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22-1. Climate change impacts on water resources in cold environments

Rapid climate-driven changes to the cryosphere are giving rise to multi-scale water-related issues ranging from sustainable living in northern communities (e.g., drinking water, food security, infrastructure) to regional-scale shifts in water storage and fluxes.  Novel approaches and applications that can help quantify and predict hydrologic response to climate change in cold regions are sought.

Description of the Research Opportunity

Problem statement: Climate change is affecting water resources and ecosystems with disproportionate, and often negative, impacts on underserved communities (EPA, 2021). Socially vulnerable groups in our Nation’s cold regions, including Indigenous communities, are particularly susceptible to climate change effects due to (1) rates of atmospheric warming in northern latitudes and high altitudes that are up to four times the global average over the past several decades (Mountain Research Initiative EDW Working Group, 2015; Rantanen et al., 2022), (2) cryospheric components of the water budget that have elevated sensitivity to warming because of thermally modulated phase change, and (3) ground instability in northern latitudes that is linked to warming, giving rise to subsidence, infrastructure damage, and reduced access to subsistence resources (Birchall and Bonnett, 2019). Elevated air temperatures contribute to a diminishing spatial distribution of snow, glaciers, and frozen ground, collectively impacting streamflow timing, magnitude, and temperature as well as the above-and-below-ground reservoirs of water: natural resources that govern the habitability of entire Indigenous communities (Bronen and Chapin, 2013). However, complex water-energy-vegetation feedbacks, spatial heterogeneity, and industrial influence (Langer et al., 2023) on the natural system complicate predictive assessments of these valuable water resources in response to warming. To prepare communities in cold regions for climate-driven changes in water and ecosystems, it is imperative to be able to anticipate the impacts of projected changes. This will require improved resource characterization, process-based assessments, and integrated hydrological, geophysical, ecosystem, and coupled natural-human system studies, particularly in areas of heightened environmental risk to communities.

Proposed research: This U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellowship offers the opportunity to propose original and innovative research to address hydrologic response to climate change in cold regions with specific interest in topics that pose risks to environmentally threatened communities. Research initiatives within the context of the problem statement (above) may address coupled processes (e.g., climatic, earth system, and socioeconomic), feedback mechanisms, vulnerability assessments, tipping points, and early warning. Studies proposed under the Mendenhall postdoc opportunity may incorporate field investigations, Indigenous Knowledge, machine learning, remote sensing, and/or physically based modeling. New and existing datasets may be utilized to advance understanding and improve prediction of one or more of the following components: streamflow magnitude and timing, lake area extent, surface water temperatures, groundwater recharge, and aquifer storage. The research is anticipated to provide the scientific information needed by resource managers and communities on expected impacts of water resources in response to climate change using a community engaged approach.  A successful proposal will build on ongoing USGS cold region research (additional link) and will be evaluated for scientific originality and innovation.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisors early in the application process to discuss project ideas.



Birchall, S.J., and Bonnett, N., 2019. Thinning sea ice and thawing permafrost: climate change adaptation planning in Nome, Alaska, Environmental Hazards 19-2, 152-170.

Bronen, R., and Chapin, F.S., 2013. Adaptive governance and institutional strategies for climate-induced community relocations in Alaska, PNAS 110-23, 9320-9325

EPA. 2021. Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States: A Focus on Six Impacts. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 430-R-21-003.

Langer, M., von Deimling, T.S., Westermann, S. et al. 2023. Thawing permafrost poses environmental threat to thousands of sites with legacy industrial contamination. Nat Commun 14, 1721.

Mountain Research Initiative EDW Working Group. 2015. Elevation-dependent warming in mountain regions of the world. Nature Clim Change 5, 424–430.

Rantanen, M., Karpechko, A.Y., Lipponen, A. et al. 2022. The Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the globe since 1979. Commun Earth Environ 3, 168.


Proposed Duty Station(s)

Denver, Colorado


Areas of PhD 

Hydrology, geology, geography, or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).



Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications:  Research Hydrologist, Research Physical Scientist, Research Geologist

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)