November 27, 2018

Local impacts of climate change strike home

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — While some may see climate change as a distant problem, Jeff Dukes is leading an effort to show just how close the problem is.

Many people around the country have already been affected by climate change, for example through droughts, flooding or wildfires that have been made more likely or more intense by the changed climate. If you have not yet been directly affected, you will be soon, Dukes suggests. Imagine having asthma and finding a much greater number of days in which the heat and air pollution make it difficult to be outdoors. Or helping and consoling friends or relatives in the cold of winter as they salvage keepsakes from their flooded house or store.​

Dukes is using science as a tool to help citizens, business leaders, outdoor enthusiasts -- really everyone -- to understand what climate change means for their daily lives or pocketbooks. Dukes, Purdue’s Belcher Chair for Environmental Sustainability and director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, is leading the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment (IN CCIA), in which researchers from Purdue, other Indiana universities and stakeholder groups have developed detailed reports about what Indiana’s climate will be like in the coming century and how those changes will affect the people who live here.

The reports have outlined impacts for our overall climate, aquatic ecosystems, agriculture, health, forests, urban greenspaces and tourism. Future reports will cover water resources, infrastructure and energy. Recently, the team shared a report demonstrating how hotter summers would challenge Indiana tourism.

Dukes’ own research focuses on the role of plants in climate change.

“I got interested in the effects of ultraviolet radiation on plants and the implications for biodiversity as a whole. The reduction of the ozone layer was causing more of this harmful radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, and that had impacts on plants, which are the base of the food chain,” Dukes says. “That got me thinking more about global environmental changes and what I could do to help people understand how the planet is changing and the implications of that down the road.”

Dukes spends a lot of time thinking about plants, and in particular, he wants to know how ecosystems respond to change.

Dukes is especially concerned with the interplay between ecosystems and climate. A changing climate can have a dynamic reaction with the plants and animals that live in a particular area. And, in turn, the ecosystem’s response influences how rapidly the climate changes.

“Ecosystems could either slow down climate change in the future or create a vicious cycle that speeds up climate change and leads to more problems,” Dukes says. “People depend on ecosystems in lots of ways. The benefits we get from nature are changing, and we need to plan for that.”

Looking at the larger picture, Dukes wants to know what that means for us. The IN CCIA reports give us strong ideas about what Indiana’s climate will look like and how it will affect life for Hoosiers throughout the rest of this century.

His sustainability research aligns with Purdue's Giant Leaps celebration, acknowledging the University’s global advancements made toward a sustainable economy and planet as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. This is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

Dukes knows that climate change seems to happen slowly to the average person, but the consequences -- from deteriorating air quality and increasing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases to lowered crop yields and loss of native fish species -- are already having effects on people today.

“It’s so important to communicate information that we have about climate change to the broader public,” Dukes says. “We live in a state where people don’t talk about climate change all that often. But if we’re not talking about it, we won’t be preparing for it or thinking about how to create the best future for ourselves and for Indiana.”

Those conversations are what drive Dukes today. It’s the opportunity to take what he’s learning every day in a lab and use it to make positive change in our world. And, on a personal note, he rides his bike through every season as part of his own commitment to the planet.

“How do we increase the quality of life for people around the world while preserving and protecting nature for its own good and for the good of future generations of people?” Dukes says. “I think it’s important to understand that relationship and figure out how to get to the point where we’re able to have a society where we put both people’s quality of life and environmental sustainability on a positive trajectory.”

Writer: Brian Wallheimer, 765-532-0233,

Source: Jeff Dukes, 765-496-3662,

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