates CUNY’s legacy of scientific research and education through initiatives in five distinctive, but increasingly interconnected disciplines: Nanoscience, Photonics, Structural Biology, Neuroscience and Environmental Sciences. Led by Dr. Gillian Small, Vice Chancellor for Research and the ASRC’s executive director, the center is designed to promote a unique, interdisciplinary research culture. Researchers from each of the initiatives work side by side in the ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that is among the most advanced available. Funding for the ASRC from New York State is gratefully acknowledged.