Johannes Feddema

- 2022

Photo of Johan Feddema

Professor Johannes Feddema passed away on January 31, 2022 after a 2-year battle with stomach cancer. Johan was a proud Frieslander, growing up in a rural dairy community in the (Ferwerd) Netherlands for his first 10 years. His parents worked for the Dutch development agency in Kenya (Nakuru, 7 years), Rwanda (Butare and Kigali, 6 years), Pakistan (Peshawar, 3 years), and Tunisia (Bizerte, 3 years). He took every opportunity to accompany his father to a wide variety of development activities across these countries. As part of this upbringing, he also traveled extensively and spent much time in wildlife areas, national parks, and cultural locations in these countries. Because of these experiences, he started University with an interest in marine biology and conservation science, and finished with a double major in Biology and Geography, emphasizing ecology and climate studies. His interest in climate studies was the direct result of a water balance climate course he took that vividly demonstrated the link between water resources and agricultural production, which was made especially impactful because he had been in Rwanda and witnessed a mass starvation event due to rain failures. Johan then completed an MS degree in Geography, focusing on mapping air quality impacts on marble tombstones and monuments in Philadelphia, and then a PhD degree in Climatology from University of Delaware, exploring global climate teleconnections using a water balance methodology.

In the early 1990s, Johan secured a position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at UCLA. Even as a young professor, he poured his hallmark energy and enthusiasm into his belief that systemic environmental challenges require systemic solutions. To that end, he launched the inaugural course offering, Geography 5, in UCLA’s then newly-founded Institute of the Environment (now Institute of the Environment and Sustainability), established and led by Richard Turco. To properly tackle the inherently cross-cutting theme of “environmental study,” Johan ensured that a broad range of disciplines were represented in the course, and brought in a number of guest lecturers to reflect that thematic integration and breadth. This would come to define his approach to teaching and research throughout his career. Richard Turco remembers Johan as a bold young thinker who recognized the compelling need for interdisciplinary research to devise practical solutions and guide policy action on environmental issues.  He said “Even as a newly appointed and vulnerable UCLA Assistant Professor, Johan reached out to collaborators across the campus, breaching academic barriers at some risk to his own career. We were lucky to have him at UCLA at the time.”

In December of 1998, Johan left UCLA to pursue an opportunity at University of Kanas in the Department of Geography. Johan impressed both students and faculty with his ecumenical approach to geography, and was equally adept at talking with hard-science physical geographers, biogeographers, GIS and remote-sensing specialists, and human geographers. His breadth and enthusiasm served him well in his time at KU by helping bridge differences among the wings of the department, often around environmental themes that many in the department studied in common. In 2003, Johan was instrumental in bringing the Atmospheric Science program at KU from the physics department back into its original home of Geography, where it has been nurtured and has steadily grown over the years. With colleagues from History, Environmental Studies, and English, Johan created a new, year-long, team-taught, truly interdisciplinary and integrative approach to the introduction to environmental studies. This series of courses and labs covered humanist, social science, and natural science approaches to the study of the earth, and holistically satisfied a large number of general education requirements. Over the years, Johan’s interest in others and their work led to collaborations with social scientists, humanists, and artists across campus. He took on several iterations of efforts to reform the various majors within what ultimately was renamed the Geography and Atmospheric Science Department, serving as department Chair from 2012 to 2015. All the while, Johan continued his productive research agenda, always with his eyes on the interdisciplinary connectivity that was central to his integrative vision of Geography. In 1999, he co-led the NSF International Workshop on African Environments at KU, and subsequently (2000-2004) co-directed the US State Department-funded University Affiliation linkage with the University of Zambia. Johan is remembered for his open door, and his enthusiasm, directness, work ethic, and absolute honesty. His smile and genuine, infectious positivity and curiosity helped bring out the best in others. The department still bears the fingerprints of his many accomplishments while he was here.

Johan’s interest in climatology largely focused on using climate science to better understand the human impact of climate change on humans and ecological systems, and also to better understand how humans impact local climates through land cover conversion, hydrologic change, and other factors. This stemmed from his early experiences in Africa and his biology background. Much of this work was developed in modeling frameworks, but as an academic, he took advantage of the liberty to develop these other areas in his teaching, and also through public outreach.  His research also simulated the impact of human activities on climate, especially the nature of the built environment.

His research career started with the use of water balance models to simulate climate impacts on water resources focusing on drought, and he studied the climate impacts of land-use change and human-induced soil degradation. Other work included climate impacts on glaciers in the Himalayas, simulation of fire impacts on forest regeneration in the US southwest, and drought detection and methodological work on climate network issues. To better understand the feedbacks in the coupled human climate system, he began to conduct experiments in Global Climate Models (GCMs).  His most recent work was centered around creating models and databases to assess the impacts of anthropogenic land cover change, urbanization, and soil degradation on climate in the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Global Earth System Models.  He published in a variety of journals, including Climate Research, Climate Dynamics, Climatic Change, Urban Climate, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and Science, and was a contributing author on the third and fourth IPCC reports. These are some of the most important journals in climate and geographical sciences, and he is well known and respected in the climate and geography fields: based on Google Scholar data, his research has been cited almost 13,000 times.

Johan was a highly motivated mentor, both in the undergraduate setting and for graduate students. He was so eager to share; often was the occasion I was in his office staring down at 50+ slides full of equations for an hour-long time slot, and then seeing his look of pure delight as he reviewed what he was about to share with the second year class. He gave his time freely to students, and not just the grad students under his supervision, but any grad, or indeed, any student, who approached him for help. He was so generous with his time that I had to be careful not to casually engage him when I knew he needed to be otherwise focused, because that is who he was – he would set aside what he was doing to give you his full attention and honest assistance. He spent a lot of time with his graduate students, and mentored his most recent grads at UVic to achieve impressive results.

Beyond mentoring in the academic setting, Johan felt strongly about using his position to advocate and to make a difference. Throughout his career, starting even in graduate school, he was involved in various levels of public engagement on the topic of climate change.  This included outreach to schools from elementary to University level, providing testimony to the Kansas State legislature at the request of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, advising several organizations (e.g., Climate and Energy Project in Kansas), and serving on the Kansas Environmental and Energy Policy (KEEP) at the request of the Governor of Kansas. He took opportunities to present climate information to a variety of groups in British Columbia (about 5-6 times annually), with the most influential being presentations to public retirement fund boards (> 1 billion dollars each).  He genuinely enjoyed his outreach activities, and viewed these as a key mechanism by which he could effect change in society.  His approach was generally relatively neutral, and instead focused on the fundamental science concepts and evidence, including a history of the science, and linking peoples’ lived experiences to that evidence. He found this approach especially effective in dealing with more conservative, and often more skeptical, audiences.

Johan was a committed academic leader. He served as department Chair for almost 10 years at both the University of Kansas and the University of Victoria, where he was hired as an external Chair. In both units, his administrative work was marked by strong efforts to increase research capacity, keeping an eye on reputation and strategies to improve rank metrics, while at the same time encouraging a cooperative and healthy culture within the unit. As a leader, he was transparent, persistent, and fair and equitable in the treatment of people. He led and encouraged methods for increasing diversity, with a strong focus on Indigenous knowledge; this came naturally to him, an outgrowth of growing up in Africa. To this end, he oversaw Indigenous hires in both units. Equity was central to his ethos, and he helped guide three – overdue – female faculty members’ promotions to Full Professor rank; there had only been one other such promotion in 50 years.  He also implemented new hiring practices in both institutions to ensure improved access to opportunities for minority candidates. He was a strong proponent of and helped facilitate community-engaged work, and combining this with his interest in Indigenous partnership, he developed significant interactions with Indigenous institutions in both Kansas (e.g., Haskell Nations University) and in British Columbia, where he led a field school in Ahousaht Territory (Flores Island), and initiated a semester-long field school (6 courses) in Tofino that incorporates major community engagement components with local groups (both Indigenous and other).  In general, his broad range of these recent experiences, combined with his exposure to various groups in Africa and Asia, equipped him to be a true leader in academic-Indigenous engagement.

Johannes Feddema was dynamic, creative, highly engaged, and deeply optimistic. He was someone you noticed, and his leadership left a strong impact at UVic. He cared deeply about his family, and his world. His professional world will miss him; Geography, Climate Science, and UVic will miss him; and I will miss him, and hope I can be worthy of his example as Chair. On a personal level, I considered him a friend.  I got to know his family, and knew him to be a loving, supportive, and very proud husband and father.  It pleased and privileged me greatly that I had the opportunity to speak with him remotely for most of the morning on the Saturday before he passed, and I received his last email at 2 am on the Monday morning of his passing. True to form, it was a last tweak of a paper he was working on.

David E Atkinson, Chair, UVic Geography

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