Water in Africa

2007-15 Program Initiative

Setting up a measurement tower at the Mpala field site. (Photo: Kelly Caylor)

The primary goal of this research project is to develop quantitative hydrological measures of land degradation that allow for better predictions of ecosystem response to climate variation in dryland ecosystems.Caylor and his team have developed methods for measuring soil water loss and plant water use at landscape scales using stable isotopes of water vapor, and have installed a measurement facility at the Princeton-affiliated Mpala Research Center in central Kenya that will monitor energy, water and carbon balance of a typical savanna ecosystem for the coming five years.

Educational Impacts

As part of Princeton’s Semester in Kenya program, Caylor developed a field ecohydrology course to teach the principles of surface hydrology, its importance in understanding land degradation, and the relationship between ecosystem process and the availability of water in drylands. Undergraduates Molly O’Connor ‘11 and Ming Lu ‘12 contributed to the research by investigating the controls on below ground carbon storage and structure in savannas of Botswana. In the summer of 2011, three additional Grand Challenge interns will be participating in the project; Alice Suh ’12, Hannah Safford, ’13, Kathleen Ryan ’14. They will help develop new methods for isotope measurement as well as initiate a set of novel experiments to test assumptions regarding the dynamics of evaporation and plant water use. Work from this project has also been integrated into the flagship introductory course within PEI’s ENV certificate program, ENV 201, which Caylor co-teaches each fall with Professor David Wilcove. The following two courses have been heavily impacted by this project:

  • Field Ecohydrology
  • Environmental Biophysics

Other Outcomes

Caylor’s group has received over $2.0 million in additional funding from the National Science Foundation and the LI-COR Environmental Education Fund (LEEF) for research arising from the Grand Challenges Program. Results from this work have been published in top journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Geophysical Research Letters. In 2009, Caylor received the inaugural Early Career Award from the Hydrology Section of the American Geophysical Union as well as a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. He currently serves as the chairman of the Ecohydrology subcommittee in the American Geophysical Union, the largest scientific society focused on Environmental Sciences in the world.

Future Directions:

Caylor recently initiated a new Grand Challenges project to examine the interactions and tradeoffs between climate change, biodiversity conservation, and dryland agricultural intensification. This research will extend his current investigations to regional issues related to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. This new effort is also being supported by a Princeton Global Collaborative Network Fund, as well as through the National Science Foundation via a 3-year grant awarded through the newly-established Social-Ecological Systems initiative.

Participating Department

Related Media and Press Coverage


Kelly Caylor
Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Graduate Students

  • Trenton Franz
  • Stephen Good

Undergraduate Students