Been there, done that by Kathrin Häb
It was end of September 2011, when I got an E-Mail from Prof. Dr. Hans Hagen, to whom I applied three months before. “I will see if I can do something for you”, he said as he received my application, “we are always happy to find motivated graduates”. Since I did not hear from him for quite a while, I accepted a job as a teacher and adopted two classes in a school here in Kaiserslautern. Happily sharing my knowledge in German and Geography with the 6th and 7th grade, I really enjoyed my work there and felt established. After all, this was what I graduated in: German and Geography for a teaching post. But this E-Mail made me curious, so I went to meet Prof. Dr. Hagen again.
“Sit down”, he said. And then he started telling me about this project at the Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, where exactly my expertise in the field of urban climatology was asked for. Exactly the things I was good at, and exactly the things I had fun working on during my years at the University of Trier. And the best thing: If I managed to do a good job, I would get a scholarship for a Ph.D.! So my curiosity started to increase, although I knew that accepting this job would mean to leave this life I got comfortable with, since staying in the USA for several months was part of the deal. So there was only one question moving around all the time: “Should I stay or should I go?” If I stayed, I knew I would really regret not taking the chance. And if I went? What would the director of the school say? What would happen if I failed? And would I manage to do my Ph.D. in Computer Science, a field I was relatively new to?
I did not have a lot of time to decide, since I had my first Skype-meeting with the responsible person in Tempe, Dr. Ariane Middel, a short time after my meeting with Prof. Dr. Hagen. But it also did not take me a very long time to decide: The project sounded so interesting and the chance was so exciting that I couldn’t resist. Furthermore, the idea of an academic career was appealing to me. Luckily, the Skype-meeting went very well and I felt completely comfortable with this decision. So I quit my job at the school, got myself a new passport and booked my flight to Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
The day of departure came closer and closer and suddenly – there it was, rainy and grey. “Hello”, I said as I arrived at the responsible counter at the airport, “here’s my suitcase for the flight to Phoenix via London.” – “Oh, I am sorry, the flight to London has been cancelled due to rain and fog.” – “Whaaaat?” I couldn’t believe what I just heard. Luckily, there was another flight I could take, but the gate closed shortly after my arrival at the counter. I never ran that quickly, but still I was the last person to get into the plane – they closed the doors right behind me! Actually a good thing - I was really afraid of flying and that way, I didn’t have time to panic. After a travel time of about approximately 16 hours (ride to the Airport in Frankfurt/Main and waiting time in London included) I got off the plane. Ariane picked me up at Phoenix Sky Harbor and we drove to my new home for the next months: The IRTG apartment in Tempe.
Overview of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area
Temperature station in our ENVI-met testbed
Perhaps I should explain the term “IRTG apartment”. ‘IRTG’ is an abbreviation for International Research Training Group, a huge research project that finances 22 Ph.D. students (me amongst others) and six post-docs, which are provided with an excellent interdisciplinary and international education. International also means that the members of this graduate school spend 9 months working at one of the outstanding partner institutions in the USA. These partners are top universities with world-wide recognized research, such as UC Davis, the University of Utah and, of course, the Arizona State University. In order to ensure each student’s roof over their head, the IRTG facilitates several apartments in the corresponding cities, and I got to stay in the IRTG apartment in Tempe, a city within the Phoenix metropolitan area.
The day after my arrival was also my first day in my new job. We went to the office. This ride was the first time I saw Tempe at daylight. Wow! So many Saguaro cacti, which most people probably know well from “Coyote and Road Runner”. So many palm trees. And the sky: Only blue, not a single cloud could be detected! And the streets… We passed rectangle after rectangle, each crossroad looked extremely similar, hosting either a huge store or a fast-food restaurant.
Finally, we arrived in the office. I couldn’t wait to start working, since I was interested a lot in the underlying question of the project: How can we use urban form and landscape scenarios in the Phoenix metropolitan area to ameliorate the extremely hot summer temperatures and, hence, to minimize energy use for air conditioning?
Urban Form scenarios are here meant as combinations of building height and arrangement, where we identified five dominant types (according to a recent scheme of local climate zones by Steward/Oke (2012)) within the Phoenix Metropolitan Area: Compact Lowrise (all houses have maximal two stories and are arranged densely), Openset Lowrise (maximal 2 stories, not arranged densely), Compact Midrise (3-8 storys, densely arranged), Openset Midrise (3-8 stories, not arranged densely) and Compact Highrise (no upper bound in story number, arranged densely). In contrast, Landscape scenarios are horticultural schemes, i.e. different plant configurations which can be distinguished according to their irrigation needs. We focused on four different types: Native (plants are native, no water has to be applied), Xeric (plants are mostly native, drip-irrigation is sufficient), Oasis (mixture of high and low water-use plants) and Mesic (high water-use plants, turf grass covers the ground). We combined the landscape scenarios with each urban form scenario, whereat the Compact Highrise scenario was only combined with the xeric landscaping due to a high ratio of impervious surfaces in this urban form. These combinations were input into the three-dimensional microclimate model ENVI-met (www.envi-met.com), which allowed us to simulate climate conditions and, hence, to analyze near-ground air temperatures for a typical Phoenix summer day.
In the following weeks I got to know the other people working on this project: Prof. Dr. Chris Martin, Prof. Dr. Subhrajit “Subhro” Guhathakurta and Prof. Dr. Anthony “Tony” Brazel. Together, we worked on all the necessary steps to conduct these simulations and to analyze the results. In order to apply the ENVI-met model to our research question, the first step was to calibrate the model to the Phoenix metropolitan area. That took quite some time, because we first needed to find an appropriate testbed, where the different landscaping scenarios could be found in a controlled environment, together with atmospheric data measured in the corresponding areas. Once we found this testbed, we needed to parameterize all the plants occurring there, so we went out for my favorite part of geographical research: A field trip! Packed with all the necessary measuring devices, Ariane and I sampled and mapped all the types, heights and volumes of the plants within four neighborhoods with each different landscape scenarios. Since we were not too familiar with all the plant types, we first had these amusing nick names for some of the unknown shrubs and trees out there, such as “Vampire palm” or “boring plant”, until Chris, a plant physiologist, helped us out with all the scientific names. Once we had our complete list, we made ourselves to the next necessary steps: The calibration of the model, the simulation of the urban form scenarios, and finally, to an analysis of the model data. Now, nearly one year later, we are finally about to publish our paper about this research – a good feeling and something to be proud of!
During my time at DCDC, I made myself at home in a typical American workspace: A so-called cubical, i.e. a desk in a hallway with pinboards framing the area of creativity. Mine was right next to Arianes office, who herself worked in a former broom closet, due to a lack of vacant offices. So we both did not have any windows at work. Furthermore, they took air conditioning very serious in the office, so we always had our additional sweater on during work. It was always quite disturbing when leaving the office. During my lunch- or Starbucks-breaks I was regularly stunned when leaving the building: “Wow”, I thought, “it’s actually warm!” But this would not last for a long time. Since we needed an additional computer to conduct our numerous simulations, I became subject to a major step in my career: I was allowed to move into the office of the “Co-Principal Investigator”, which became vacant a short time ago. Finally, I had a window! A real window! I never felt that fancy before…
Although we were quite busy at work, I did not spend all my time in Phoenix in the office. Ariane was the perfect host, so she showed me around and took me places. I saw incredibly large supermarkets and huge malls with an incredible number of stores, where you could buy the craziest things – even small, little, cute puppies! But I must admit that I, as an animal liberationist, would have loved to walk into that store and close it, since the puppies did not seem to be very happy in their small little cages. We also went to a local site called Desert Botanical Garden, where I saw a real road runner and found out, that it actually doesn’t say “meep-meep” all the time. She also took me to several sport events.
The first one was Ice-Hockey. Yes, you are reading it right. Ice-Hockey. In the middle of the desert. It was quite an experience to walk from a hot parking lot into a freezing cool stadium. I really do not want to pay this energy bill… The second one was American Football, where we tailgated on the parking lot in front of the stadium. Tailgating is a ritual, which takes place before every Football game. The visitors setup their barbeque next to their car on the parking lot, take a beer and enjoy being around other football fans, happily waiting for the game. The third one was Baseball, which I found rather boring, since it is not a very dynamic game. So I just got myself some peanuts and enjoyed the sun, chatting with my seat-neighbor.
I also saw a lot of the Southwest of the USA, when my fiancé Nils visited me for a month. We rent a car and made ourselves on a road trip with stops in numerous popular places – places I always wanted to see one day. Starting in Phoenix, we went north to see the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon and parts of Lake Powell. We went on to Las Vegas, Death Valley and from there to San Francisco. After that, we drove the famous 101 southbound to Los Angeles (a horrible city except for Disneyland) and went on to our last stop in San Diego.
This was without exaggeration one of the most amazing trips in my entire life! We saw so many different landscapes, each of which had their own individual fascination. A new experience for me was also to drive very long distances without even passing one single house – which I sometimes found scary, especially at night. There was darkness everywhere, and the thought about the catastrophe of our car breaking down gave me a slight shiver. But the incredible beauty of the nature we saw at daytime compensated for this feeling.
Concluding, I must say that the time I spend in the USA made me learn a lot. For the first time, I worked in a project and experienced all phases – from the initial research question over the concretization of the project, the planning of the single steps up to the final analysis. But I did not only learn purely professional things, there were also meta-experiences I made during my stay in the United States. What amazed me a lot was the implicitness of interdisciplinarity, which is not too common in Germany. The DCDC was a good example for this factor: All working on urban sustainability, this institute hosted a geodesist, social scientists, a biologist and me, a geographer. For our project, we had a geodesist (Ariane), a plant physiologist (Chris), and urban planner (Subhro), a climate researcher (Tony) and a geographer (me), so there was an expert for each necessary field which eased the process of finding a solution for our research question. I am very happy to be part of this project and would not want to miss this experience.