Nelson Institute & AOS Professor Ankur Desai named the Reid Bryson Chair

June 3, 2019

Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Professor Ankur Desai has been named the Reid Bryson Chair for Climate, People and Environment. Named after Reid Bryson, who founded the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research (CCR), this prestigious three-year appointment will provide financial support and leadership opportunities that will allow Desai to expand his interdisciplinary research and leadership as it relates to climate change, the environment, and society.

“It’s a super big honor and I’m really excited to receive this professorship,” Desai said. “I had a brief overlap with Reid Bryson. He was an emeritus professor while I was here and I remember talking to him near the elevator. He was always very curious, he loved talking with me about his work in India and I appreciated that he thought very broadly about science and he wanted to use it to solve very interesting questions. That’s something I took to heart.”

With a background in computer science and graduate degrees in geography and meteorology, Desai applies that systems mindset, utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to his research. While he is often working on a variety of projects, much of his research focuses on how vegetation and the Earth’s surface exchange carbon and water and how that influences the atmosphere. He also investigates how land management and agriculture influence that exchange.

“As a professor who is affiliated with both CCR and SAGE (Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment), my goal has been to understand the Earth systems as a whole,” Desai said. “My theme has been to merge what ecologists do with small plot scale measurements with what meteorologists do with large scale climate models, and use those to understand what’s going on in any one region at a specific time. That’s a real challenge because we don’t yet have a tool that allows us to understand the entire landscape at once. The closest thing we have is an eddy covariance flux tower.”

Desai is a part of a community of scientists and investigators who build and install these eddy covariance flux towers which are essentially tools that take high precision, high frequency measurements of gasses, water vapor, and other aspects of the atmosphere to estimate landscape surface fluxes. Scientists like Desai are then able to look at the data and use it to connect the ecological and meteorological data. Desai noted that there are several of these towers throughout Wisconsin, some of which have been around for more than 20 years.

In addition to studying the data from these towers, Desai also frequently visits areas where the towers exist to educate school-aged children and the larger community about climate research. In fact, one of Desai’s current projects, the CHEESEHEAD19 (Chequamegon Heterogeneous Ecosystem Energy-balance Study Enabled by a High-density Extensive Array of Detectors 2019), involves a great deal of outreach and education. Through this multi-million-dollar partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other organizations, Desai and his research collaborators installed a number of towers in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest of northern Wisconsin.  These towers will be used this summer to better understand how vegetation and forest management influence the atmosphere, but they have also provided Desai with the opportunity to educate middle and high school students about the high-tech science happening in their backyard. As a part of this education, Desai has partnered with associate director of the CCR Michael Notaro and Space Science & Engineering Center outreach program manager Rose Pertzborn, to educate and engage a group of students and citizen scientists on climate change research through their Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment initiative.

Desai has also been working with Wisconsin farmers in the Central Sands, DNR scientists, the Kansas Land Institute, the Patagonia Provisions Company, and USDA dairy researchers to discuss environmental challenges in carbon and water management in Wisconsin. He was also recently elected trustee of the Wisconsin Nature Conservancy and is a science advisor to the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment Center.

By combining his leadership and research experience with his interest in stakeholder education, Desai plans to increase the reach of CCR and the climate change education outreach.

“Science should be accessible and we should engage with the public in a way that takes into account cultures and diversity,” said Desai. “The Earth system is in a state of extreme pressure. I hope to use the Bryson award to push frontiers that address this crisis, support staff to perform high-risk, high-impact research, and extend the reach and vision of CCR across campus and internationally.”

Photo courtesy of Kika Tuff of Impact Media Lab