As I sit down to write this letter, we are well into our third day of the current round of El Niño-influenced rainfall throughout our region. Radio announcements warn of mudslides and flash floods. The Zanja, typically a dusty creek bed, has swelled into a roaring torrent of brown water. Earlier this week, an earthquake—albeit a small one—rattled nearby Banning causing momentary disorientation as we sat at our breakfast tables.
Nature has a way of asserting itself in Southern California, reminding us that the wild beauty of our surroundings, with those breathtaking mountains that soar in every direction and the unspoiled canyon lands almost on our doorstep, is fragile, precious and subject to change. Drought, pollution and the effects of climate change are not abstract concepts here. They are our daily reality. They persist.
And here at the University of Redlands, so close to mountain, desert and ocean, we are the academic home to faculty actively researching the ecology, climate, flora and marine life of our area, from the San Bernardino Mountains to Santa Monica Bay. Where we live impacts us powerfully, and where our campus sits directly influences the questions we ponder as thinkers, innovators and scholars. Where we are matters.
The creative and scholarly work these faculty members have committed themselves to, be it tracking whales off Newport Beach or studying the hydrology of Lodgepole Meadow at Big Bear, is making a significant contribution to our understanding of Southern California’s unique challenges. Our science faculty are creating an invaluable body of knowledge about how our landscape came to be, what factors have affected its development over time, and how human intervention has compromised the health of our environment and will continue to do so if we pay no heed.
As acknowledged experts in their fields, our faculty are also participants on the national stage lending their voices and knowledge to a wider dialogue on environmental issues. Environmental Studies Professor Tim Krantz is a recognized authority on the Salton Sea, and his opinion is sought out frequently on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing on California’s groundwater supplies. His colleague Hillary Jenkins’s work on spatio-temporal patterns of water distribution, quality and scarcity in Southern California is currently informing a new restoration plan for the National Forest Service to preserve the meadow ecosystem.
When we talk about environmental challenges, of course, there are those that are cyclically recurrent and those that can be defined as prevailing “megatrends.” The cyclical we are well acquainted with in Southern California. Living in a semi-arid desert region, we expect droughts, and we know that El Niño can usher in some mighty, flood-inducing storms. In the megatrend category is the behemoth of climate change. Whether one argues the significance of the human contribution to global warming, it is nevertheless the only factor likely to be in our control. Slowing or reversing its progress may only likely happen if all the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters strenuously commit to those goals of the Paris agreement that require global collaboration on an unprecedented scale.
When it comes to cyclical climate challenges, though, we as scientists and thought leaders in Southern California have an important role to play. By applying ourselves to the rigorous study of our surroundings and the cause and effect of phenomena—both climate- and human-induced—we can influence public policy in matters of pressing importance to the Southland and beyond.
For our students, the inland region offers a vibrant living laboratory where, inspired and guided by their professors, they can dig in and do actual hands-on research out in the field. These out-of-the-classroom experiences not only make learning real and tangible, they also encourage students to see themselves as agents of change in the stewardship of our environment. Careers in environmental sciences and policy begin to seem possible.
And indeed we know that many of our graduates are doing terrific work with organizations in our area addressing Southern California’s chronic water shortage, educating the community on drought tolerant landscaping, monitoring ocean water pollution, and becoming active leaders in ensuring a more sustainable future for the region.
While California has its share of environmental and ecological challenges, we are not alone in facing threats to our natural resources. The problems we tackle and the solutions we develop here have broader relevance. And the University of Redlands is playing its own part in finding some of those solutions and influencing future decisions for our state and beyond.
I, for one, feel encouraged and inspired to know we are contributing to this vital work for our times.
With warmest regards,
Ralph W. Kuncl, PhD MD
University of Redlands