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UCLA project to study shifting L.A. to local resources

A research project seeks to unite UCLA faculty members in finding ways to respond to climate change without harming biodiversity.

November 14, 2013|By Tony Barboza
  • Southern California's snowfall could decline by one-third.
Southern California's snowfall could decline by one-third. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Could Los Angeles prosper without electricity from fossil fuels? Could the city shun water imported from the Sierra Nevada, even as a changing climate brings hotter days and a declining snowpack?

Those are some of the questions being tackled by a new research initiative at UCLA that seeks to confront and adapt to climate change at the local level.

The project, to be announced Friday, aims to unite more than 60 faculty members from a range of disciplines around an audacious goal: shifting the Los Angeles region to 100% renewable energy and local water by 2050 without harming biodiversity.

"The goal is to solve one of the largest environmental problems of our time in our own backyard," said Mark Gold, associate director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

As part of the project, titled "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles," the school will try to raise $150 million to bolster research into new science and technology that is believed to be necessary to reach its targets. The university plans to have a draft of findings and recommendations to advise local government by 2019.

The project builds on recent research by UCLA scientists on how climate change is likely to play out locally. By mid-century, they say, Los Angeles neighborhoods can expect many more days above 95 degrees, with average annual temperatures 4 to 5 degrees higher. Southern California's mountains could get about one-third less snowfall by 2050, even with big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

In the coming years, the university plans a sustained research effort by engineers, ecologists and climate scientists to reach technological innovations in renewable energy, water and wildlife conservation. Those advances could, in turn, spur new policies at the local and state levels.

Researchers, for instance, could find ways to capture snowmelt and urban runoff that wash into the ocean or discover a cost-effective way to turn saltwater from the ocean into drinking water without harming marine life. They might devise new techniques to protect urban wildlife populations from extinction or pursue breakthroughs in renewable energy production and the electrical grid.

"This is bigger than any research project we have tackled before," UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

Matt Petersen, Los Angeles' chief sustainability officer, said city departments would welcome UCLA's research findings and policy suggestions.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power would benefit from research into new methods to clean up polluted aquifers in the San Fernando Valley and tap them for drinking water, Petersen said.

"Maybe we can't achieve their goals by 2050," he said. "But we can learn from them and use them to create a city that's prepared for climate change."

The project will be in the form what's known as a grand challenge, a structured competition for ideas on the UCLA campus that has become a popular way to encourage researchers around the world to solve pressing problems.

Research institutions, government agencies and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the X PRIZE Foundation have used such challenges to try to motivate breakthroughs in everything from vaccines to ocean research and spaceflight.

The U.S. Department of Energy has a grand challenge to make solar power cost competitive with coal. NASA started one to find asteroids threatening Earth. President Obama announced a challenge in April for researchers to unlock the mysteries of the human brain.

Princeton University and New York University are among the other institutions that have launched grand challenge initiatives.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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