We are interested in understanding how global climate change as well as regional land use/ land cover change may impact society through changes in the patterns of water availability, extreme weather, and spread of vector-borne diseases. We address research questions at the intersection of evolving natural phenomena and vulnerable societal contexts. We develop sophisticated numerical models (MIT Regional Climate Model (MRCM); and the Hydrology, Entomology and Malaria Transmission Simulator (HYDREMATS)) that are used for projecting such impacts at regional scales. We test these models against satellite observations and archived data sets of hydrologic and atmospheric variables, as well as data collected in our own field campaigns.
Currently, our group also works to better understand future hydrologic conditions in Central North America, predominately the Midwest and Great Plains of the United States. These areas are centers of economic importance, but also home to large portions of the population, and it is important to quantify the nature of climate conditions that may be observed in a changing climate.
More recently, we identified the “hottest” spot on Earth (see above figure): the area around the Persian Gulf, and predicted that habitability of this region will be severely impacted in the future due to deadly summer heat waves that can be triggered by global climate change. This work received exceptionally broad media attention (Altmetric index of 1679). This study was followed by two complementary studies focusing on South Asia, and Eastern China, which received similar levels of attention, suggesting a significant role in shaping the global public policy debate about global climate change.
The Mediterranean region, and Morocco in particular, are projected to experience some of the sharpest precipitation declines among all world regions under climate change (see above figure). Yet, to this day, there is limited understanding of why models are predicting such a dire future for this region. Using global and regional climate simulations, our ongoing research focuses on identifying the physical mechanisms responsible for future wintertime Mediterranean climate. The end goal is to help countries like Morocco develop better-informed, long-term climate adaptation plans to prepare for potential reduction in water availability.
During the 1990s, our group developed a theory defining the role of vegetation distribution, as a lower boundary for the atmosphere, in shaping the dynamics of monsoons. This exposed a coupled natural system exhibiting multiple equilibria under the same forcing. We used that theory to predict and explain the impact of human activities such as deforestation, irrigation, and desertification on rainfall distribution in Africa.
However, the ocean, and not vegetation, is the lower boundary of the atmosphere for most of the Earth. This important role of the ocean was apparent in our discovery of the connection between natural variability in the Nile flow and the oceanic phenomenon of El Nino. We used this connection to predict how climate change may impact the Nile floods in the future, as well as in development of a new methodology for seasonal prediction of the Nile flow. This methodology has been adopted for operational use in the region.
During the last two decades, Eltahir group established and maintained long-term field sites to study the ecology of malaria transmission in several African villages. Research in this group resulted in improving state-of-the art tools for planning environmental management of this disease under the current climate, and projected a less worrisome future for malaria in West Africa than suggested by previous studies.