Students discuss their projects in the classroom

From Urban Residents to Michigan Farmers, Master’s Students Seek Solutions to Climate Challenges

Graduate students in the Applied Climate program study climate-related problems, from inner city Detroit to apple orchards.

Students in the Master of Engineering in Applied Climate program at the University of Michigan devoted their time to identifying, studying and providing solutions for climate challenges across the region, from the inner city of Detroit to the farms of Western Michigan. A few culminating projects in this year’s program included examining urban air quality and protecting fruit trees from disaster.

Real-world learning is part of the coursework at the U-M Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering (CLASP), where climate scientists recognize the world needs answers now for a climate that’s on track to change rapidly in the future. That’s where the Applied Climate program comes in. The master’s program offers students an opportunity to take their knowledge of climate science, Earth systems and meteorology and apply it to protect against the harmful effects of severe weather and a changing climate. Working with an advisor, students choose a climate issue they care about and immerse themselves in the knowledge and experience of the problem, co-generating solutions.

“My capstone project looked at air pollution,” said Erin Schimmel. “I was thinking I’d find that there were higher concentrations of pollutants within lower income areas in the city of Detroit.”

Schimmel combed through the data on air quality in specific neighborhoods, looking at potential sources of pollutants, particulate matter and ozone levels, and comparing her findings with socioeconomics. She’s well aware of how social justice issues have an adverse impact on some communities, and social justice inspired her project.

Schimmel earned a BSE in Environmental Engineering, then transferred to CLASP to get a Master of Engineering degree in Applied Climate. Over the course of her studies, she learned how to use data, data analysis, GIS, and programming languages like Python to create evidence-based solutions.

“Getting my master’s here at CLASP, I gained a lot of technical skills, knowledge and analysis,” she said. “I didn’t realize until I got here that the Applied Climate program was so data intensive.”

While Schimmel didn’t find the correlation she was looking for in this project, she plans to continue working on air quality issues in her career. As she graduated from the U-M Department of Climate and Space, she secured a position working for an environmental consulting firm.

Josh Winslow, BSE in Climate and Meteorology ’22, MEng in Applied Climate ’23, used his capstone project to focus on agriculture.

“The work I did involved something called frost fans or wind machines,” said Winslow. “The idea is that these large fans could help protect fruit crops, and in this case, we were working on protecting fruit in Michigan orchards from the frost.”

The frost fans offer farmers the ability to raise the temperature by a degree or two, preventing widespread damage from a late frost.

“Once the trees start to bloom and get fruit on them, they become really vulnerable,” said Winslow. “With radiation frost, you can get an inversion where there’s warm air above the surface and cooling at the ground. The frost fans can blow some of that cool air away, and they can provide anywhere up to 2 degrees Celsius of protection. It can make a difference between a large crop loss and a productive and profitable season.”

Working with an interdisciplinary group of professionals, Winslow looked at the numbers, studied damage reports, and explored yield trends for the fruit trees over time. His project went a step further and included insights from an economist, to quantify the impact of damaged fruit crops on Michigan farmers. He also used climate models in his work. Winslow also took a field trip out to an orchard in Western Michigan to see frost fans in action.

“There was a pretty major freeze event in 2012 that really decimated a lot of fruit crops in Michigan,” said Winslow. “Even right now, under 10 percent of this agriculture is covered by frost fans.”  

While frost fans are not a new technology, the goal of the project was to learn how to make this tool more scalable and accessible to Michigan fruit farmers. 

“One of the things that is really cool about the Applied Climate program is the flexibility of projects and course loads,” said Winslow. “We study a whole load of things, but it also can feel kind of ambiguous.”

Winslow used the flexibility to pave his own path and develop a focus on climate adaptation in agriculture. He is very interested in the economic impacts of climate trends and weather patterns—a crosswind in the climate sciences that is proving to be essential as Earth’s climate changes. Toss in the technology and engineering that it takes to solve some of these problems, and the Master of Engineering in Applied Climate holds the answers. 

“I would love to work in the field of climate adaptation, helping communities or business owners or organizational leaders and building solutions,” said Winslow. “I see the climate issue being relevant in a lot of industries.”

Winslow began his studies at the University of Michigan in a different department, and he benefited from an accelerated path to a master’s degree using the SUGS Program.

“I actually started in LSA studying ecology. Then I took Professor Perry Samson’s class on extreme weather, and I was fascinated. The class was a lot of fun, but I could see the human impact that weather had, and that’s really what drove me to come to CLASP.”

Now, he is casting a wide net as he embarks on his career, but he will also continue to work on his research project on frost fans this summer as a research assistant. He’ll build on his employment with GLISA (a climate adaptation partnership known as Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments), which has also done cutting-edge work to draw a connection between climate change and its human impact.

Winslow pointed out that taking an unchartered path to a new career or emerging field can be confusing at times, even when navigating the college courses, but there is flexibility in this, too. While a student in chemical engineering may have a very clear path to a traditional career, the options in the field of applied climate sciences are new and growing. “That separates our program, which is both exciting and challenging at times,” said Winslow.