AGCI History

Aspen Global Change Institute began in 1989 with the support of the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). Conceived as an interdisciplinary center to advance scientific understanding of Earth and human systems, the formation of AGCI also anticipated the vital role this knowledge could play in helping society advance sustainability.

Under the direction of co-founder John Katzenberger, AGCI held its first summer workshop in 1990. Since then, AGCI has held over 80 workshops, gathering more than 1,900 scientists from over 40 countries. Today, AGCI’s landmark interdisciplinary workshop series continues alongside our research and technical assistance programs, each working to advance science, catalyze solutions, and nurture community. 

Below, explore the evolution of AGCI’s work, approach, and impact. 

Our Story


Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) was co-founded by Charles “Rick” Chappell and John Katzenberger in 1989 as the result of a planning workshop funded by NASA. At the workshop, experts considered the fledgling organization’s mission: to further interdisciplinary understanding of global environmental change and Earth system science. Until February 1995, when it became an independent nonprofit in its own right, AGCI operated under the nonprofit 501(c)(3) umbrella of the Windstar Foundation, an environmental organization co-founded by Tom Crum and John Denver. The Windstar board and its president, John Denver, enthusiastically supported the concept of AGCI and its role of furthering environmental science in the service of society. Within a year of the planning workshop, in June of 1990, AGCI established a scientific advisory board and began full operations. Its first interdisciplinary workshop, on the emerging field of global change science, spanned three weeks in July and August, with 38 participants joining from three countries. Talks and discussions focused on the nexus of social and physical science in understanding global-scale change, from atmospheric chemistry and climate change to human population dynamics, biodiversity, and changes to the land surface. As part of the inaugural workshop, a group of nationally recognized educators participated for part of the first summer to explore the educational opportunities offered by global change science.

(L-R) Charles “Rick” Chappell, John Denver, and John Katzenberger. AGCI co-founders Chappell and Katzenberger first met in 1988 on the grounds of John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, where Katzenberger was research director.


Following AGCI’s first summer session in 1990, the aim of subsequent sessions was to provide a setting where scientists and educators with different specialties could gather to compare differences and commonalities among their work and seek areas of collaboration. The length of the gatherings (workshops AGCI held during its first decade were generally one to two weeks long) and the informal setting were highly conducive to the goal of interdisciplinary discussion. Active dialogue developed among the diverse group of participants, which included biologists, atmospheric chemists, climatologists, solar physicists, glaciologists, ecologists, and a range of social scientists. While this decade’s workshops covered a variety of topics, they reflected the direction of the scientific community by placing special emphasis on emerging technologies such as remote sensing, development of coupled Earth systems models, identification of future research priorities, and the creation of management methods for observational data.

During this time, AGCI also worked in the fields of education and outreach. Anticipating the increasing importance that remote sensing would come to play in Earth sciences, AGCI produced the Ground Truth Studies Teacher Handbook with a grant from NASA. Designed as a primer on global change and remote sensing for teachers, the Handbook coupled age-appropriate activities for elementary and secondary grade levels with satellite and aerial photography. Published in 1992 and presented to educators across the nation in teacher-training workshops, the Handbook helped students understand the role remote sensing plays in observing change on Earth.

1990 Session Photo. (from left, clockwise): John Katzenberger, Don Wuebbles, Milton and Della McClaren, James Diana, Rick Chappell, Gayl Ness, James Lawless, William Kuhn, and Mark Meier. View the full participant list of this initial 1990 workshop.


During the 2000’s, Earth observing systems and Earth system modeling efforts continued to expand internationally. AGCI workshops of this decade explored a variety of themes, with several focusing on human impacts on biogeochemical cycles and human-induced climate change. Other topics included the related fields of assessing and communicating uncertainty, new coupled modeling systems, and weather and extreme events.

Climate change also came on the agenda as a regional and local concern, which created opportunities for AGCI and the wider global change research community to contribute knowledge relevant to planning and resource management. An early example of a regionally focused effort was a workshop that brought together resource and energy managers from the State of California with climate modelers and hydrologists to consider how to make appropriate long-term plans for the state in the context of a changing climate. In 2005, AGCI began to engage on climate impacts close to home by preparing a report to the City of Aspen, Climate Change and Aspen: An Assessment of Impacts and Potential Responses. This report applied current models and projections to the Aspen region and explored potential impacts and vulnerabilities of climate change in a locally relevant way.

In 2009, AGCI hosted an in-depth conversation between water utilities and climate modelers about how climate change could affect water supplies and utility operations. This conversation informed the growth of the Water Utility Climate Alliance, which continues to this day to strengthen the process by which water utilities make climate-related decisions.

Cover of AGCI’s 2006 Climate Change and Aspen report. An early example of local climate impacts assessment, the report was sponsored by the City of Aspen in response to growing local concerns about future climate impacts.


As AGCI moved into its third decade, the societal relevance of its mission became more apparent with the intensification of local- to international-level policy discussions in the public arena. This provided numerous opportunities for AGCI’s portfolio of work to expand beyond convening workshops. In 2012, the Institute initiated a soil moisture and weather monitoring network based in the Roaring Fork Valley to track changes in bioclimatic conditions across a large elevational gradient. In 2018, AGCI, in partnership with Energy Innovation, organized the Crux Alliance, which supports a network of technical assistance providers working around the world to help design efficient and low-carbon energy policies. In 2019, AGCI hired its first research director, Julie Vano, to develop a research agenda with an emphasis on climate change impacts and societal engagement.

During this decade, AGCI workshops continued to build on themes of how to make science more relevant to society, engaging practitioners from diverse disciplines on the various uses of global change research. Workshops from this period also supported international teams working to improve global climate models (GCMs) and Earth system models (ESMs), including a focused series of meetings on the emerging field of decadal climate prediction. Marking our 25th anniversary, AGCI held a workshop on the Frontiers of Global Change Science, looking back over the advances of the past 25 years and forward to the frontiers of global change research and its role in society.

Woman next to soil monitoring equipment on snowy mountain pass
Eleanor Barber makes a winter field visit to validate snow depth measurements at AGCI’s Independence Pass Roaring Fork Observation Network site, January 2017.

Current Decade

AGCI’s fourth decade began with a transition. In February 2020, AGCI Co-Founder and Director John Katzenberger stepped down after leading AGCI for its first 31 years. AGCI’s Board of Directors appointed Dr. James C. Arnott as the next executive director.

And then came a transformation. In March 2020, like many organizations, AGCI closed its main office and continued operations virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We adapted our longstanding in-person workshop series to virtual gatherings and continued to identify ways to nurture community in research and practice through other virtual interactions. In November 2020, AGCI issued a new strategic plan, “Spanning Boundaries,” which laid out a roadmap for the Institute for the next five years. The plan’s vision for AGCI’s expanded programs areas focused on workshops, research, and practice, as reflected across a new AGCI website launched in 2022.

To support this broad vision, in 2021 AGCI established a fellowship program to provide early career researchers with practical experience in boundary-spanning research and practice projects. In addition, AGCI continues to expand its mission through partnerships with a variety of individuals and organizations.

Conference participants pose for group photo infront of screen showing virtual attendees
Group photo from May 2022 workshop on Arctic Extremes. After a two-year pause in convening in-person meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, AGCI held a first-ever hybrid meeting that combined our traditional in-person workshop experience with online participation.