Latest Posts

LA Weekly on Our New PLoS 1 Paper regarding Climate Change and Fire

LA Weekly published and article on our new PLoS 1 paper on climate change in California and the Southwest.

You can see the scientific paper here –

Loisel J, MacDonald GM, Thomson MJ (2017) Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186282.


Time Magazine Interview on California Fires

I was recently interviewed by Time Magazine on the 2017 California wildfire season.  The combination of high precipitation in the winter promoting much fine fuel growth, the long period since last significant rainfall and the high summer temperatures being experiences in Southern California have produced a dangerous situation.  The main unknown in the equation is the frequency and timing of ignition sources. Let’s hope for the best.

Read the Time article here –

Seal Beach Earthquake Study in the News

Evidence for coseismic subsidence events in a southern California coastal saltmarsh

Our lab collaborated on a recent paleoseismology at the Seal Beach Marsh using foraminifera to identify subsidence events related to the Newport-Inglewood fault.  The study was published in Reports and drew coverage in the Los Angeles Times.  Rob Leeper, formerly USGS and now at UC Riverside was the leader of the work. Much thanks to Dr. Simona Avnaim-Katav in our UCLA lab for the foram work. Take home message – the fault, which transects an important built-up area of Southern California is more active than assumed.

Read LA Times Article here –

Scientific paper  is here –

AAG Presidential Column – Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography

Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography


Glen M. MacDonald

Ensconced in our academic environs, as students or as faculty, we are sometimes accused of being removed and aloof from the issues of the real world and our research regarded as being of purely scholarly interest. Indeed, there are times for many of us that this may be more than a little bit true. I certainly have not been immune to being intrigued by questions with no apparent implications for the practical problems of the here-and-now. However, today, as often has been the case over its long history, the discipline of geography is being called upon — and called out — because of its importance in identifying and addressing problems of the wider world. Three recent items in the news reminded me of the potential role of geographers and geography in addressing the myriad challenges swirling around us at the present time.

First, this past week the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, spoke at a Republican Party meeting in Philadelphia. She then met with President Trump in Washington. The Prime Minister’s speech was one in which geography, and geopolitics in particular, formed a central focus. She turned her attention from one geographic region to another, from the threats felt by the Baltic Republics, to the situation in the Mideast, to details of British trade with Pennsylvania. This should not be surprising, the Prime Minister does after all hold an undergraduate degree in geography from Oxford. We may debate their political stands, but it is notable for our discipline that the first world leader to meet with the newly inaugurated President of the United States is a geographer. May’s speech might be taken in part as a geography lesson for the now empowered, but increasingly nativist, Republicans. Political Editor, George Parker, who is himself a geographer, wrote recently in the Financial Times about the Prime Minister’ grounding in geography and the growing political influence of the discipline. Parker concludes that “Her arrival in Downing Street is symbolic of the subject’s renaissance.” In this he is speaking not about a purely academic renaissance, but ascension of geography to a prominent place on the world political stage and the highest ranks of policy making.

Also in the past week, a more critical take on President Trump’s policies was offered by the geographer Michael Dear, professor emeritus at Berkeley. In interviews with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and later with Michael Smerconish, Dear provided criticisms of the proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He informed CNN viewers on the 650 miles of current walls and fencing and the geographical obstacles that confound extending this barrier in many places. He also critiqued the efficiency of such structures and the policies behind them. The demand for Dear to share his expert opinion on the geographical and policy problems of the proposed wall is based upon his book Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide. The fact that this book was published in 2013, its research and writing occurring well before the recent election and new administration, displays a prescience that one would hope geographers can bring to real-world issues.

In the realm of natural and environmental sciences there has been increasingly strong emphasis on conducting research which is informed by, and directly applicable to, issues of environmental resource management, planning and policy. In the past this work fell under the rubric of “applied research.” Today the term “actionable science” is often used to denote research which can be directly used in management and planning and the term “policy relevant science” used to denote work which has direct engagement with policy questions. By its very nature, the discipline of geography, which is after all concerned with the Earth’s physical and biological processes and features, and human use of, and impact on, those features and processes, should be a fountainhead of actionable and policy relevant knowledge. I would argue we are seeing increasing efforts to produce actionable and policy relevant geography throughout our discipline and that the recognition of the value of such work within the world of geographical scholarship has also increased. Take for example the trend in the impact of the journal Applied Geography. The journal has seen its Researchgate Impact rise from <0.5 in 2000 to hover around 4.0 over the past few years.

Increasing participation in actionable research is a widespread trend in universities that extends far beyond geography and began well before the present century. Michael Gibbons and his colleagues described this emerging trend and its impetus in their influential 1994 book The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. More recently, a 2015 study published in Higher Education by Peter James Bentley, Magnus Gulbrandsen and Svein Kyvik analyzed survey data from over 12,000 academics in 15 countries. They found that in the United States the number of academics who conducted solely applied and practical research significantly exceeded the number who conducted solely basic and theoretical research. However, the preponderance of academics surveyed conducted a blend of applied and basic research. There are a number of factors driving the embracement of applied and practical research. These range from altruistic desires of students and faculty to demonstrably contribute to alleviating health, social and environmental harm, a greater communication of such applied issues and the need for specific research, greater academic recognition and acceptance of such research in universities, and greater funding and other support for such research both inside and outside of academia.

Now, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that purely academic and theoretical work has no place within the geography corpus. Within academia in particular such work must be valued and supported. I do want to suggest, however, that geographers have, like other academics, increasingly embraced actionable and policy relevant research and that our discipline has much to contribute to mitigating the world’s health, societal and environmental ills in this manner. Aside from the benefits accruing to people and planet by such contributions, the individual researcher and the discipline also benefit. Bentley et al. concluded that researchers engaged in practical and applied research generally were better funded than their colleagues. In addition, they note that that increased engagement with practical and applied research can produce “shifts towards collaborative and transdisciplinary research, greater heterogeneity in the sites of knowledge production, deeper social accountability and broader forms of quality control.” These would seem to be goals which many of us in Geography embrace for our discipline. Finally, our actionable engagement with widely perceived health, social and environmental challenges raises the profile of geography and geographers amongst our academic colleagues, the public and policy makers. These are all audiences upon which the long-term health of our discipline depends. Simply stated, the discipline of geography must be widely seen as relevant and of practical importance to people and planet if it is to survive and grow in the 21st century.

Fortunately, geography, through substantive interests such as health geography, demography, housing, economic geography, social justice, development, hydrology, climate change, conservation biogeography etc., is well positioned to produce actionable and policy relevant research. The twinning of geography with planning in a number of departments and schools provides an exciting opportunity to engage in actionable and policy relevant research while strengthening internal ties. There is no question that our technical capacity in areas such as mapping, surveys, qualitative social research, geographic information sciences, remote sensing, etc., also equip us to be leaders in actionable and policy relevant work. In this, geographers are not only using, but creating new technologies and approaches. As one example I would point to AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson’s 2013 Annals article on the development “real-time GIS” and the near instantaneous integration of spatiotemporal data, which has widespread applications in government, businesses, and society in general. The capacity for geography to engage in actionable and policy relevant research must, however, be realized through efforts by geographers to seize these opportunities.

In the past decade or so my external research funding has almost entirely shifted to actionable and policy relevant work. I have found this immensely satisfying both on a personal level and in terms of supporting my work and expanding my research team. In this effort I have noted the remarkable ability of such work to snowball in which an initial engagement leads to deeper understanding of a problem, expanded contacts and collaborations, and ultimately additional research opportunities and support. My own experience is that this snowball is started by reading broadly beyond disciplinary and academic pieces and attending meetings and communicating directly with those involved in management, planning and policy. It takes a commitment to being open to actionable research opportunities that arise and willing to think hard on how your geographical tool set might be modified and applied to such applied research questions. One must also work hard at figuring out how to translate your research into the language and concepts which are employed in the management, planning and policy communities with whom you wish to engage. Pursue opportunities to co-produce research with the members of those communities and can deepen your understanding of the problem and increase the transmission of your work. Finally, one must be willing to accept that you may have to learn new perspectives and that your work may not be the sole or most important deciding factor in a management, planning or policy decision — i.e. display some humility.

I do not want to mislead anyone, however, into thinking that the production of actionable and policy relevant geography is risk-free. Work which transcends purely academic interest can have real socioeconomic and environmental consequences. There are often two or more conflicting sides on such issues. One should expect that important actionable research can potentially draw sharp public and private attacks. An obvious example is the ad hominin assaults launched in debates over the science of climate change. Although this may be personally unpleasant and even professionally challenging it should not be a reason for geographers to turn away from actionable and policy relevant work. Rather it should be a call to action. There will be times that we as individuals, as an association, and as a discipline must fight to preserve our ability to engage in actionable and policy relevant research. This then brings me to the third news item that I wish to relate to you.

At this time there is a direct and dangerous political attack launched explicitly against geospatial data and geographical research that could have a dramatic chilling effect on applied geographical research and ultimately on racial equality in the United States. Twinned Senate and House of Representatives bills (S.103 and H.R. 482) introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the Senate and by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) along with a number of Republican Congressmen in the House would do the following:

SEC. 3. Prohibition on use of Federal funds.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

The wording above is clear and troubling. Not only would the creation of new Federal geospatial databases on racial disparities be prohibited, so too would access to existing geospatial information of this sort and the use of Federal funds from agencies such as the National Science Foundation to study such data. As written, this represents a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country. What then can be done about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482 to geospatial and geographical information and research? The AAG has already drafted and sent a letter of concern to Senator Lee. However, I would suggest more needs be done by our members directly. First, spread the word to geographers, other scholars and the public about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482. Second, take a moment to contact your Federal Senators and representative – easily done via Third, you may want to also contact the Bill’s sponsors with your concerns. Finally, stay aware, informed and communicative of similar threats to geospatial information or geographical research that may arise in the future. We may well be entering an era when not only has the need to create actionable and policy relevant geography never been more pressing, but the fight to preserve our ability to conduct such research never more necessary.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald

AAG Presidential Column – Strengths and Challenges of Diversity

Strengths and Challenges of Diversity


Glen M. MacDonald

It is fair to say that the recent election has created deep concerns in our community regarding issues of diversity and gender equity. This unease certainly extends far beyond the campuses. In writing about the uncertainty in America’s corporate workplaces a recent article in Bloomberg stated, “Diversity issues have come to the fore as the presidential campaign exposed and deepened bitter divisions on matters such as the treatment of women and minorities.” So, as we enter the potentially troubled waters of 2017, allow me to share some of my thoughts on the fundamental issue of diversity as it relates to our discipline and the AAG.

This past month the University of California reported on our 2017 applicant pool and it makes for enlightening reading in this regard. By the numbers — the UC applicants were 34 percent Chicano/Latino, 30 percent Asian American, 25 percent White, 6 percent African American and about 1 percent American Indian and Pacific Islander. In terms of socioeconomic diversity, 42.4 percent were from low income families and 46 percent would be the first in their families to obtain a degree. On my own campus about 21 percent of the current undergraduate population are Chicano/Latino, 32 percent Asian American, 26 percent white, 5 percent African American and 1 percent American Indian/Pacific Islander. Slightly over 50 percent of UC undergraduate students are women.

This increasing diversity and gender balance amongst university students is of course not just a feature of the University of California. It is part of a long-term national trend. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) the proportion of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students in higher education tripled and African American enrollment increased by about 40 percent between 1976 and 2008. Since about 1980 women have been the majority gender amongst undergraduates. The diversity amongst graduate students remains lower than amongst undergraduates, but the NCES data indicate progress towards developing a graduate student body, which more closely resembles the complexion of the nation. The percent of African American graduate students has increased from 6 percent to 12 percent, Hispanics increased from 2 percent to 6 percent and Asians/Pacific Islanders increased from 2 percent to 7 percent. Women now account for a bit more than half of all graduate students. Recent data by NCES also shed some light on the diversity of the faculty. Although the ranks of full professor are largely dominated by White males, there is increasing ethnic and gender diversity in the more junior ranks. One would suspect that this increased diversity in the ranks of associate and assistant professors will propagate upwards into the professorial ranks over time.Diversity of U.S. university faculty from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics –

There are obvious reasons why, in a healthy and equitable democracy, access to higher education must be open to all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. There are also many reasons why diversity bestows benefits to students in the classroom and on the campus in general. The potential added value of greater diversity has been articulated many places including in U.S. News and World Report – 1. Diversity expands worldliness in regards to exposure to people beyond a single social set, 2. Diversity enhances social development, 3. Diversity prepares students for future career success in today’s diverse workplaces, 4. Diversity provides preparation for work in a global society, 5. Diversity drives increases in the student’s own knowledge base, 6. Diversity promotes creative thinking, 7. Diversity enhances self-awareness, 8. Diversity enriches the multiple perspectives developed by higher education. It is not surprising the U.S. News and World Report includes a Diversity Index in its campus rankings.

The value of diversity extends beyond the campus setting and into professional life. For example, a study authored by Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince and released in 2015 by McKinsey and Company examined management data for 366 public companies across a range of industries in the Unites States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Latin America. They found that firms in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. They also found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Interestingly, for the United States there was a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance. Every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity in senior management was correlated with an increase in earnings before interest and taxes of 0.8 percent.

Collaborator diversity has also been shown to be a positive driver of research performance. As Jean Vanski, Director of Management and Analysis, Division of Institution and Award Support at the National Science Foundation, has stated “Diversity is important to our mission because different perspectives bring to an enterprise different ways of solving problems.” Katherine Phillips argues in Scientific American that it is not just the diversity of views that is important, but the diversity of the voices expressing those views is also impactful. Differences in race and gender can actually increase the impact of novel or dissonant opinions in group research. There is also a potential payoff to diversity in the communication and impact of the resulting research. In a 2014 commentary published in Nature, Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang of Harvard discuss an analysis of 2.5 million research papers in which they found greater ethnic homogeneity among authors was associated with publication in lower-impact journals. In contrast, papers by multi-ethnic teams of four or five authors experienced a 5-10 percent advantage in terms of citation numbers.

So, with all this in mind, we might ask how our discipline and our association are faring in terms of diversity? As it happens, there is a wonderful AAG Disciplinary Data Dashboard that allows members to explore this question in detail. If you have not visited the Dashboard I highly recommend you take a look. The data therein suggest a positive trajectory, but as of yet incomplete journey. Let’s assume that with almost 12,000 members, the association roughly represents the demography of the discipline as a whole in terms of gender balance and ethnic diversity. Since 1972 the proportion of female members has increased from less than 20 percent to about 40 percent. Close, but not quite parity when measured against the general population or university student proportions. In terms of ethnic diversity we clearly have work to do. Our numbers of African American, Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan and Pacific Islander remain markedly below the proportions of those groups in the general population.


Some of this may reflect the fact that about a third of our membership is international, but I do not think that wholly explains the disparity between the AAG and the U.S. population. We should also be cognizant that our survey numbers remain incomplete in terms of socioeconomic background, sexual orientation and other attributes that contribute to the full palette of diversity in any society.

As a discipline, and as an association, we are making progress, but work remains. That work must center on making sure that the discipline of geography and the AAG are seen as relevant and valuable to a wider cross-section of the population. Here I believe there are important positive feedbacks to be realized. As we add more geographers from currently under-represented groups we add to the perspectives that geography provides and the voices by which those perspectives are communicated. Our work expands in its relevance and the message of that growing relevance is shared more widely and effectively through having a diverse membership.

We would be remiss if we think of diversity simply in terms of numbers needed to fill-out comparative spread sheets. There has been much work done in business on the challenges of the effective development and capitalization of diversity. This is often referred to as “diversity management.” As Glenn Llopis points out in Forbes Magazine, “Diversity can no longer just be about making the numbers, but rather how an organization treats its people authentically.” To be effectively and authentically diverse an organization must allow its diverse membership to be both meaningfully engaged with the organization and empowered to change operating models and chart new courses. Engagement means more than just giving voice. It means identifying priorities and providing opportunities that are relevant to broader populations. Empowerment to change priorities and operations may mean surrendering of some power by established leaders. However, as Kathy Hannan, National Managing Partner, Diversity & Corporate Responsibility, KPMG LLP, argued in the Forbes piece, “Diversity must move from just a value, to being operational.” I believe that this is the same for our discipline and association.

This all sounds good, but how can it be effected? As diversity has increased in universities and other organizations there can develop a sense of alienation by both the previously dominant or empowered groups and newly arrived and developing groups. Communication and cooperation give way to dismissal and adversity. An article in the Harvard Business Review by Tessa L. Dover, Brenda Major and Cheryl R. Kaiser suggests that in many cases corporate diversity training does little to improve such cultures or alleviate increasing senses of alienation. To overcome these challenges takes more than exposure to training, it takes more than curriculum, it takes doing by each and every one of us. Simon Goring at the Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, was part of a team that produced an article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on creating and maintaining diverse and high-performing collaborative research teams. I find the piece quite instructive on how we, as individuals, can promote a healthy diverse organization. The article highlights the importance of Social Sensitivity (empathy, honesty, clarity, integrity, accountability) coupled with Emotional Engagement (shared excitement about goals, personal commitment to the team, trust). Another important element they identify is Team Communication (evenness of talking and listening, lack of dominance, equality of interactions and tone). These values are important for any team or organization, and critical for those which are highly diverse and incorporate members with a variety of markedly different life experiences and perspectives. One might distill this all down to actively showing mutual respect.

Many of our members have long been working hard in their teaching, research and service to advance the cause of diversity and equity. So too has the Association. The commitment of AAG leadership and staff from past presidents on down has been continuous. I invite you to the read the 2006 Diversity Task Force Report on goals for enhancing diversity. My recent predecessor, Mona Domosh, has written in this column about the importance of diversifying our curriculum. Each year the AAG expressly honors a geographer for their efforts toward encouraging a more diverse discipline. Geography is innately a discipline about diversity and geographers should be better equipped than most to embrace and foster a culture of diversity. If we wish to see our discipline and organization grow and prosper in an increasingly diverse nation we must do so. In addition, we as geographers can and should provide an example of the strength of diversity and the route to overcoming any challenges along that path. Let’s all think about working to achieve this, particularly in our own personal interactions, as we move forward into the New Year.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0001