Whether by hiking the debris flow pathway of a landslide or reading arcane scientific articles, Karin Rogers dedicates herself to understanding complex scientific data so she can translate that information for ordinary people to understand. Her work as interim director of the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) at University of North Carolina Asheville allows her to fill that gap in communication by assisting the people making decisions that affect our communities.
Rogers graduated from University of Georgia in 2003 with a Masters in geology. She concentrated on fluvial geomorphology, which is the study of river processes and landscapes. “I love the idea of being able to go spend time outdoors and learn about our deep past through rocks,” she says.
Rogers headed UGA’s Department of Crop & Soil Sciences to manage a research project on water quality monitoring. “It involved a lot of fieldwork and making friends with lots of snakes,” she jokes. NEMAC hired her in 2006 to manage a cooperative agreement between the organization and the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center.
But the rewards of her work are not the only reason Rogers loves Western North Carolina. “I love living in Asheville — the access to natural areas, the community, the size, the restaurants, the quirkiness,” she says. “Even as we’re growing and facing a lot of change, it still feels like a close-knit community and I enjoy being a part of it.”
Xpress spoke with Rogers about NEMAC’s work, how data can be used to address climate change and the most fascinating hike she’s ever done.
This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
Can you explain what NEMAC does?
At NEMAC we are interested in helping people make data-informed decisions about environmental change and resilience. We’re an Applied Research Center at UNC Asheville, and we specialize in trying to help decision-makers make decisions about climate change and landscape change. The idea is to be that translator between science producers and science users.
These decision-makers can vary from local municipalities, like the City of Asheville, who are interested in interpreting and understanding trends in climate data and the expected impacts, to forest managers who want to understand how large landscapes are changing from various threats like insects and disease, to planners and the public who want to know about landslide risk in Western North Carolina. Some good examples of this work include Asheville’s climate resilience assessment and the Landslide Map Viewer that we launched with the N.C. Geological Survey.
Why are you interested in science communication?
The everyday person isn’t out there reading scientific articles, and doesn’t necessarily spend time trying to understand complex trends and data that we’re seeing out there. I’ve always been drawn to try to fill that gap of communication and so much of it is geared towards decision making, especially related to climate. There’s a lot of important decision making going on about how we adapt and mitigate everything related to the change we’re experiencing.
What is environmental modeling, and why is it important?
Modeling can take many different forms depending on the subject that you’re looking at. NEMAC works with a lot of scientists who are looking at climate projections, or looking at how landscape and forest changes using satellite imagery. And we work with those who do the modeling, taking complex data and processing it, and basically finding better ways to understand the trends that they’re seeing. And now you’ve got this interesting, novel way of communicating your data — how can we get decision makers to be informed with that?
The partners that we work with are trying to better understand the trends they’re seeing and use that information to understand any change that’s happening. We are there to essentially assist them in that. So modeling, analysis, data, visualization — there’s all sorts of fields that are related to each other. It comes down to getting a better understanding of the trends we’re seeing in our environment.
What’s a cool, recent project that you worked on?
I’ve really enjoyed partnering with [the Oceanic and Atmospheric’s] Climate Program Office since 2014 on the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, which NEMAC has helped co-develop. The toolkit features a resilience assessment process that is being adopted throughout the U.S. to help communities address their resilience to climate change. I’ve been proud of this collaboration and the work has been really rewarding.
What’s a recent trend you’ve seen, regarding the environment or climate change, that you think more people should know about?
I think a key thing for folks to understand is that we are seeing different changes and impacts depending on where you live in the U.S. For WNC, we are expecting an increase in the frequency and intensity of precipitation events which will impact flooding and landslide events. And wildfire is an issue for our region as we see increased drought. All of these are compounded by the development pressures we’re seeing, which makes for a complicated future.
How does NEMAC work with the Asheville community and the surrounding area?
We’re here to work with various partners to help, especially in the field of climate resilience as a translator. We are here to help the City of Asheville or Land of Sky Regional Council or other community and neighbor groups make decisions using data.
Being part of the university has been [important by] giving undergraduates opportunities to work with us, hopefully giving them exposure and training to be able to do more of that type of science translation as they graduate. There’s a real need for that skill set, especially with all the environmental climate change that we’re going through. There’s a real need for a workforce that can understand the data and climate trends that we’re seeing. So that’s a big part of why we’re here at the university and how we work with the university.
What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
I do enjoy getting outside with my son and my husband and hiking is always one thing that we love to do, like to go find swimming holes and go swimming in the summer.
What was your most geologically interesting hike in this area?
Back in 2004 when we had Hurricanes Frances and Ivan, huge flooding and landslide events happened here. There was a big landslide called Peeks Creek [in Macon County]. [My most interesting hike] was a tour hiking up the debris flow pathway. It was a massive, fascinating exposure of rock. Recently, the North Carolina Geologic Survey took [the NEMAC team] on another tour of a bunch of landslides out in Polk County. We hiked around and saw some fascinating evidence of large old historic landslides. They’re occurring more often now with the increased precipitation and increased frequency of precipitation events.