UK leading $20 million, 5-year NSF collaborative project to build climate resilience in Kentucky

Two men carry a cooler down a street looking at tornado damage
Two people wade through standing water after floods hit small communities
CLIMBS Research Synthesis Model

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 9, 2024) — Kentucky has certainly learned over the past four years that our weather is challenging to predict and can have devastating consequences for our citizens. From the violent tornadoes that ravaged Western Kentucky in 2021 to the historic floods that devastated Eastern Kentucky in 2022, weather-related catastrophes have all too often severely impacted communities and hampered economic growth in the Commonwealth.

A new five-year Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII Track-1) award from the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR), “Climate Resilience through Multidisciplinary Big Data Learning, Prediction & Building Response Systems (CLIMBS),” is investing $20 million into advancing Kentucky’s climate resiliency, using a collaborative, statewide approach to bring the best and brightest minds together to tackle this important Kentucky problem.

“We are proud to invest in Kentucky's future through the CLIMBS project, which aims to enhance climate resilience and sustainability across industries,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “By focusing on science-driven solutions, Kentucky can address climate challenges, protect communities and bolster economic growth for communities across the commonwealth and throughout the region.” 

Kentucky NSF EPSCoR is a statewide program to build research infrastructure and increase national competitiveness in obtaining research funding to tackle the Commonwealth’s most important issues. The University of Kentucky will lead an eight-institution collaboration including University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Murray State University and Thomas More University, that will address three fundamental knowledge gaps in climate-related understanding:

  • CLIMBS will utilize “big data” approaches and monitoring networks to increase knowledge of Kentucky's atmosphere and hydrosphere, including paleoclimate data from Kentucky’s past, to determine Kentucky-specific climate activity.
  • Researchers will enhance predictions of future climate, water resources and biodiversity through application of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques on extensive environmental datasets to forecast climate events, floods and landslides, enhancing response and preparedness efforts.
  • CLIMBS will establish an enhanced framework for climate mitigation and community-level disaster response. It aims to explore the interconnectedness between infrastructure (such as water, power, traffic and communications), human populations and climate hazards. Additionally, it will develop risk assessment tools and restoration models that prioritize human health, socio-economic vibrancy and the long-term sustainability of communities.

“This new EPSCoR project speaks to everything we believe in at the University of Kentucky,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “Building a collaborative team from across higher education institutions in Kentucky to conduct transformative, meaningful work that will have a real benefit in Kentucky communities. While doing so, CLIMBS seeks to educate and train the workforce of tomorrow who will help us build more climate resilient and healthy Kentucky communities.”

CLIMBS will become self-sustainable after the conclusion of the five-year grant, which is critical to helping the state realize its vision of becoming a leader in climate resiliency and hazard engineering based on predictions specific to the area. Rodney Andrews, program director of Kentucky NSF EPSCoR, understands this quite well, serving as the primary investigator on this Track-1 project, his fourth since becoming Kentucky NSF EPSCoR Program Director in 2011.

“With the EPSCoR program, we take great pride in conducting research and investing in programs that will make real change in Kentucky communities,” said Andrews, senior associate vice president for research at UK and director of UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research. “This isn’t simply a five-year project, it is an investment that will live on across Kentucky through improved research infrastructure, new faculty hiring, student support and workforce development.”

NSF EPSCoR will provide $20 million over the five-year project period. Through the Research Infrastructure Improvement program, NSF EPSCoR has fueled innovation across the nation by funding large-scale projects of local and national importance to the states and jurisdictions eligible to apply. Since 1986, Kentucky NSF EPSCoR has stewarded these federal funds with great care and become a catalyst for stimulating the development of a strong and sustainable Commonwealth research community

The CLIMBS leadership team consists of Andrews, research co-principal investigators (co-PIs) Michael McGlue, Sebastian Bryson and Edward Woolery, alongside workforce development co-PI Czarena Crofcheck. They are also supported by program administrator Jeffrey Mossey, program manager Courtney McCarthy, extension specialist Rosemary Fama and communications specialist Kevin Puckett.

“We have incredible research strengths here at the University of Kentucky as the flagship land-grant institution. Funding from the National Science Foundation through EPSCoR enables us to build an ecosystem and infrastructure for STEM not just at UK, but across our region, impacting every corner of our state. EPSCoR allows us to engage in recruiting, training and retaining talent in the science that’s taking place here in Kentucky,” said Lisa Cassis, UK vice president for research.

A major part of the CLIMBS project is providing support for research infrastructure, through new faculty hires. Ten new hires — seven at UK, two at University of Louisville and one at Western Kentucky University — will enhance and broaden the scope of Kentucky research for years to come.

Broadening scientific and diverse participation through education and outreach programs are a vital mission of both CLIMBS and KY NSF EPSCoR. Seed funding and programming from K-12 to Ph.D. levels reflect the impact of NSF funding across Kentucky, strengthening workforce development and increasing the number of students who pursue and obtain STEM degrees.

“Workforce development is a key component of CLIMBS. Broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in geosciences and engineering STEM disciplines is a major thrust of CLIMBS,” said Crofcheck, professor of biosystems engineering in the UK Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “New faculty hires will help us build stronger climate science curriculum and recruit and train graduate and undergraduate students right here in the Commonwealth who are uniquely prepared to meet Kentucky’s climate resiliency jobs of tomorrow.”

Aligned with its commitment to broader impacts, CLIMBS will fund an average of three post-doctoral scholars and 29 graduate student researchers per year across all universities and will engage up to 232 undergraduate researchers in total.

CLIMBS is specifically designed to support communities through workforce development, undergraduate student support, and community education and outreach programming. Specific projects include:

  • The Learning Hub Scholars program will provide experiential learning from underrepresented backgrounds in earth and atmospheric science and engineering to pursue advanced degrees in Kentucky.
  • Enviropod Summer Day Camps and Library-Based Content Delivery will be a collaborative effort among eight Kentucky higher education institutions and libraries statewide. Through active engagement of K-12 students, their communities and educational activities, the initiative aims to enhance comprehension of earth science, stimulate interest in climate-related STEM careers and foster community resilience.

The NSF EPSCoR Program is also supported and overseen by the Kentucky Statewide EPSCoR committee, a federal-state partnership with five federal agencies having EPSCoR or EPSCoR-like (i.e. NIH IDeA Program) research stimulation programs.

The committee consists of university administrators, senior faculty researchers, industry representatives, state government and public members that advise and lead EPSCoR programming in the Commonwealth.

“CLIMBS reflects an extensive two-year statewide collaborative effort involving eight institutions of higher education in Kentucky and over 50 faculty members. This NSF EPSCoR Track 1 grant provides $20 million over the next five years to strengthen sustainable research capabilities and competitiveness across the entire Commonwealth ensuring Kentucky will be at the forefront of innovation and discovery,” said Cathleen Webb, associate dean in the Western Kentucky University Ogden College of Science & Engineering and executive chair of the Kentucky Statewide EPSCoR Committee.  “Previous KY NSF EPSCoR Track 1 grants, with more than $100 million in total funding, have served as the foundation for research and development in Kentucky over the past two decades.

“On behalf of the Kentucky Statewide EPSCoR Committee, the jurisdictional governing body of the Kentucky EPSCoR Program, I congratulate Dr. Andrews, the KY EPSCoR staff and the entire CLIMBS team on this outstanding achievement.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. 2344533 and 1849213. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.