Category Archives: News

6 things we learned about the power of community solarFrontiers October 7 – Why do we need community solar?

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:

Continue reading

7 questions for IonE’s new directorjessica_hellmann_0108

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences and the author, Colleen Smith.

Jessica Hellman became director of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment this summer. As an expert on the relationship between climate change and ecosystems, Hellmann was also appointed to the Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the College of Biological Sciences. She took time to talk about about her new roles, her research and advancing collaboration around environmental challenges.

Q: Dr. Hellmann, how do you see your new roles in IonE and CBS fitting together?

“IonE is like a catalyst at the heart of the University. Its topics draw upon all the colleges — and a lot on CBS, in particular — to achieve goals that are interdisciplinary and translational, to have an impact on the environment. By sitting in IonE, I have a unique opportunity to interact and bridge, but as a professor, I also enjoy a disciplinary home. The home that makes the most sense for my academic training and individual research interests is definitely the department of EEB. Fortunately, I direct an Institute that’s very closely related to my scholarship. It’s the best of both worlds.” Continue reading

Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this weekPhoto by Meet Minneapolis (Flickr/Creative Commons)

More than 2,300 sustainability educators and students have descended upon Minneapolis to take part in the 2015 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference, the largest sustainability-related conference of its kind.

AASHE (pronounced Ay-shee) is welcoming diverse experts from across the country to discuss energy, climate change, food and water issues during the four-day conference. The University of Minnesota is well represented at this year’s conference, with 150 presenters, including several from the Institute on the Environment. Continue reading

Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibitArt by David Malcolm Scott

A new art exhibit is coming to IonE’s  Commons: Meeting & Art Space October 22 that aims to spark conversation between artists and scientists.

SAMEE — Sustainable Acts: Mother Earth’s Embrace — is the collected work of 40 artists using sustainable or sustainably sourced materials, dance and music as well as traditional art media to communicate their messages of environmental and social justice.

A reception for the exhibit will take place October 22, 4–7 p.m., and will feature a flash mob performance addressing the concept of sustainability at 5 p.m. The exhibit runs until January 15, 2016.

Continue reading

Acara helps students become herosphoto by iStock

Acara student impact entrepreneurs —  people who have set out to solve some of the world’s stickiest problems— along with mentors, donors, friends and family came together to celebrate Acara teams, enjoy tasty Indian cuisine and listen to brief venture update presentations one evening in late September. The annual Acara Open House and Showcase highlighted the progress of the 2015 Acara Challenge winners.

The Acara Challenge is the University of Minnesota’s impact venture competition to reward student teams that are developing solutions to address global social and environmental challenges. Acara is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment. Continue reading

Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCapPhoto by Holly Hayes (Flickr / Creative Commons)

For the more than 200 attendees at a recent Minnesota Water Technology Summit, one thing was clear:  Water is essential to life in Minnesota. “Water touches every aspect of our health, our recreation and our economic development,” said Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project and one of the panelists at the summit. “Water crises in California and elsewhere have added new urgency to understanding and anticipating water risks. Minnesota is a state rich in water resources, but even we are starting to see signs of stress in the form of polluted drinking water and depleted aquifers.” With this growing urgency comes increasing demand to understand the interactions between land management and water quality and to better quantify the benefits and costs of actions to protect and improve our water supply. Continue reading

IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in AmericasPhoto courtesy of CBS

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences and the author, Stephanie Xenos.

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and Forest Isbell, associate director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and an adjunct faculty member in CBS, were selected to participate as lead authors in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,  an independent intergovernmental body open to members of the United Nations. Authors contribute to periodic reports on biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services, ranging from regional assessments for the Americas, Africa and Asia to thematic papers and broad global assessments.

Cavender-Bares is a coordinating lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment on the status, trends and dynamics of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region. Isbell is a lead author of a chapter of the Americas assessment considering drivers of changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services. Continue reading

Soils serve food and much morePhoto courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flick/Creative Commons)

Soils are the birthplace of food: They provide a substrate, nutrients and water to grow most of the food we eat. They also perform a whole host of other services, including purifying our water and stabilizing our climate. Today more than half of the world’s land surface is being managed for agriculture and forestry. These lands are increasingly under pressure to meet the needs of a growing population.  In many areas, the land and soil have become degraded to a point where they can no longer grow the food and fiber they once did.

The United Nations recognized the essential role that soils play for creating a sustainable future by naming 2015 the International Year of Soils. To inform this program, a team of scientists from a dozen countries — including James Gerber and Paul West, co-directors of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative — reviewed the current state of knowledge on how land management affects soil quality. The team’s work was published recently in two major papers in peer-reviewed journals. Continue reading

A new resource on the global food systemBanner courtesty of Environment Reports

Is there enough food for the future?

That’s just one of many crucial questions explored in a dynamic new online resource on the global food system, one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today. Published by the Institute on the Environment, Environment Reports is a collaboration among an international group of scientists, writers and designers to create incisive narratives about environmental challenges, backed up by cutting-edge data.

The site is intended for use by public and private sector professionals as well as those in academia who influence or educate environmental decision makers. It will provide several primers and useful visuals covering key aspects of the global food system, including projected future demand and yield trends, environmental sustainability, diet, food waste, climate change and more. Continue reading

Acara alumna wins bignews_ovawoman_main

Why aren’t menstrual cups mainstream?

That question led Elise Maxwell to develop a Web-based business to make menstrual cups — reusable devices that catch rather than absorb menstrual fluid — more readily available to women and provide a safe place to talk about women’s health. In August, Ova Woman won the student division of the MN Cup competition for entrepreneurs — reaping a $30,000 cash prize.

An MBA student in the Carlson School of Management, Maxwell developed her idea for Ova Woman during the weeklong Acara course on launching social ventures. Acara is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment, offering courses, workshops and field experiences to help student entrepreneurs build successful start-up companies that address social or environmental problems. Continue reading

NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys greenPhoto by Photos by Clark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Consumers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the growth and diversity of environmental labels attached to the products they buy, from breakfast cereal to furniture. U.S. government purchasing agents also struggle to identify which standards and ecolabels to consider when buying greener products.

Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and an IonE resident fellow, is about to make going green easier for the U.S. government — the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. Along with a select panel of experts, Smith will oversee and coordinate a series of pilot tests of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new draft guidelines advising government buyers on how to take product environmental performance standards and ecolabels into account when making purchases. Continue reading

Sustainability Education wows Welcome WeekSustActionEvent

On Friday, September 4, more than 2,500 first-year students and University community members ascended the steps of the Learning and Environmental Sciences building to delve into sustainability-related initiatives in the community and at the U. The Institute on the Environment was transformed into “the Pond,” “the River” and the “the Lake,” all centered on this year’s theme: water. Co-hosted by IonE’s Sustainability Education program and University Services, “Sustainability Action!” featured representatives from academic programs, student groups, external organizations and University operations, all eager to tell their stories. Continue reading

Biodiversity is the spice of lifePhoto by Tatters (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Variety is the spice of life, it has been said. In the plant world, variety, or biodiversity, is the stuff of life, literally influencing the health of natural environments. Due to land use change, nitrogen pollution, invasive species, and climate change, diversity is decreasing in many kinds of vegetation, driving down plant productivity and the ecosystem services plants provide, according to emerging research.

IonE resident fellow Peter Reich, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, has been studying plant biodiversity and its role in ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, productivity (production of plant biomass) and resilience to disease for 20 years.  He says that “plants — both terrestrial and aquatic — provide about $50 trillion in ecosystem services” and that, without them, none of us would be here. Continue reading

Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industryPhoto by kirin_photo (iStock)

From cars and personal care products to the food on their dinner table, consumers are increasingly seeking out products that are less harmful to the environment. Many companies are, in turn, responding to these demands by altering the way they make products — from the ingredients going in to the pollution coming out.

But the full impact of a product reflects a complex system that often has hundreds of producers engaged in thousands of processes to put that product into the hands of the end user. Once there, how the product is used and dispatched at the end of its life can have big impacts as well. Even the most well-intentioned companies struggle to identify which changes at what point in the value chain will give them the most sustainability bang for their buck. Continue reading

Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture ProjectPhoto by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Amidst uncertainties over how the global food system will respond to climate change, and the potential conflicts and resource scarcities that may accompany it, communities are turning more and more to locally grown and distributed food. The Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth is one such effort to build a resilient regional food system.

Randel Hansen, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Duluth College of Liberal Arts, explores how the SAP farm provides both local food and opportunities for students to explore the connections among agriculture, water and energy on WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

 

IonE resident fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo by Jeanette (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Drones study has media buzzingPhoto by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

They’re becoming increasingly common, careening overhead at the beach or in the park. I’m not talking about mosquitoes, I’m talking about drones. And a new Institute on the Environment–supported study about drones and bears is creating a lot of buzz in the media.

The study, led by University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences postdoctoral researcher Mark Ditmer with support from an IonE Mini Grant, found that bears’ heart rates increase significantly when drones are present, indicating a heightened level of stress.

It turns out that bears are not the only creatures to get excited about drones. The story has been shared by such heavy hitters as The Washington Post, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting CorporationSlate and National Geographic, in addition to more science-oriented news sites such as ArsTechnica and LiveScience.

Ditmer also talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about the study.

 

IonE’s Mini Grant program provides seed funding to help spur new interdisciplinary collaborations at the University of Minnesota.

Photo by Lee (Flickr/Creative Commons)

IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable citiesPhoto by m01229 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

What is a healthy city? How does society weigh the conveniences of transportation, readily available water and electricity, and placement of that new shopping center against the environmental impacts of those assets?

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, building resilient and healthy communities has never been more important. Estimates indicate that by 2050, some 3 billion more people — two-thirds of the world’s population — will inhabit urban areas, increasing pressure on water, energy and land resources. Continue reading

Grand challenge: build resilient communitiesStock photo © KIVILCIM PINAR

More than half of all people live in cities, a number expected to rise to 60 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. That means that how we build and manage our urban areas is “one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century,” wrote John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations Population Division, in a recent report.

It’s not surprising, then, that the University of Minnesota has recognized the need to focus on cities in its recently released strategic plan detailing the first of a series of grand challenges it aims to address over the next 10 years: cultivating a sustainable, healthy, secure food system; advancing industry while conserving the environment and addressing climate change; and building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing world. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan IslerPhoto by Jennifer C. (Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Volkan Isler, associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

Our lab [the Robotic Sensor Networks Lab] is building robotic systems and deploying them in environmental applications. We have developed a network of robotic boats to track invasive fish. We are now developing a team of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles that can do in-field measurements of crops such as apples. Hopefully soon, we will be able to perform other kinds of in-field inspection, such as disease detection.

So far, the success of robotics is mainly in factory settings that can be controlled. Taking them into the field, into an unstructured environment, allows for uncertainties to be introduced. This makes structured and uniform agricultural settings, such as apple orchards or cornfields, ideal for the transition to more natural environments. Continue reading

Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive speciesPhoto by Anita (Flicker/Creative Commons)

U of M researchers conduct global grassland experiment to gain unprecedented insight into differences in the way exotic and native plant species operate.

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences.

Species invasions come at a high cost. In the United States, the annual cost to the economy tops $100 billion a year and invasive plant infestations affect 100 million acres. While it’s tempting to focus attention on headline-grabbing cases of exceptionally fecund flora such as the kudzu vine, also known as “the vine that ate the South”, basic questions remain about how and whether exotic species are functionally distinct from native species and why they tend to take over when introduced into new environments. Continue reading