Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Fri, 22 May 2015 18:09:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty Fri, 22 May 2015 17:59:27 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Anthropologist Mark Pedelty ]]> What’s your current favorite project?

I am writing a book whose working title is Environmentalist Musicians: Cases from Cascadia for Indiana University Press’s Music, Nature, Place series. It is based on six case studies of musicians working with environmental movements, starting with Dana Lyons and ending with the Idle No More movement, performers who mobilize communities through music. They shared their ideas, techniques and experiences with me over the course of two years.

Mark Pedelty, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of M. Pedelty.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

How do we bring people together to create sustainable institutions, policies and cultures? In other words, in addition to assisting policy makers and industry, how might we assist environmental movements (i.e., democracy?)? I find that particularly important given the U of M’s public land grant mission. How do we serve a public good when it comes to environmental justice, biodiversity and health?

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate, by Naomi Klein, Simon and Schuster, 2014.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

Anti-Apartheid organizing at UCLA taught me to realize that it is never enough just to talk and write about something. Theory without practice becomes esoteric and stale. I believe that is true in the arts, humanities, social sciences and material sciences. For example, ecological modeling that perpetually “black boxes” over-determining social factors (the human factors causing pollution, climate change, etc.) will tell us less about ecosystems than they could if those factors were occasionally brought into such models. Without that, ideological assumptions about “anthropogenic factors” substitute for truly critical, scientific exploration of ecosystems in their greater complexity.

The same can be said of humanistic work, such as “ecocriticism,” when we simply step back and point fingers. I felt like I did that a bit with a recent project, Ecomusicology (Temple 2012). Although I was pointing a few fingers backward at the often ineffectual participant observer (me and mine), there was too much in that analysis that was critical of the music industry without sufficient focus on more positive solutions. That is why I undertook my current work in the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to find and then examine model cases where performing musicians have been able to use their art in grounded ways that advance local and regional movements for environmental justice, education, biodiversity and health.

Who was your most influential mentor?

Todd Gitlin. He taught me to focus on solving problems. Rather than adopting ideological trends of the moment, Todd has remained independent, a truly critical thinker. Whether one is an artist, scientist or something in between, that quality of mind aids discovery. As Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Contemporary common sense includes unsustainable assumptions and fantasies, such as the idea that we can expand our population indefinitely without ecological consequences or that unbridled development has no impact on biodiversity or that our relatively utopian access to new products has no consequences for the people who assemble those products, many of whom live in appalling environmental conditions. One of the things that I’ve always liked about Todd is that he challenges common sense when it’s wrong, even if those views are unpopular. Plus, Todd is extremely hard working, another quality that, along with a sense of curiosity, makes new insights possible.

What inspires you? 

The Idle No More Movement. Idle No More began when four friends from Saskatchewan decided to take action against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Bill C-45, an act that threatened First Nations’ sovereignty rights and greatly weakened Canada’s environmental protections. Although started in the interior, Idle No More is extremely active on the Canadian West Coast in British Columbia. Led by First Nations organizers and joined by many non-indigenous allies, the coalition has opposed development plans that would radically impact the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait). Much of British Columbia is “unceded territory,” meaning that indigenous people occupying the land never relinquished their homelands via treaty or other legal mechanism. Idle No More activists are struggling to steward land, water, air, animals and people within their unceded territories, which requires protecting them from the threat of unhealthy and unsustainable forms of development. For example, thus far they have stopped Enbridge and Kinder Morgan from building pipelines to export shale oil from Alberta. They are one of the big reasons that TransCanada and the Koch Brothers have fought so hard and spent millions of dollars to get the Keystone pipeline approved. The people of Western Canada won’t let it go that direction. One of the most important regulators of greenhouse gases in North America at the moment is Idle No More. Those who think that environmental movements are mere side-shows to the more serious work of science and policy simply aren’t paying enough attention to history or present day developments.

What gives you hope?

Public engagement and activism. As a scholar, I am probably better at studying and writing about public engagement than I am at actually doing it, but when I find myself in places and moments where knowledgeable and concerned people effectively voice their opinions — such as an Idle No More protest in Vancouver or on Dana Lyon’s Coal Train Tour — things don’t appear nearly as bleak as they do when flipping through the channels.

Photo by Daniela Kantorova (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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New Mini Grant awards focus on Galapagos and more Tue, 19 May 2015 17:37:40 +0000 Continue reading New Mini Grant awards focus on Galapagos and more ]]> A workshop on invasive species in the Galapagos Islands, the launch of a food festival at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and the implementation of a new course on impact ventures in rural Nicaragua are some of the projects receiving Institute on the Environment Mini Grants this spring. Eleven projects received grants of up to $3,000 and one received $5,000 for a total disbursement of $43,300.

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

Invasive Species in the Galapagos Islands: Challenges and Solutions
George Heimpel, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

The project team will develop a workshop focusing on invasive species in the Galapagos Islands in June 2015. The workshop will bring together three units at the University of Minnesota — the Department of Entomology, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Biological Sciences — in a novel way. The public workshop will feature presentations and directed discussions on invasive species and conservation in the Galapagos.

Creating Social Ecological Knowledge and Engagement Across Campus and Community: Inaugurating the Bulldog Food and Farm Festival
Randel Hanson, Program in Environment and Sustainability, UMD

The project team will hold a festival to highlight the interdependence of food, health and ecology on September 20, 2015, at the Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm at UMD’s Field and Research Studies Center. The festival will include a 5K run; a farmers market with area growers; various health- and wellness-oriented activities and education; campus and community based sustainability activities; food that features produce grown on the SAP Farm and prepared by UMD Dining Services; and tours of the SAP Farm to showcase organic agriculture practices, wind energy production, sustainable landscape management and habitat restoration.

Piloting Acara Impact Entrepreneurship Program in Rural Nicaragua
Brian Bell, Acara, IonE

IonE’s Acara program, EOS International and Iowa State University will partner to implement a class on human-centered design for an ISU study abroad program in San Isidro, Nicaragua, June 8 – July 3, 2015. Over four weeks, approximately 10 engineering and design students will work with Nicaraguan community members, EOS staff, and ISU and Acara–UMN instructors to design improved technologies and business models to address quality of life issues in San Isidro. Products in focus include a biochar reactor (energy access), water assisted ram pump (agricultural production, water access) and household rainwater catchment system (water access).

Climate Conversations in the Islamic Community
Julia Nerbonne, CFANS

The project team will develop a conversation model that works in Islamic centers and conduct group climate conversations. Team members will ask what participants know about climate change, what kind of information and services they have access to, and what their overall attitudes towards climate change are. They will also assess if there is a difference in attitude, knowledge and access to information based on location (rural/urban/suburban) and ethnicity/diversity of the community members.

World Wide Views on Climate and Energy
Daniel Myers, College of Liberal Arts 

On June 6, 2015, the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy program will convene citizens across the globe for a day of structured deliberation about climate and energy policy. The goal of the project is to host a WWV regional site, which will bring together 100 residents of Minnesota to learn, discuss and produce recommendations that will be disseminated to attendees of the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 21) and other policy-makers. This event will be a catalyst to increase regional interest in the COP 21 talks and in climate issues generally. Further, in collaboration with the four other WWV sites in the U.S., the event will produce invaluable data for research on citizens’ attitudes on climate issues and how these attitudes are shaped by discussion.

Design and Develop a Book for India Study
Fred Rose, Acara, IonE

The goal of the project is to design a book about design and development of environmental ventures in India. The book will be modeled after Design 4 Haiti, an effort by the College of Design, and be based on five years of students piloting and launching early-stage impact ventures in water, energy, food and agriculture in Acara’s program in India. 

Does Smallholder Use of Improved Irrigation Save Water?
Kate Brauman, Global Water Initiative, IonE

The project will explore the potential for water savings by smallholder farmers in southern India, home to 24 percent of the world’s farms. Contacts with farmers will be facilitated via project partner MyRain, an Acara-incubated distributor of drip irrigation systems. A second project partner, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, is also based in Bangalore.

Green Infrastructure at Natural Resources Research Institute
Ryan Hueffmeier, NRRI, University of Minnesota Crookston

The Natural Resources Research Institute, located at the headwaters of an impaired designated trout stream, is seeking ways to utilize the facility as a living laboratory for stormwater management. The goal of the project is to help students produce a concept paper on developing a green infrastructure demonstration project action plan.

Women’s Leadership in Interdisciplinary Writing
Jennifer Schmitt, NorthStar Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, Institute on the Environment

The project aims to increase publication success of early-career women researchers by conducting an interdisciplinary writing workshop, providing mentoring and peer networking to help increase publication success. Research leadership in environmental grand challenges requires academic publication; excelling in this area is challenging due to the interdisciplinary nature of environmental research and the demands on early career female researchers.

Restoring the Health of Agro-ecosystems in the Ecuadorian Andes
Christian F. Lenhart, CFANS 

The project team will organize a workshop on watershed management and soil restoration with Ecuadorian nonprofits, government agencies, farmers and local landowners to identify strategies that can be developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota. The workshop will take place in the Pedro Moncayo watershed northeast of Quito, Ecuador, in 2015. The project team will develop a white paper summarizing the findings of the workshop and outlining land rehabilitation strategies.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions on Phytoremediation Plots in France
Katy Nannenga, Math, Science and Technology, University of Minnesota Crookston

The project goal is to establish an international research/internship/teaching relationship between the University of Lorraine and the University of Minnesota Crookston. The relationship will allow a direct interaction between classes being taught at the University of Lorraine and classes being taught at UMC with students at both institutions working on a common project.

Sugarbush Summer: Reflections, Readings and the Future of Snow, a Lecture by Louise Erdrich
Kevin P. Murphy, CLA

Louise Erdrich, recently awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, gave a lecture April 29, 2015, on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus focusing on indigenous resistance and reflecting on landscapes of the Upper Midwest and the new challenges facing Indian Country as communities cope with extreme fossil fuel extraction and other environmental injustices in their homelands.

Photo by Michael R Perry (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge: sustainably feed the world Mon, 18 May 2015 15:24:36 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge: sustainably feed the world ]]> The times are a-changin’. In his prophetic 1963 lyrics, Bob Dylan sings that if our time on Earth is worth saving, we’d “better start swimmin’ or . . . sink like a stone.” Whether the times bring food scarcity or abundance, water risk or availability, deforestation or revitalized ecosystems, is up to us. In other words, if we want a sustainable future, we need to start swimming — developing solutions that will allow us to adapt and thrive.

To lead the way, the University of Minnesota recently released a 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.

Since its inception in 2008, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment has been supporting solutions-focused people and programs to address these and other grand challenges. Through its fellows program and many strategic initiatives, researchers are working on projects ranging from modeling disease transmission in wild and domestic animal populations to advancing the concepts of ecosystem services and accounting for natural capital.

One of the biggest challenges we face is how to sustainably feed the world now and in the decades ahead as the climate changes. Agriculture is the biggest driver of land use on the planet. It has tremendous impacts such as producing a third of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 70 percent of global water use, and acting as one of the biggest drivers of change to forests, grasslands and other habitats.

Enter the Global Landscapes Initiative, an IonE strategic initiative that collaborates with leaders in agriculture and related sectors to develop solutions for meeting current and future global food needs while sustaining our planet.

GLI is co-led by Paul West and James Gerber. The two recently shared a few thoughts on how the initiative is building food security while helping advance the goals and vision of the University’s strategic plan.

What makes GLI unique?

A number of outstanding research teams at the U are focused on the issue of food security. One of the strengths of GLI is that we look at the issue from multiple perspectives while focusing on our ability to sustainably feed people both now and in the future. This approach allows us to assess the trade-offs among different management and policy strategies in different parts of the world.

How do transdisciplinary approaches — working across disciplines and with external partners — affect your outreach strategy?

At both IonE and GLI, we’re built for interdisciplinary work. We regularly work across disciplines at the University and also with external partners from government, NGOs and the private sector. These external partners help us understand the most pressing food security challenges they’re facing, which in turn helps shape our research. This puts us in a great position to identify problems early and then home in on solutions.

And it’s a two-way street. By helping shape sustainable strategies for leading nonprofit organizations, companies, scientists and others, we get our data out into the world where it can have the greatest impact.

Our collaborations help fill knowledge gaps and make data-driven decisions. Since each partner has a different focus and approach, we cater our communication and analysis to meet their needs. In this way, each collaboration is unique. Publishing papers in high-profile journals gets us credibility and is critical for advancing knowledge, but it is only one part of effecting change. The next step in having an impact requires helping partners in the context within which they operate.

How is GLI’s work transforming the future for the University’s community, business and government partners?

GLI works closely with other University programs to integrate demographic and environmental data, assess natural capital, quantify supply chain sustainability through life cycle analysis, and identify food safety risks to the U.S. food system.

But to influence global change, we need to work beyond the University. We bring a mix of University expertise, leadership, and a “Minnesota Nice” approach to working with leaders both locally and across the world. GLI has built a set of data and analysis approaches that are becoming a go-to standard for people working in non-governmental organizations, the investment community and fellow academic institutions. For example, we’ve developed research and analysis tools looking at multiple trade-offs for a broad set of issues such as food production; agriculture’s effect on climate, water availability and quality; and the role of diet and trade on global food systems.

What GLI discovery would you like to see take hold around the world?

A number of researchers are looking at on-the-ground interventions to improve outcomes for farmers and their environment. This is important work. You also have researchers identifying global-scale solutions to critical problems, and this is important work, too. Our biggest contributions are somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. Our efforts help identify where in the world to start making a difference. These “leverage points” — such as optimal locations for improving crop production — are places or issues within the system where local-scale interventions will have the biggest impact on increasing sustainable food production. For example, increasing yields to 50 percent of their realistic potentials in only 5 percent of the area growing major crops could provide enough calories to meet the basic needs for 425 million people.

What’s next for GLI?

We want to focus on investigating the vulnerability of the food supply system itself. This includes food production but also risk to supply chains. For instance, how will changes in weather patterns increase the volatility of global food supply? Will evolving trade networks smooth out that volatility? What effect will an increasingly affluent global population have on demand for certain agricultural products?

We are also assessing issues related to risk and how we might build a more resilient food system that can provide food security for a growing population while preserving the environment we rely on. This is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.

Photo by sandeepachetan (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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NatCap symposium: Influencing outcomes for people and nature Thu, 14 May 2015 21:14:05 +0000 Continue reading NatCap symposium: Influencing outcomes for people and nature ]]> In March, the Natural Capital Project, a partnership among the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, Stanford University’s Woods Institute of the Environment, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund that works to develop ecosystem services concepts, tools and science that influence decision making and lead to better outcomes for humans and nature, hosted a Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford. The three-day event provided a platform for a broad audience to learn new and existing tools, network among fellow researchers and practitioners, and share and discuss ongoing ecosystem services research and projects.

The Natural Capital Project will celebrate its 10-year anniversary later this year, so it seems appropriate that the organization hosted what some veteran participants heralded as the group’s “largest and best NatCap Symposium yet.” The participation and energy apparent at the conference suggest there is real momentum behind this work and continuing demand for ecosystem services science and applications across a variety of different contexts and scales.

This year’s event, which hosted three concurrent tracks — Pathways to Impact, Learning Exchange, and Trainings — attracted over 200 diverse participants and thought leaders from more than 20 countries representing non-governmental organizations, academia, government and the private sector. The U of M and IonE were well represented with over 10 participants, several of whom presented posters and led talks and discussion panels.

Here are five key lessons we learned at this year’s Natural Capital Project Symposium:

  1. Ecosystem service decisions occur at the human level and are context dependent. Engagement with those who have a stake in decisions is a critical component to effective ecosystem services research and projects. Accurately representing the diversity and complexity of stakeholder values is also key. We need to continue to zero in on where, when and in what decisions nature matters most to scale our research appropriately. These points were brought up time and again — starting with the symposium’s welcome address by NatCap director and Stanford University professor Gretchen Daily, to subsequent panel discussions about natural capital in policy and private sector decisions, among many others.
  2. We all need to become multilingual, both literally and figuratively. There was great diversity of backgrounds, disciplines and languages represented at the symposium, and it became immediately clear not only how important that diversity is to ecosystem services work but also how it poses very real communication challenges. Symposium panelists proposed a few ways to meet this challenge and reach more diverse audiences, which included telling more personal stories about our work; using simple, understandable language; and putting a human face on the problems we address.
  3. There is often a spatial mismatch between supply and demand for nature and its services. This gap, first touched on during the Nature in Cities: Frontiers in Urban Ecosystem Services plenary session, is quite evident in cities, where questions of access, scale and quality of urban “nature” are key and emerging topics. However, this mismatch is relevant in other contexts as well, as highlighted by discussions around certification programs for corporate supply chains and the diversity of water funds in Central and South America. In closing out the symposium, NatCap and TNC’s Peter Kareiva further emphasized a need to explore and fill research gaps in how the supply of ecosystem services affect social equity and people’s access to opportunities.
  4. Despite being in an era of Big Data, data is still expensive. Ecosystem services data — spatial or otherwise, needed for both biophysical modeling and valuation in ecosystem service assessments — and decision support tools have made leaps and bounds in the past decade (Google NatCap, and others presented innovative and exciting examples during the symposium), but information and technology needs are still limiting factors in many contexts and decisions globally. Reduced data processing time, increased access and transparency of data, and better understanding of uncertainty are just a few of the related topics NatCap will continue to explore with its partners in the future.
  5. The burden is on us to show that what we do changes decisions. Discussions throughout the conference highlighted a need for even greater support of the interface between ecosystem services science and policy. Steve Polasky, U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Regents professor and an IonE resident fellow, and University of Vermont’s Taylor Ricketts, both NatCap directors, highlighted the trade-offs between additional complexity in ecosystem service models and an ability to translate that science to decisions and policy. Impact evaluations of ecosystem service projects and engagements may be one place to start to improve our understanding of how ecosystem services science influences outcomes for both nature and people.

Banner photo by Asian Development Bank (Flickr Creative Commons)

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5 things we learned about sustainable supply chains Tue, 12 May 2015 16:57:49 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about sustainable supply chains ]]> In the final Frontiers of the semester, Gary Paoli, director of research and program development with Daemeter Consulting, joined Frontiers to talk about the role of sustainability commitments within a supply chain. With a specific focus on palm oil in Indonesia, this lively talk looked at the needs, challenges and successes of such programs in improving corporate responsibility. Here are five things we learned.

1. Commercial agriculture is responsible for most tropical deforestation. This means industry can have a huge impact on the environment. Thus far, effort and attention to reducing adverse environmental impacts have focused on targeting the producers at very top of supply chains, generally through sustainability certification programs. While these programs have achieved some results, they have also been met with a certain level of dissatisfaction, particularly over the low rate of change and the level of commitment required. This approach also ignores many of the other players in the supply chain, such as processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

2. Changing the game. To strengthen the commitment to sustainability, the option for voluntary supply chain commitments began to emerge. Instead of focusing solely on upstream producers, this approach operates on idea that if we’re all part of the problem, we all need to be part of the solution. Campaigns in support of voluntary commitments have generally had success thus far and tend to target the leading industry traders, who can then have an impact on the smaller players. Rather than disappearing completely, certification incentives will most likely continue to exist in addition to the voluntary commitments.

3. “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation.” One big success story is the case of palm oil industry giant Wilmar International. After facing significant pressure from numerous nonprofits, the company adopted a “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” policy in December 2013. While the “no deforestation, no peat” commitments would be significant alone, the idea of “no exploitation” is very important. It provides respect for customary rights, respect for human rights and fair sharing of benefits. The company also emphasized the importance of traceability through the supply chain, including traceability to the specific mill and to the plantation. This led to a chain reaction in commitment from other downstream traders. Due to the size and influence of Wilmar and these other traders, an estimated 90 percent of palm oil traded is now covered by some form of sustainability commitment.

4. There is uncertainty. As with any program, there are a number of challenges to using these voluntary programs. Questions remain regarding prioritization, data deficiencies and ground verification, not to mention broader problems of what players to engage and when others should be excluded. Questions of who will carry out monitoring, reporting and verification are also significant. Structural challenges such as amnesty, lag times, smallholder exclusion and the potential growth of a two-tiered market are also concerns. Furthermore, the complexity of land use makes it difficult to completely understand the present situation and we obviously do not have the ability to predict the future, meaning we must proceed with some level of caution.

5. Priority areas of action. A number of key areas must be properly addressed if sustainable volunteer commitments are to be successful. We need to focus on proper implementation of sustainability commitments. Monitoring and verification tactics need to be improved, because they play a large role in the credibility of the program. Players throughout the supply chain need to have an active role and be engaged in the process. Government collaborations are also possible and could help strengthen the program if implemented properly.

Watch the video here.

Photo by CIFOR (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Grand challenge curriculum aims high Mon, 11 May 2015 21:46:54 +0000 Continue reading Grand challenge curriculum aims high ]]> Can we feed the world without destroying it? Good question — one that students in the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) 3001 course will tackle this fall.

The University and the Institute on the Environment are committed to finding solutions to the global grand challenges facing us now and in the years ahead. One of the grandest of all is how to build a more resilient food system that can provide food security for a growing population while preserving the environment we rely on.

At the nexus of global health, environment and economics, GCC 3001 will examine questions such as, “What does it mean to feed the world?” and “What does it mean to destroy it?”

The course is open to all students and fulfills an honors experience, and registration is still open. Through readings, guest panelists and class projects, students will delve into organics, food waste, genetically modified organisms, the bioeconomy and more.

“What makes this course special is the way in which we tackle this question of ‘Can we feed the world without destroying it?’” says Jason Hill, course co-instructor and assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “Each reading, lesson and activity is focused on advancing student understanding of the course’s central question and seeking realistic and equitable answers to it.”

Research on food systems conducted at IonE provides much of the academic foundation for the course, but students will be encouraged to think broadly about the issues.

Economics student Emily Gilbertsen, who took the course last year, says she went into it with a limited understanding of science-based solutions. “The instructors did a great job of making the scientific information accessible, and I left with a much more applicable understanding not just of current technologies but also of how to stay up-to-date on scientific literature,” she says.

“We want students to leave the course with an appreciation for the complexity of these problems. These are grand challenges for a reason — they won’t be easily solved,” says Hill.

“One thing that stood out to me in the course was that future food security relies on changes we make now,” says Gilbertsen. “Previously, I had been under the vague assumption that the science of the future would save us from ourselves. Because of the course, I have realized that the impact of climate change and our current farming practices will not be my children’s problem, it will be my problem. Science alone will not change the future. It is incumbent on changes in our political and cultural priorities, which require a greater engagement of all parts of the economy in adjusting for a sustainable future.”

Space is still available, so register today!

Course number: GCC 3001
Course title: Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?
Course instructors: Jason Hill, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and David Tilman, Regents professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

The University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment envisions a future in which sustainable agriculture feeds the world; renewable energy powers the planet; every person has access to food, clean water and shelter; oceans, lakes and rivers are unimpaired; cities have vibrant economies, neighborhoods and cultures; and thriving ecosystems support thriving economies and societies.

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Shape a brighter future? These grads are on it. Thu, 07 May 2015 00:48:38 +0000 Continue reading Shape a brighter future? These grads are on it. ]]> If you ever thought a young adult is too inexperienced to make a difference, you haven’t met the participants in the Institute on the Environment’s Acara impact entrepreneurship program.

Through Acara, students from colleges across the University of Minnesota build practical business skills and global experiences while simultaneously launching impactful entrepreneurial ventures aimed at addressing global grand challenges. They are motivated to change the world for the better, and many who participate in the program go on to do so during their careers.

While we’ve worked with more than 110 University of Minnesota students in the 2014–15 academic year, there are several exceptional graduating students who will be pursuing Acara experiences  through Acara Fellowships, which provide teams with up to $6,000 per team to pursue their ventures.

Lighting Up India

Robin Walz is a co-founder of Stimulight, a renewable energy business that 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. Following a few months in his home country of France, Walz is partnering with SELCO India from August to November 2015 to work with its team and communities in rural Orissa, India, launching solar energy operations and thereby bringing solar energy access to communities that have never before had access to grid power. Walz is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in May 2015.

E-Waste Solution

Aika Mengi is co-founder of E-Grove, an electronic waste management company seeking to address the need for improved access to electronics recycling options in the U.S. and India. E-Grove will pilot its innovative collection model in cooperation with Tech Dump in Minnesota in summer 2015 and will transition to pilot in India in winter 2015. Mengi will be the first U.S.-based Acara fellow to partner with a local social enterprise. Mengi is graduating with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in May 2015.

Good Water, Good Health

Anna Schulte is co-founder of Ripple, which helps water purification and testing companies connect their products and services with rural markets to improve health in rural communities. Following Acara’s three-week India study abroad program in June 2015, Schulte will pursue a fellowship with Swasti, a health resource center focused on public health outcomes for socially excluded and low-income populations, while exploring the Ripple business model in India. Schulte is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing education from the College of Education and Human Development in May 2015. She will pursue a master of public health degree beginning in Fall 2015.

Better Bees

Erin Kayser is co-founder of Apis Krishi. This agricultural venture aims to help rural Indian farmers leave the cycle of poverty by promoting beekeeping education and removing the financial risk of beekeeping. After completing Acara’s India global seminar, Kayser will partner with Last Forest in rural Tamil Nadu, India, for a three-month fellowship to support the development of beekeeping in the region. She will develop an online portal for beekeepers as well as work with farmers to enhance adoption and improve efficiency of beekeeping operations. Erin is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in May 2015.

Photo courtesy of Acara

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Elizabeth Wilson named Carnegie Fellow Tue, 05 May 2015 01:50:44 +0000 Continue reading Elizabeth Wilson named Carnegie Fellow ]]> This article is reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota.

IonE resident fellow Elizabeth Wilson has been selected to the inaugural class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows. Wilson, a leading researcher in energy and environmental policy and law, is one of 32 scholars chosen from more than 300 nominees. She will receive a $200,000 award to support her research examining the complex relationship between renewable and nuclear energy, climate change and economic development, and how policy drives the evolution of energy systems.

“I am thrilled and humbled to have been selected to be an Andrew Carnegie Fellow,” says Wilson, associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “My research focuses on energy and environmental policy implementation, and the challenges I work on are interdisciplinary and require solutions involving many different fields of study and expertise. This award reminds me how lucky I am to work at the University of Minnesota, with colleagues who are committed to working together to address the world’s grand challenges.”

Wilson’s research focuses on how energy systems are changing and how renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power are affecting how the electricity system operates. She studies how policies and institutions are responding to risks like climate change by incorporating new technologies into existing energy systems. Her project under the Carnegie Fellowship, titled “Nuclear Futures in a Windy World: A Comparative Analysis Balancing Energy Security, Climate Change and Economic Development,” will examine the integration of nuclear energy with renewable energy technologies, the perceptions surrounding that integration, and how to implement future policy to support both environmental concerns and economic development.

The study will compare how energy policies are being implemented in Denmark, Germany and Spain — three countries Wilson selected for their high levels of renewable resources, different policies toward nuclear power, and different electric grid architectures and integration policies. The project will include interviews with experts in the energy industry, governments, academia and non-governmental institutions to create more insights of how to implement energy policy and current stakeholder perceptions of the transitions.

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 Patrick O’Leary (U of M photo library)

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IonE fellows named Distinguished McKnight Professors Mon, 04 May 2015 19:15:15 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellows named Distinguished McKnight Professors ]]> The Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost has announced that University of Minnesota Law School professor  Alexandra B. Klass and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences professor George E. Heimpel have been named Distinguished McKnight University Professor—two of just five U of M faculty members to receive the distinction this year. Klass and Heimpel are also U of M Institute on the Environment resident fellows.

The Distinguished McKnight University Professorship program recognizes the University’s “highest-achieving mid-career faculty who have recently attained full professor status . . . and whose accomplishments have brought great renown and prestige to Minnesota.” Recipients hold the title “Distinguished McKnight University Professor” for as long as they remain at the University.

Klass joined the Law School faculty in 2006. She teaches and writes in the areas of energy law, environmental law, natural resources law, tort law and property law. Her recent scholarly work, published in many of the nation’s leading law journals, addresses such issues as regulatory challenges to integrating more renewable energy into the nation’s electrical grid, oil and gas transportation infrastructure and federal financial support for renewable energy development.

Heimpel, an entomology professor, is making seminal contributions in implementing bological controls of invasive species to protect soybeans in the U.S. and Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands.  He is also developing conceptual models that allow a balancing of benefits and risks in biological control to arrive at best net solutions for managing invasive species.

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.

Photo by Patrick O’Leary (U of M photo library)

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7 things we learned about feedback technology Tue, 28 Apr 2015 20:21:26 +0000 Continue reading 7 things we learned about feedback technology ]]> Frontiers was joined this week by John Petersen, director of the Environmental Studies program at Oberlin College in Ohio. Through an engaging talk on technology and the ways it can be used to provide a visual representation of human impact, Petersen discussed the how the Environmental Dashboard project has leveraged the concept of feedback and the potential it has to change human behavior. Here are seven things we learned:

1. Feedback has been a part of human evolution. For most of our evolution, humans have taken cues from the world around us to inform our actions. But in the last sliver of our history, we have begun to spend increasing amounts of time indoors, reducing our interaction with the natural world and the signals it provides. The ecological, psychosocial and technological components of feedback have not disappeared completely, but they have become disconnected. Petersen and his colleagues at Oberlin saw this changing relationship as an opportunity to use technology in a way to re-form our relationship with feedback and build systems thinking and action across social, ecological and economic sectors.

2. Tangible progress through a process. The concept of feedback can be vague and difficult to understand. Petersen and colleagues wanted to take real, metered data on resource use and create a tangible tool for people to visualize and use. They started by creating three feedback tools — the Building Dashboard, the City-Wide Dashboard and Community Voices — each of which provides an animated, accessible display of data. These tools are designed to monitor activities such as water or electricity usage in a community and disseminate the information via public websites and digital displays.

3. Visualizing a small system. The Building Dashboard, which monitors resource consumption within individual buildings, has been installed in thousands of buildings across the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It allows users to track and compare their consumption, use a currency or unit of consumption that makes sense for them, and even engage in social media. One crucial component of this resource is the empathetic gauge, a small, animated squirrel that offers an emotional representation of the data. If resource usage is too high, the squirrel becomes sad; if levels stay in a sustainable range, it smiles. Researchers found that this emotional representation had a significant impact on the actions of participants.

4. The city is a system. The City-Wide Dashboard works like the Building Dashboard, except on a larger scale. It uses an animated map to represent electricity use, water use and environmental conditions in the entire community. Like the Building Dashboard, it displays empathetic characters as a way to represent impact. While currently only available in Oberlin, the team is working to bring this robust resource to other communities.

5. Building community ownership. Community Voices combines pictures and words to celebrate actions taken by individuals to move the community toward sustainability. It is divided into six sections: actions at a neighborhood scale, historical legacy in the community, actions by businesses, natural spaces, actions by local governments and nonprofits, and the role of children as the next generation in the community.

6. It really works. These tools have shown to make a difference in various settings. Studies and competitions have been run at college campuses and K–12 schools with electricity reductions of 30 percent or more. Some schools are even starting to include these resources in their curricula. In the community of Oberlin, people who would not normally identify as environmentalists are starting to see how their small actions can make a difference.

7. Many benefits. In addition to providing information to the community, feedback leverages the power of social norms to create change. People are naturally competitive and are motivated by what they perceive other people are doing. Through feedback information, individuals are able to compare themselves with others and monitor their daily changes. Empathetic characters can emotionally connect consumption decisions to their ecological and social consequences. Moreover, dashboards have shown to enhance systems thinking.

To learn more, view the video here. For more information on Petersen’s work, check out “Using Sociotechnical Feedback to Engage, Educate, Motivate, and Empower Environmental Thought and Action.”

Photo by keila k. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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10 things we learned about chemicals & environment Fri, 24 Apr 2015 11:54:36 +0000 Continue reading 10 things we learned about chemicals & environment ]]> What better way to commemorate Earth Day than by learning about how our everyday actions affect the environment? This week’s Frontiers focused on common chemical pollutants and their impacts. IonE resident fellow and College of Science and Engineering professor Bill Arnold kicked off the talk, followed by Matt Simcik, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Ron Hadsall, professor in the College of Pharmacy. With conversations ranging from flaming couches to perspiration and peeing, here are 10 things we learned:

1. The good, the bad and the complex. Lately chemicals have been receiving a lot of flack for being toxic, but we must remember that we rely on chemicals for much of our life. Chemicals are a necessary and helpful part of life, but the properties that make them good for our industries, such as their stability and persistence, are often the same things that make them bad for the environment. Understanding how they interact in the environment is complex and can be influenced by features such as quantity, level of exposure and the specific setting.

2. PCB spells trouble. Polychlorinated biphenyls are manmade chemicals used for their stability, nonflammability, and high boiling point. PCBs were originally intended for industrial applications so it was assumed that they couldn’t easily be released into the environment. Then we discovered that PCBs are harmful to the environment and to humans, with health impacts including cancer and effects on the immune system. As persistent chemicals, PCBs do not easily break down once released into the environment, and they are able to travel far distances and accumulate in living things. PCBs were banned in1979, but they are still frequently found in the environment and in products produced before the ban.

3. The lesser of two evils? Sometimes referred to the “new PCBs,” polybrominated diphenyl ethers are used as flame retardants in many consumer products, including cars and furniture. Concerns over these chemicals include adverse neurobehavioral impacts on humans and ecotoxicity in many animals. Production of PBDEs started in the 1970s, peaked in the late 1990s, and began to be phased out beginning in 2009.

4. Think twice before washing your hands. If you’ve never been one to read product labels, now might be the time to start. The chemical triclosan can be found in many personal care products, including antibacterial hand soap and toothpaste, as an antibacterial agent. Production of triclosan started in the 1960s and increased rapidly, despite some studies saying that it does not provide any added antibacterial benefits. Furthermore, a University of Minnesota study showed triclosan is able to build up in the sediment of lakes, and it also forms dioxins when exposed to sunlight. The good news? Minnesota recently became the first state in the country to ban the chemical, effective January 1, 2017.

5. One of these things is not like the other. Research over the past few decades has made strides in understanding how chemicals act in the environment. Unlike PCBs and PBDEs, which travel easily, perfluorochemicals have a negative charge that binds them to things and keeps them relatively stationary. Yet, despite believing that PFCs shouldn’t go anywhere, researchers kept finding them all over the globe. Eventually, they discovered that the precursor chemicals were being distributed globally in the environment, which then transformed to form the PFCs.

6. Some 10–15 percent of all medications go unused. Pharmaceutical drugs are among the biggest sources of chemicals in the environment. While pharmacologists are trained to think about how medications affect human health, downstream consequences are sometimes unseen. When extra medication is thrown away or flushed down the toilet it enters the environment, through wastewater treatment plant effluents. These chemicals can then affect the organisms around them, as is evident from the recent reports of estrogen creating feminized fish. Researchers and policy makers have been looking into how to dispose of medication in a more responsible way. Regulations and take-back programs have started to make a difference.

7. Pass-through problems. The fact that 85–90 percent of pharmaceuticals are used does not mean these chemicals are staying out of the environment. Hadsall and colleague Lowell Anderson are exploring what happens to medications as they make their way out of our bodies and into wastewater. Conservatively, they estimate that 50 percent of what is consumed ends up in the sewage system and potentially the environment. This is significant, especially since millions of people around the world rely on various pharmaceutical drugs. Medical chemicals provide an added challenge because many people rely on pharmaceutical drugs, meaning reducing consumption or banning them may not be an option.

8. What now? Knowing what we now know about chemicals, Arnold, Simcik and Hadsall made recommendations about how we should move forward. We’ve already taken some steps by banning or phasing out known contaminants, but there are still concerns over how to best manage what’s already in the environment. Specifically, we need to invest more in thorough testing before using new chemicals. In addition, they recommend that the laws and regulations that govern these chemicals should be reevaluated and updated.

9. Education is important. In both medical and industrial products, the power of the consumer should not be undervalued. People tend to make different decisions if they know the consequences of their actions, so informing them about what’s included in products may affect their decision to buy or use these products. Consumers can also push back against suppliers and manufacturers, forcing them make changes accordingly. Because many of the laws and regulations governing chemicals have not been updated since they were written in the 1970s and 1980s, public education should also include information about regulations and whether they are outdated.

10. Could local solutions answer global problems? While Switzerland and Sweden have been leading the way in Europe by developing solutions to managing these chemicals, the United States have been less responsive. The panelists agreed that Minnesota might be a good place to start, thanks to its trifecta of environmentally informed citizens, corporations and legislature.

Photo by Bert van Dijk (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Oil and gas extraction drives ecosystem loss Thu, 23 Apr 2015 20:43:50 +0000 Continue reading Oil and gas extraction drives ecosystem loss ]]> Present-day oil and gas extraction practices drive the large-scale loss of ecosystem services across the North American Great Plains.

That’s the take-away from a new study published today in Science co-authored by a University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment researcher. Improved drilling technologies coupled with energy demand has resulted in an average of 50,000 new wells drilled per year in central North America — displacing an area of crop- and rangeland equivalent to three Yellowstone National Parks between 2000 and 2012. 

The authors provide a first broadscale assessment of ecosystem services loss due to oil and gas extraction by combining high-resolution satellite data of vegetation growth with oil and gas industry data for central North America, based on methods developed by coauthor Bill Smith, a Luc Hoffman Institute postdoctoral fellow working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project, and lead author Brady Allred, assistant professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Montana.

“There are two important things here,” said Allred in a press release. “First, we examine all of central North America, from the south coast of Texas to northern Alberta. When we look at this continental scale picture, we see impacts and degradation that are missed when focusing only at a local scale. Second, we see how present policies may potentially compromise future ecosystem integrity over vast areas.”

Terrestrial plant production or net primary production (NPP) is the foundation of the carbon cycle and the basis for a multitude of ecosystem services. Depicted is the NPP loss due to oil and gas activity across the central provinces and states of North America. NPP loss represents the cumulative effect of annual losses from 2000 to 2012. Image courtesy of study authors.

In addition to the widespread loss of agricultural and grazing land, ecosystem fragmentation and habitat loss disrupts wildlife migration routes, alters wildlife behavior and allows for the establishment of invasive plant species. Furthermore, new technology such as high-volume hydraulic fracturing uses up to 13 million gallons of water per well annually, intensifying an already fraught competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems and municipalities for water resources across this largely arid region.

The authors hope that these findings will provide a platform for policy-makers, land managers and scientists to collaborate to develop policy aimed at meeting future energy demands while minimizing adverse environmental impacts.

“We already know that rapid, unrestricted land use change can have large-scale detrimental consequences. With the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it took catastrophic environmental and economic loss to trigger policy reforms that addressed the risks of broad-scale land use change,” says Smith. “Fortunately, today we have the data and information to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes. Now the challenge is making sure the science is integrated into the decision-making process.”

Dirac Twidwell, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Julia H. Haggerty, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman; Steven W. Running and David E. Naugle, University of Montana, Missoula; and Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, are co-authors on the study.

Photo by Jeff Wallace (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Industrial Ecologist Tim Smith Thu, 23 Apr 2015 16:40:11 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Industrial Ecologist Tim Smith ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Tim Smith, associate professor of environmental sciences, policy and management, and bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

I am currently reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty (along with just about everyone else . . .). I love the fact that, through his own admission, the book is as much a contribution to our understanding of economic history as illuminating key dynamics shaping wealth and inequality. Our understanding of big thorny problems and our ability to implement potential solutions are rarely isolated within individual fields of study or areas of practice. His interpretation of the societal, political and economic balancing act dictating the roles of income and capital across countries is fascinating.

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

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?  

The first five to seven years of my research career was spent developing econometric models addressing the effectiveness of integrated marketing communications expenditures — basically, how, when and through what media impersonal advertising and promotion activities affect sales people and company sales. Through most of this time, my colleagues and I attempted to convince the marketing community that “message” was less important to effectiveness than often purported. That is, until one of my doctoral students started asking some very interesting questions about “complex messages,” particularly challenges associated with communicating complicated and uncertain environmental performance information of productsin short, how much is too much environmental information in product advertisements? This work created an avalanche of increasingly more technical work into the measurement and assessment of environmental performance in product and supply chain systems. Today, our group is doing very little marketing or communication work; rather, our focus is on developing methodologies and tools that bring appropriate environmental performance metrics to procurement and supply chain decision-makers.

What is your current favorite project?

My favorite project is a fairly small one working with Environmental Defense Fund to spatially characterize firm-specific supply chain carbon emissions associated with fertilizer application to corn. Driven in large part by its work with Walmart, we are trying to help identify strategies for improving upstream operations that have very large impacts on the overall emissions profiles of these downstream buyers — even though they may buy very little corn or fertilizer directly. Given newly available firm-specific facility information, we are able to estimate from where corn is likely sourced and used by large producers of packaged meat and ethanol (80 percent of all corn use in the U.S.). With this information, we are better able to identify where producers’ (think Tyson Foods, Smithfield Farms or Cargill) impacts are greatest in their supply chain and eventually which improvement strategies may be most effective in those locations.

What’s the most useful thing in your backpack?

Insect repellent and a solar chargeryou never know where inspiration will strike or how long it might take to spit it out. Although this reminds me of a quote from an old Lemonheads song, “I lied about being the outdoor type.” I’m really not sure why either of these things is in my bag.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often?

If nothing else, I’m persistenta trait useful when collaborating across academic and practitioner partners where time lines and motivations vary significantly. Sometimes simply sticking with the process of dialogue and exploration long enough can lead to real and relevant breakthroughs.

Photo © BanksPhotos (iStock)

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Study: Plants’ ability to absorb CO2 limited Tue, 21 Apr 2015 14:22:22 +0000 Continue reading Study: Plants’ ability to absorb CO2 limited ]]> Does more atmospheric carbon mean bigger plants?

Not necessarily, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment researcher. Most climate scenarios, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, assume that, since plants convert carbon dioxide to food for growth, more CO2 in the atmosphere will accelerate plant growth, thereby reducing the net amount of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. This study supports a growing body of knowledge that suggests instead that plants can’t keep absorbing more CO2 because there aren’t enough nutrients in the soil to sustain their growth. 

The study, published today in Nature Geoscience, builds off previous research by co-author Bill Smith, a Luc Hoffman Institute postdoctoral fellow working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project. The earlier research looked at the sources of nutrients for plant growth and found that plants mostly recycle nutrients and that new nutrient inputs are low relative to plant demands, suggesting that nutrient availability may ultimately constrain plant growth across much of the world.

The new study team set out to test this concept using 11 of the world’s leading climate models, projected forward to 2100. They focused on how the models represented plant growth in specific geographic regions, comparing that to changes in nitrogen and phosphorus availability caused by deposition of airborne particles and other factors. What they found was that plant uptake of CO2 will indeed be strongly reduced (relative to that predicted by the models) by the Earth’s limited supply of nitrogen and phosphorus.

“Humanity so far has greatly benefited from plants removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said lead author William R. Wieder of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colo., in a press release. “But if a lack of nutrients limits their ability to keep soaking up CO2, then climate change becomes an even bigger problem than we thought — unless society can cut back on emissions.”

Change in global net primary productivity and terrestrial carbon storage from Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, Phase 5. Courtesy of W.R. Wieder.

Change in global net primary productivity and terrestrial carbon storage from Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, Phase 5. Courtesy of W.R. Wieder.

The team found that nitrogen limitation could reduce plant uptake of CO2 by 19 percent, and nitrogen and phosphorus limitation combined could reduce plant uptake by 25 percent compared to the average results of the climate models. Instead of acting as a carbon sink and drawing down CO2, soil and plants would become a net source of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere by the end of the century, with decomposers releasing more carbon than growing plants could absorb.

These findings are supported by other studies, including some led by Peter Reich, Regents professor, distinguished McKnight University professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and an IonE resident fellow.

The team is calling for the inclusion of nitrogen and phosphorus availability in global climate models to more accurately assess future atmospheric carbon and set greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“Our results show that if society continues on its current trajectory of CO2 emission, plants will simply not be able to keep up,” Smith said. “While we mainly considered natural systems, a next step that I am excited to explore here at IonE is how these findings could impact agricultural systems and future food production, research areas IonE’s GLI and NCP programs are at the frontier of.”

Cory C. Cleveland, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula; and Katherine Todd-Brown, Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, and the Biological Sciences Division, Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Wash., are also co-authors in the study.

Read the press release

Photo by César Viteri Ramirez (Flickr Creative Commons)

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6 things we learned about managing pandemic threats Fri, 17 Apr 2015 13:12:19 +0000 Continue reading 6 things we learned about managing pandemic threats ]]> The April 15 Frontiers looked at ways we can manage disease threats at home and abroad. Thanks to a diverse panel including Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota; Cheryl Robertson, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and John Deen, a professor of Veterinary Population Medicine, here are six things we learned:

1. The nature of infectious diseases. In 2014, Ebola made headlines around the world, bringing fear and uncertainty with it. Prior to this, the disease had primarily occurred in rural areas with little contact with other communities, and so was relatively contained. But as Ebola started to make its way into larger cities and cross international boundaries, it sparked new conversations about how to manage the uncertainties and left many feeling unprepared. And, while Ebola may be the most notorious infectious disease right now, it is not the only one we need to worry about. The speakers also addressed measles, and the often-underrated influenza.

2. Prevention is better than reaction. As the Ebola crisis grew, the United States scrambled to prepare, often while facing serious public criticism. Stinchfield discussed how the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota took steps to become one of the most prepared hospitals in the country by simulating labs, learning how to handle waste and spending time making sure staff felt comfortable about their own personal protection. While the hospital hasn’t had to deal with a real Ebola case, the preparation did come in handy during a couple of potential cases. It also opened up conversations about preparing for the next outbreak.

3. The war on infectious diseases. Part of the problem is not the disease itself, but our ability to respond to it. Many countries that suffer the most are dealing with difficult social and cultural problems. Robertson, who has spent time in Liberia and a significant portion of her career addressing public health in conflict situations, compares the damage of infectious diseases to that of a war zone. Having the capacity to be completely prepared for these situations requires access to tangible resources as well as to intangible resources such as education. It’s hard to build a resilient health care system when professionals are leaving areas for their own safety and schools are closing. Moving forward, we need to think about the varied challenges that come with handling infectious diseases around the world.

4. It’s a learning process. While we’ve made strides in learning about infectious diseases and how to treat them, there is room for improvement. In 1989 and 1990, the United States struggled with a measles resurgence. At that time, it was practice to administer only one dose of vaccine, but researchers realized that this left 5 percent of the population vulnerable. Now medical professionals administer two doses of the vaccine, helping to raise the success of the vaccine to 99 percent. Such continued discovery will be important as the changing global landscape changes our interactions with diseases.

5. We are victims of our own success. Vaccines have been so successful that we’ve started to become desensitized to their impact. No longer having to see the direct impacts and physical manifestations of the diseases, we’ve lost the fear associated with them. Now the fear of the vaccine has begun exceeding the fear of the disease itself. As Deen pointed out, we almost need some level of fear of the diseases in order to remind ourselves to act.

We are one global community. One of the most important things to remember is that we’re all connected and we need to think on a global scale. Prevention in one part of the world helps prevent problems in other parts. To solve big problems, we also need solutions from across communities, nations and disciplines. This thinking can apply beyond infectious diseases and could be one way to approach our current environmental challenges too.

Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Environmental Educator Patrick Hamilton Thu, 16 Apr 2015 17:35:29 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Environmental Educator Patrick Hamilton ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Patrick Hamilton, program director of Global Change Initiatives at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Let the conversation begin!

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

The realization a number of years ago than humanity now dominates many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this world habitable, while at the same time the planet is now home to the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and most innovative, creative and connected populace in history. The future of Earth will be determined by human decision making, either by default or by design, by accident or by intention.

Hamilton head shot 3
Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and program director for the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Photo courtesy of P. Hamilton.

What is your current favorite project?

I am passionate about several new projects that I am pursuing. The Observatory will be a new exhibit for long-term display at the Science Museum of Minnesota that will provide visitors with novel opportunities by which to examine the world around them and in so doing collect scientific observations that help protect and enhance Minnesota’s environment. The Exergy Project seeks to use the museum itself as a model of advanced building energy efficiency to demonstrate how large commercial, institutional and industrial buildings could cost-effectively and substantially reduce their energy consumption. The Great Cities Initiative seeks to develop a major new exhibit for tour around the U.S. about the past, present and future of cities.

What gives you hope?

The accelerating pace of innovation of all kinds, which defies the contention by skeptics that addressing humanity’s many global environmental challenges are beyond our collective wherewithal.

What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you?  

I had the opportunity in January 2009 to be a member of a University of Minnesota research expedition to the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica — one of the coldest, driest, windiest places on the planet. Camping for nearly two weeks in a landscape completely devoid of visible life was a daily poignant reminder of how verdant and precious the rest of our planet is. Earth is an oasis in space.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 


Banner photo: Arend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Frontiers April 15: How do we manage emerging pandemic threats? Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:57:22 +0000 Flickr: Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Bacteria tapped for water clean-up Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:56:30 +0000 Continue reading Bacteria tapped for water clean-up ]]> This article was written by Kevin Coss and originally published in Inquiry.

Water plays a crucial role in industry. It helps us generate electricity and mine for precious minerals, and supports numerous other functions that fuel the economy and provide society with the products and services essential to everyday life.

During industrial use, however, water is sometimes contaminated by one of over 100,000 chemicals used commercially. If these chemicals are untreated, they can pollute the environment and create health risks for humans and animals. Industry leaders are continually seeking smart, cost-efficient ways to clean up after themselves and minimize their company’s environmental impact.

Now, a collection of scientists and business experts at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods of remediation — the act of removing pollutants from the environment. The researchers are developing software that models how enzymes break down chemicals at the microscopic level to optimize the selection of bacteria that biodegrade those chemicals. Meanwhile, business experts are conducting market research to discover the best ways to apply this new knowledge and learn how it can lead to viable industrial processes and products.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

“Predicting how bacteria and chemicals will interact has historically been very challenging,” says Larry Wackett, professor with the U’s BioTechnology Institute, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and lead researcher on the project. “For the first time, RAPID, a novel software program, will use established biological principles to generate models that show how millions of chemicals can be optimally biodegraded. This idea has enormous potential for the world of bioremediation.”

Scientists have long known that microbes naturally found in water and soil will “eat” certain chemicals. Some companies place water that has been used in industrial processes into manmade ponds or large metal tanks which contain the appropriate type of bacteria to eat the contaminants in the water. But in many cases, the natural biodegradation processes do not work or they work too slowly.

That’s where Wackett and his team come in. Wackett and coworkers are developing an algorithm he calls the “Google of bioremediation.” RAPID, short for Reactive Activity Product IDentification, is designed to allow users, such as chemical developers or companies that produce industrial waste, to type in a particular chemical and quickly receive information on which species of bacteria are likely to break down that chemical. The system stems from the established U of M–designed Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database, which shows the stages molecules go through as they break down.

Using the bacteria recommended by the system, scientists will be able to develop tests that quickly and accurately detect harmful chemicals, along with treatments that remove those chemicals from water. They will also be able to run a new chemical product through the system to see what bacteria and enzymes biodegrade it, allowing industry to develop safer, more environmentally friendly products. A chemical company could run a new herbicide through the system, for example, to see if it leaves behind any byproducts that are hazardous to humans or animals.

One example of bacterial remediation that has been successful is a process called “activated sludge,” used in municipal water treatment plants to clean up water that eventually will be processed for drinking. The procedure uses a collection of bacteria to filter out a wide range of impurities, including agricultural runoff, chemicals from personal care products like shampoo and organic matter from plants and animals to make the water safe for consumption. Outside of engineered water treatment systems, bacteria are also helping to retroactively clean up chemicals previously thought innocuous that now threaten to contaminate groundwater.

Finding the Niche for Breakthrough Treatments

While Wackett works on refining the hard science behind the RAPID system, a business team is exploring different approaches to marketing that knowledge.

Tobin Nord, professional director of the Ventures Enterprise at the Carlson School of Management, guides MBA students as they work with departments across the University to figure out how to commercialize new knowledge. Working with the scientific groups headed by professors Wackett, Alptekin Aksan, Mikael Elias, Carl Rosen and Carrie Wilmot, Nord’s team is pinpointing the remediation solutions most likely to succeed in the market and developing plans to launch technology based on them.

“Even the most innovative technology can’t reach its full potential if there isn’t someone willing to pay for it,” Nord says. “Our goal is to understand where environmental conservation and business needs intersect, and cater to those opportunities with research-based solutions.”

To find the best opportunities for commercialization, Nord’s team is assessing which individual chemicals hold the largest market potential. Their process for evaluating chemicals — both those known and those as-of-yet undiscovered — takes into account how widespread a problem it is, the effectiveness of any treatment methods that already exist and who would be likely to invest in cleaning it up. Each chemical is different; in some cases, an existing method can remove it at a reasonable cost, while in others, current industry practices are expensive and inefficient.

As an alternative, Nord’s team will also examine whether the RAPID technology would be best used as a consulting service for industry. Under that model, companies would come to the university with a specific chemical they want to treat, and the RAPID system would help researchers determine what type of bacteria and treatment system is optimum for their purposes.

Collaborating on Conservation

To take on a problem as complex as chemical contamination, Wackett and Nord are working with researchers from across academic disciplines. Aleptekin Aksan, Ph.D., mechanical engineering professor with the College of Science and Engineering and the BioTechnology Institute, is researching ways to scale up production of silica spheres — a sponge-like type of sand that can trap bacteria in place while contaminated water flows through, helping ensure bacteria evenly remove chemicals from the water.

Also working on the project are Mikael Elias and Carrie Wilmot both professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics in the College of Biological Sciences and members of the BioTechnology Institute. Elias is studying how bacteria evolve to eat certain chemicals, while Wilmot is using X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of the enzymes that bacteria use to break down industrial chemicals.

Meanwhile, Carl Rosen, professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, will identify which chemicals are most likely to contaminate the food supply. Through his research, Rosen will help researchers develop products that food producers and consumers alike can use to test food, which can help cut down on foodborne illness and eliminate the need to discard healthy food out of precaution.

“This is the spirit of MnDRIVE,” Wackett says. “We are connecting researchers from across the University and forming new partnerships with industry to tackle a host of real-world problems.”

This project is supported by MnDRIVE, a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.

Photo © BartCo (iStock)

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Energy Transition Lab promotes 21st century upgrades Mon, 13 Apr 2015 16:05:05 +0000 Continue reading Energy Transition Lab promotes 21st century upgrades ]]> The Energy Transition Lab, supported by the Institute on the Environment, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Law School, brings together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways, institutions and regulations.

In this audio clip, Hari Osofsky, ETL’s faculty director, Law School professor and IonE resident fellow, discusses the lab’s goals and what communities and business and utility partners are doing to bring the energy system into the 21st century with WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

Photo by mwwile (Flickr Creative Commons)

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RCP recognized for excellence, innovation Wed, 08 Apr 2015 15:42:29 +0000 Continue reading RCP recognized for excellence, innovation ]]> The Resilient Communities Project has been selected as the 2015 recipient of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award. Jointly sponsored by the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS), this annual award is given to a MAGS member institution in recognition of outstanding contributions to domestic and international graduate education at both the graduate school and program level.

RCP, an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment, organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities.

RCP was nominated for the award by Henning Schroeder, dean of the University’s Graduate School. Schroeder commended the program as “a shining example of the great things our faculty, students and staff can achieve when disciplinary boundaries disappear” and possibly “the gold standard for advancing community sustainability practices while incorporating community engagement into the fabric of any university.”

“The Resilient Communities Project is a model for promoting greater collaboration and engagement across disciplines,” added Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson in a letter supporting the nomination. “[RCP’s] innovative approach not only provides sustainability solutions for our partner communities but also enhances our curriculum with interdisciplinary methods that are helping our students to develop the knowledge, skills and agility that they will need as tomorrow’s innovators, lifelong learners and global citizens.”

RCP will receive the award at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools on April 16 in St. Louis. The award includes a certificate and a $2,500 prize that will be used to support the RCP program.

Past recipients of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award include Miami University’s Dublin School Leadership Program (2014), Loyola University Chicago’s Mastering The Humanities: Growing, Diversifying, and Sustaining Humanities Education program (2013), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Transforming the Illinois Graduate Education Pathway program (2012).

Photo by Patrick O’Leary (U of M Photo Library)

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8 things we learned about health and wildlife trade Wed, 08 Apr 2015 15:40:58 +0000 Continue reading 8 things we learned about health and wildlife trade ]]> Combine cutting-edge University of Minnesota research and heightened interest in infectious disease due to recent ebola outbreaks, and you get a fascinating discussion on wildlife and the ways it may influence global health. At this week’s Frontiers in the Environment, Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Shaun Kennedy, director of the Food Systems Institute and adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Kristine Smith, associate director of health and policy with EcoHealth Alliance explored the health risks associated with the global wildlife trade. Here are eight things we learned:

1. The world is a system. While this discussion focused on health, wildlife trade carries environmental and economic considerations as well. One Health is a concept based on the understanding that human health, animal health and ecosystem health are intrinsically linked. It forms the framework for Travis and Kennedy as they explore connections between human health and wildlife trade.

2. Don’t underestimate the global wildlife trade. Wildlife is constantly traded to provide food, pets, trophies, medicine and even religious symbols to people around the world. Wildlife trade in and of itself is not bad; in fact, the legal industry is valued at $320 billion per year. Problems arise, however, with illegal trade. Valued very roughly at $20 billion per year, illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest global illegal trade behind drugs, human trafficking and trade armaments.

3. Wildlife trade poses health risks. Wildlife is one part of a global One Health system, and as such, it has the ability to impact other parts of the system, including human health. In their talk, Travis and Kennedy specifically focus on illegal wildlife trade’s potential to introduce diseases into our food system. Many animals — especially rodents, bats and primates — carry viruses and diseases that can be passed to humans.

4. Variables abound. Studying pathways between wildlife and disease is not easy. Illegal trade can only be roughly estimated based on limited data. Even when source data are available, it can be hard to trace disease pathways. Furthermore, taking proactive steps to improve the system requires understanding the cultural norms of the different regions around the world.

5. Balancing bushmeat. Meat from undomesticated animals in the “bush” forested region of Africa, bushmeat is one of the major sources of protein across the continent. However, the continued consumption of wild animals, though economically beneficial, raises conservation questions and poses considerable biodiversity threats.

6. Research is just starting. A number of high-profile cases of disease transmission over the past several years, including monkeypox, HIV, and avian influenza, have drawn attention to One Health. Studies such as recent attempts to track and test bush meat confiscated at a major airport are just starting to provide a clearer picture of the current status of wildlife trade and make us more prepared to reduce the spread of infectious disease.

7. Beyond disease. The impacts of the global wildlife trade aren’t limited to disease. The industry, both legal and illegal, also raises important questions of land distribution and food security. Many of the main importers to the United States are nations that have historically struggled with their own food security. Nations must figure out how to balance meeting their own food needs, economic development and conservation. Legal trade poses potential issues for conservation and sustainability; illegal trade increases the uncertainty.

8. The “so what.” A number of political actions in the United States over the past few years have attempted to combat wildlife trafficking, yet they have not sufficiently included specific references on the connection to human health. Building a strong and resilient system means including these concerns in future discussions and continuing to learn about the intersection of wildlife and our own health.

Photo by Craig ONeal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Civil engineer John Gulliver Mon, 06 Apr 2015 14:49:25 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Civil engineer John Gulliver ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow John Gulliver, civil engineer at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Population control. We are overpopulating and exploiting the Earth and these are at the root of all environmental problems. I do not know how many people a sustainable world can support, but I suspect that it is less than a population of 9 billion.

John Gulliver, College of Science and Engineering professor and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of J. Gulliver.
John Gulliver, College of Science and Engineering professor and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of J. Gulliver.

Who was your most influential mentor?

Heinz Stefan, a professor emeritus in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.  He is the quintessential engineering professor, covering applied research to the most theoretical, and he spends a great deal of time helping his students write succinctly.

What is your current favorite project?

It varies among three of them: Determining the infiltration capacity of roadside drainage ditches (with John Nieber) using a new infiltration measurement device, the MPD infiltrometer; developing a technology to remove nitrates from runoff (with Bill Arnold); and developing a better method to estimate the effective connected impervious area of a watershed (with Bruce Wilson). My current research has, in a short time, brought me closer to practitioners who are interested in immediate field applications of our research. To see useful applications come out of this research has been rewarding.

What makes you happy?

I like to go to commencement and see my students graduate. It is a time of passage and one that we will both remember.

What’s the most useful thing in your backpack?

My laptop computer.  It is like an office that I carry around with me wherever I go.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often?

Perseverence. When I believe that something is going to work out I stick through to the end. One never can be sure about what will come out of the final results.

Photo by Chris Lester (Flickr Creative Commons)

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7 things we learned about social media & environment Wed, 01 Apr 2015 06:45:39 +0000 Continue reading 7 things we learned about social media & environment ]]> This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights.

2. We can use the data in new and exciting ways. With information from tweets able to travel faster than an earthquake, social media has already been known to change disaster response. But researchers see even more potential with this technology. Spencer Wood’s team with the Natural Capital Project has been using geocoded Flickr images to learn about the ways people value the environment for recreation and how far people are willing to travel in order to experience natural areas. This is just one example of the way researchers can use social media data to make connections between people and the ways they interact with the world.

3. Geotagged social media is both accessible and inaccessible. Social media has provided thousands of new datasets and information about social behavior. In a sense, all of this information is easy to access, yet at the same time it is restricted by the companies that operate it. Social media companies are generally not obligated to release all of their data to the public. In the case of Twitter, only a 1 percent sample of the data is available free of charge, and some information is still not available to purchase.

4. We need to be conscious of bias and imprecision. When they use information from social media, researchers only include people who use this type of technology, and thus probably not getting a sample representative of a large and diverse population. Additionally, only 1–3 percent of tweets included geotagged location information, and many of these will be inaccurate. This bias and imprecision presents serious challenges and requires creative and thoughtful experiment design.

5. The “platial” effect. One of the most exciting features about social media data is the emergence of a new type of understanding. We used to be restricted to thinking spatially, but social media has allowed us to see place — the lived experience within spatial areas. We’re moving beyond simply knowing where people are spending their time to understanding what draws them to a place and how they experience it.

6. There are barriers to this technology. While social media presents exciting opportunities, there are some concerns about relying on it as a data source. Social media sites are designed for the user experience and were not intentionally built for scientific purposes. Because of this, scientists are not able to control the experiments and are subject to the changing nature of the media. Additionally, there are restrictions on what information is accessible, including legal barriers that can cause problems in reproducing experiments.

7. Applying the information. Despite its limitations, this new technology holds opportunity for environmental protection. Social media research can be used alongside traditional methods to help answer difficult questions, and it can help inform policy decisions by offering otherwise unattainable qualitative predictions.

Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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We need system change, not regulation Tue, 31 Mar 2015 19:55:03 +0000 Continue reading We need system change, not regulation ]]> This article was originally published in The Conversation.

The higher levels of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are one feature of what many call the Anthropocene, a new geological era dominated by humans.

Yet regulatory approaches to managing carbon in the Earth system are doomed to fail. This is because the rise of carbon dioxide levels — what I call the CO Catastrophe — is taking place at the scale of the Earth system itself. Humans are inside of that system, COemissions are coupled to energy use, and increasing energy use is central to economic advancement. I have become convinced that it is simply not possible to manage energy usage from the scale of households to that of the planet itself using regulatory methods.

This became clear to me one afternoon as I once again stared at the Keeling curve, a graph that has plotted the concentration of COin the atmosphere since 1958. Its unrelenting climb baffled me. There is absolutely no evidence of a reversal in COconcentrations from existing regulatory programs, including the United Nations’ Kyoto process, the implementation of the European Trading System or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in Northeast U.S. states. Hence, there is no evidence of human intentionality in the primary record of the COstate on Earth.

What does this say about our humans and CO2? Since 1958, the Keeling Curve has plotted the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from Hawaii. ScrippsMedia, CC BY-SA

On the other hand, what if the Keeling curve is a record of human intentionality in the aggregate? In this frame, the evolution of atmospheric COreflects the aggregate of human will: In the whole and in some sense, humans want COto increase in the atmosphere. If that is the case, then we need to rethink how we approach how society can limit the rise of COand the related changes throughout the Earth system.

Human intentionality

The COCatastrophe is not the first atmospheric composition catastrophe. The Oxygen Catastrophe at the end of the Proterozoic was brought on when cyanobacteria exhausted the oxygen-buffering capacity of the Earth system and the waste from their growth shifted Earth’s atmosphere from an anoxic state into one where free oxygen was prevalent. In so doing, they brought on a major extinction and changed the trajectory of Earth’s evolution. In the same sense that I suggest humans want to change levels of atmospheric CO2, one could argue that cyanobacteria wanted to change levels of atmospheric oxygen.

Humans are in charge. How best do we manage the Earth’s natural systems? Earth in hands via

The problem with this is that it would be really tough to attribute intentionality to cyanobacteria in the same way one attributes it to humans. With this in mind, we can now see the COCatastrophe not as an intentional act but as an emergent property of the current state of the Earth system. If this is the case, then we are looking under the street light in our current efforts to control CO — that is, we are looking for answers in the wrong place.

Decoupling CO from economic growth

Rather than attempting to manage carbon through brute force at scales never achieved (managing carbon is completely different from managing ozone-destroying substances), we need to shift our focus to the system itself. In particular, we need to affect a system change that is comparable to the change brought on by improvements in the steam engine and the associated business models. The core of that change is that it shifted energy-expenditure limits on Earth from those dictated by the metabolic process of animals to those dictated by human capacity to harness energy released from breaking the molecular bonds in fossil fuels. A corollary to that change is that the energy system that evolved has CO2 as a waste product.

We need to shift the Earth system into a state in which human development is decoupled from COemissions. The change we need will not simply be a technology; it will be a fundamental shift in how we think about, deploy and manage energy on the scale of the planet. Just as milk is reliable, safe and reasonably cheap in New York City, a new energy infrastructure will emerge in the context of markets and human intentionality at the individual and small group scale. The daunting element here is that we need something, but we do not know what it is. But I cannot imagine it being planned in detail in a top-down fashion.

Systems thinking

All of this calls for a policy framework that focuses more on innovation and social processes surrounding change than on regulation of carbon itself. Regulatory and policy frameworks are going to be very important but they need to shift from direct emphasis on carbon to emphasis on system change.

We need something that is highly disruptive and that will allow the poorest of Earth’s inhabitants to improve their quality of life, because as they improve their quality of life they will consume markedly more energy. Rooftop solar may be part of that but, in order to address the energy challenges in the poorest parts of our planet, we will need to invent new economic and infrastructural models to support deployment in those parts of the world.

Muscles are still the limiting factor of energy expenditure in many parts of the world. Wikimedia, CC BY

We have reached a point where humans are dominant. Up to now we have crashed around with little attention to the fact that we are pushing up against the buffering capacity of our planet; but we differ from cyanobacteria in that we can imagine the future.

Our challenge now is to recognize that, as much as we enjoy the illusion of command and control, we are inside a very complex system that will respond in unforeseen ways. We need to shift our approach from reductionist management of our impact inside of that system to a stance that recognizes the need to change the system itself.

Photo © franckreporter (iStock)

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Carver County is new RCP partner Mon, 30 Mar 2015 17:20:50 +0000 Continue reading Carver County is new RCP partner ]]> Carver County, one of seven counties in the Twin Cities metro, has been chosen as the 2015–16 Resilient Communities Project partner. Enhancing bike and pedestrian facilities near park-and-ride locations, evaluating stormwater reuse opportunities, crafting an ecotourism marketing plan and exploring opportunities for preservation of a historic farmstead are among the 34 projects the county will tackle with help from University of Minnesota sustainability expertise.

RCP organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities. The partnership will bring the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Carver County staff and community partners.

“We’re very excited about our upcoming partnership with Carver County,” said RCP director and Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor Carissa Schively Slotterback in a press release. “The enthusiasm of staff from the county and its partner cities and organizations as well as their clear commitment to advancing sustainability and resilience will ensure a productive and enjoyable collaboration that will benefit Carver County and provide community-engaged learning opportunities for University of Minnesota students.”

Carver County will be the fourth RCP partner in as many years. Previous partners have been the City of Minnetonka, North St. Paul and Rosemount.

The Resilient Communities Project is an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment.

Read the full press release

Photo by Ann Wiechmann (Flickr Creative Commons)

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5 things we learned about advanced heat recovery Wed, 25 Mar 2015 18:11:26 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about advanced heat recovery ]]> Buildings are huge parts of our lives, yet we rarely think about what it takes to keep them running. This week, Frontiers took a look at advanced heat recovery, one a way to improve building energy efficiency. Leading the discussion was Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Panelists were Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager with the BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority. Here are five things we learned:

1. We have a problem and a solution. Buildings, particularly large industrial, institutional and commercial buildings, use huge amounts of electricity, which eventually degrades into heat. This heat is often treated as a waste product and expelled from the buildings, but it is actually a huge resource that can be utilized. Advanced heat recovery systems transport the head to different parts of the building where it can be used. These systems not only can be implemented in new construction projects, they also can be retrofitted into existing buildings.

2. Win-win-win. The problem with many new ideas is that they’re often not practical or financially feasible. Advanced heat recovery systems, on the other hand, have shown their potential. These systems not only reduce the amount of wasted energy going into the environment, but also provide economic benefits. Taking advantage of an otherwise lost resource can save companies thousands of dollars each year and can provide jobs, particularly when constructing a new system.

3. It’s happening here in Minnesota. How do we know that advanced heat recovery systems are all they’re cracked up to be? Following precedents set by Cypress Semiconductor and Faribault Foods, the Science Museum of Minnesota tried it out. Over the course of several years, the museum secured funding and put in place its own system. The museum expects to see overall energy use reductions of 40 percent, to save more than $200,000 annually, and to pay back its investment within four and a half years.

4. Finances are still an issue. Like most projects, installing an advanced heat recovery system comes with a cost. SMM was able to secure funding from numerous sources, including the St. Paul Port Authority’s Trillion BTU energy efficiency program. However, there is always competition for limited resources. While the system ultimately pays for itself in the long term, some industries may have a hard time justifying the expense in the short term.

5. Growth will take energy. If advanced heat recovery systems are so great, why aren’t they everywhere? One problem is a lack of awareness. Hamilton says that the solution here is to invest in education and make sure that engineers and architects understand the potential of this technology. Additionally, industries and companies may choose to not invest in this technology because of the opportunity cost associated with it. Investing in a new piece of equipment might be more alluring than the potential savings from energy efficiency. Despite these hurdles, the potential of advanced heat recovery systems is promising because of its economic, employment and environmental benefits.

Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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March 25 Frontiers: How do we make advanced heat recovery in buildings commonplace? Mon, 23 Mar 2015 15:50:26 +0000 Flickr: Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Uncovering the impacts of oil palm Tue, 17 Mar 2015 15:27:28 +0000 Continue reading Uncovering the impacts of oil palm ]]> This profile originally appeared in the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network.

While studying oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesian Borneo as part of her Ph.D. work at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Institute on the Environment postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson witnessed how growing global demand, coupled with poor forest governance, resulted in rapid loss of tropical forests. Led by her adviser Lisa Curran and collaborating with the Indonesian non-governmental organization Living Landscapes Indonesia, Carlson has helped uncover the impacts of oil palm development on forest loss, carbon emissions and stream water quality. She finished her Ph.D. wishing not only to document the dynamics and effects of agricultural land use change, but also to design studies that directly inform tropical land use policy.

IonE postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson. Photo courtesy of K. Carlson.
IonE postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson. Photo courtesy of K. Carlson.

Carlson’s current research aims to inform policies that influence agriculture’s effects on forests and greenhouse gas emissions. In partnership with scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists, she recently completed a review of greenhouse gas emissions factors from peatland draining; these data will help the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil quantify greenhouse gas emissions from certified oil palm plantations. Carlson is collaborating with NGOs and other academics to study how sustainability certification affects environmental outcomes such as deforestation. She is also expanding her research to a global scale. Carlson is beginning to examine trade-offs between global crop production and greenhouse gas emissions, and identify strategies to mitigate these emissions. Along with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Carlson recently founded the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network to raise awareness of tropical regions in the decidedly temperate Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Next year, Carlson will start a position at the University of Hawai’i, where she looks forward to continuing her solutions-oriented research on the human dimensions of tropical agriculture and land use change.

Banner photo by CIFOR (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Dendrochronologist Scott St. George Tue, 10 Mar 2015 21:30:03 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Dendrochronologist Scott St. George ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I’m working with colleagues at Cornell University to understand how and why the environmental “stories” recorded by trees differ from place to place. Every year, trees in Minnesota and other parts of the world with strongly seasonal climates form a new layer of wood around their stem. That layer of wood — a tree ring — is very clear evidence of the passing of time and records, indirectly, the immediate environment of that tree. Over the last several decades scientists have collected tree-ring records from hundreds of thousands of trees around the planet. A tree ring may be a very simple thing, but reading millions of them at the same time might tell us a great deal about the environmental past (and perhaps future) of our planet.

Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy S. St. George.
Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy S. St. George.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

I was born and raised in the Red River Valley, which is one of the absolutely flattest places on the Earth’s surface. The valley is so flat that, as the saying goes, on a clear day you can see three days into the future! After I graduated from college, I was desperate to experience a different kind of landscape. So I signed up as a field assistant on a research project studying long-term environmental change in the Canadian Rockies. Most of the job consisted of long hikes up and down rough terrain in glacier-covered valleys and I had never so much as walked up a hill before. I spend most of my first two weeks falling down and getting back up again. But even though I was slow, I loved the chance to work in some awe-inspiring places that most people never get to visit.

Who was your most influential mentor?

I’ve been lucky to have had so many senior scientists act as mentors through my career. Dr. Brian Luckman at the University of Western Ontario introduced me to dendrochronology and took me into the field (via helicopter) for the very first time. Dr. Erik Nielsen at the Manitoba Geological Survey gave me the chance to lead my first project and take ownership of its research products. Dr. Harvey Thorleifson (previously at the Geological Survey of Canada, now the state geologist of Minnesota) taught me that science not communicated is science not done. And Dr. Dave Meko at the University of Arizona showed me it’s possible to be an outstanding scientist while staying humble, open-minded and generous to others.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

In my first job as a research scientist, I was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada on a project studying flood risks along the Red River of the North. I was asked to find evidence of past floods preserved within the rings of trees growing along the river. I remember telling my supervisor that I would try my best but, because no one had ever been able to identify floods within tree rings, it probably wouldn’t work. After a couple of months staring down a microscope, I finally realized the weird-looking ring I kept seeing in tree after tree was very clear evidence of the biggest flood of the last two hundred years. I’ve never been so happy to be so completely wrong!

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

The last book I read for pleasure was The Spanish Frontier in North America by David Weber. Because I grew up in Canada, I don’t know as much about American history as I’d like. I enjoyed learning more about Spain’s tenure as a colonial power in North America, and the relations between its relatively isolated “northern” outposts in Florida, Arizona and Texas and its larger, more prosperous colonies in Mexico and Central America.

Photo by Landahlauts (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Spring 2015 Mini Grants: Apply Now Tue, 10 Mar 2015 17:17:08 +0000 Continue reading Spring 2015 Mini Grants: Apply Now ]]> Do you have an idea for a project that could use a little funding to get off the ground?

The Institute on the Environment is please to announce the Spring 2015 IonE Mini Grant Competition. IonE Mini Grants are intended to spur new collaborative efforts by providing small amounts of funding, administrative and logistical support and space to interdisciplinary groups of faculty, staff and students from across the University system.

Past Mini Grant projects have included establishing a rooftop garden, assessing the causes of bee colony collapse, improving the environmental friendliness of snowmobiles and creating a bicycle repair station in a campus neighborhood. Read about past projects on the IonE Fellowships and Grants page.

Proposals are due March 22, 2015, and should include information on:

  • project lead
  • others involved
  • project details
  • expected benefits and outcomes
  • budget.

Download the RFP and the proposal template.

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