The University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of three universities to form a new cooperative institute aimed at scientific collaboration.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration selected UAF, the University of Washington and Oregon State University to power the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Studies, which will allow NOAA to progress in its scientific mission. It will be led by UW but housed with all three universities.

The new institute doesn’t occupy physical space. It’s a virtual institute, a collective of all the entities. The offices at UAF are inside the International Arctic Research Center, and researchers who will handle the work are spread throughout the state.

The Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Studies is one of 17 around the country, according to Uma Bhatt, associate director of the institute, who added that they were set up because NOAA has to do research and monitoring as part of its science mission but does not always have the capacity within the organization for all it needs to do. Instead, they farm out some of those activities to university researchers.

“So that’s what the cooperative institutes are doing. They account for a notable portion of science done at NOAA, so there’s an important collaboration between the two — the academic and NOAA,” she said.

Bhatt is a professor of atmospheric science and works at the Geophysical Institute on the UAF campus. According to her, UAF for many years had a cooperative institute, which was being sunsetted, while NOAA was looking at combining cooperative institutes to be larger.

“So we knew that was coming down the pike, and then when the proposal call came out in the fall, it said Pacific Northwest and Arctic, and the director from the University of Washington had been hearing the same chatter that we had,” Bhatt said.

Once the proposal announcement came out, she and the Seattle director started planning. Oregon State joined them soon afterward, once they expressed interest and connected.

The group wrote a proposal to showcase what they could do, Bhatt said, and while they don’t necessarily get funded for the specific things described in the proposal, NOAA knows where to turn when it has research needs crop up.

The institute could be awarded up to $300 million over the course of five years. From that amount, UAF can receive up to $10 million annually.

This was not a typical proposal where it was granted and now you get money, Bhatt said.

“What was granted was the ability to get money, so I’m working on training our researchers, some of whom have had cooperative institute money in the past and they’re ready to go, but we have a whole group of new researchers who can do NOAA-relevant research,” said Bhatt, “and we’re working on helping them better connect to NOAA program managers who are looking for research.”

Nine themes the institute is focused on are climate and ocean variability, change and impacts; Earth systems and processes; environmental chemistry and ocean carbon; marine ecosystem observation, analysis and forecasts; ocean and coastal observations; environmental data science; aquaculture science; human dimensions in marine systems; and polar studies.

Each of the different institutes will have different themes, Bhatt noted.

“Ours focuses on climate and weather processes, ocean monitoring, sea ice, ecosystem modeling and really is interested in supporting the blue economy,” she said.

UAF is putting together proposals to send to the University of Washington, which in turn will send them to NOAA.

“So now that we don’t have a cooperative institute here, the only difference is we don’t do some of that submitting directly, but for the most part we’re doing similar things,” she said, “but we’re doing it in a coordinated way… We make decisions together now.”

A lot of the UAF projects being proposed right now are looking at oceanography, according to Bhatt, but the specifics are not yet available.

“That’s where we have the most active collaborations with the Weather Service,” she explained.

There’s some opportunity to create some remote sensing products, so Bhatt said she’s been having conversations with groups at the university here about that. The Geographic Information Network of Alaska inside of the UAF Geophysical Institute, for example, can downlink satellite data within minutes of arrival and create an operational product for the National Weather Service to incorporate into their forecasts.

If they had to wait on that information from the Lower 48 it would be hours of time lag, according to Bhatt, and it wouldn’t be useful for incorporating into their broadcasts. This is one unique way she says the university can help NOAA Alaska fulfill its mission.

What more they will do further remains to be seen. Bhatt noted it’s not just her advocating for these projects, it’s a lot of people at UAF. From the International Arctic Research Center to the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and the Geophysical Institute.

“All of these folks are plugged into different parts of NOAA,” she said,” and it’s really a collaborative effort in order to get, enhance, the projects that UAF is able to do. So it’s not just me, it’s a lot of people working together and trying to link what our researchers do to what is needed.”

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