Planning for a Changing Climate
Meet EPA Scientist Jordan West, Ph.D.
Jordan M. West, Ph.D. is an aquatic ecologist at EPA. Her areas of expertise include freshwater and marine ecology, climate change impacts and adaptation, resilience and threshold theory, environmental risk assessment, expert elicitation and stakeholder processes. Dr. West co-led the production of Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.4: Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources for the 2007 National Climate Assessment, and has more recently served as steering committee member and contributing author for the Coastal Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability technical input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Dr. West also serves as co-chair of the Climate Change Working Group of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.
What do you research at EPA?
I look at the impacts of climate change on aquatic ecosystems, mainly coral reefs and wetlands. We have to understand what the impacts might be, so that we can appropriately adjust how we manage our natural resources in response to the changing climate.
We start by identifying vulnerabilities of ecosystems to climate-related stressors such as temperature and sea level rise. With coral reefs, we can look for the inherent properties that make some species or communities more resilient than others. We can use that information to focus protection on groups that will be the most resilient.
For wetlands, we have to assess the vulnerabilities of different wetland types throughout the United States. We can do that by looking at characteristics of wetlands, such as their size and the species that live there. By exploring how climate change-related alterations in hydrology affect these wetland characteristics, we can develop a predictive framework to assess where our most vulnerable wetlands are located, so that we can do our best to protect them.
I also work with the US Global Change Research Program, the interagency group that brings together climate change science and research across the government.
Why is it important to preserve these ecosystems?
From an economic point of view, a huge portion of the world’s protein comes from fisheries that depend on coral reefs for survival. Many open water fish spend part of their lifecycle on coral reefs or in adjacent seagrass beds. Also, valuable pharmaceuticals have been developed based on information gathered from studying the chemical defenses of coral species.
Likewise, wetlands provide habitat for fish, waterfowl and shellfish, and there is great economic value in these areas for the resources they provide. The natural beauty of both coral reefs and wetlands encourages recreational use, which in turn feeds into the economy.
These ecosystems also provide benefits that are harder to value in terms of dollars but still result in huge economic impacts. For wetlands, these include things like flood control, shoreline retention, water filtration, and groundwater replenishment. Coral reefs protect shorelines because they create a buffer from damaging waves during storms. If these ecosystems aren’t preserved, we will not only lose all of the economic benefits they provide but also the potential to gain further knowledge from their study.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you like to ask them?
I would say Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on genetic recombination in corn. She was both trained and did a lot of her research at my alma mater, Cornell University. She was amazing to me because she did her training in the 1920s and she was undeterred by any of the constraints imposed on women at that time. She actually received her Ph.D. in botany because in those days, women were discouraged from majoring in genetics! She was able to learn what she did through the plant breeding program. I’d love to talk to her and just soak up some of her inspiring personality.
What do you like most about your research?
Climate changes poses really big questions. It can be overwhelming to be faced with these big and important questions, but I think it's fascinating to try and figure out how to take smaller pieces of the questions and work through them to understand the bigger picture. I really like that my research is aiming toward informing real decisions that will positively affect outcomes in the environment. After all, that is what EPA is all about.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I was interested in nature at an early age because I come from a pretty scientifically-oriented family. I was brought up thinking like a scientist before I knew that's how I was thinking! By the time I was in college, I was pretty serious about it. I discovered the people I thought were really cool and interesting were always the scientists.
Tell us about your background.
I received a Bachelors degree in ecology from the University of Iowa. From there, I went to graduate school at Cornell University and became really interested in coral reefs. My thesis was on how the skeletons of certain coral species changed based on the combination of biological (i.e., predation) and physical (i.e., wave action) stresses they were facing in different locations.
My work on climate change started with my interest in coral reefs because due to their sensitivity to temperature fluctuations in the ocean, they were one of the earliest systems in the environment that showed obvious effects of climate change.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be doing?
I seriously considered working with animals, so maybe I would be a veterinarian or a trainer.
Any advice for students interested in a career in science?
Start out by becoming well-rounded in the basic scientific principles and as well as learning broadly across scientific disciplines. Don't be discouraged if you don't immediately see the path you want to take. As you get more and more advanced, that's when you start to discover what really excites you. Enjoy that process of discovery and the adventure!