The atmosphere is getting hotter, and the conditions for plants and animals worldwide are changing. It’s a challenge that slaps a big question mark on our future: Can we save biodiversity from climate change?
That’s the issue we tackled at IonE’s Frontiers in the Environment talk October 21. Jessica Hellmann, who serves as director of the Institute on the Environment and a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, studies just that. Here’s what she had to say:
- Earth is warming fast. It’s not news that our planet is heating up, but what really matters is how much. If we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the time this century is over Earth could be 5 to 6 °C hotter than in the recent past.
- Climate change means colossal change for life on Earth. Today’s changes are big for plants and animals. Every species has its geographic range, and climate change fundamentally reorganizes those distributions. Hellmann pointed out that last time there was as much carbon dioxide in the air as we’ll likely get within the next few decades, relatives of alligators lived near the poles.
- Glance at the flip side, and you’ll recall that we have a name for the last time Earth was 6°C cooler than it is now: the Ice Age. During that most recent glacial period (really one of many ice ages over the eons), Minnesota was covered by a mile of ice. In California’s Death Valley, today punishingly hot and dry, an evergreen forest spanned the landscape. It gave shelter to an entirely different crop of species, one that held none of the plants or animals now dwelling there. Modern climate change could bring a similar degree of warming over a much shorter time.
- Organisms react to climate change in four ways. When the climate changes, life takes the heat. In response to a shifting climate, biological organisms do one of a few things: deal with it, evolve, move or die. Some plants and animals have genes that act differently under different environmental conditions, a phenomenon called phenotypic plasticity. Others can evolve over generations to fit a new climate, an approach that only works when the change isn’t too fast. Those strategies aside, organisms have two paths: move or die. If a population can migrate — say, northward, to keep the kind of habitat it needs—it might survive. If a species can’t move, or it can’t most fast enough, it’ll likely go extinct.
- Biodiversity is about more than species. Biodiversity is seemingly simple, though deceivingly so. It’s not just about preserving individual species. Seen properly, conservation isn’t some video game with the sole goal of saving species after species until we rack up enough points to move to the next level. Instead, Hellmann explained, biodiversity is a complex concept encompassing not only species diversity, but also genetic diversity, and diversity of ecosystem function and ecosystem services.
- Populations within a species can react differently to change. When pondering climate change, asking only how a species’ geographic range will shift misses the point that populations within one species might differ. As an example, Hellmann discussed her work on the Karner blue butterfly. The two distinct populations of this endangered insect, a western form and an eastern form, live in different climates. Since evolution has equipped each population to withstand different pressures, the two will respond differently to climate change. When modeling how climate change will shift species ranges, Hellmann and her colleagues treated the two forms as separate entities. If scientists treat distinct subpopulations as one, they’ll get entirely different—and probably wrong—results, hindering conservation planning.
- Adaptation matters. “I had worked on this word [adaptation] for a long time, and then someone—the entire discipline of climate science—came along and they stole it,” Hellmann joked. “So now it has two meanings.” Biologists talk about adaptation as how organisms evolve over time in response to their surrounding. Climate researchers talk about adaptation as management: humans adjust to improve our lot in a new situation. Smart climate adaptation on the part of humans considers adaptive evolution. We need both uses of the term to turn biodiversity loss around.
- Conservation should work to build adaptive capacity in species and ecosystems. An example that entails both meanings of adaptation is the notion of adaptive capacity. Species have a fundamental adaptive capacity, a theoretical limit to what they can adjust to. they also have a realized adaptive capacity: The areas and conditions they could actually fit, given ecological constraints not considered by fundamental capacity, such as interactions with other organisms. Fundamental adaptive capacity sets a hard limit to adaptation; realized adaptive capacity is where a species is at right now. Hellmann says that to effectively manage biodiversity under climate change, we should expand adaptive capacity as close to its theoretical, fundamental limit as possible. Strategies include breeding organisms to bolster genetic diversity and connecting habitats to enlarge living space.
- Managed relocation holds promise, mystery — and complexity. Managed relocation, or assisted migration, involves helping organisms disperse to a new location. If humans actively help other species move to areas that suit them better as the climate changes, we can save species that might otherwise go extinct. Potential problems concern some researchers, though, including opportunity cost, endangering source populations, and the chance that transplanting organisms to new areas could unleash devastating invasive species on those places. Some of Hellmann’s work on the issue seems to show that the risk of new pests from managed relocation is low. Hellmann also talked about her research showing that, while managed relocation is often seen as a point of divisive controversy, expert opinions are more middling, with few scientists loving the idea, but few scientists hating it. Hellmann’s conclusion: Context matters, so relocation decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
- Can we save biodiversity from climate change? Hellmann’s answer: No — and yes. On one side, we don’t have a deep understanding of ecological predictions and adaptive capacity. We also don’t have much money, and we’re running out of time. On the other side, scientists are open to new methods, researchers do have some understanding of adaptive capacity, and managed relocation holds promise. That said, adaptation, while important, can’t fix everything. Hellmann contends that mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is cheaper and easier. “We will come back to mitigation,” Hellmann said. “If we really think our way through adaptation, we will come back to mitigation. They are two sides to the same coin.”
Space and place permeate today’s pressing problems, so spatial thinking can help.
That was the message of IonE’s October 14 Frontiers on the Environment talk, in which Institute fellow Steve Manson listed example after example as he addressed the Big Question, “How can spatial thinking solve environmental grand challenges?”
In addition to his IonE title, Manson is a professor of geography, environment, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and director of U-Spatial, an initiative that has worked with every college on campus to offer software, training and consulting for spatial thinking. Here’s what he made clear:
- Spatial technology has grown up. As environmental challenges — from a changing climate to a battered biosphere — have grown worse, spatial tech has grown up. The field made important baby steps in the mid-1800s, when British doctor John Snow took on London’s killer cholera outbreak by plotting sickness on a map and finding the cause: a single water pump. This early meeting of space, health and the environment pushed us toward a more mature spatial mind set. Today, with cellphones possessing processors and memory far greater than the supercomputers of 20 years ago, companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Uber invest millions of dollars in mapping while academia — including big places like Harvard and big journals like Science — embrace spatial thinking like never before.
- Zoomed-in data enable powerful projects. Today’s data take the level of spatial resolution to, well, the next level. A satellite suspended hundreds or thousands of miles above Earth can snap photos that let us pick out individual cars, single trees, and wrinkles in the ice of a glacier. We can even count penguins from space — and that’s exactly what researchers at the Polar Geospatial Center did, doubling previous estimates of the number of penguins that inhabit Antarctica. And conservation is not the only environmental subject that gets an assist from high-resolution aerial data: Manson also described a a detailed map of solar potential in the state that University of Minnesota students crafted to help homeowners and companies decide where to install solar panels.
- Better technology means community collaboration. Faculty at the U’s School of Nursing used geographic information systems and new imagery to help plan responses to Ebola. The resulting maps can be updated by health professionals working on the ground, bolstering shared information. Meanwhile, U-Spatial has rolled touch screens into towns in rural Minnesota, enriching conversations about sustainable agriculture by giving community members the opportunity to draw their idealized landscapes on shared maps.
- Big spatial data open big spatial questions. Manson said Big Data is “remaking the nature of science,” and spatial is no exception. Armed with large data sets, scientists are addressing global grand challenges. Regents Professor Vipin Kumar of the College of Science and Engineering and others use lots of data to map vegetation across Earth in a bid to predict how climate change will affect future plant life. The Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project also draw on and create huge stores of data. Meanwhile, IonE keeps working with partners both inside and outside the University to build out Terra Populus, which Manson says will — once it’s finished — be the largest curated human-environment data set in the world.
- Spatial still faces obstacles. While spatial technology can help us face environmental grand challenges, it still has some challenges of its own. Database issues are plentiful, with scientists thinking about how to efficiently store, manage and use vast swaths of data. Manson mentioned one student working on airplane noise who had to devise his own solution to keeping track of several million data points. Spatial, Manson said, needs strides for a better future. Likewise, with more data and higher-resolution images available, privacy remains a growing concern.
Solar power’s prospects become brighter each day.
One way to flip that light switch even higher is community solar, in which local neighborhoods or villages share ownership of a solar power system. At our second Frontiers in the Environment “Big Questions” talk October 7, IonE resident fellow Kathryn Milun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, presented the case for this renewable energy approach in “Why Do We Need Community Solar?”
Here are six things we learned:
Frontiers was joined this week by John Petersen, director of the Environmental Studies program at Oberlin College in Ohio. Through an engaging talk on technology and the ways it can be used to provide a visual representation of human impact, Petersen discussed the how the Environmental Dashboard project has leveraged the concept of feedback and the potential it has to change human behavior. Here are seven things we learned: Continue reading
What better way to commemorate Earth Day than by learning about how our everyday actions affect the environment? This week’s Frontiers focused on common chemical pollutants and their impacts. IonE resident fellow and College of Science and Engineering professor Bill Arnold kicked off the talk, followed by Matt Simcik, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Ron Hadsall, professor in the College of Pharmacy. With conversations ranging from flaming couches to perspiration and peeing, here are 10 things we learned: Continue reading
The April 15 Frontiers looked at ways we can manage disease threats at home and abroad. Thanks to a diverse panel including Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota; Cheryl Robertson, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and John Deen, a professor of Veterinary Population Medicine, here are six things we learned:
Combine cutting-edge University of Minnesota research and heightened interest in infectious disease due to recent ebola outbreaks, and you get a fascinating discussion on wildlife and the ways it may influence global health. At this week’s Frontiers in the Environment, Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Shaun Kennedy, director of the Food Systems Institute and adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Kristine Smith, associate director of health and policy with EcoHealth Alliance explored the health risks associated with the global wildlife trade. Here are eight things we learned: Continue reading
This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:
1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights. Continue reading
Buildings are huge parts of our lives, yet we rarely think about what it takes to keep them running. This week, Frontiers took a look at advanced heat recovery, one a way to improve building energy efficiency. Leading the discussion was Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Panelists were Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager with the BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading
Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s were clear public policy wins for the environmental movement. But are we still able to make progress through government action in the same way we did 40 years ago? Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, was curious about what “successful” government action on the environment looks like today, so he asked three professionals to share their experience in this week’s Frontiers on the Environment. Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director, spoke of her experience as a Minnesota state representative, followed by Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. Here are seven things we learned: Continue reading
This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading
Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?
1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits. Continue reading
In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:
What better way to kick off the new round of Frontiers than by crossing national boundaries? In the first talk of 2015, Frontiers was joined by Martin Bigg, professor at the University of West England; Gayle Prest, sustainability manager for the City of Minneapolis; and Simon Sharpe, head of climate risk for the UK Foreign Office. This international panel provided information and inspiration on the ways in which cities matter for climate change. With case studies from Bristol to Minneapolis, here are six things we learned:
- The many lessons of Bristol. Located in the western UK, Bristol is not just any city — it’s the 2015 European Green Capital. After beating out serious competition, such as Brussels and Glasgow, the city does not take this title lightly. Now ranking with the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bristol has a commitment to reduce emissions and promote public transportation. To do this, it has reduced speed limits inside the city, added hybrid buses and invested in “poo-buses” (yes, really) powered by biomethane made from human and food waste.
How do we feed all the people of the world while reducing food-borne illness? Why is it important that kids get out into nature? Does it make sense for environmental and corporate leaders to put their heads together? These are a few of the questions explored during IonE’s Frontiers in the Environment Big Questions series this fall. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hour-long conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.
We’ve summarized each talk into a quick, easy read as well as archived the videos for you to watch on your own schedule. Review the entire list or peruse these picks: Continue reading
In the final Frontiers presentation of the semester, Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, Natural Capital Project lead scientist and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, moderated a discussion on the relationship between environmentalists and corporations. Participants included Amy Skoczlas Cole, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Pentair; J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; and Chris P. Lambe, managing director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The panel members shared their thoughts on the role of the private sector as stewards of the environment and left us with the understanding that environmentalists and corporations may not be such strange bedfellows after all. Here are seven other things we learned:
Times have changed. A few decades ago, environmental organizations and corporations barely talked to each other and sustainability was a term not often used in corporate vernacular. Now, we see many companies accepting environmental challenges and recognizing the links between themselves and the environment. In some respects, large companies have embraced environmental challenges more than have governments or society as a whole. Don’t get too excited, though — there is still a lot of work to do. Companies have started with the low-hanging fruit, but now they need to amplify their actions and tackle bigger challenges. Continue reading
Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:
Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside. Continue reading