Amilcare Porporato, 10 associated faculty join PEI

Morgan Kelly, ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

The Princeton Environmental Institute has added core faculty member Amilcare Porporato, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute, and 10 associated faculty to its roster of researchers and educators whose work focuses on or relates to the environment.

Porporato, who came to Princeton from Duke University, focuses his research on ecohydrology, which examines the interactions between water and ecosystems. His specialties include soil and water sustainability, soil-atmosphere interaction, soil moisture and plant dynamic and soil biogeochemistry. He will direct the Water and the Environment Grand Challenge.

“The main attraction for me to join Princeton and PEI was the emphasis on fundamental and interdisciplinary research in the environmental sciences and engineering,” Porporato said. “The environment is a complex system that we need to better understand. Only an interdisciplinary research agenda such as Princeton’s that sees the environment as a complex system can provide the difficult answers we need for the sustainable use of soil and water resources.”

The ubiquity of water means that Porporato can collaborate across many disciplines. He has already started working with Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Elena Shevliakova, PEI visiting research scholar, on how agriculture and climate are affected by different photosynthetic pathways of plant water use.

Porporato also is exploring work with Lars Hedin, the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Princeton Environmental Institute, on the hydrologic controls on biogeochemical cycling and soil nutrients. In addition, he’s interested in working with Simon Levin, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, on unraveling the ecohydrological processes that underlie food, energy and water sustainability.

“There are lots of interesting questions related to how the hydrologic cycle with its space-time fluctuations impacts ecosystems and societies and these, besides their inherent scientific interest, have very important implications for how we optimize our environmental resource use,” Porporato said.

As director of PEI’s Water and the Environment Grand Challenge, Porporato will oversee a research program that provides two-year awards to Princeton faculty and student researchers exploring critical environmental issues associated with the physical, chemical and biological aspects of oceans and freshwater systems.

“Water is really at the center of the environment,” he said. “Ecosystems, societies and life itself depend on water, but our actions have become so harmful to the environment and the hydrologic cycle that the soil, groundwater, rivers and lakes are increasingly threatened.”

That urgency to understand and defend the water cycle underpin the courses Porporato will teach at Princeton starting in Spring 2018, particularly his undergraduate course “Environmental Thermodynamics.” An emerging area in engineering, environmental thermodynamics pertains not only to energy and transport processes in the environment, but also provides students with “quantitative foundations to understand the environmental response to human perturbations,” Porporato said.

Environmental science has arrived at a potentially fruitful yet ecologically precarious juncture, Porporato said. Researchers are increasingly studying and understanding the nuances of environmental systems, but climate change and the global environmental crisis are increasing the instability of those same systems faster than scientists can grasp them.

“The fields of environmental science and civil and environmental engineering are undergoing a tremendous redefinition, reenergized by current problems created by climate change and anthropogenic pressure on ecosystems,” Porporato said.

“We know quite well how to build, control and optimize our cities and land for specific goals, but we need to learn to do the same for the more complex interactions of multiple processes across a wider space-time perspective,” he said. “We are using — and often ruining — our environment without having a sufficient grasp of all the leverages we are playing with.”

Porporato was a visiting scholar at Princeton from 1999-2001. He earned his master’s degree in civil engineering in 1992 and his Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering in 1996 from the Polytechnic University of Turin, where he was then appointed a researcher and an associate professor. He was a research associate at Texas A&M University in 1998. He joined Duke in 2003 as a professor of civil and environmental engineering with a secondary appointment in the Nicholas School of the Environment. While at Duke, he received his department’s 2010 Earl Brown II Outstanding Civil Engineering Faculty Award and the Professor Senol Utku Annual Award in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Porporato was elected a 2012 fellow of the American Geophysical Union and received the 2016 AGU Hydrologic Science Award. In 1996, Porporato received the Arturo Parisatti International Prize awarded by the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere e Arti.

Porporato is author of more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, as well as several publications presented at national and international conferences. He also is coauthor of the book, “Ecohydrology of Water-Controlled Ecosystems” (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), and edited the book, “Dryland Ecohydrology” (Springer, 2005). Porporato was editor of the AGU journal Water Resources Research from 2004-2009, and he is currently editor of the journal Hydrological Processes. He also is a member of the editorial board for the journal Advances in Water Resources and for the Hydrological Sciences Journal.

Ten people also have been newly appointed to PEI’s associated faculty, a group of more than 120 Princeton professors and researchers whose work crosses into the realms of the environment, ecology, climate and energy. PEI associated faculty are based in all of Princeton’s areas of study — the natural sciences, policy and the social sciences, the humanities, and engineering and applied science.

PEI’s newest associated faculty are:

  • Maurizio Chiaramonte, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering;
  • Jacob Dlamini, assistant professor of history;
  • Stephan Fueglistaler, associate professor of geosciences;
  • Erika Milam, associate professor of history;
  • Rachel Price, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese;
  • Kristopher Ramsay, professor of politics;
  • Blair Schoene, associate professor of geosciences;
  • Mary C. Stoddard, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology;
  • Elke Weber, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment and professor of psychology and public affairs; and
  • Jeffrey Whetstone, professor of visual arts in the Lewis Center for the Arts.