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Auburn University professor receives award to study climate adaptation in coral reef communities

Kelly Dunning, an Auburn University assistant professor in the College of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, hopes to improve citizens’ understanding of science and natural resource policy decisions in communities most impacted by climate change.

Dunning has been chosen as one of 12 faculty members from U.S. universities to participate in research through the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, and its main sponsor, the National Science Foundation. Through this NCAR award, Dunning received $100,000 to study how marginalized communities are adapting to climate change in coral reefs.

The NCAR Early Career Faculty Innovator program was founded in 2019 to enhance NCAR’s capacity to effectively partner with external collaborators across a broad spectrum of human dimensions and social science research.

Dunning’s seed project is a community-focused project that engages locals in coastal communities in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands using NCAR climate data.

“I am working with three amazing women, Joanie Kleypas, coral reef scientist, Melissa Moulton, oceanographer, and Kristen Krumhardt, ocean biogeochemist,” said Dunning. “I am developing several narrative accounts of how climate change will impact American reefs through their work modelling ocean temperature and bleaching.”

Through fieldwork, Dunning relays the accounts to stakeholders on the ground working in coral reef management.

“I ask them what types of policy responses are needed, given the changes we will predict,” said Dunning. “These simple narrative accounts, or ‘climate scenarios,’ will make complex science accessible to all, creating a more informed public when it comes to coastal decision-making.”

Dunning describes the grant as career-making, uniting the fields of environmental policy, conservation governance and natural sciences.

“It allows me to work with accomplished scientists and early career team members,” said Dunning. “We have been able to add a master’s student to the team, increasing graduate training in my lab, the Conservation Governance Lab.”

Dan Morris, a College of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences graduate student working in Dunning’s lab, studies how policies are made regarding port expansion projects and their impacts on adjacent coral reefs. His role in the project will be to identify stakeholders and beneficiaries to suggest additional policies to better increase the protection of coral reefs.

After graduating from Auburn in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Morris was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a logistics readiness officer. Morris specialized in air transportation and contingency planning.

Through the help of her funding, Dunning also hopes to determine whether stakeholders working to conserve mainland American coral reefs in Florida have different levels of access to resources and capacity compared to U.S. territories.

“Working toward equitable adaptation for all American coastal communities is our main goal,” said Dunning.

“The cohort’s research theme is actionable Earth systems science, and the funded projects address a range of important topics,” said Janaki Alavalapati, the college’s dean. “It is an honor that one of our faculty will play a vital role in this impactful program.”

(Written by Gracen Carter)

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