CEE Seminar: Advancing Food-Energy-Water Sustainability through Critical Zone Science

McDonnell Douglas Engineering Auditorium (MDEA)
Praveen Kumar, Ph.D.

Colonel Harry & Frankie Lovell Endowed Professor
Civil & Environmental Engineering
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Abstract: Intensively managed landscapes in the glaciated mid-western regions present some of the most complex challenges associated with food, energy and water nexus. This talk will present insights gained toward this challenge from the efforts of the Intensively Managed Landscape Critical Zone Observatory. After the end of glaciation, rapid changes in soil and vegetation took place on these young landscapes as climate transitioned. Wind-driven soils (loess) provided a backdrop for the establishment of pioneer vegetation species followed with nitrogen-fixing plants leading to the eventual establishment of climax species, the prairies. Loess deposited over glacial drift supported a rich environment for biodiversity through competition, mutualism and mosaicking. In areas impacted by the Wisconsian episode (latest glacial episode), this happened about eight thousand years ago. Heterogeneity of vegetation, soil organic carbon, and nitrogen, etc. arose from differentiated accumulation over till, which has high water-holding capacity, and outwash, which has lower water-holding capacity. Transformations and transport were dominated by large residence times over low gradient landscape. Since European settlement and the trajectory of large-scale adoption of industrial agriculture, these landscapes have been rapidly modified. Reduced residence time no longer mutes event scale response. Landscape has switched to a transport-dominated system due to anthropogenic modifications, which include deployment of tile drains, ditching and channel straightening. This amplifies event-scale dynamics, changes dominant processes and alters process connectivity across time and space with non-reversible, often threshold dominated, cascading effects. Annual tillage and nitrogen application alters the stocks and flows of carbon and nutrients through the soils and water bodies. Understanding the deep couplings between landscape evolution, climate change and anthropogenically driven dis-equilibrium arising from the alterations of coupled water, carbon and nutrient cycles across scales remains a challenge.

Bio: Praveen Kumar holds a B.Tech. (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India 1987), M.S. (Iowa State University 1989), and Ph.D. (University of Minnesota 1993), all in civil engineering. He has been on the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois since 1995. Prior to joining the University of Illinois, he was a research scientist (January 1993 to July 1995) at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and Hydrologic Sciences Branch, NASA- Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Kumar has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in hydrosystems engineering, engineering modeling under uncertainty, surface water hydrology, hydroclimatology, stochastic hydrology, non-linear methods in hydrology and hydroinformatics. His research deals with hydrocomplexity, the quantitative understanding and prediction of emergent patterns of form and function that arise from complex non-linear multiscale interactions between soil, water, climate, vegetation and human systems; and how this understanding can be used for innovative solutions to water and sustainability challenges. His research has been funded by federal agencies such as NSF, NASA and NOAA. He presently serves as the director of the Critical Zone Observatory for Intensively Managed Landscapes. He is also the lead on the NSF-supported EarthCube project on Geo-Semantics, and a co-lead on the NSF-supported SEAD and Brown Dog projects for the development of cyber-infrastructure for structured and unstructured long-tail data and models.


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