USF professor receives grant to help educate public about climate change

In an effort to educate the public about climate change, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded USF a grant of about $1 million for further research.

Professor Jeffrey Ryan, a professor and assistant chair in USF’s Geology Department, is one of 15 lead researchers across the nation to receive a piece of the $20 million grant dispersed from the National Science Foundation’s Climate Change Education Partnership. The program seeks to educate the public on climate change.

Ryan’s $1 million, a luxury he received for his qualifications in the field, will be spent over the course of two years.

Ryan will conduct his study of climate change education efforts with six co-principal investigators and 25 other faculty members from five different colleges at USF: the College of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education and the College of Marine Science.

Ryan is also working with the University of Puerto Rico, the Hillsborough County Public School System and the Florida Aquarium.

“We are trying to find better ways to communicate the impact of climate change – the ones that matter to people’s everyday lives,” Ryan said. “The Al Gore approach to climate change education didn’t work.”

Ryan’s co-principal investigator, professor of science education Allan Feldman, said the goal of the project is to educate the public about what is actually going on with climate change “as it is happening right now.”

The project will be divided into three phases, the first being to gather information on climate change that is taught in the U.S. and Caribbean countries.

The next phase is to determine what people’s perceptions are about climate change. This is accomplished by gathering information from the general public who will have a say in what and how the state of the world is going to be in the future since they are the ones who depend on the Earth, Ryan said.

Nathan Collins, a graduate student majoring in geology, is one of the research assistants that will be responsible for gathering information.

“Everybody has an idea of the severity of it, the question is whether they understand it fully and what information they have got and where they have got (it),” he said.

The last phase of the project is to develop new methods for effectively educating the public on the issue of climate change – a topic that is shrouded in misconception, Ryan said.

He said humans are speeding up climate change.

“We are seeing a ramping up of temperature and a ramping up of these effects that give scientists a lot of concern,” he said. “The worry is the Earth’s carrying capacity might be exceeded.”

These effects collectively create rising sea levels. A federal study states that sea levels along much of Florida’s coast rose 7-to-9 inches during the 20th century.

“When I came (to Florida) in 1991, Caladesi Island was a stand-alone island,” Ryan said. “Now, you can walk to that island from Clearwater Beach; there is an isthmus.”

Other indications of climate change are found in the hospitality industry. Many hotels built along the Florida coast and across the Atlantic are built on sandbars, he said.

“Sandbars move in and out with the rebel of the water, and the water has been going up. (Thus) sandbars are moving inland,” he said. “This actually happened in the Carolinas, where a big storm moved the island inland and left the hotel isolated.”

Feldman said climate change can even be felt in the Florida aquifer-underground beds or layers that produce freshwater for wells and springs. Because of climate change, there has been “salt water incursion in aquifers at Pinellas County,” he said.

“People need to know what science is, they need to understand how science works,” Feldman said. “They need to understand the science of climate change and how climate change is affecting their lives.”