Category Archives: Climate Change

Shining new light on trees and CO2news_reich_main

How much do trees vary in the way they suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make roots, trunks, branches and leaves? The answer to that question is an important one because it has a huge impact on our ability to predict how destroying or creating forests influences climate change. And the correct answer is a surprising one, according to two related studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by University of Minnesota forest ecologist Peter Reich and colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, Australia, China, Poland and Germany.

Conventional models used to assess the impact of forests on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere assume that the way trees use carbon to build roots, leaves and trunks is fairly constant across a range of conditions — that is, that trees everywhere devote the same fraction of new growth to each component and that components have the same durability everywhere. However, analyzing massive amounts of data gathered from around the globe, Reich and colleagues documented predictable differences in key properties of forests across north-south climate gradients.

“These findings both advance our understanding of how trees vary and provide useful tools for making earth system models more accurate,” said Reich, a Regents professor and distinguished McKnight University professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and resident fellow of the Institute on the Environment. “[Most of all, they dramatically improve our ability to accurately assess the impact of forests on climate change and vice versa.]”

In one paper, the scientists addressed the question of whether trees invest more heavily in building roots to enhance uptake of water and nutrients in cold climates, where these resources are scarce. Using data from more than 6,000 forests in 61 countries, the researchers discovered that cold-climate forests tend to build more roots and less leaves than those found in warmer climates. This information will improve scientists’ ability to estimate how much carbon trees store worldwide.

The second study looked at how the amount of time cold-climate evergreens such as spruce, fir and pine hang onto their needles varies with climate. Until now, research looking at the flow of carbon through ecosystems generally assumed that evergreens like spruce and pine keep their needles for an average of two years pretty much everywhere. These new findings, gathered from more than 125 sites in North America and Europe, paint a far different picture. The researchers found that the needles of evergreen trees such as spruce and pine in the cold, far north of Canada and Scandinavia last longer but have a lower capacity for capturing carbon than do needles of trees in warmer (relatively speaking) climates such as Minnesota or Germany. These north-south geographic patterns are similar enough among pines and spruces and Europe and North America to enable their incorporation into global vegetation and earth system models, resulting in more accurate projections of forest productivity, carbon flow and how forest are likely to change in the future.

The research involved multiple partners, including a large IonE-sponsored initiative, the Plant Data Synthesis project, which seeks to bring together massive amounts of data from around the world in search of big-picture patterns related to how trees and forests function.

“By improving our understanding of how forests vary from tropics to temperate zone to the polar edges of boreal forest, we hope to provide fundamental advances to basic science and new tools for better modeling forest growth and climate regulation today and into the future,” Reich said.

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.

Photo by Jim Brekke (Creative Commons / Flickr)

Ecologist David Tilman awarded prestigious Balzan PrizePhoto of Ecologist David Tilman

University of Minnesota ecologist and IonE Resident Fellow David Tilman has received a 2014 Balzan Prize in recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions in ecology. The international award comes with an $800,000 prize, half of which is to support young researchers working with Tilman.

According to a release by the International Balzan Prize Foundation, Tilman received the distinction for his “huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.”

The Balzan Prize recognizes achievements in the humanities and natural sciences, as well as in advancing peace among humanity. The foundation varies the fields it recognizes each year with an eye to uplifting innovative research across disciplinary boundaries. Tilman was one of four scholars from around the world to receive the prize this year. Past recipients of the award include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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Supporting the White House Climate Data Initiativenews_white_house_climate_data

The Office of the President of the United States announced a significant expansion of the White House Climate Data Initiative yesterday in Washington, D.C. Through a partnership with the Kellogg Company, the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative will support this effort by providing maps and data showing the potential impacts of climate change on global agriculture.

“Through his Climate Data Initiative, President Obama is calling for all hands on deck to unleash data and technology in ways that will make businesses and communities more resilient to climate change,” said John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, in a press release. “The commitments being announced today answer that call by empowering the U.S. and global agricultural sectors with the tools and information needed to keep food systems strong and secure in a changing climate.”

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Summertime viewing to enlighten and inspireearth_east_nasa

Keep your brain limber this summer by learning about cutting-edge solutions to the planet’s environmental grand challenges. During your down time, we invite you to watch video recordings of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment series, a forum for experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to informally share their work on a wide-range of cutting-edge issues, wrapped up with a lively Q&A.

Browse the archives or choose from this list of nine, hand picked from nearly 40 talks. They are sure to enlighten and inspire! Continue reading

Biofuels and the fiction of the average farmCorn Ethanol

Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?

I say “obvious” because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a “bad idea” because of corn’s apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

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Frontiers: Understanding urban eutrophicationUrban runoff

When you think about the primary sources of water pollution, you probably imagine a factory pipe or perhaps massive livestock farms. But would you believe that your quiet neighborhood could be degrading water quality locally and downstream?

Portrait: Sarah HobbieThat was the topic of the season finale of Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture series on Wednesday, May 7, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “A Watershed Approach to Understanding Urban Eutrophication,” Sarah Hobbie, an IonE resident fellow and professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, discussed how nutrients from lawns, pets and boulevard trees contribute to excessive algal growth in urban water bodies.

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Boreas leadership alum gets Earth Day spotlightUrban heat island

Plenty of folks were out enjoying the overdue warmth of the spring sunshine on Earth Day yesterday — appropriate weather and occasion for a TV news spot highlighting an IonE-supported study at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on how different landscapes affect local temperatures. The study is part of a project on the urban heat island effect, in which buildings and other urban infrastructure absorb and radiate the sun’s heat, causing cities to be relatively warmer than their rural neighbors. Continue reading

Frontiers: North of SixtyNorth of Sixty

Trekking across Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Aaron Doering’s dogsled of supplies crashed through the ice. Most would see a disaster; Doering saw an opportunity to educate millions around the world.

Portrait: Aaron DoeringDoering, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, and director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab, discussed online distance and adventure learning in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture – “North of Sixty: Narratives of a Changing World” earlier this month.

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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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Getting their point acrossAASHE Award Winners

(12/11) In March 2013, a group of University of Minnesota students – some with IonE connections – laid out for an assembly of a thousand state environmental leaders their vision and hopes for the future that belongs to them. Their future is longer than the future of the leaders, and promises to be subject to harsher climate and other environmental travails. Read more

Frontiers: Merging climate science & musicFrontiers: Crawford, St. George, Reubold

For Scott St. George, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and University of Minnesota geography professor, teaching people about climate science is music to his ears, literally.

St. George, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate student Daniel Crawford and IonE director of communications Todd Reubold shared their experience of reaching new audiences by turning climate science data into music in last week’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture, “Resonate! How 90 Seconds of Cello Music is Helping People Connect with Climate Science.”

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Frontiers: Redefining agricultural productivityAgricultural Productivity

Many of us do our best to make healthy food choices, but replacing that burger and fries with fruits and vegetables isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for the environment.

Portrait: Emily CassidyEmily Cassidy, an Institute on the Environment graduate research assistant, discussed the impact of global diet preferences on agricultural productivity and greenhouse gas emissions in last week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation, “Redefining Agricultural Productivity: From Stuff Produced to People Fed.”

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Frontiers: The importance of food literacyFrontiers: Chris Lambe

When it comes to our food system, it seems everyone has an opinion on how we can eat healthier, feed more people and reduce our environmental impacts. But how can you separate food fact from food fiction?

Portrait: Chris LambeThat was the topic of last week’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture presented by Chris Lambe, director of social responsibility for The Mosaic Company - a crop nutrient production company based in Plymouth, Minn.

In “The Importance of Food Literacy,” Lambe discussed why it is imperative that consumers, producers and policy-makers alike have a basic understanding of how the food system works and the challenges facing food production around the world.
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Frontiers: Satellite climate recordsFrontiers - Goddard

Satellite data may provide the best evidence yet for anthropogenic global warming.

Portrait: Compton TuckerCompton Tucker, scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., delivered that thought in a bonus Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Thursday on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In his presentation, “Satellite Climate Records: Observations Not Beliefs,” Tucker used satellite data to address some of the most common arguments from climate change deniers.

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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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Take a step backScreen shot from a Big Question video

Whether you’re an environmental scientist working to restore biodiversity in the Amazon or just someone practicing an eco-friendly lifestyle to the best of your abilities, you know the little things are important. However, the day-to-day routine can give you tunnel vision. At some point we all need to step back and refocus on the global picture.

The Institute on the Environment’s “Big Question” video series can help you do just that. These four short animated videos provide a valuable reminder that there are more than a few environmental elephants in our global room – and suggest concrete ways we can work together to address them. Continue reading

Earthducation brings environmental awarenessEarthducation in the arctic

When you’re traveling in remote areas of Burkina Faso, it can take multiple layers of translation from English to the tribal language just to ask a single question. So it goes if you’re on a quest to educate the masses about the remote climate hot spots of literally every continent on the world. That’s Institute on the Environment resident fellow Aaron Doering’s mission, and he’s made tremendous strides completing it through the IonE-sponsored Earthducation program. Continue reading