Braudy Foundation funds Phase II of dust and drought research

The Braudy Foundation – founded by Bob Braudy ’65, M.Eng. ’66, and his wife, Judi – has committed to funding a second five-year phase of a collaboration between Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) and Northern Arizona University (NAU) that will use drones to chase dust storms and learn about their effects on the atmosphere.  

Bob Braudy ’65, M.Eng. ’66, right, and his wife, Judi.

The research will be led by Toby Ault, associate professor in EAS, and Nick McKay, associate professor at NAU, who made important breakthroughs in the first phase of the Braudy-funded project. Over the past four years, the Cornell-NAU team discovered new dimensions of dust, drought, land use and climate change on the southern Colorado Plateau. The high elevation of the region – which includes portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – makes the area particularly vulnerable to climate change and has been the focus of many climate scientists.

At NAU, McKay and Steph Arcusa, an early-career scientist funded by the project, developed new paleoclimate lake records that defy standard models of how the atmosphere picks up dust from the land surface and deposits it downstream. Ault and Carlos Carrillo, a Cornell postdoctoral associate funded by the project, introduced new methodologies for simulating the large-scale effects of drought and dust in the region using numerical models of the global circulation.

Phase I of the project revealed the counterintuitive result that dusty periods in the U.S. Southwest did not correlate with pre-industrial periods of drought.

“The NAU team started finding these really clear dust deposits,” Ault said, “and at first I thought, ‘Exactly, megadrought,’ but then it turned out that, no, we just don’t really understand what’s controlling dust emissions in that region during pre-industrial times.”

Since those pre-industrial times, however, dust has been heavily influenced by the presence of disruptive human activity and land use such as cattle grazing, which, the team hypothesizes, makes dust emissions more sensitive to droughts now than it was a few centuries ago.

Unanswered questions from the first phase, particularly regarding what dust does once it’s moving along in the atmosphere, inspired the highly ambitious research goals for the newly funded second phase. The team will deploy drones and weather balloons equipped with low-cost sensors to track the flow of dust from the land surface into the atmosphere. The drones will aim to move with dust storms in the atmosphere and physically collect samples for research.

Phase II also will establish a new undergraduate internship program for rising juniors and seniors at Cornell. Students will join a research and innovation team tasked with developing new technologies to observe dust in the atmosphere as it is mobilized and deposited. The open-ended aspect of this research experience fits well into the project team model that Cornell Engineering is known for – giving students real-world experience with tools, modeling and data in a team-based setting.

Bob and Judi Braudy have a long-standing affinity with upstate New York and Cornell Engineering, which has led to several gifts and collaborations over the years, focused on providing students with hands-on experience. In 2009, the Braudys endowed an ethics workshop that brings together faculty and students from Cornell Engineering, the SC Johnson College of Business and the Law School.

Diversity and inclusion will be paramount to Phase II of the project, and members of underrepresented communities in STEM will be encouraged to apply from across Cornell.

“One of the big problems we see,” said Ault, “is that institutional biases can reinforce existing inequalities, which creates a divide between the average and the outstanding college graduate. And, admittedly, I think all of us have inadvertently perpetuated this problem in one way or another, in part because we haven’t been proactive enough in our efforts to combat it.”

Yet Ault also believes that Cornell’s highly diverse engineering program and its mandate to provide an education to “any person … any study” makes it uniquely positioned to disrupt the narrative of institutional bias.

A version of this article appears on the Cornell Engineering site.

Erin Philipson is a communications specialist for the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

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Rebecca Valli