UI Water Sustainability Initiative - Eric Tate

By Mallory Hughes

            During the last year of his PhD study, Eric Tate was not even considering a career in academia. In fact, he had a job lined up in one of the national laboratories for the Department of Energy.  But when he heard about the Water Sustainability Initiative and the cluster hire at the University of Iowa, his outlook changed. He is now an Assistant Professor of Water Resources and Sustainability in the Department of Geography at the university.

            “This cluster was an opportunity to not be confined in terms of disciplinary bound,” Tate said. “I can publish in the geography journals, but if I had an opportunity to publish in journals outside the discipline, I would be rewarded and not penalized.”

            Tate said that he noticed this particular cluster hire has a tendency to think of things and to look at problems more holistically, trying to see the overarching problems as opposed to seeing only the problems within his or her own discipline.

            “We have people from all over, so we can come together on projects where we have mutual interests and discuss things,” he said.

            The University of Iowa was a good fit for Tate because of the strong infrastructure of flood-related research that has been completed at the flood center (IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering). IIHR has become a resource for Tate in terms of data, people, and expertise.  Specifically, Tate is a hazards geographer, who researches and studies issues closely related to flood hazards. He used to focus primarily on the physical dimensions of floods, such as GIS Modeling, where and how deep the water is, or its impact on buildings, which is heavily geared toward engineering, he is now focused on geography.

            “I am interested in the social dimensions of floods,” Tate said. “ So I try to model human populations. Why are some people more susceptible to flood impacts than others? What are the underlying reasons? Can we model them so we know a particular place where the most vulnerable people are likely to be?” he said.

            The outcome of this type of research is useful when trying to plan for future disasters. It will give communities some modeling information in order to support a disaster plan.  “In time, I became interested in the social dimensions. So now it’s a more complex thing. It’s not just how the water is behaving but the ability of populations to deal with it,” Tate explained.  In order to know how populations deal with a disaster, researchers must first understand how society works, studying marginalized populations, sociology, law, history, and environmental science to truly understand it all.  But the implications of solving an Iowa environmental problem are different. In terms of floods, they simply cost the state a lot of money.

            “People lose their belongings, their homes, there are health and safety impacts,” Tate said. “We can design our societies in terms of being better protected from floods, but also not designing societies in the middle of flood plains.”

            If growing societies avoided flood plains, he said, they would save a lot of money. That money could be invested in other things like education instead of flood recovery.  As with many others, Tate’s biggest struggle with his research is not enough time. But because he works in a subfield of geography that’s not in an established pipeline, Tate struggles with finding graduate students as well.  “You’re not going to find a geology department that specializes in hazards geography,” he said. “A lot of things we need to re-train from scratch.”

            Luckily, Tate got a project funded for the summer of 2014 with the National Science Foundation. He’s been interviewing graduate student applicants to get the project rolling.  “It’s essentially about the next generation of social vulnerability indicators,” he said.  The social vulnerability indicators will then be available for use in planning for future disasters.

            Tate teaches “Contemporary Environmental Issues” and “Hazards and Society” at the University of Iowa.