Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Wed, 25 Nov 2015 17:06:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As NatCap turns 10, a Q&A with co-founder Stephen Polasky Wed, 25 Nov 2015 11:23:59 +0000 Continue reading As NatCap turns 10, a Q&A with co-founder Stephen Polasky ]]>

How much does clean air contribute to a society’s well-being? Or having access to the calming shade of a city park? Economic systems that shape our built environment often fail to account for the contributions of natural systems, such as those that naturally filter and cool the air we breathe. The Institute on the Environment’s Natural Capital Project works to change the way people think about nature and to integrate the value it provides into land use and development decisions.

Economist Stephen Polasky co-founded NatCap at a time when economics was still viewed with suspicion by many conservationists. In an interview commemorating his 10 years with the organization, Polasky, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an IonE fellow, opens up about what it was like to be seen by some as an enemy of conservation. He also talks about what’s inspired him along the way, including how both China and Rwanda have embraced conservation as a way to bring prosperity to people, and whether NatCap has accomplished what he imagined back in the beginning.

polasky_stephenWhere did your environmental values come from? Did that precede your study of economics?

I cared about the environment long before I cared about economics. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the ’60s and ’70s during a time of environmental activism. I watched the news of the Cayahoga River catching fire, the first Earth Day, the formation of the EPA. The events of the time made a big impression on me and I wanted to focus on environmental issues from the time I was a teenager. I did not pick up the interest in economics until college. I have an analytical and mathematical orientation and economics seemed to me to be a great set of tools and way of thinking that could be applied to environmental issues.

How do conservationists view economics these days?

Things have progressed a long way from when I first started in this. There were times when I was the only economist in a room of conservationists. Occasionally I would get “You’re part of the problem, you’re part of the enemy.” I don’t get that now. We, as conservationists, realized we need to have economists on board, and we need to find out how to provide incentives and change the economic system.

Are you ever still treated as the enemy?

There are still some people that make the claim that by dealing with the economy we are getting into the dark side, that this is really a moral argument. Just because I’m an economist doesn’t mean that I don’t have morals and ethics.

There are certain things in the environmental arena that we would just say are immoral. Poisoning water that people depend on to drink would be viewed as wrong. But there are other cases that don’t fit this category. I’m looking outside now at the people driving their cars. Driving is not immoral, but it has negative consequences. We have to figure out how to do the things that we want, which is to get places, in a way that doesn’t poison us by having such polluted air.

Sometimes I drive my car and I think I might be immoral.

Yeah, evil! (laughs) I bike to work when I can, but there are days in Minnesota when it is zero degrees outside and there’s snow on the road, and it’s dark. Sorry, I’m going to drive today.

Media often characterize NatCap’s work as “putting a price tag on nature.” Is it a problem that that becomes the tagline?

It is a problem when this becomes the tagline because it’s like the tail wagging the dog. I think about the work we do in The Natural Capital Project and the valuation component of it is maybe 10 percent, or a quarter. A lot of the work in what we do comes well before valuation. It’s showing how actions that we take influence the environment and influence the provision of services. That’s the bulk of what we spend our time doing.

Taking a look back at work you did before joining NatCap, in the 1990s you served on the Council of Economic Advisers to the Clinton administration when the Clean Air Act and climate change were two big issues. A lot of people think of environmental regulations as a hindrance to economic growth. Is that true?

It would be wonderful if we could have clean air and not have it cost anything. There often are direct costs for improving air quality or environmental quality in general. But bad air quality and bad environmental policy also impose costs. I just got back from China, where economic growth has been a priority, more so than clean air. Air pollution extracts a huge cost in China. Some of those costs show up as losses in productivity. The health statistics in China are fairly grim. A recent paper estimated that the air in Beijing is so polluted that breathing it is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

What were you doing in China?

I went with Gretchen [Daily, NatCap founder]. We’re working with colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Science. They have taken up ecosystem services and InVEST [open-source software used to value ecosystem services] in a big way. On this particular trip we worked on a paper that catalogs changes in ecosystem condition and how that has impacted trends in ecosystem services in all of China.

What are the ecological trends they’re seeing across China?

Beginning in 1998, the Chinese government made big investments to protect and restore ecosystems. Now they have the largest ecosystem services restoration project in the world, called the Sloping Lands Conversion Program, which calls for returning 37 million acres of cropland on steep slopes back to forest or grassland. There are a number of areas where they’ve seen improvement, including habitat protection and reduced erosion and sedimentation.

They’ve taken up InVEST and some of the approaches of the Natural Capital Project in figuring out where to site Ecosystem Function Conservation Areas. Part of the analysis is biophysical: Where are areas susceptible to erosion? But it is also important to take account of how this affects people. Is erosion occurring in areas where there are people downstream that depend on clean water? Or, for sandstorms, it is important to think of places downwind. If it’s going to happen in the middle of nowhere it’s not as important as preventing sand blowing from areas that might end up in Beijing.

You also spent time in Rwanda during this trip?

This was a SNAP (Science for Nature and People) working group to think about how to incorporate the value of natural capital into government planning and the national accounts like GDP. In Rwanda a big thing is tourism as well as water quantity and water quality. How do we show that particular actions or investments actually pay off? One part of the group had done a study of the impact of national parks or the creation of protected areas and how these contribute to the larger economy. Natural capital in Rwanda overall accounts for 40 percent of the country’s economic wealth, which is among the highest in the world.

I still think of Rwanda as being a war-torn region.

Rwanda is cool. Rwanda is a remarkable story. Everybody thinks of the 1994 genocide, which was horrific. I went to the genocide museum there. It’s very, very powerful. It’s just horrific, a million people were killed. But the country has been transformed. It’s one of the most hopeful places on the planet right now.

What’s going on in Rwanda that’s so inspiring?

I went to a meeting on conservation there billed as the first national conversation about conservation with government ministers, NGOs and stakeholders. One of the featured speakers was Dr. Amy Vedder. She has worked in Rwanda since the 1970s. When she first got there the international conservation organizations said “This place is hopeless, don’t even bother.” She and others persisted and now they have national parks and protected gorilla populations. The parks are a huge draw. Every year they have a ceremony to name baby gorillas. This year the president of Rwanda came and spoke at this event. It’s a thing of pride. It’s just really cool. It’s like, wow, 20 years ago would anyone have expected this? Probably not.

How well do business and finance economists respond to your work?

There’s great interest among corporations in how to do a better job of incorporating the value of nature. There’s generally a concern with climate change and an issue called stranded assets. Suppose you invest in a coal plant and 10 years down the road, and with climate change and carbon emissions being a huge concern, it turns out that burning coal is not a viable activity anymore. You’re stuck with this huge “stranded asset.” So people are looking out into the future and trying to anticipate where society is headed.

So, avoiding stranded assets is one way a natural capital approach is useful to business. From an economic perspective, where does the tension between environmental and business interests originate?

Oftentimes the values of nature are what economists call public goods, so they don’t show up on private corporation balance sheets. So if some company does something that improves the water quality for people downstream, that’s good for society, but the corporation doesn’t capture that value. It can be really hard to convince corporations to do things for the public good when it has a private cost to them. Frankly that is the essence of the problem that we have, the incentives of corporations or individuals to do things don’t align with what’s good for all of society.

People have often said, ‘You’re in conservation and you’re in economics, don’t you see some contradictions? I think what I do is basic, good economics. If you’re going to do benefit-cost analysis, then you should actually get all of the benefits and all of the costs, not just the ones that are easily valued in the marketplace.

NatCap has been around for 10 years. Has it achieved what you hoped when you first started this with Gretchen, Peter and Taylor? [Peter Kareiva and Taylor Ricketts are co-founders]

I always get impatient. I want to see more changes more quickly. Of course prices should reflect real impacts, and we ought to have mainstreamed much more about natural capital than we have to date. We’re still off to the side. There are still Wall Street economists that can go their whole careers without thinking about natural capital. That’s just not right for the 21st century.

What do you imagine NatCap will be like in 2025?

At the beginning of NatCap, Peter Kareiva said we should be done and wrapped up in five years, maybe 10. I hope that we are wrapped up at some point, that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. I think moving institutions as large as the whole of the way the economy is organized is a little bit more than a 10-year project.

Might it be more than a 20-year project?

It might be more than a 20-year project. But I hope we see major progress by our 20th anniversary.

Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Disease forecasting in a One Health world Mon, 23 Nov 2015 17:06:03 +0000 Continue reading Disease forecasting in a One Health world ]]> Reducing the toll of disease is an important goal around the world. It’s also an extremely challenging one, because interconnections among humans, animals and the environment create a complex system in which disease outbreaks can be difficult to forecast and control. One Health is a growing way to think about disease that recognizes the importance of these interconnections and promotes collaboration among disciplines to improve population health. Through the One Health lens, epidemiologists, biologists, ecologists and veterinarians work together to understand and solve problems such as swine flu, dengue, leptospirosis and other infectious diseases that can spread between humans and animals.

Approaching One Health from a systemic engineering perspective, the University of Minnesota’s HumNat Lab — funded in part by an IonE fellowship and an IonE Discovery Grant — develops advanced computational technologies that can take data sets from different parts of a complex system (e.g., the environment) and combine them to create forecasts and strategies for minimizing disease spread and impact around the world.

Why is this approach exceptional? Most traditional ways of forecasting disease use one factor, such as where a community collects water, to assess how and where disease might spread. What makes HumNat Lab unique is that it explicitly integrates environmental factors, such as temperature and rainfall, into the equation. From there it can calculate the number of expected outbreaks, which weeks during the year they might occur, and the total expected cases for that year.

Matteo Convertino presenting at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dengue Forecast Challenge. Photo courtesy of M. Convertino.
Matteo Convertino presenting at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dengue Forecast Challenge. Photo courtesy of M. Convertino.

The HumNat Lab was recently invited to participate in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dengue Forecast challenge, which resulted in a workshop convened to discuss the development and application of models for forecasting dengue epidemics. The workshop brought together teams of modelers with the U.S. Army, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and OSTP to develop a multimodel cyber-infrastructure that can make real-time predictions of infectious diseases in the U.S.

“These forecasts are going to be used to guide public health and engineering interventions on the ground as well as to develop more accurate forecast models and design better surveillance systems,” says HumNat director and IonE fellow Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health. “The goal is not really to understand dengue (because it is well understood) but to build that ‘intelligence’ capacity to forecast the disease, to determine hot spots and to quantify the optimal disease management intervention,” among other uses.

The HumNat Lab is building a similar system for the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, which is responsible for disease management in the Americas. That work will be centered initially on waterborne disease such as cholera, leptospirosis, dengue and plague. The overall goal is to establish an automated online forecasting system that can be used for any disease and in cooperation with any country. The system will use surveillance and environmental data received by the emergency operations center at the Pan American Health Organization and other federal agencies.

“Part of what we do is to quantify what is not quantified, to integrate what is not integrated,” says Convertino. “But, more importantly, we seek universal patterns of dynamical systems, such as populations, and build intelligent models that can be thought of as technologies to forecast and hopefully control population dynamics that allow disease to spread.”

Photo by Britta Kasholm-Tengve (iStock)

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10 things we learned about biodiversity and climate change Fri, 20 Nov 2015 11:28:41 +0000 Continue reading 10 things we learned about biodiversity and climate change ]]> 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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
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Twin Cities heat island study yields surprises Wed, 18 Nov 2015 15:31:55 +0000 Continue reading Twin Cities heat island study yields surprises ]]> MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/14/2015) Some parts of the Twin Cities can spike temperatures up to 9° F higher than surrounding communities thanks to the “urban heat island” effect, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota.

The study, which was funded by the Institute on the Environment and published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, used a network of 180 sensors deployed throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area in residential backyards and city parks to paint the most detailed picture anywhere in the world of how temperature varies with time and place across pavement-filled metropolitan areas and surrounding communities.

Recording surface air temperatures every 15 minutes from August 2011 through August 2014 across nearly 2,000 square miles and using U.S. Geological Survey data to fine-tune differences at the neighborhood level, the study uncovered several surprises. Among them:

Brian Smoliak and research fellow Phil Mykleby install a temperature sensor at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Photo by Angeline Pendergrass.
Brian Smoliak and research fellow Phil Mykleby install a temperature sensor at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Photo by Angeline Pendergrass.
  • Temperatures in the urban core of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington average 2° F higher in summer than in surrounding areas
  • The differential spiked as much as 9° F higher during a heat wave in July 2012
  • Urban heat island effect is stronger at night in summer and during the day in winter
  • In urban areas during the winter when snow cover is less pervasive, temperatures are higher than rural areas in the daytime by an average of 2° F.

“We’ve long known that heat radiated by buildings, roads, bridges and other structures keeps surface air temperature higher in cities than in surrounding areas. However, temperature is officially measured at just a few locations in most cities, so awareness of the extent and variability of urban heat island effects was limited,” said lead author Brian Smoliak. “Our study highlights the usefulness of dense sensor networks for urban weather and climate research with practical implications for human health, energy consumption, and environmental quality.” Smoliak began the project as a postdoctoral researcher in CFANS and is now an atmospheric scientist at the Climate Corporation in Seattle, Washington.

The more detailed understanding of urban heat islands provided by the study can help health professionals and others target efforts to protect people and infrastructure from heat-related problems, according to project co-leads Tracy Twine and Peter Snyder, associate professors in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

The distribution of temperatures across the Twin Cities urban heat island averaged over nighttime and daytime, by season. Image courtesy of UHI research team.
The distribution of temperatures across the Twin Cities urban heat island averaged over nighttime and daytime, by season. Image courtesy of UHI research team.

“This level of detail in real time can provide specific information to agencies tasked with protecting our citizenry during extreme heat events,” Snyder said. “It can also be used to identify persistently warm areas of the metro where green infrastructure projects could be implemented to offset some of the warming.”

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

Photo by MYDinga (iStock)

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Vines inhibit forests’ ability to store CO2 Tue, 17 Nov 2015 18:05:26 +0000 Continue reading Vines inhibit forests’ ability to store CO2 ]]> The liana vines that wind their way to the top of tropical forest canopies have the potential to significantly reduce those forests’ ability to remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a study by University of Minnesota researcher and IonE resident fellow Jennifer Powers and two colleagues.

Based on data from the lowland semi-deciduous forest of Panama’s Gigante Peninsula, the researchers estimate that over the next 50 years, lianas could potentially slash long-term storage of carbon in New World lowland tropical forests by 35 percent. These forests include most of the Amazon basin, as well as similar forests in Central America. Such a slowdown in this carbon “sink” would weaken the planet’s ability to dampen rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The study is the first to show the effects of lianas on carbon storage experimentally. It appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Lianas are what you typically push out of your way as you walk through a tropical forest to get to the trees,” says Powers, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. “The value of this study is that it clearly demonstrates that we can no longer ignore lianas when thinking about tropical forest carbon cycles.”

A climbing threat

Lianas comprise multiple species of vines and play multiple roles in the forest ecosystem. Rooted in the soil, they compete with trees for water and nutrients. As they wind around trees, they compress and even strangle them. In the canopy, their leaves compete with tree leaves for sunlight. Lianas also form bridges between trees; these create highways through the forest for arboreal animals and may stabilize trees against wind. Or, they may allow a falling tree to pull a neighbor down with it.

Prompted by reports that lianas can cut individual tree growth by up to 84 percent, that they boost a tree’s mortality risk by two- to three-fold, and that liana infestations are growing in New World tropical forests, Powers, along with colleagues at Marquette University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama — where she also holds an appointment — and other institutions, performed a controlled study of their effects on carbon storage. For three years they measured increases in total biomass in control and liana-free plots of forest, using units of millions of grams of carbon per hectare of forest per year.

  • Control plots were left undisturbed. Here, total biomass productivity comprised growth in tree stems and leaf litter for both trees and lianas.
  • In liana-free plots, the researchers removed all lianas at the outset of the study and afterward as necessary. Total biomass productivity comprised only the growth in tree stems and leaf litter.

After three years, the median rate of biomass accumulation was 2.93 units for liana-free plots, but only 0.41 for controls. That implies that lianas reduced carbon storage by 86 percent. However, the researchers recalculated the statistics, taking the wide variability in the data into account, and estimated the three-year liana-induced reduction at a more conservative 76 percent. This figure shows the immense power of invading lianas to inhibit carbon storage.

To simulate future carbon storage potential, the researchers used the net biomass accumulation in each of the two groups of plots during the third year of the study as the starting point. At this point, Powers says, both liana-infested and liana-free trees seem to have reached a steady rate of carbon accumulation. And though the difference in carbon storage rates was small, over 50 years it extrapolated to the stated 35 percent reduction.

How and why

Although lianas store carbon by growing in girth, this is negligible compared with their overall effect on biomass carbon accumulation, the researchers say.

“Lianas are woody vines, but they differ from trees in that they do not allocate a lot of resources to building a woody trunk to support the canopy of leaves,” says Powers. “They compete with trees for light above ground, where they extend their canopy of leaves above tree leaves and shade them out. They also compete effectively for resources below ground, such as soil moisture and nutrients.”

“They can also affect trees negatively through physical mechanisms. Several lianas can grow on one tree, and when lianas are removed, the tree trunks expand. It’s like seeing a person’s belly expand when they remove their belt after a Thanksgiving dinner.”

In fact, inhibiting trees from storing carbon in their trunks seems to be the chief reason for the overall decrease in total biomass carbon storage reported in the current study. Lianas shifted the partitioning of carbon storage away from woody stems toward leaves, which rapidly decompose and release their carbon back to the atmosphere.

Powers says the current project still has several steps to take in discovering the full extent of lianas’ effects. Besides extending the project beyond three years, the researchers want to learn how lianas affect root growth and dynamics and determine if their current findings apply to “the wide gamut of different types of tropical forests.”

Also, Powers says more work is needed that focuses on uncovering why liana abundances are increasing in tropical forests.

Nevertheless, lianas are native to tropical forests and contribute to their diversity and functioning. And even if desirable, large-scale removal may not be feasible.

“Removing lianas is difficult. You need a lot of machetes,” says Powers.

Photo by RegiMu (iStock)

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5 things we learned about spatial thinking and environmental challenges Fri, 13 Nov 2015 12:44:55 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about spatial thinking and environmental challenges ]]> 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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Turning to India for insights on water use Tue, 10 Nov 2015 19:54:41 +0000 Continue reading Turning to India for insights on water use ]]> Is drip irrigation an effective tool to increase crop production while conserving water?

Pursuing that question will take IonE Global Water Initiative lead scientist Kate Brauman halfway around the world this month as she travels to Tamil Nadu state in India with funding from an IonE Mini Grant to explore opportunities to study irrigation water use by smallholder farmers. The question is an important one because 80 percent of the world’s crops are grown by small “family” farms, estimated at 500 million by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and efficient water use will become increasingly important in years to come as demand for food increases.

In India, Brauman will visit with MyRain, a business that was nurtured by IonE’s Acara program that disseminates drip irrigation technology and knowledge in southern India.

“Of all the small farms in the world, a quarter of them are in India, so learning from MyRain’s customers would make a good research case,” says Brauman. “So little is known about their water use and the constraints to irrigation. This field trip will help me understand what I don’t know and which questions to ask, and decide the feasibility of a research project there.”

GWI seeks to understand the pressure points of water use and availability around the world and help inform water management decisions. MyRain was the winner of the 2010 Acara Challenge, a student competition that supports viable start-up businesses that aim to solve social or environmental problems. Brauman will take advantage of the relationships MyRain has established with smallholder farmers to find out why they chose to purchase drip irrigation tools, how the choice is affecting their water consumption and crop productivity, and what constraints to irrigation they face.

Brauman says the project is a testimonial to the value of IonE’s efforts to connect people across disciplines and areas of expertise. “I would never have made the connection between my work analyzing trends in water use and a local business in India if it wasn’t for taking a coffee break with someone from Acara,” she says. “IonE is a great place for cross-pollinating ideas.”

IonE Mini Grants are small grants of up to $3,000 to help spur collaboration across disciplines, units and campuses at the University of Minnesota. Read about other ambitious (and cool) Mini Grant projects >here.

Photo by Sarath Kuchi (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Making ecosystem services count Mon, 09 Nov 2015 18:14:35 +0000 Continue reading Making ecosystem services count ]]> Around the world, farmers invest in dams and other infrastructure to supply water to their crops. This water is increasingly at risk, however, as more and more reservoirs fill with sediment from soil loss and land use change upstream. Conservation and restoration activities can help these farmers protect their water supplies and other ecosystem services upon which their livelihoods depend.

This is just one example of how providing natural resources to growing populations while protecting the environment is the crux of the sustainable development challenge currently playing out on the world’s stage, and IonE’s Natural Capital Project is creating software to help communities make informed land management decisions.

In concert with the recent adoption of a set of 17 sustainable development goals by the United Nations General Assembly in September, countries are making new, ambitious commitments to alleviate poverty, secure food and water resources, shift toward sustainable agricultural and manufacturing systems, and ensure prosperity for all over the next 15 years.

Natural resources and their ecosystem services are an important piece of this puzzle, but these contributions are too often left unquantified or undervalued in development planning. Discounting these resources, in turn, can harm countries’ ability to produce food, provide clean drinking water and protect biodiversity, for example, and may ultimately influence whether the SDGs are met. Moreover, ignoring ecosystem services often disproportionately impacts the poorest, most vulnerable people, who directly depend on these resources for their livelihoods.

To address the gap in linking the SDGs to ecosystem services and human well-being, researchers and developing country stakeholders came together this past year to develop indicators and ways to map, quantify and visualize services relevant to the SDGs. Researchers from the University of Minnesota (including Justin Andrew Johnson of NatCap), Bioversity International, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research and Columbia University, supported by Science for Nature and People and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, joined in the project.

Working group meetings ranged from internal discussions to larger gatherings with environmental and agricultural ministers, international NGOs and other implementation agencies involved in SDG-related planning, Johnson says. “We found out pretty quickly that this stakeholder community needs new tools that can generate development scenarios, overcome hurdles of data gathering and processing — a common choke point in ecosystem services assessments — and generate output summaries that are useful to policy-makers who do not have experience working with spatial data or maps.”

An important outcome of the collaboration that intends to meet this need is a decision-support tool called Modelling Ecosystem Services for Human well-being (MESH), which connects existing ecosystem services models to indicators of human well-being in a single, user-friendly interface. With this month’s first public, beta release of MESH (downloadable from the Natural Capital Project’s Software page), users will be able to explore the tool’s functionality with available ecosystem services models, along with its visualization and reporting capabilities.

MESH logo, courtesy of Justin Andrew Johnson and NatCap
MESH logo, courtesy of Justin Andrew Johnson and NatCap

“My favorite aspect of MESH is that a user can now point to a location — their area of interest — on a world map in the tool’s interface and in just a few clicks create location-specific input data from global sources, ready for use in ecosystem service models,” says Johnson. In addition, the software automatically generates reports that describe results in more detail and summarize key information in both maps and tables that can help planners and government officials describe trade-offs of different development decisions.

For example, in West Africa’s Volta River basin, where threats to dams and infrastructure from sedimentation are of particular interest, MESH is being used to map and summarize land use change scenarios that are useful for identifying locations for investments in protection and restoration efforts that could reduce sediment loads.

Johnson is presenting MESH and this application of the tool in the Volta River basin at the Ecosystem Services Partnership World Conference November 9-13, 2015 in Stollenbosch, South Africa. His presentation aligns well with the conference’s central theme of ‘Ecosystem Services for Nature, People and Prosperity’ and contributes to the dialogue on how the concept of ecosystem services, new techniques and tools can be directly applied to support conservation and to improve livelihoods necessary for sustainable development.

In addition to the ESP talk, MESH will also be covered in a tool kit training session organized by the Natural Capital Project following the conference (November 14, 16-17, 2015) with CGIAR and the Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society — a great opportunity for conference participants to get hands-on experience with ecosystem service modelling and exposure to the new tool.

With these upcoming events and other projects planned, Johnson is optimistic about MESH’s future. “We will continue to use MESH in projects in the Volta River Basin and have plans to apply and validate it in other developing country contexts, possibly in Indonesia and elsewhere,” he says. “In the longer term, my aspirational goal is to allow a larger and more diverse user base to assess the spatial trade-offs and synergies present between conservation and development goals.”

Photo by digitaltree515 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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New Mini Grants fund energy, education, health & more Tue, 03 Nov 2015 20:51:28 +0000 Continue reading New Mini Grants fund energy, education, health & more ]]> Building a bridge between a University research site and an American Indian reservation, creating natural spaces for elementary school learning and using nanotechnology to scrub mercury from crematoria are among the 16 projects chosen to receive fall 2015 Institute on the Environment Mini Grants. The projects will receive grants of up to $3,000 each for a total disbursement of $45,800.

Mini Grants are designed to encourage collaboration on environmental themes among faculty, staff and students across University of Minnesota disciplines, units and campuses. Along with funding, each recipient is provided space for meetings, workshops and conferences and some administrative support for a year.

Following are brief descriptions of the projects. For more information, email

Healthy bodies, healthy minds, healthy learners
Judy Myers, Children, Youth & Family Consortium, University of Minnesota Extension

This project will involve multiple partners in producing a detailed plan for creating and implementing natural, therapeutic learning spaces at Bruce Vento Elementary School in East St. Paul. Project partners will explore potential funding; develop a plan for involving school staff, students and community members in designing the learning spaces; and approach potential partnering organizations or vendors who could contribute to the creation and implementation process. 

The community ecology of diseases: work group on the anthropogenic impacts on avian influenza
Nicholas Fountain-Jones, College of Veterinary Medicine

Avian influenza is both an economic burden and a human health risk. Surprisingly little is known about how human forces, such as urbanization, affect the complex distribution of influenza strains in their host birds. This project will convene a two-day workshop aimed at understanding the ecology of avian influenza, with experts in epidemiology, veterinary medicine and molecular biology invited to interpret recent findings and direct future work on the disease.

Gidaazhoganikemin “We make a bridge”
John A. Koepke, College of Design/Landscape Architecture

The aim of this project is to build a trail and bridge — both literally and figuratively — between the Cloquet Forestry Center and the Fond du Lac Reservation to enhance communication and cooperation. A spring 2016 landscape architecture class will work with band and forestry center members to develop the vision.

Disease modeling in aquatic systems
Luis E. Escobar, College of Veterinary Medicine 

A three-day workshop will be held at the University of Minnesota for two visiting researchers from Latin America on disease modeling. Techniques shared in the workshop will be applicable for modeling disease outbreak and distribution in animals and plants in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, focusing on common diseases that infect human and fish populations in the researchers’ home countries.

National resiliency studio
Ozayr Saloojee, College of Design

This will be an interdisciplinary collaborative project with partners, faculty and staff from the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, Metropolitan Design Center, Center for Sustainable Building Research and the Center for Changing Landscapes. The group will convene over the course of the next year to competitively position itself to be chosen as one of three “resiliency studios,” a national project of the Architects Foundation and a major funding initiative slated for the Upper Midwest in late 2016. Resiliency studios are meant to be go-to bodies of expertise for the development of sustainable, resilient and regenerative community design proposals and initiatives.

Duluth sustainability energy workshop
Christina Gallup, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota Duluth

This workshop will assemble people, groups and organizations interested in building on the current momentum in sustainable energy in the Duluth/Superior region. The workshop will generate lively discussions among the many potential participants on issues related to solar and wind energy, biomass, energy storage, grids and how we can remove roadblocks to developing a clean energy future through innovative collaborations.

Workshop on “energy from renewables: envisioning a brighter future”
Ned Mohan, College of Science and Engineering

For this workshop, high school principals and science teachers will be invited to help develop a course to be taught in high schools as part of the College in the Schools program. The intent of the course will be to motivate young people to think about energy and introduce and discuss renewable energy options, such as solar and wind. This course could become a model for national implementation.

Morris ecostation planning
Troy Goodnough, Office of the Chancellor, Office of Sustainability, University of Minnesota Morris

This project will convene faculty, students and staff from across the University system, as well as people from the Morris community, to create a vision for some recently acquired property. Participants will be asked to survey the 140-acre site’s unique ecological features, consider its potential for research opportunities and assess its ecological diversity and health.

Knowledge to impact workshop for Grand Challenge Curriculum
Julian Marshall, College of Science & Engineering

The project will build on work being done in the U’s Grand Challenge Curriculum courses in which students propose solutions to environmental problems. Student teams from each of the four IonE-taught GCC courses will have the opportunity to workshop their proposed solutions and receive feedback on how to refine their solutions from their peers and experts from the Minneapolis-St. Paul professional community.

Designing, protyping and field testing community trust solar
Kathryn Milun, College of Liberal Arts, UMD

This project seeks to understand various forms of solar energy ownership. One phase involves a cross-cultural study of community trust solar in India. The project team will also solidify partnerships with solar projects already on the ground in Arizona and Minnesota, as well as establish new connections with people in city government, colleagues at Arizona State University and the U of M Law School, neighborhood groups and nonprofits.

Climate change, food security, poverty and political conflict in eastern India
Singdhansu Chatterjee, College of Liberal Arts 

This project will bring together an international team from diverse disciplines, such as political science, ecology and economics, to study how climate change affects food security and its potential to exacerbate poverty and social and political conflicts in eastern and northeastern India. Projected outcomes include bringing together multiple data sets from Indian and international organizations into a comprehensive system that will serve as a “proof of concept” for a bigger grant proposal and building a data resource linking climate data, agricultural yield data, political discourse and poverty.

Nature play meets accessible play
Linda Kingery, U of M Extension, Regional Sustainable Development Partnership

This project will bring a diverse set of partners into the process of creating an accessible natural play area at Ellen Hopkins Elementary School in Moorhead, Minn. Faculty and staff with expertise in access for people with physical disabilities, child development, and landscape and sustainable design will inform the design. It will use a community-based design process as the means for collaboration and learning to allow access and experience for all children, so it engages teachers, parents and students in the design process. This project is poised to serve as a prototype for assuring access to nature play for all in the northwest region.

Development of a nanoparticle-based mercury scrubber
Sandra L. Myers, School of Dentistry 

Mercury amalgam from human teeth melting during cremation contributes to mercury pollution in the local and global environment. As more people choose cremation, mercury pollution from cremation has been projected to rise steadily over the next several decades. Since smokestack scrubbers are not feasible for the numerous small crematoria operators, this project will use nanotechnology to construct a cost-efficient mercury-capturing device that functions within the casket during the cremation process.

Understanding the zoonotic risk of echinococcosis for a northern Minnesota tribal community
Tiffany Wolf, CVM 

This project will take an initial look at the prevalence of echinococcosis infection among wolves and domestic dogs to assess the risk of human exposure and to develop community-specific recommendations for prevention of echinococcosis in the Grand Portage Indian Reservation community. The project will fortify a developing collaboration among the College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Public Health and Grand Portage, as well as provide unique interdisciplinary graduate training at the interface of human and animal health.

Climate chaos: art, science and agency
Christine Baeumler, CLA 

This ecological and public art project will contribute to dialogue and transformative action on climate change in the University and Twin Cities community, to take place at the Northern Spark Festival, an all-night art festival focusing on climate change. The project will convene many partners, including the Weisman Art Museum, the Healing Place Collaborative, and IonE’s Undergraduate Leaders Program. The art projects will examine climate change science, with a particular focus on how climate change is expected to affect key ecological systems such as forests, farms and resources for vital biodiversity, such as pollinators, in our community.

Using experiments to root mathematical models of environmental niches
Emma E. Goldberg, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Although mathematical models are now used to explain many biological phenomena, the connection to empirical work is often indirect. The project team aims to gain more knowledge about how body size and temperature shape the energy budget within a species of insect, complementing existing work that has examined many species at a single temperature. The data will add to knowledge about the spotted wing drosophila, which is a pest in the United States. The relationships measured empirically will be used to validate or correct modeling assumptions.

Photo by BraunS (iStock)

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6 things we learned about the power of community solar Mon, 02 Nov 2015 21:36:17 +0000 Continue reading 6 things we learned about the power of 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:

  1. Today’s energy system is not set up for solar. Milun said she finds it hard to believe that investor-owned utility companies — with their existing investments centered on coal plants and natural gas — will readily and willingly embrace solar power. To keep global warming below 2 °C, we’ll need to keep carbon emissions under 886 gigatons for 2000–2050, which means we must move quickly on solar and other renewables. The problem: Companies have already claimed and added to their asset ledgers more than three times that much carbon in untapped coal, oil and gas reserves. Without big pressure, Milun says, the private sector won’t do what needs to be done. Even when private companies do build solar power plants, she says, they sometimes do so at scales and in ways that alienate local communities, take out precious farmland and damage local ecosystems.
  2. Community solar can be part of the solution. Community solar — where communities own the multiple benefits of solar — is a useful mechanism for overcoming these challenges. There are many ways to make sure the many benefits of solar are accessible to communities: having federal energy assistance dollars for low-income households go directly to local solar providers rather than to large utilities invested in fossil fuels, for instance, or creating new financing programs that allow small-scale solar producers to sell their electricity in renewable energy markets. Milun proposes using the legal tool of trust ownership, which allows community-embedded entities — churches, existing community land trusts, other nonprofits — to manage solar for the benefit of a local community. In India, for example, the group Gram Oorja sets up photovoltaic systems in local villages that allow the villagers to be owners and managers (trustees) of the system and its many benefits.
  3. Community solar can help low-income communities. A George Washington Solar Institute working paper concluded that if poor communities throughout the U.S. had access to community solar, they’d see billions of dollars in new economic activity and an extra 138,000 jobs. A neighborhood that owns its own photovoltaic system through a community trust can use the income stream produced through electricity sales to support long-term projects, such as a shaded outdoor gathering place, a community garden or an annual festival.
  4. Consider culture. Community solar’s strength, according to Milun, lies in its drive to fit solar into people’s broader value system. Accordingly, mass-produced process won’t work; instead, solar projects should be customized for local communities. In Brazil, social entrepreneur Fabio Rosa got solar units into the hands of villagers, but saw that people didn’t always care for the equipment well. He overcame that obstacle by including a small clay saint statue with every unit, which fit solar into the symbolic system of Brazil’s Catholic culture and allowed people to better recognize the value of this new technology.
  5. Space and place affect solar. Geography matters, and it’s more than the culture and climate of a location. Milun is designing and building community trust-owned solar projects — Solar Commons — in both Minnesota and Arizona, and she noted that differences between the two states (different laws, different attitudes, different energy grids) underscore the importance of tailoring solar to its local context. When solar panels are installed in Arizona parks, for example, they can be designed to create shade, a cool commodity in the state’s hot climate.
  6. Public art helps paint solar in a new light. Milun noted that community solar projects can use art “to make visible the public nature of energy production.” Our electric grid uses public rights of way; our coal and gas plants use the planetary public expanse of our atmosphere. Milun’s Solar Commons project uses the photovoltaic system as a way to “make public” the relationship between our energy landscape and our common home, the Earth. In one Solar Commons proposal, for instance, an architect assembled solar panels to fit the form of a dragonfly, bending technology to fit nature. When community members collaborate to create art for their community Solar Commons installation, they not only get a stake in solar’s success, but are educated about the environment, too.

Watch the video of “Why Do We Need Community Solar?”

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7 questions for IonE’s new director Fri, 30 Oct 2015 16:18:36 +0000 Continue reading 7 questions for IonE’s new director ]]> 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.”

Q: Considering the diverse goals and personalities at a University of this size, how can the colleges work together to tackle tough environmental issues?

“Outside of the University, no one cares whether great scholarship comes from CBS or CFANS or IonE. We just need to get important work done that improves society and the planet. The U is a really big place, and sometimes this large size can get in the way of interdisciplinary collaboration. But IonE is a nimble organization with responsibility to overcome institutional barriers and enhance the University’s scholarship and impact. When IonE works well, it brings faculty and students together by collaborating with the colleges. I am working to emphasize that IonE is a partner with other academic units on campus. It is exciting to be coming in at the same time as Dean Forbes, because I know I’m going to be able to collaborate with her.”

Q: Let’s talk more about how you want to impact change — not just at the U, but in the environment at large. Your research career has revolved around how climate change affects ecosystems. Why did you first decide to study this relationship?

“Two reasons: One, we need to figure out what influence humanity has on living systems. Two, it’s like this huge experiment, where every corner of the planet is undergoing a systematic change, a perturbation that is shaking ecosystems like a snow globe. In changing the planet, we are performing a grand ‘experimental manipulation.’ One side benefit is the opportunity to study how the parts react to the experiment and how pieces of ecosystems affect one another.

It turns out that a lot of the impacts of global climate change are not so good. For many years I studied the impacts of climate change, but after a while, that got to be unsatisfying. I wanted to have more of a say about what we could do to mitigate or reduce the negative effects of climate change. So, I started expanding my research from diagnostic — what influence does climate change have? — to more prescriptive — what can we do to reduce those impacts?”

Q: What can we do about climate change?

“We must slow, and then ultimately stop, greenhouse gas emissions. But you can also manage natural resources better to make them more resilient in the face of climate change, and that we call ‘adaptation.’”

Q: How does this use of the word “adaptation” differ from its usual context in the biological sciences?

“The ‘adaptation’ I’m talking about refers to human-engineered solutions that help to alleviate the effects of climate change on systems, forests, endangered species, and urban populations. It’s an emergent repurposing of the word that means to adjust, to make better.

But biologists do also use the word to refer to evolutionary processes. In fact, how organisms are adapted to their environment has a huge influence on how they will respond when the environment changes — and also, what kind of strategies will work if we’re trying to manage and reduce those effects. In essence, biological adaptation has a lot of influence on how you would do ‘human adaptation.’”

Q: It seems rather provocative to suggest that humans should “adjust” nature.

“Adjusting to climate change — and that humans might help nature adjust to climate change — invites us to ask what nature is and why it is important. Over the last several years, ecology has been reinventing itself to think about how living systems provide services that are critical to humanity, and we need healthy ecosystems to deliver these services. We are also reexamining what it means to be wild, how ecosystems flourish and change, even when there is that human fingerprint.

Climate change asks us to think about natural resource management in a much more dynamic and transitionary way. We are asking not just about the way a system was, but about what it is doing for us. We have to think about what nature will be in the future and how we might manage for or promote that change, and that’s controversial. A lot of the tools in our current toolbox are not designed for that way of thinking.”

Q: So, if we need to design new tools, where should we look for inspiration?

“When we think about the concept of resiliency, more and more we look to ecosystems as models. Ecosystems do a better job of processing energy and cleaning water and evolving and changing than any human-built system has ever done. Ecosystems also show us that diversity has tremendous value. As the creative force of life, diversity helps ecosystems respond to stress and sustain function in the face of changing conditions. The importance of diversity as the planet is changing is one of the reasons that conserving global species is so important.”

Photo by Josh Kohanek

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Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this week Tue, 27 Oct 2015 10:02:45 +0000 Continue reading Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this week ]]> 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.

On Tuesday, Oct. 27, IonE director Jessica Hellmann will facilitate a plenary discussion looking at three different approaches to gauging the effectiveness of sustainability education. The discussion will feature experts and examples from Green Mountain College, the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and the University of Michigan.

Food is one of the big topics at the conference. Here at the U, professors, dining services and students alike are all doing leading-edge work around food at both a local and global level. AASHE attendees will have the opportunity to connect with folks engaged in local conversations about food during the session “Uncomfortable Dinner Parties and Farmer Photo Booths.” Alyssa Lundberg, University Dining Services’ sustainability coordinator, and Valentine Cadieux, IonE resident fellow and director of sustainable and environmental studies at Hamline University, will discuss their college campus approaches to food sustainability during this interactive session. Their goal is to provide a platform for discussion among individuals engaged in food sustainability across a variety of backgrounds — from students to researchers to chefs, farmers and administrators.

Art is making a debut appearance at AASHE this year, thanks to a collaboration with the IonE art exhibit, “Sustainable Acts: Mother Nature’s Embrace.” Many people see sustainability or environmental issues as research based, containing only graphs, numbers and data. While these are all fundamental forms of communicating sustainability,  art is a vital agent in the spiral of sustainable change.

Jonee Brigham, senior research fellow at IonE, and Roslye Ultan, senior lecturer of liberal studies and arts and cultural leadership in the College of Liberal Arts, will lead the presentation, “Bridging the connection between sustainability and art.” As they discuss the intersection between art, science and environmental sustainability, they will reveal the role that art plays in the process of sustainable transformation. Ultan describes the presentation, which will encourage open-ended thinking, curiosity and creative imaginations, as setting itself apart from other presentations.

“The arts have the power to stimulate emotionally charged responses for engagement and action,” she says. “Art adds a new dimension to the conversation and search for finding new ways to communicate complex issues in aesthetically pleasing ways.”

Get more information and see the full list of sessions here.

Photo by Meet Minneapolis (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibit Tue, 20 Oct 2015 13:00:56 +0000 Continue reading Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibit ]]> 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.

Photo/art by Joyce Lyon
Photo/art by Joyce Lyon

“Artists and scientists are on the same trail,” says Roslye Ultan, liberal studies senior faculty member in the College of Continuing Education and curator of the exhibit. “Nothing happens in isolation. The artist without scientific knowledge and the scientist without vision won’t get anywhere. They need each other to get to higher ground.”

SAMEE is a follow-up to an art exhibit curated by Ultan at IonE last year, Tales of Environmental Turbulence. Several artists from ToET will be returning with new work, including Tanya Grevening, whose totem pole embossed with plastic toys was a crowd favorite, and Sean Connaughty, who creates unusual and surprising biospheres. Camile Gage, who conducted the interactive I AM WATER art show across the country and in the IonE Commons will be part of the SAMEE show, as will IonE resident fellow Jonee Brigham.

Other artists include Joel Carter, a physician who uses stone sculptures to illustrate how healing balance can be realized in the most unlikely places.

Photo/art by Rochelle Woldorsky
Photo/art by Rochelle Woldorsky


The SAMEE exhibit is supported in part by an IonE Mini Grant. The exhibit and reception are free and open to the campus community and the general public. Call or email for more info: 612-626-9553 /

Banner photo/art by David Malcolm Scott

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Acara helps students become heros Mon, 19 Oct 2015 14:22:26 +0000 Continue reading Acara helps students become heros ]]> 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.

Following a meal catered by Acara alum Eat For Equity, IonE director Jessica Hellmann welcomed the 80 attendees. Here is a selection of the updates.

AcaraOpen3Ova Woman, an online retailer of women’s intimate health products, which took Gold in the 2015 Acara Challenge, won $31,000 in the MN Cup 2015 student division in September 2015. The website is live and selling a variety of products ranging from menstrual cups to absorbent underwear in order to ensure comfort and confidence for all women. Check out Ova Woman’s recent blog post here.

E-Grove, the University of Minnesota’s student-led electronic waste collection service, continues to expand collection points in on- and off-campus residential locations. E-Grove is now collecting e-waste from more than a dozen apartments and residence facilities in the Twin Cities with plans for expansion.

Eat for Equity, which is building a culture of generosity through community feasts, has continued to grow their community-focused events along with expansion of their catering business.


Ripple team lead Anna Schulte completed an Acara Fellowship evaluating effective water marketing approaches in India in summer 2015 in collaboration with Swasti Health Resource Centre. Anna entered a master’s in public health program at UMN and is aiming to return to India in summer 2016. Check out Ripple’s recent blog post here.

Stimulight, a venture launched out of Acara’s fall 2014 Global Venture Design program, seeks to improve the quality of life in rural India through the use of clean and reliable LED lights driven by solar-powered microgrids in place of kerosene lamps. Stimulight team member Robin Walz is now pursuing an Acara Fellowship with SELCO, a solar lighting venture in India.

Autonomee, a TaskRabbit-like software product for marginalized job seekers who need career experience, is continuing to progress. It has entered talks for contract services with large development companies.

MyRain, a distributor of efficiency micro-irrigation products to smallholder farmers in India, now has 23 employees, 250 active dealers and more than 350 product offerings. It has raised more than $400,000 in equity investments and was named a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist and recipient of a $500,000 Securing Water for Food Grant.


Mighty Axe Hops, a grower and hub of local hops for local beer, recently completed its third growing season in Ham Lake, Minnesota. It is continuing to expand its production and distribution to craft brewers in the Midwest.

Banner image: iStock / inline photos: Brian Bell

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Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCap Fri, 16 Oct 2015 15:20:09 +0000 Continue reading Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCap ]]> 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.

A strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment, NatCap has been at the front lines of efforts to connect how upstream land management may benefit downstream users. In the Midwest, where many drinking water sources face threats from excess nutrients and sediment, NatCap is conducting research to provide knowledge and tools needed to protect water resources. It’s also joining regional partnerships to bring an ecosystem services perspective to the table. Three collaborations provide timely examples of on-the-ground water protection efforts and highlight a few of the ongoing and future research priorities of the NatCap team.

At the summit, The Nature Conservancy announced the establishment of a $10 million Minnesota Headwaters Fund, a unique project aimed at supporting targeted conservation efforts such as stream bank protection, preservation of forests and wetland restoration. NatCap assisted TNC scientists in building an evidence base for the water fund, and NatCap’s InVEST suite of ecosystem services models is being used to more efficiently and strategically plan the fund’s investments.

For the past year, NatCap has also contributed to a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, The Coca-Cola Company, TNC and DuPont Pioneer in Iowa’s Cedar River Basin, with support from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Landscape Conservation Cooperative grant. In this project, NatCap scientists are using ecosystem models and social and economic data to better target restoration to improve the delivery of services such as clean water for local communities. This collaboration complements a recent $2 million grant awarded earlier this year to the city of Cedar Rapids through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program to implement upstream conservation practices in the watershed and help protect Cedar Rapids from flooding and nutrient pollution.

In addition to these projects, NatCap recently launched new work in Minnesota looking at the long-term water quantity and quality impacts of climate change and the ecosystem service benefits of the state’s conservation easement programs. Working with Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and Tracy Twine, co-lead of Islands in the Sun and an associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, NatCap will map statewide water scarcity and quantify the economic values of water quality and quantity that will inform long-term water sustainability strategies. Additionally, NatCap plans to assess existing easements and develop a Web-based easement valuation system that will help guide future state investments in conservation.

Both projects are funded by the State of Minnesota Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and aim to help state agencies and decision makers make more informed and strategic decisions about land and water management.

These research partnerships provide a sample of watershed initiatives aimed at linking land management to water quality in the region. “We’re particularly excited about these regional projects and partnerships,” said Keeler. “NatCap has made big science investments in understanding the links between land, water and people. We’re eager to apply that knowledge to these contexts in Minnesota and Iowa that have the potential to change decisions and improve the clean water we all depend upon.”

Photo by Holly Hayes (Flickr / Creative Commons)

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IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in Americas Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:23:10 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in Americas ]]> 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.

“The reports are meant to bridge the gap between what we are producing for scientific knowledge and what’s needed to actually improve decision-making,” says Isbell. Unlike previous ecosystem assessments led by scientists, the IPBES is based on a framework developed by policy experts from around the world.

The IPBES plans to produce a series of reports at regular intervals. Isbell and Cavender-Bares will contribute to the inaugural series. The Americas assessment encompasses North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

“Our task is to present the science — the status and trends and changes through time — of biodiversity and ecosystems in biomes across the Americas,” says Cavender-Bares, who has done research in Mexico and Costa Rica and collaborated with Latin American scientists for the past decade. Cavender-Bares says that co-teaching a distributed graduate seminar on sustainability with colleagues at the U of M and in Mexico and Brazil, along with recently completing leadership training through a Leopold Fellowship, prepared her to work on the assessment. The Stanford-based program provides leadership training each year to a select group of top environmental scholars from around the world.

“One thing we focused on in the Leopold training is harnessing the collective wisdom of the group,” says Cavender-Bares. “That is very much needed in a highly interdisciplinary report that bridges science and policy and brings together scientists across wide-ranging geopolitical domains.”

“We’re at this sweet spot where we appreciate nature and recognize that there are many values we cannot easily quantify,” says Forest Isbell, “but we also recognize that to the extent that we can quantify some of those values they can improve decision-making. Some of our activities that cause the most harm, like agriculture, also provide huge benefits for people. The challenge is to weigh those costs and benefits.”

Isbell notes that these regional and global assessments highlight the inconsistency in available data. “What we find right away is that there’s much better data in some countries than others. So how much can we really say about the Americas or the planet if we have science well funded and systems well studied in a few places?”

Photo courtesy of CBS

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Soils serve food and much more Fri, 09 Oct 2015 14:21:06 +0000 Continue reading Soils serve food and much more ]]> 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.

“It’s critical to understand how managing the land improves or degrades it,” says West. “Building and maintaining healthy soils provides long-term benefits for both people and nature. Healthy soils lead to healthy lives.”

“A number of global initiatives, including Climate Smart Agriculture and a proposal for the climate negotiations by the French government to increase global soil carbon stocks, are all coalescing now to present the perfect opportunity to value and improve soils worldwide,” adds Pete Smith, lead author and a professor at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Scottish Food Security Alliance-Corps & ClimateXChange, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The first report, published in June 2015 in the online journal SOIL, summarized the important linkages among soils, biodiversity, climate and other factors for providing direct benefits such as food and fiber, as well as soil’s underlying role in regulating water quality and climate. “Soils provide the foundation that sets the stage for most of life on Earth. It’s crucial to understand these benefits, their current status and trends, as well as how that can be managed. We need to stop treating soil like dirt,” says West.

The second report, published in August 2015 in Global Change Biology, summarized the impact of human activities such as land use change, land management, land degradation and land pollution on soil. Like the previous paper, it identifies gaps in knowledge and calls for additional research to fill them. In addition, it proposes activities and policies to protect soils from human harm in the future. In particular, the authors recommend that the United Nations capitalize on the occasion of the International Year of Soils to create a global initiative aimed at boosting soil health and ensuring the integrity of the world’s soils by making them a key component of future environmental protection and sustainable development efforts.

“This year, countries are making new commitments for the Sustainable Development Goals as well as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Paris,” says Smith. “Soils are integral to sustainably managing our planet now and well into the future. Managing for healthy soils creates a win-win for meeting these commitments and providing food for the future.”

Note: This research contributes to the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), a multinational effort to identify pathways for sustainably meeting food security needs on limited land.


Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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A new resource on the global food system Mon, 05 Oct 2015 15:21:46 +0000 Continue reading A new resource on the global food system ]]> 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.

The first topic, “Food Matters, has just gone live, with three features on the future of food. A new feature will be published each month. Current features include “Is There Enough Food for the Future?,” “Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?” and “Waste Not, Want Not?”

Is There Enough Food for the Future?

  • To feed those who are currently hungry — and the additional 2 billion-plus people who will join us on the planet by 2050 — crop production will need to increase between 60 and 100 percent by most reliable projections.
  • “Business as usual” could lead to a doubling of demand for agricultural production. If the world meets future crop demand as it has in the past, this would mean that annual CO2 equivalents would rise from one gigaton per year in 2005 to three gigatons in 2050. A two-gigaton (2 billion metric ton) rise in yearly CO2 equivalents would be greater than the annual emissions from every car, train and plane in the U.S.
  • Increasing crop production is part of the solution, but can’t be the only one. Just four crops — maize, rice, wheat and soybeans — provide two-thirds of the calories we harvest from fields. In many parts of the world, though, the yields for these crops are not rising.

Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?

  • Since World War II, as people — from the U.S. to China, Brazil to India — make more money, expectations for meals have risen. Our personal food choices not only affect personal health, they indirectly affect the health of the planet.
  • The U.S. could feed nearly three times more people than it currently does from the calories produced by major crops.
  • Meat, dairy and eggs greatly affect the world’s present and future food system due to their high need for land. The good news is that simply shifting from one kind of meat to another can dramatically reduce the impact of our diet on the environment.
  • Dietary changes don’t have to be extreme to considerably reduce the impact on the environment. The more feed crops needed to raise an animal, the more greenhouse gases are emitted from the fertilizer (nitrous oxide) and transportation (carbon dioxide) required to grow the feed. In addition, ruminants like cows and sheep emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as they digest their food. Considering all of these emissions together, some meat, like beef, can have up to 250 times the emissions of a plant-based protein like legumes.  Emissions from producing eggs, dairy, poultry, and pork, however, are much lower.



Waste Not, Want Not?

  • Roughly one-quarter of the calories of the world’s food crops are wasted. That’s enough calories to feed 1.9 billion more people the diet the World Health Organization says is needed to be healthy and satisfied.
  • The impact of waste amplifies significantly when we consider the crops that livestock animals consume during their lifetimes. The total cropland used to grow food that is never eaten almost equals all cropland in Africa. Reducing consumer waste of just six commodities in the U.S., China and India alone could save enough calories to feed about 413 million people per year.
  • We could realistically reduce global food waste by half — and people are leading the way. For example, one French supermarket chain responded with an “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign, selling imperfect food at a discount and seeing store traffic rise. Supermarkets across Europe are following suit.


Charts and graphs courtesy of Environment Reports

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Acara alumna wins big Tue, 29 Sep 2015 18:59:11 +0000 Continue reading Acara alumna wins big ]]> 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.

The business was chosen as a finalist for the MN Cup out of 1,300 entries.

Maxwell says Acara helped her refine her idea by asking, “What is the value proposition?”

“Originally I thought I was going to be creating a new product but I realized I was not going to improve on what’s already out there,” says Maxwell.

Through interviewing hundreds of women, Maxell realized there is stigma attached to women’s intimate products and health. She decided what was needed was a safe place for conversations to take place and to make it easier for women to find the products that are already out there.

Maxwell says 30 women tested the menstrual cup and found that 80 percent of them wanted to continue using it. The Web business grew out of her desire to make women’s intimate health products easy to find and convenient to purchase. Equally beneficial is that menstrual cups are reusable, and increasing their use decreases waste from disposable hygiene products.

Through her participation in the Acara Challenge — a student competition in which Ova Woman took the domestic gold awar­d — Maxwell says she learned how to put together a pitch, make it compelling and tell a story. “For someone without a business background, it really helped me build up confidence. The judges believed in me and that really felt good.”

Carrying the slogan “For aspiring entrepreneurs who mean business,” the MN Cup is a program of the Carlson School and the largest statewide venture competition.

Read more about Maxwell’s experience in her words on the Acara blog.

Photo by BraunS (iStock)

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NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys green Fri, 25 Sep 2015 12:46:54 +0000 Continue reading NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys green ]]> 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.

Portrait: Tim Smith
Tim Smith, IonE resident fellow, associate professor of environmental sciences, policy and management, and bioproducts and biosystems engineering the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Photo courtesy of T. Smith.

Executive departments and agencies of the U.S. government already are required by executive order to specify products meeting federal standards for energy efficiency, water efficiency, and safer chemicals (Energy Star®, WaterSense®, and Safer Choice). The new guidelines aim to bring into the picture the hundreds of private standards and ecolabels in the marketplace claiming environmental and human health benefits into the picture.

Smith says the pilot implementation has three big goals: to ensure consistency among the product panels; to approve final recommendations of the product panels’ criteria and assessment reports; and to advise the EPA on the pilot’s value, scalability and long-term feasibility. The ultimate aim, he says, is to create a transparent, fair and consistent approach to recognizing high-performing environmental standards and ecolabels and, consequently, environmentally preferable products that meet them.

“Having the opportunity to influence how the government ‘buys green’ is exciting and terrifying,” Smith says. “While the focus of the project is on finalizing EPA’s draft guidelines for the federal government, our work will provide a foundation for making better buying decisions — whether institutional or individual.”

Photo by Photos by Clark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Sustainability Education wows Welcome Week Wed, 16 Sep 2015 15:27:48 +0000 Continue reading Sustainability Education wows Welcome Week ]]> 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.

SLGFArriving students were greeted and sent into the Pond, where they were introduced to the many ways they could get involved in sustainability on campus. Representatives from the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs caught the students’ attention and groups such as Students for Sustainability, Engineers Without Borders and U Students Like Good Food kept it as students made their way through the room. Cornercopia Student Organic Farm used colorful cartons of heirloom tomatoes and overflowing baskets of ground cherries to attract attention.

Excitement built as students made their way to the River, where sustainability education studies and other academic programs shared advice on incorporating sustainability into a college education. At a table showcasing a
Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) course, Andrew Urevig pitched a class entitled “Can we feed the world without destroying it?” by drawing crowds with a magic ball that showed several different maps related to food production on a local and global scale. MagicGlobeSustainability Education representatives met with students enthusiastic about incorporating the sustainability studies minor into their education. They also handed out stickers and posed the question, “What does sustainability mean to you?” through an interactive art project. Other sought-out groups included the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and the Learning Abroad Center

Students then entered the Lake, which provided a space for University Services departments and organizations to show sustainability through a broader Twin Cities lens. IAAUStudents were given the opportunity to answer the question, “What does sustainable food mean to you?” as they made their way past free sustainable swag from the “It All Adds Up!” campaign on campus.

Finally, the hot and sticky day culminated outside at the Water Bar, an art installation serving local tap waters from Minneapolis, Saint Paul and White Bear Lake. WaterBarStudents were given the unique opportunity to taste different municipal waters and learn about the local aquifers, lakes and rivers from which the water came. Volunteers talked with students about drinking water and what we can do to better protect our water resources.




Photos courtesy of Sustainability Education 

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Biodiversity is the spice of life Wed, 02 Sep 2015 18:55:01 +0000 Continue reading Biodiversity is the spice of life ]]> 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.

“This work is important in helping us better understand the value of biodiversity and how it can help us anticipate and build resiliency in the face of climate change,” says Reich, the co-author of three recent studies that found that human impacts threaten ecosystem stability and services worldwide.

In one study published in the April 2015 issue of Science, researchers studied data from 12 multiyear experiments at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and found that manipulation of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, fire, herbivory and water all influence the stability of production through their influence on biodiversity. Study authors, including researchers Eric Seabloom and Elizabeth Borer, co-leaders of the IonE-affiliated Nutrient Network and associate professors in the College of Biological Sciences, found that more diverse ecosystems are more stable, regardless of what influences diversity. Unfortunately, many human drivers of change, such as nitrogen pollution or land use change, reduce stability by reducing biodiversity, in addition to other potential adverse effects.

In a second study, published in the May 2015 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Reich and colleagues demonstrated the importance of biodiversity to the productivity of boreal forests, and added both practical information about the value of individual species in maintaining productivity and new theory by incorporating ideas from economics into a mechanistic model of how biodiversity influences productivity.

A third study, published by Reich and colleagues in the February 2015 issue of Nature Climate Change, showed that climate warming reduces the growth and competitive abilities of boreal conifers like spruce and fir in the southern part of the boreal forest that stretches across the Great Lakes region and further east and west.  Their reduced abundance would diminish the diversity of these forests, which are likely to become increasingly dominated by broad-leafed species, including invading oaks and maples, as well as the native aspen and birch that are more tolerant of warming than spruce and fir. That diminished diversity is likely to result in the kinds of negative impacts discovered in the two other papers.

Reich notes that “negative impacts of different human influences on plant communities just makes it all the more imperative that we manage forests and grasslands with diversity in mind, to help keep them healthy and providing the services we rely on.”

Reich’s biodiversity research was the basis for a $1.4 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to fund a project that will improve how physiological and functional diversity are represented in models of the global carbon cycle and climate systems. This work involves collaborators at Oak Ridge National Lab, Australia, and Germany, as well as IonE resident fellow Arindam Banerjee, associate professor in the College of Science & Engineering.

Photo by Tatters (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry Mon, 31 Aug 2015 18:47:12 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry ]]> 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.

Through the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, the University of Minnesota is reaching across academic disciplines as well as out to the private sector to develop the tools and processes that will help companies meet the grand challenge of reducing their carbon and water footprints.

NiSE director Tim Smith, professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an IonE resident fellow, leads a team of engineers, economists and environmental scientists who collaborate with industry representatives, environmental nonprofit organizations and policy makers to develop tools businesses can use to make informed sourcing and production decisions affecting sustainability performance.

We asked Smith what NiSE has been working on lately. 

What are some of the biggest challenges NiSE is tackling?

We’re currently focusing many of our efforts on identifying the biggest impacts in product systems, the hot spots where potential improvements might have the largest effect on the system. Sometimes these hot spots are early in the value chain, for example, mining or agricultural production. Sometimes they are in production, like energy-intensive products such as paper, cement or petrochemicals. In other cases, the largest impacts can occur as products are used or discarded, like computers or vehicles. The challenge is that these hot spots are very different from one product system to the next, and from one type of impact to the next. Where a company like General Mills might focus its new product design or process improvement investments will depend on whether they’re looking at yogurt or breakfast cereal and whether they are most concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, water use or solid waste.

Managing a challenge like this while remaining profitable may not seem that difficult on the surface, except for the fact that many of the environmental impacts from that box of Cheerios aren’t under the direct control of General Mills. General Mills doesn’t grow the oats, they don’t manufacture the packaging and they don’t operate the city recycling programs. They do use a fair amount of energy in manufacturing, and they have worked quite hard over the past 40 years to reduce these impacts, but they have a brand to protect and increasingly that means coordinating with their suppliers and customers across the value chain. NiSE is developing new methods and tools that map these value chains and link them to the impacts and the decision-makers in a position to influence them.

One of the tools being developed by NiSE is FoodS3 (Food Systems Supply-Chain Sustainability), where U.S. corn and soybean intensive product supply chains have been mapped, identifying upstream carbon and water use hot spots. Approximately 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is used in poultry, beef and pork production, and in the making of ethanol. So, while much of the corn in the U.S. is produced in the Midwest, it is distributed across the country to animal feedlots and ethanol production facilities. And those animals are transported to processing facilities, often hundreds of miles away, before being packaged under brands you might recognize (Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson, etc.). FoodS3 estimates the likely sourcing relationships between each of these stages in the supply chain and links the factories of downstream brand owners with the upstream locations where significant emissions and impacts to natural resources reside. In short, this tool helps companies see upstream impacts that are typically hidden to them but are important to many of their customers, and better assess where influencing suppliers’ operations might make the biggest difference.

What is your approach to working across disciplines and with external partners?

We work directly and indirectly with mostly large multinational companies, often through existing consortia and networks convened by environmental non-governmental organizations. For example, we have worked to develop methods to identify hotspots in agricultural supply chains with companies like Walmart, General Mills and Cargill through collaborations with the Sustainability Consortium and Environmental Defense Fund. We work with CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) on supply chain reporting metrics, piloted by PepsiCo, Philips, L’Oreal, Walmart, Bank of America and Vodafone. Similarly, through the Global Environmental Management Initiative, we have worked with companies like 3M, FedEx, Kraft and Smithfield Foods on a tool for purchasing managers that helps them assess the environmental and economic trade-offs of sourcing strategies across the portfolios of products they buy.

We obviously can’t do this work without engagement from the best scholars and experts in their fields. This work is inherently transdisciplinary, so our project teams draw faculty, researchers and students from engineering, economics, public policy, environmental sciences and public health. We like to think that NiSE serves as a meaningful bridge between disciplines and communities of practice — where at the end of the day, we ask better questions of each other and roll up our sleeves to answer many of them.

What new innovation might we not have if not for these investments?

Most of our work focuses on existing product systems, as opposed to discovering the next new game-changing technology. That said, the work of our team helps to characterize the systems within which new technologies might enter. For example, in some of our work examining the way large industrials use electricity, we have provided important insights into the way new smart-grid technologies and demand response programs (pricing incentives for reducing demand during peak load time periods) might be adopted and the environmental impacts of those decisions. Similarly, another project exploring how future biorefineries manage their production mix of chemical, material and fuel products to meet profitability and carbon intensity goals will likely influence how these technologies evolve.

What would success look like for NiSE? 

The real sign of success, in my opinion, is evidence of the new knowledge we create (and academic research, in general) actually being used by practitioners. To me, that is the Holy Grail of engaged scholarship. This is why we are dedicating so much time and effort toward translating the new methods and knowledge created by our researchers into tools accessible to real users, innovators and makers. As producers seek innovative ways to respond to their customers and their customers’ customers, requests for greater transparency of sustainability performance, new approaches and tools focused on product value chains will be needed.

How can a business sign up to work with NiSE? 

To learn more about NiSE and how to partner with us, please contact Tim Smith or Jennifer Schmitt.

Photo by kirin_photo (iStock)

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Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project Mon, 24 Aug 2015 15:26:35 +0000 Continue reading Food for thought: The Sustainable Agriculture Project ]]> 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)

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Drones study has media buzzing Wed, 19 Aug 2015 16:03:15 +0000 Continue reading Drones study has media buzzing ]]> 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)

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IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities Mon, 17 Aug 2015 16:46:43 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to lead global project on sustainable cities ]]> 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.

University of Minnesota researchers — including several Institute on the Environment resident fellows — are part of a global team that has received a $12 million award from the National Science Foundation to bring together a unique network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners committed to building better cities of the future.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” Anu Ramaswami, professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, IonE resident fellow and lead investigator and director for the project, said in a press release. “Understanding that these systems are interconnected serves as a foundation for this work. For example, urban farms wouldn’t work very well without thinking about water, energy and transportation infrastructure, as well as people, markets and policies.”

In this video, Ramaswami and several other members of the project team explain how the project will be implemented.

IonE resident fellows Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health; Julian Marshall and Paige Novak, professors in the College of Science and Engineering; and Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor in the Humphrey School, are co-investigators on the project.

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.

Read the full press release

Photo by m01229 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: build resilient communities Fri, 07 Aug 2015 15:45:16 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: build resilient communities ]]> 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.

Among the tools the University is using to deliver on that commitment is the Resilient Communities Project, an initiative supported by IonE and the Center for Urban Regional Affairs that organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities, matching hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by the chosen community.

RCP director Mike Greco describes the program and how it is helping build more sustainable cities in this Q&A. 

What are some of the biggest challenges RCP teams are tackling? 

In these community-scale sustainability and resilience projects, the biggest challenge for students is finding appropriate solutions that align with the community context. Their work may be informed by projects and tools used in other places around the United States and around the world, but they need to consider what’s the right approach locally, taking into account the politics, demographics, development pattern, economy and other conditions that make the community unique. For Rosemount, our most recent RCP partner, students worked on any number of environmentally related projects, on topics such as climate adaption, alternative energy, recreation opportunities for underserved populations, and community gardening. Other projects were focused on neighborhood cohesion, student housing, and fire department staffing.  For all of the projects proposed by the community, the overarching goals included fostering resilience in the face of changing conditions and promoting environmental, social and political resilience.

How do transdisciplinary approaches figure into this work?

One unique aspect of RCP is the wide range of expertise we harness across the various classes that we engage to work on community projects. In some cases, multiple courses work on a single project, offering various types of expertise to the community and providing experiential learning opportunities to students from across the U of M.  For example, for a project in Rosemount focused on water reuse and conservation, RCP engaged students in an environmental sustainability clinic in the Law School, an environmental health course in the School of Public Health, and an adult education course in the College of Education and Human Development. For a project focused on exploring opportunities for new nature-based recreation and play opportunities, courses included a research and evaluation course in the Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies program, a liberal studies course on re-imaging arts for public parks in the Liberal Studies program, and a course on operations and management in the Environmental Education program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

What is the impact on students of this kind of practical, hands-on approach?

RCP creates opportunities for students to work on projects that will give them a professional experience in classes that, in many cases, wouldn’t otherwise offer these kinds of experiences. All of the work is happening in close collaboration with our community partner staff and often engages other community stakeholders. This engagement helps ensure that work produced is relevant and has the potential to inform community decisions in the future.  For example, one of the projects we did with our first partner, the City of Minnetonka, was about stormwater management. The students’ work influenced the city to reexamine their street sweeping program to improve water quality.

Is there a take-home lesson?

We’re about to embark on our fourth partnership and each has been different, based on the projects we’ve worked on, the staff and community members involved, and the priorities for each community.  What’s so interesting is that each community found ways to connect to resilience and sustainability — whether an exurban community like Rosemount or a built-out first ring suburb like North St. Paul. These concepts can be helpful in getting communities to think about the future and the ways that they can shape that future through the decisions that they make now.

Where to next for RCP?

This year’s partnership will be with Carver County. We are excited for this new opportunity, as the county collaboration will include participation by three cities, the community development agency, the school district and the regional transit provider.  This coalition will provide opportunities to engage across a variety of projects and jurisdictions.

Photo © KIVILCIM PINAR (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler Mon, 03 Aug 2015 15:33:33 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Roboticist Volkan Isler ]]> 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.

Volkan Isler, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of V. Isler.

What is your greatest environmental concern?

I’m worried about the intersection of biotechnology and the environment. For example, food and chemicals. We don’t know what the chemicals in our food are doing to us. With GMOs most people have a gut reaction for or against. For me, the biggest concern is that I don’t know what they’re doing to us and our children. Until recently, no one was eating food that contained chemicals, but now everything has them and we don’t know their long-term effects.

What is the most interesting thing in your backpack?

Annie’s snack bars, wet wipes and two bottles of hand sanitizer. You can tell we have a preschooler.

What is the personality trait you rely on most?


What gives you hope?

Young people, students. The general optimism and idealism that comes with being young and confident. As humans in general we rely on them to propel us forward. We get grumpy as we get older.

Banner photo by Jennifer C. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species Thu, 16 Jul 2015 16:44:10 +0000 Continue reading Boosting nutrients gives a leg up to invasive species ]]> 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.

A new study, led by University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences researcher Eric Seabloom, addresses that gap, drawing on data collected at 64 grassland sites in 13 countries. Published in the July 15 issue of Nature Communications, the global study pinpoints functional differences in exotic and native plant species that contribute to the familiar narrative of out-of-control invasive species.

Seabloom, Elizabeth Borer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota and around the world, tested the responses of both native and exotic species to two fundamental drivers of invasion linked to human activity — the availability of nutrients needed by plants to grow, like nitrogen and phosphorus, and the density of herbivores that are eating plants. They found that species origin matters — where exotic species thrive on added nutrients (e.g. fertilizers), native species decline in abundance and diversity.

“What we found is that if you add nutrients, the only species you lose are the native species,” says Seabloom. “The same is not true for exotic species, which become more abundant when you add nutrients” he adds, “so we are basically giving preferential treatment to exotics by increasing nutrients through our use of fossil fuels and agricultural fertilizers.”

However, if herbivores are added to the mix, it tips the balance back toward light-hungry native species. Grazing animals effectively cut back on shade creating plants and create more favorable conditions for native species to thrive.

The researchers leveraged the global reach of Institute on the Environment’s Nutrient Network, an ecology research network that includes 80 grassland sites in 20 countries, to develop their findings. Seabloom and Borer founded the Nutrient Network as a way of conducting standardized experiments across disparate grassland sites to understand the effects of fertilization writ large.

“The key thing about this study is we collected data in a very standard way from a lot of sites around the world,” says Seabloom, noting that previous studies have provided wonderful, detailed data at a few sites or on a few species, but it is difficult to compare the work due to the different methods. “There are a lot of species involved. We wanted to understand not only which species were present, but their abundance and their response to human disturbance.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and IonE.

Photo by Anita (Flicker/Creative Commons)

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What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? Tue, 14 Jul 2015 18:12:39 +0000 Continue reading What does climate change mean for Minnesota’s trees? ]]> Climate change is affecting weather patterns across the globe — and on our doorstep. As temperatures warm and moisture availability shifts as a result, what effect will these changes have on Minnesota’s trees?

IonE resident fellow Rebecca Montgomery, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, talked with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about an ongoing study that is revealing what trees might disappear from Minnesota’s north woods and which are likely to take their place.

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 Justin Meissen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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