At first, Manoochehr Shirzaei was a little skeptical about the authenticity of the email claiming to be from the United Nations University.

“It just came out of the blue. I don’t know how they found me,” said Shirzaei, associate professor of geophysics and remote sensing in the College of Science. “It’s a very crowded field.”

As reality set in, Shirzaei realized he wasn’t pranked or scammed, but rather invited to join the think tank and academy arm of the United Nations (UN). 

“It’s a huge opportunity because it’s a huge and impactful platform to help the UN create policy,” said Shirzaei. “I am very excited.”

Headquartered in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan, the United Nations University is made up of 13 institutes in 12 countries around the world. While each institute has a specific focus, collectively, they aim to resolve pressing global issues through collaborative research and education, according to its website,

Shirzaei not only will serve as a senior research fellow for the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, he also will break new ground for the group related to sinking land, known as land subsidence.

“Dr. Shirzaei is one of the leading researchers in this space based on the work he has done, both in terms of research and outreach,” said Kavah Madani, director of the institute. “He will lead a new initiative on land subsidence, which will improve the UN member states' understanding of an overlooked anthropogenic [environmental change caused by human action or inaction] problem that is known as a ticking bomb threatening public infrastructure, human assets, and livelihood around the world.”

At Virginia Tech’s Earth Observation and Innovation Lab, Shirzaei and his team of researchers measure millions of occurrences of land subsidence, spanning multiple years. They then create some of the world’s first high-resolution depictions of the occurrence, which when combined with other observations, such as sea-level rise, provide more clear projection of the potential impact of floods and natural disasters during the next 100 years.

Some of the lab’s most recent findings:

“What makes Dr. Shirzaei's research unique is his interest in making an impact,” Madani said. “He has certainly been successful in employing sophisticated space, air, and ground monitoring techniques to not only tell us about the anthropogenic changes but also about their impacts on our societies and justice.”

Shirzaei’s initial appointment will be for one year, but he’s hopeful it will continue for many years to come and excited to get started helping to craft the UN’s first guidelines related to sinking land.

“I’m a little bit nervous to be honest,” Shirzaei said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where I can help basically change the course of land substance in the world.”

Other Virginia Tech affiliates of the Earth Observation and Innovation Lab:

  • Virginia Tech National Security Institute
  • Virginia Tech Center for Space Science and Engineering Research
  • Virginia Tech Global Change Center
  • Virginia Tech Center for Coastal Studies
  • Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences
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