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Ethan Coffel Receives NSF Award to Study Climate and Agriculture

August 2, 2023

The funding will enable the Maxwell School assistant professor to build on his study of the crop-climate feedback cycle.

Ethan Coffel

Ethan Coffel

Ethan Coffel, assistant professor of geography and the environment, has received a $582,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of his research on agriculture as a driver of climate extremes.

Coffel is the principal investigator for the three-year project, titled “Quantifying Agriculture as a Driver of Regional Climate Extremes.” With co-investigator Justin Mankin from Dartmouth College, he will study how agriculture plays a role in regional climate changes and climate extremes. Specifically, he is researching the increase in crop yields, globally, and how they’ve enhanced or decreased extreme weather events.

The project builds on Coffel’s previous research on crops’ role in cooling temperatures while raising humidity. He seeks to answer how this cooling and heating dynamic impacts different regions and how agriculture and global warming are connected.

“Improvements in agriculture like fertilizer use, pest control, genetic modification and general mechanization have dramatically increased crop yields, meaning more crops are growing in a given area,” Coffel says. “As plants grow, they transpire—water is pulled from the soil and evaporates into the air from their leaves. This transpiration is a major source of moisture to the atmosphere and can change the humidity and temperature.”

Carol Faulkner, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of history, says Coffel’s research will no doubt inform decisions related to climate change and will benefit his current and future students. “We share in the excitement for this latest NSF funding,” she says, “It underscores his excellent work and growing reputation in this pressing and important research.”

This is Coffel’s second NSF award. In 2021, he was awarded $360,000 for a three-year project studying agriculture’s role in climate change across the upper midwestern United States, eastern Europe, northern China, and southern Africa and Asia.

“In our 2021 grant, we are quantifying the impact that agriculture has on the climate around them—especially how crop growth affects temperature. We've found that increases in crop growth have generally reduced temperatures in the U.S. Midwest, and that these cooler temperatures have buffered some of the negative impacts of global warming on crops,” Coffel says. “In our 2024 grant, we will build on this work, focusing specifically on how crop growth affects climate extremes like heat waves and droughts.” 

By Sophia Moore

Published in the Fall 2023 issue of the Maxwell Perspective

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