Category Archives: Biodiversity

A global strategy for road buildingdeforestation from road building in the Amazon

Build it and people will follow — that’s the nature of roads. In many parts of the world, that fact is having an impact on ecosystems, with increased human access leading to habitat and wilderness loss, fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation. With a 60 percent increase in global road expansion predicted by 2050, careful planning of road building is crucial.

In a report published this week in the journal Nature, researchers have offered a “global road map” to steer road expansion into areas that would have maximum human economic and social benefits while protecting areas with high environmental values such as biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage.

“So much road expansion today is unplanned or chaotic, and we direly need a more proactive approach,” said William F. Laurance, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia, in the Nature news release about the study. “It’s vital because we’re facing the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.”

Across the globe, logging, mining, agriculture, transportation, energy and trade require roads. “While new roads can promote social and economic development, they also can open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems. This is especially the case in pristine or frontier regions, where new roads often dramatically increase land colonization, habitat destruction, and overexploitation of wildlife and natural resources,” the study noted.

Christine S. O’Connell, graduate research assistant with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative and a co-author of the study, said, “This study was a true team effort from a global team of researchers. I was delighted to participate and bring GLI’s agriculture and land use impacts data and expertise to the table.”

“We focused on agriculture because global food demand is expected to double by mid-century, and new or improved roads are vital for farmers,” said Nathan Mueller of Harvard University in the news release. Mueller completed his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota working with GLI. “With better roads, farmers can have improved access to fertilizers, information, and markets for their crops — the whole economic equation changes, which can make farming more efficient and profitable.”

The researchers used data from GLI and other public sources to figure out where roads and road improvements would have the biggest costs and benefits. From that information, they developed a map showing where high environmental costs suggested road construction should be avoided, where roads could provide big agricultural benefit at a relatively small environmental cost, and ”conflict areas,” in which roads would bring both great agricultural benefit and substantial environmental harm.

Also contributing to the study were Gopalasamy Reuben Clemens, James Cook University and Universiti Malaya Terengganu, Malaysia; Sean Sloan, Miriam Goosem and Oscar Venter, James Cook University; David P. Edwards, University of Sheffield, U.K.; Ben Phalan and Andrew Balmford, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Rodney Van Der Ree, University of Melbourne; and Irene Burgues Arrea, Conservation Strategy Fund, Costa Rica.

“We hope our scheme will be adopted by governments and international funding agencies, to help balance development and nature conservation,” said Laurance in the news release. “It’s very exciting to see GLI data contributing to a study that we hope can contribute directly to conservation planning efforts.”

The maps are available online at www.global-roadmap.org for immediate use.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit environment.umn.edu. To learn more about the Global Landscapes Initiative, visit gli.environment.umn.edu.

Banner: Deforestation associated with forest roads in Roraima in the southern Brazilian Amazon (image from Google Earth).

On the edge of the Amazon, efficiency mattersIntensified croplands that grow commodities like soybeans and maize are becoming more common in the Eastern Amazon; here, primary Amazon forest exists meters away from high-productivity agricultural fields.
Credit: Christine S. O’Connell

As land resources come under more and more pressure — to grow food, support cities and house valuable ecosystems — scientists, activists and others are on the hunt for better ways to manage the terrestrial biosphere. One strategy is to increase the efficiency of croplands and pasture lands, particularly in ecosystems such as the Amazon forest where converting more land to agricultural use is environmentally costly.

As the world’s largest contiguous tropical forest, Amazonia is an important store of carbon, provides habitat for biodiverse communities and plays a part in regulating the global water cycle.

Moreover, the Amazon is a prime candidate for exploring whether increasing efficiency can help make agricultural land use more sustainable. Recently, David Lapola of Universidade Estadual Paulista and colleagues pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change that agriculture in Brazil, including Amazonia, is intensifying and becoming more dominated by commodity production, leading to systematic changes in land use. This intensification has been accompanied by lower rates of deforestation.

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Tropic of Twin CitiesPhoto by Robert Pittman, Flickr Creative Commons

For many Minnesotans, “tropical” connotes vacation, beaches, pineapples and suntans. With the help of an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network (TC-Tropics for short) hopes to expand this view to include the great diversity of tropical environments beyond the beach.

Why the Tropics?

Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area of the earth surrounding the equator. The tropics contain the greatest levels of biodiversity in the world, including charismatic animals such as the orangutan and numerous species that have not yet been discovered by humans. Equatorial regions are home to beautiful coral reefs, forests that are critically important to global climate, and billions of people who live in remote rural areas, cities and everywhere in between. In other words, the tropics are a varied and vital part of the planet.

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NutNet: New model for global researchZebra

The Nutrient Network is getting a lot of press these days. Coordinated through a University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment Discovery Grant, NutNet, as it is affectionately called, is a global research network conducting standardized experiments to understand the effects of fertilization on grasslands — land dominated by nonwoody vegetation.

Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, serves as NutNet’s hub of operations, in charge of information management and network coordination. “What makes NutNet unique is that data are collected using the same protocols across different landscapes,” he says. “These data are allowing us to ask general questions like, ‘What is controlling diversity and productivity?’ ‘How are human activities changing diversity?’ ‘How do these changes impact the environment further on down the road?’” Continue reading

Frontiers: Tracking the wild onesTracking Deer

Climate change and overconsumption of Earth’s resources have a huge impact on humans, but understanding how these issues affect wildlife populations and behavior is important as well.

Portrait: James ForesterThat was the topic of the Institute on the Environment’s final Frontiers in the Environment talk of the semester Dec. 11 when James Forester, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, discussed “Tracking Animals through Space and Time: Understanding the Consequences of a Changing World on Wildlife Populations.”

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Frontiers: The palm oil problemOil Palm Leaf

Think about your morning routine. You may take a shower or wash your face with soap. Afterward, you may sit down with a bowl of cereal, or perhaps you grab a granola bar as you head off to work or school. While you may not think about it, chances are you’ve used palm oil at least once before you make it out the door.

Found in everything from soaps to breakfast foods, palm oil is all around us and becoming even more ubiquitous. Kimberly Carlson, an Institute on the Environment postdoctoral research scholar, discussed the sustainability issues and opportunities of palm oil production in her Sept. 25 Frontiers on the Environment presentation.
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People reap benefits of investment in natureGreat Lakes

What do eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces have in Common? The Great Lakes! Recently, Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now Connect invited Institute on the Environment resident fellow Stephen Polasky to join a panel of experts to talk about the importance of investing in natural environments to enhance the quality of the Great Lakes.

It’s easy to understand that clean water is important for drinking, fisheries, irrigation, recreation and other benefits that people reap from the Great Lakes. What may not be as obvious is the effect that coastal and upland habitats have on water quality. Continue reading

Soil surpriseCedar Creek

Living things that lurk beneath the surface of the soil have huge impacts on living things above, influencing everything from individual plants’ ability to obtain nutrients to the integrity of the elaborate food webs that keep animals of all shapes and sizes alive. Now, thanks to research by IonE resident fellows Peter Reich (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences), Sarah Hobbie (College of Biological Sciences) and colleagues, it’s clear that what’s happening above the surface has a huge impact on the living things below as well.

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