How PSU’s Community is Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

You’ve seen the headlines touting the rising sea levels, imperiled wildlife, and steps that each of us can take, from the simple to the radical, to combat climate change. While Portland, Oregon might have its reputation for weirdness, concern for the environment is one value that unites Portlanders across numerous dividing lines. Portland State is right at the heart of this eco-friendly city, one of the greenest and most progressive in the country in terms of environmental policies and green transportation.

When it comes to climate change, Portland State researchers and students are leading the charge to explore the boundaries of what we know and how we can use our discoveries to make a difference.

Within the classroom, PSU students are deeply motivated to find practical solutions to this urgent question: how can we sustain life on this planet?

Portland State has long been a beacon for undergraduates who are fascinated by the earth sciences, in part due to the city of Portland’s close proximity to stunning natural resources and the University’s connection to city and state environmental agencies that offer internships and jobs to our graduates. The city of Portland is an ideal jumping-off point for any young person looking to make their way towards an environmentally-centered career.

This passion among the PSU student body led to the development of a new minor in the Geography department. The Climate Change Science and Adaptation Minor provides students with a fundamental understanding of the physical science basis behind climate change, how it differs from and influences weather, and how physical scientists study the climate system. In this constantly evolving field, students are taught different approaches to address climate change, from the local to international levels, including the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Paris Accord, cap and trade, and climate action and adaptation plans.

Students, who are often majoring in Geography, the department that manages this minor, learn from faculty from a wide range of disciplines who focus on various aspects of climate science and management and bring their expertise to the classroom. Like with many other Portland State earth science programs, the Climate Change Science and Adaptation minor exposes students to research methods and climate adaptation planning processes.

One groundbreaking, active researcher here at PSU who studies climate science is Geography Associate Professor Andres Holz, who investigates how climate-change-related factors like forest fires and droughts impact forests around the world, and what that means for the future of these landscapes. Andres is also the Director of the Global Environmental Change Lab, which researches in the areas of vegetation dynamics and disturbance ecology, landscape ecology, land-use change, and forest policy and management practices. Andres’ research at Mt St. Helens has uncovered that climate change has affected how the mountain’s surrounding forest recovers from forest fires. As it turns out, when faced with a growing climate change, forests are not as resilient as we once thought. Andres Holz was honored as a Researcher of the Year at last year’s Research Week awards for his contributions to what we know about climate change.

Portland State’s work to combat the climate crisis doesn’t stop after you leave our campus. Through the University’s new Digital Cities Testbed Center, PSU faculty collaborate with nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and researchers at local universities to track the health of urban trees using what they call “smart trees.”

Smart trees use remote sensing and tiny sensors installed on trees to monitor health over time.

The team will also use technology to examine whether the benefits of tree canopies will endure even during the hottest summers, year after year. The results of their work could help cities better preserve their urban forests in the face of accelerating climate change and lead to greater tree density and more resilient canopies throughout cities. DCTC researchers are pursuing several NSF grants to help grow this under-studied field.

Portland State University is not removed from the fight to protect our planet; we’re in the thick of it. Environmental sustainability is in the DNA of our campus, which hugs a mile-long stretch of greenery called the Park Blocks. Portland State’s community is continuously questioning our role in the climate crisis as individuals, as students, and as professionals. A better tomorrow has to begin somewhere, and for many of us, it’s here.