Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Fri, 27 Mar 2015 13:34:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 April 1 Frontiers: Can social media inform the causes & consequences of environmental change? Thu, 26 Mar 2015 17:58:36 +0000 Photo by Kris Olin (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.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.

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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Featured Fellow: Disease ecologist Meggan Craft Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:02:23 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Disease ecologist Meggan Craft ]]> 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 Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Let the conversation begin!

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

A study abroad experience my junior year of college. I spent a semester in Kenya studying wildlife management at The School for Field Studies. I was a biology major trying to decide between becoming a doctor or a vet. That experience made me realize that wildlife research was another option. And my current job is awesome ‘cause I get to work with vets!

College of Veterinary Medicine assistant professor and IonE resident fellow Meggan Craft. Photo courtesy of M. Craft.
Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine  and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of M. Craft.

What is your current favorite project?

It’s a project examining disease transmission in pumas and how human actions impact those disease dynamics. The cool thing about the puma project is its application to wildlife conservation. If we can learn how and where transmission occurs, maybe we can better control negative effects of disease. Our study sites are in Florida, Colorado and California. The cats face a variety of pressures that can be different in each location, from habitat fragmentation to being hunted to potentially getting hit by a car on an L.A. freeway. In Florida, pumas are being introduced from other locations to diversify the gene pool.

What strength do you rely on most often?

I work really well on teams. I enjoy working with other people and find it more fulfilling and impactful than working alone. On a team, there’s usually an idea person and a doer. I’m the person who helps make projects happen.

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

I was a guide for photographic safaris in Tanzania in my 20s and we sometimes got some very famous people on these game drives.  On one trip, there was a world leader/diplomat type who asked, “How often do gazelles eat wildebeest?” while watching these two herbivores grazing side by side. Gazelles are smaller than wildebeest but the salient point I found myself having to explain tactfully was the difference between herbivores and carnivores. The answer, of course, was “never!”

What makes you happy?

I’m happiest when I’m outdoors being active . . . and playing with my new miniature schnauzer puppy, Cooper.

Banner photo © twildlife (iStock)

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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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7 things we learned about government & environment Tue, 10 Mar 2015 16:16:51 +0000 Continue reading 7 things we learned about government & environment ]]> Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s were clear public policy wins for the environmental movement. But are we still able to make progress through government action in the same way we did 40 years ago? Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, was curious about what “successful” government action on the environment looks like today, so he asked three professionals to share their experience in this week’s Frontiers on the Environment. Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director, spoke of her experience as a Minnesota state representative, followed by Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We can measure success in different ways. Our instinct is to measure success in concrete terms, like the passage of a new bill, but indicators like the quality of our air or access to clean water may say just as much as the number of new environmental laws. Perhaps success might even be measured in terms of public engagement — as in the case of the proposed PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota, which has motivated hundreds of people to attend public forums and voice their opinion.

2. Engagement is key. No matter what measure of success you use, panelists agreed that the best way to achieve positive outcomes is by having strong community engagement. Decisions are being made now that can affect our environment for years to come. There are many ways to become involved in a project. For some this may mean running for office, while others might prefer to find a local organization that they support and work through grassroots channels.

3. Don’t underestimate social norms. People are creatures of social interaction and as such, tend to be naturally driven to actions that are perceived as “normal.” If nobody is talking about climate change people will tend to remain quiet — but if we open up the dialogue, climate change can become a common topic of conversation.

4. The messenger matters. It’s important for organizations to realize the limits of their audience. When trying to reach across political barriers, the tense political climate we face can mean that each side is quick to discredit the other. In these cases, it’s important to have a diversity of allies to reach a broader audience and a “big choir” to make sure your message is heard.

5. Don’t forget about framing. No matter what part of the process you are involved in, the way you frame your story is crucial to its potential success. In the case of Minnesota’s Toxic Free Kids Act, framing the issue around providing a healthy environment for children was central to its success. Similarly, when activists took to the streets of New York City, members of Minnesota’s Interfaith Power and Light were careful to change the narrative from one of negativity and hopelessness to remembering the love people have for the environment around them.

6. Engaging with government requires both impatience and patience. Getting involved in the political process requires a certain level of impatience in order to inspire people to action. However, government is designed to work slowly, so being engaged in the process also requires patience. Successfully balancing patience and impatience requires being knowledgeable about the political process and knowing the avenues available.

7. We’re dealing with new challenges. Never before have we faced the challenge of providing food, energy and other resources for 9 billion people while dealing with the uncertainties of a changing climate. As new challenges arise, we need to consider the tools we have and think about how we can best use them.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.

Flickr: Photo by Mahinda Rajapaksa (Flickr/Creative Commons)


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5 things we learned about groundwater Thu, 05 Mar 2015 19:21:02 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about groundwater ]]> This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned:

1. Water is essential. This certainly isn’t a new idea, but its always good to have a reminder. The reason water use is such a big issue is that we rely on water so heavily for multiple purposes, including hydration, agricultural irrigation and even power generation. In Minnesota, we traditionally have relied on surface water and operated from a paradigm of abundance. A growing dependence on groundwater in recent years has brought new questions and conflicts.

2. We don’t really know where we are. Surface water is visible, but groundwater has the extra challenge of being out of sight. Despite impressive improvements in monitoring technology, we still don’t have a very clear idea about the current state of groundwater, including the size of the total groundwater supply. And, although we know groundwater and surface water are interconnected, we don’t always know how, so sometimes using one can have unexpected consequences for the other.

3. There is a disconnect between use and best use. Groundwater issues should really be categorized into two separate questions: “How are we using our groundwater?” and “How should we be using it?” While the answers to these two questions are ideally the same, we know this is probably not the case. Moving forward, we need to think about how to bridge this gap.

4. Minnesota has taken steps, but the system is still imperfect. The state’s water sustainability guidelines include preventing harm to ecosystems, not degrading water quality and making sure future generations are able to meet their own needs. Within the DNR, the department responsible for permitting groundwater use processes have switched to looking at the cumulative impacts against groundwater, a promising step for promoting sustainability.

5. We may or may not be having a water crisis. This brings us back to the big question posed at the beginning of the talk: Is drawing down our aquifers really so bad? Well, that depends. Just as Minnesota’s water challenges are not the same as those facing California, there is no unified water crisis. Some places face tensions between supply and demand, while others have lots of water but lack appropriate quality. Our job is to keep monitoring our systems and make the most informed decisions possible.

Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Student start-ups win 2015 Acara Challenge Wed, 04 Mar 2015 18:52:26 +0000 Continue reading Student start-ups win 2015 Acara Challenge ]]> Student-run impact ventures focused on solar-powered microgrids for rural India and environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products have been selected Gold Level winners of the 2015 Acara Challenge, a competition held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management. The top-level teams and other awardees will have the opportunity and resources to further develop their innovative business solutions for environmental and social challenges.

The challenge was divided into a domestic and an international division, each with gold, silver, and bronze levels. Gold Level winners will receive $1,000 toward pilot expenses. Silver Level honorees will receive $750 and Bronze Level recipients get $500. Winning teams on all three levels also receive individual scholarships to the Acara Spring Institute in St. Paul or Summer Institute in Bangalore, India. Select ventures are also invited to receive up to $5,000 in additional funding to pilot their idea.

“We are very impressed with the creativity and commitment to change embodied in these projects and glad to have the opportunity with the help of our generous funders to incubate the winning start-ups over the coming year as they develop their venture plans into operational social enterprises, generating revenue and impact in Minnesota and abroad,” said Acara co-director Fred Rose of the Institute on the Environment.

Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman sells environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman sells environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products. Photo by Brittney LaFond.

“These students are passionate about launching new ideas to have a positive impact on the world; we are pleased to be able to recognize and support their ideas,” said Acara co-director Julian Marshall, a professor in the College of Science and Engineering.

The Acara Challenge, which began in 2009, spurs start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have an impact in the real world.

The 2015 Acara Challenge winners are:

Domestic Division


Ova Woman

This online retail and marketing company sells menstrual cups and fashionable absorbent underwear, helping to reduce the burden of feminine hygiene products on landfills. The initiative is led by Elise Maxwell, a student in the Carlson School of Management.


City Compost MN*

This Minneapolis waste processing company cuts trash volume and creates a valuable end product that is missed by current systems. The team is led by Peter Schmitt, a student pursuing a dual degree from the Carlson School of Management and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Katie Schmitt.

*Crowd Favorite – Domestic Division

Domestic Division Bronze award winner Autonomee provides work experience for marginalized job seekers. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Domestic Division Bronze award winner Autonomee provides work experience for marginalized job seekers. Photo by Brittney LaFond.



For marginalized job seekers who need career experience, Autonomee is TaskRabbit for software development. The initiative is led by Steven Bruce, a student in the Carlson School of Management.

InCOLOR Magazine

This online multimedia magazine is designed to serve as a voice for the various multicultural and inner-city communities. The initiative is led by Tiffany Trawick, a student from the College of Liberal Arts.

Minnetonka Local

This venture offers business development and retail support to encourage lower-income entrepreneurs, increasing local products and services while building community engagement. The team is led by Alana Buckner, a student in the Carlson School of Management.

Honorable Mentions

The BDW Blog

With an aim to close the gap between public option and scientific consensus, the BDW Blog provides a neutral, impartial voice. The team includes students Adam Woodruff (College of Science and Engineering), Yogesh Dhande (College of Science and Engineering), Josh Magnuson (Carlson School of Management), Joanna Mooney (College of Biological Sciences) and Thomas Harris (Bowling Green State University).


Knack is a Web-based business that seeks to tap the potential of young adults to address social issues affecting the Midwest through local artisan product sales. The team includes students Taisha Bauer, Francesca Berarducci and Megan Zimmerman from the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

International Division

Acara co-director Julian Marshall presents the International Division Gold award to members of the Stimulight team. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Acara co-director Julian Marshall presents the International Division Gold award to members of the Stimulight team. Photo by Brittney LaFond.



Stimulight 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. The team includes students Robin Walz and Vicky Ong from the College of Science and Engineering.



Apis Krishi*

This venture aims to help rural Indian farmers leave the cycle of poverty by promoting beekeeping education and removing the financial risk of beekeeping. The team is led by student Erin Kayser from the College of Science and Engineering.

*Crowd favorite – International Division


This business created an accessible collection service to help citizens of Bangalore responsibly recycle e-waste. The team includes students Claire Warren (College of Science and Engineering), Aika Mengi (Humphrey School of Public Affairs), Joshua Auerbach (Carlson School of Management) and Malcolm Smith (College of Science and Engineering).



Ripple helps water purification and testing companies connect their products and services with rural markets to improve health in rural communities. The team is composed of students Anna Schulte (Carlson School of Management), Emma Volbrecht (College of Science and Engineering) and Adam Iversen (College of Science and Engineering).

Main image of Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman courtesy of Brittney LaFond.

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March 4 Frontiers: Is drawing down aquifers really so bad? Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:48:35 +0000 0 10 things we learned about sustainability & happiness Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:39:05 +0000 Continue reading 10 things we learned about sustainability & happiness ]]> Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?

1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits.

2. Trust. You might not realize how untrusting we are until you take a look at Denmark. It’s common for bikes to remain unlocked, violent crime rates are very low, and parents tend to give young children more freedom than is common in other countries.

3. Wealth. We all know money can’t buy happiness, but as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the people of Denmark have some peace of mind.

4. Civil society. Civil society is highly valued in Denmark. Roughly 35 percent of Danes preform unpaid voluntary work.

5. Freedom. Where words fail, unconventional entertainment might succeed. Nothing says freedom and fun more than small trampolines in the sidewalk.

6. Work. While many Americans operate on a 40-hour work week, the Danes generally work 33 hours. Even though most don’t work on farms, Danes feel connected to rural life because 60 percent of Danish land is agricultural.

7. Democracy. With numerous political parties, Denmark isn’t a replica of our system in the United States, but democracy is important to Danes.

8. Balance. A shorter work week gives Danes more free time. While hard work is important, they also value a healthy balance between work and life. For many, this may mean taking advantage of the long summer days by relaxing at a local park.

9. Hygge. Hygge is a Danish word that might be translated as a state of being cozy and comfortable. Although hard to describe, this is a huge part of how Danes see themselves and it helps to inform the decisions they make.

10. Design. From creatively shaped buildings to foosball tables in the streets, Denmark has a look all its own. The Danes have already start to recognize the opportunity to use design to promote environmentally conscious behavior.

So what does happiness have to do with sustainability? Do the Danes have something figured out? It’s hard to say for sure, but they do seem to be onto something. As a small nation of 5 million, translation of Denmark’s successes into a U.S. context won’t be easy. In addition to being vastly different sizes, each nation comes with their own culture and history. In Denmark, sustainability has become a way of life instead of a concept or vocabulary word. Creating this cultural shift of our perception of sustainability might be key if we want to follow their lead.

Photo by: Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares Fri, 27 Feb 2015 16:46:45 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares ]]> 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 Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work align with the mission of IonE?

All of my projects focus on various aspects of biodiversity — origins, monitoring biodiversity remotely, links in biodiversity between trophic levels, patterns of biodiversity in urban areas, the value of biodiversity to humans. Most relevant to IonE’s mission, perhaps, is the SESYNC (Socio Environmental SYNthesis Center) working group I am leading with Steve Polasky on the ecosystem services that plant species around the globe provide. A component of this project involves putting a partial monetary value on a species, which is obviously very controversial.

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Photo courtesy of JC Bares.
Jeannine Cavender-Bares, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Photo courtesy of J. Cavender-Bares.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Of the many environmental challenges facing us today, I am most concerned about species extinction. The confluence of many anthropogenically caused global changes has led us to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, as explained to popular audiences by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) and Richard Leakey/Roger Lewin (1995) before her. The tragedy of irreversibly losing biological creations that took millions of years to evolve is leading us to an ethical crisis we are unlikely to fully appreciate until after it is too late.

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

I enjoyed reading Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. In addition to her amazing life story and all she had to overcome to get an education and eventually become a Supreme Court justice, I particularly appreciated her explaining how she was not afraid to ask other people how they learned things. She also described how, when she takes on a new and major challenge in life, she spends a year learning the ropes before diving into action.

I am currently reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I put off reading it for a long time because of all of the controversy surrounding the book, but now I see that she speaks very articulately about the challenges faced by women of my generation who have pursued careers. In particular, I appreciate her perspective that it is important to be authentic in the workplace rather than dividing ourselves into professional and personal selves. Given how much of our lives are devoted to the career work we do, it is important to feel and act fully human both at work and at home. It also makes life more meaningful for those around us.

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

I have been concerned and passionate about the natural world and environmental issues my entire life. A focus on biodiversity follows naturally from my interests at the intersection between ecology and evolution.

What or who inspires you?

On the human front, I am inspired by the Dalai Lama. His book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World explains the importance of working toward human well-being in many dimensions, starting with our own minds.

Banner photo by Nate Hughes (Flickr Creative Commons)

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4 things we learned about the human–environment bond Thu, 19 Feb 2015 19:45:55 +0000 Continue reading 4 things we learned about the human–environment bond ]]> In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:

1. There is a disconnect between humans and the environment. Instead of going out to a stream, we get our water simply by turning on our faucet. The impressive infrastructure of pipes that brings our water straight to us creates a system of convenience, but also allows us to forget where our resources really come from. This disconnect can be problematic because it causes us to forget how dependent we are on nature.

2. Shift our system by shifting our thinking. Remembering this interdependence is crucial to addressing the sustainability challenge, which requires more than a new technological innovation; it requires a culture shift in our thinking toward natural resources.

3. Stories and art are powerful tools. While rethinking our systems may be the solution to solving our disconnect, we need tools that allow us to do this. Through a number of programs, Brigham has been using art and storytelling to help people reconnect their everyday lives with the natural world. Specifically, she has been working with youth of all ages to trace the story of their water. In one pilot program, a group of 39 preschoolers and kindergarteners spent two weeks following their water from its source at the Mississippi River to their school faucet and then downstream to the wastewater treatment plant that returns it to the river again. Whenever possible, the kids were taken out of the classroom and into the field, getting hands-on experience and rebuilding their understanding of the ways water works in their life. Through Brigham’s current fellowship project, charter environmental high school students are taking a similar water journey as they look at the value of the Mississippi River along the way.

4. This strategy is replicable and flexible. While Brigham’s research has thus far focused on our relationship with water, she sees the potential for similar learning experiences with energy, food, or even everyday materials. The exercise doesn’t have to be limited to children, either: Adults have a lot to learn about natural resources too, and similar programs could be developed for them. In addition to developing more programs, Brigham and her colleagues are also working on creating a guide for teachers to use to do similar explorations on their own.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here:

Photo of students at River’s Edge Academy collecting water samples as part of the River Journey project courtesy of Jonee Kulman Brigham



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Earth as art Tue, 17 Feb 2015 18:19:34 +0000 Continue reading Earth as art ]]> Artist Marjorie Schalles had a case of cabin fever and needed an escape from the house in the winter of 2010. She and her husband decided to take a walk around the Mall of America, where they stumbled upon an exhibit of images of Earth captured by NASA satellites, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Service. The shapes, colors and textures of deltas, mountain ridges and other geographical features so excited her that she decided to use them as subjects for her paintings.

The result is an ever-expanding collection called earth, currently on display in the Institute on the Environment’s Commons Meeting & Art Space.

“I love re-creating the textures,” says Schalles, who came to Minnesota in 1991 and started painting a few years later.

Schalles paints with acrylic paints and uses paper, glue, string, packing material, the fake grass from a serving of sushi — any found object to represent the landscapes of Earth. “If you look down, there’s always something to use. I find stuff that’s been flattened by traffic. I’ve made a canyon out of a broken radio knob.”

An employee of the University since 2000, Schalles has created pieces that have been exhibited at Boynton Health Service, Coffman Union and various galleries in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her favorite installation was a demonstration for a group of 5th and 6th graders at a Shakopee Public Schools art and science fair, where she brought a white-painted canvas and demonstrated how she created the textures and colors for earth. “They were really fascinated with how a white canvas could be transformed,” she says. “They especially enjoyed the tactile aspect of the process.”

“This project has increased my awareness of how small we are in the universe,” says Schalles. “No matter where you look on the globe, if you zoom in, it’s beautiful and fascinating.”

An opening reception for earth is being planned for later this spring; the exhibit will run through May 2015.

Photo of painting by Marjorie Schalles: Lena Delta, Siberia

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6 things we learned about cities and climate change Thu, 12 Feb 2015 14:10:27 +0000 Continue reading 6 things we learned about cities and climate change ]]> What better way to kick off the new round of Frontiers than by crossing national boundaries? In the first talk of 2015, Frontiers was joined by Martin Bigg, professor at the University of West England; Gayle Prest, sustainability manager for the City of Minneapolis; and Simon Sharpe, head of climate risk for the UK Foreign Office. This international panel provided information and inspiration on the ways in which cities matter for climate change. With case studies from Bristol to Minneapolis, here are six things we learned:

  1. The many lessons of Bristol. Located in the western UK, Bristol is not just any city — it’s the 2015 European Green Capital. After beating out serious competition, such as Brussels and Glasgow, the city does not take this title lightly. Now ranking with the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bristol has a commitment to reduce emissions and promote public transportation. To do this, it has reduced speed limits inside the city, added hybrid buses and invested in “poo-buses” (yes, really) powered by biomethane made from human and food waste.

  1. Cities have potential. With over half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities will be vastly important for creating resilience against climate change. As economic hubs and home to millions of people, cities are also centers of innovation. Within cities, panelists from both Minneapolis and the UK identified transportation and energy as two key sectors that have some of the biggest potential to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.
  1. You’ve heard it before: Collaboration is key. The best way to get things done is to work together. There are many benefits of collaboration, including allowing people to share ideas and provide inspiration. To be most effective, collaboration needs to happen across all scales. International governments can learn from each other, and local communities can empower their members and engage with area businesses. Progress is slow if you’re working alone, but as everyone works together, it becomes much easier.
  1. Minneapolis is off to a good start. In a city that just crossed the 400,000 population mark, Minneapolis is taking some large strides when it comes to sustainability. In 2014, public transportation ridership at the University of Minnesota rose by an impressive 10 percent, and the White House named the city one of 16 “Climate Action Champions.” Proactive dialog with energy companies holds promise, but it’s important not to get complacent. While Minneapolis has been a leader within the U.S., there is still a long way to go.
  1. Change requires investment. If we want to see real improvement, we need to invest in making it a priority. Such investments will not only protect the environment, but they will ultimately build a more resilient system all around. Reducing emissions will result in cleaner air and thus healthier people. Building vibrant and resilient communities can attract businesses and promote economic stability. For example, sustainability doesn’t just mean making the physical characteristics of a school environmentally friendly, but also investing in the curriculum so students understand how their actions affect the world around them. According to Bigg, 98 percent of students at the University of the West of England, Bristol, across all disciplines, receive sustainability training as part of their learning.
  1. When it comes to politics, use your voice. If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to set targets, or we’ll end up standing still. While elected officials, who set the official goals, may know this, they might not act unless they understand the extent to which their constituency wants it. This is where you come in. Voice your views and opinions to help create change.

Like to learn more? Watch the video of the presentation here:

Photo by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Unraveling the complex web of global food trade Wed, 11 Feb 2015 18:05:12 +0000 Continue reading Unraveling the complex web of global food trade ]]> Growing global trade is critically important for providing food when and where it’s needed — but it makes it harder to link the benefits of food and the environmental burden of its production. A study published this week in the journal BioScience by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at IonE proposes to extend the way we characterize global food trade to include nutritional value and resource consumption alongside more conventional measures of trade’s value.

“Trade is usually described in terms of the value or weight of the goods being exchanged,” said study lead Graham MacDonald, a postdoctoral research scholar with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “But these don’t necessarily capture other important aspects of food production and distribution. Accounting for food’s nutritional value and the land and water resources needed to produce exports offers a more holistic view of how trade affects global food security and the environment. Our study uniquely juxtaposes these perspectives.”

“Economic, nutritional and environmental metrics all tell different stories of the geography of global trade, so it’s important to include a range of metrics to get a complete picture,” said co-author and GLI co-director Paul West.  “Our food system is increasingly globalized. The patterns we uncovered can help to assess how current and future policies affect the complex links between food and the environment.”

The new study uncovers enlightening patterns in global food trade. For instance, China leads when it comes to relatively land-intensive soybean imports (top map), while the hidden flows of irrigation water underlying rice and other cereal crop exports (bottom map) paints a much more complex picture that reflects the environmental context of production in different regions. Source: BioScience.

The researchers compiled millions of global food trade statistics for the 2000s from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to calculate the monetary value, calories, land use and irrigation water consumption associated with 390 traded food commodities derived from 139 crops and 10 domesticated animals. Traded goods were tracked back to which nations actually grew the underlying crops using cross-national data on agricultural production. They discovered that each of the four metrics — money, calories, land use and irrigation water use — revealed a distinct set of nations and commodities that shaped global totals, underscoring the importance of considering all of them when characterizing and making policy decisions related to global food trade. Among the findings:

  • Global exports of food commodities were worth about US$522 billion per year in the period 2000 to 2009.
  • More than one-fifth of the calories grown in farm fields are ultimately traded, which also required about 20 percent of the world’s croplands (~245 million hectares).
  • Over 70 percent of the global trade according to all metrics is concentrated in only 20 exporting and 33 importing countries.
  • Animal products comprised more than one quarter of the value of trade but only 5 percent of the calories traded. In total, exports of meat and other animal products use at least 8 percent of the global agricultural land base.
  • The bulk of monetary value of food trade is concentrated in trades among European Union countries, but these trade relationships are often facilitated by land use in other regions where the crops behind those products are grown. These ‘re-exports’ from European Union countries require over 9 million hectares of cropland in other regions.
  • Interestingly, whether a country is a net importer or net exporter varied, depending on the metric considered. “For example, China exports apples and other fruits that are fairly high value, while it mostly imports land-intensive but much lower-value soybean. Kenya exports high value tea and coffee, but imports wheat grown on foreign cropland that is an important food staple,” said MacDonald.
  • A handful of trade paths stood out as particularly prominent, especially the cropland area embodied in soybean exports from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina to China. “In other words, we identified really land-intensive and water-intensive ‘megatrades’ that disproportionately contribute to global trade,” MacDonald said. “Such trades are a reflection of highly specialized and export-oriented agricultural systems that manifested in rapid globalization.”

MacDonald said the findings underscore the importance of choosing the right yardstick when analyzing the global trade network. He said that the study raises new questions about what other metrics could be used to evaluate the broader implications of international supply chains or interdependencies among countries in terms of food and resources.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit

Photo by Louis Vest (Flickr Creative Commons)

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A course of a different color Tue, 10 Feb 2015 22:09:44 +0000 Continue reading A course of a different color ]]> Each spring semester since 2011, scholars from places as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, Arizona and Minnesota have met in a virtual classroom. They hail from many disciplines and represent diverse cultural perspectives. Despite their differences, they convene under a common goal: the study of sustainability science.

This unique course, known as the Sustainability Science Distributed Graduate Seminar, focuses on core theories of sustainability science, an emerging field of problem-driven research dealing with interactions between humans and the environment, says Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. With support from the Institute on the Environment, Cavender-Bares and Steve Polasky, Regents Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a director of IonE’s Natural Capital Project, developed the course four years ago when they recognized that a diverse body of research would need to be integrated to meet the challenge of improving the well-being of future generations while conserving the planet’s life support systems over the long term. They have been teaching it ever since, bringing together faculty and graduate students from different disciplines,  universities, and cultures to discuss key concepts and controversies in the field, drawing upon research from earth systems science, resource economics, institutional analysis, ecology, evolutionary biology, geography, development studies and engineering.

“The Sustainability Science seminar is an excellent example of the innovation and integration that the Institute on the Environment was created to support,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director.  “It brings together an international and deeply interdisciplinary group using technology and strong intellectual leadership to lay the ground work for solving sustainability challenges in the light of real world contexts.”

Classes meet twice a week, using online platforms including Moodle and Vidyo to connect across thousands of miles. A typical class session lasts about an hour and half, with lectures delivered by instructors from the participating institutions — Arizona State University, Universidad Autónoma de México, and Universidade de São Paulo along with the U of M, with an average of 10 students participating from each — followed by class discussion.

“One of the coolest things about the class was that it challenged my ethnocentrism,” says Bryan Runck, who attended the spring 2013 class as a graduate student in CFANS. “We got to experience academic literature in other languages. I realized there is some very sophisticated academic work in my field — a huge body of knowledge that, as a non-Spanish speaker, I don’t have access to.”

Jake Grossman, who also attended the 2013 class as a first-year Ph.D. student in CBS, says he appreciated the integration of economics and ecology. “As a biologist, I found it interesting to learn that the mathematical underpinnings of the tools we use in our respective disciplines are very similar,” he says. “The equation used to calculate the discounted value of a natural resource has a similar mathematical structure as the basic equation used to model population growth. When you’re thinking about things in an interdisciplinary way, it’s helpful to learn that we use the same tools to address dynamics of both ecological and social systems.”

The course takes a lot of advance planning, says Cavender-Bares, who made connections with now-fellow instructors in Mexico during a sabbatical in Morelia. “It’s not just ‘let’s get online together.’ It takes effort to make teaching collaborative. We have needed several years of experimentation to figure out the framework,” she says.

Several of the students and faculty from the most recent course contributed papers to a special feature just published in Ecology and Society entitled “Ecosystem Service Trade-offs Across Contexts and Scales.” The special issue, which is sponsored both by IonE and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), grew out of interactions among professors and students in the course. “Having extended dialog across disciplines and universities opened up new perspectives and new ways of thinking about sustainability issues, and it was especially gratifying to have papers contributed by grad students from the course be a central part of the issue,” says Polasky.

Runck says co-writing the paper he was involved in on optimizing nitrogen fertilization rates for multiple ecosystem services was empowering: He has since developed a white paper for the United Nations and gives credit to methodology and confidence he gained in the class. “The course taught us how to be good scientists and engage with society from a firm ethical basis that considers multiple perspectives,” he says.

“The class advances IonE’s goals of building connections internationally and among disciplines,” says Grossman. “It also builds a bridge between fundamental science — research for understanding — and applied science that can have influence over how the environment is managed. The course succeeds in that way.”

Image © wildpixel (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnold Mon, 09 Feb 2015 15:10:23 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnold ]]> 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 William Arnold, professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is the current focus of your work?

My team in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo- Engineering is studying how human impacts on the composition of organic matter in natural waters — due to wastewater, stormwater or agricultural runoff — affect the solar-driven reactivity with various contaminants, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We are trying to understand how the molecular structure and properties of organic matter influence the production of highly reactive intermediates (such as the hydroxyl radical) that are important in the destruction of contaminants. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict how fast various contaminants will degrade in different impacted waters and to design treatment systems that take advantage of sunlight-driven reaction processes.

William Arnold, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of W. Arnold.
William Arnold, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of W. Arnold.

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

Reading is a great chance to relax and explore topics outside of work. I recently finished off two books. The first is Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. The Voyager spacecraft were launched when I was a child, and I’ve always had an interest in (but not a talent for, as my physics classes in college demonstrated) astrophysics. Philosophical explorations tend to grab me as well and this book combined both. The other book just made me laugh: Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan.

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

When I entered college, I quickly realized I liked chemistry but I was interested in the environment and in solving problems. It seemed logical to go into “applied chemistry” and, because engineering is applied science, I majored in chemical engineering. My senior year I had one free elective to take and, on a lark, I chose environmental organic chemistry. The class focused on the fate of organic chemicals in aquatic systems. After three and a half years of college I had finally found the “applied chemistry” I was looking for. An almost randomly chosen class led to my entire career, but I use my chemical engineering knowledge every day.

What gives you hope?

Two things today give me hope. The first is that students today (and particularly those who are pre-college) are much more aware of the importance of the environment to our daily life and that humans have impacts (both good and bad) on the environment. When I was a kid, recycling that we now do routinely was strange. Today students have innovative ideas for cleaning water, reducing air pollution and helping those in need. There is awareness that individual actions have a collective effect. The second is the open-mindedness and curiosity of my own children.

What’s the oddest thing in your backpack?

A two-Swiss-franc coin. I spent my sabbatical there in 2006–07. It was a great experience that my family still talks about routinely. We actually just framed and hung some of our best pictures from our time there.

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

I am told I have a type-B personality. Academic life is stressful with the constant search for funding, travel and huge array of demands on one’s time. Somehow, I seem to handle the stress well and plow through what needs to be done.

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A ray of sunshine for bioenergy Fri, 06 Feb 2015 15:49:08 +0000 Continue reading A ray of sunshine for bioenergy ]]> Even at historically low natural gas prices, bioenergy may not be out of the running — it just may need a little help from the sun. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota examining the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute product concludes that combining these renewable resources can make economic sense.

In traditional biomass gasification, 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock is burned to produce heat for the process. But if the required thermal energy is supplied from a concentrated solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas. The study, published in Biomass and Bioenergy this week, developed a financial feasibility metric to determine the breakeven price of natural gas at which the produced syngas could be sold at a profit. The study suggests that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04–$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration.

“While the cost of adding solar energy generation to a biomass gasification facility can approach one-third of a plant’s total capital costs, other equipment required in traditional plants can be avoided and the amount of syngas produced per ton of biomass — a major variable cost of production — increases significantly,” said senior author and former University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences student Tom Nickerson.

“With average U.S. natural gas prices at $4.80 per gigajoule in 2014, two of the four configurations modeled were economically competitive,” said co-author Timothy Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, IonE resident fellow and CFANS faculty member. Though government incentives could significantly reduce the risks associated with volatile energy markets, demonstrating that the gap isn’t insurmountable is an important step toward environmentally preferred energy solutions. “Utilizing solar technologies to get more energy out of each acre of biomass reduces the impacts to the landscapes producing it,” said Smith.

Though no commercial plants currently exist, the technologies modeled in this study are being developed at the Solar Energy Laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Jane Davidson and lead research scientist Brandon Hathaway of the College of Science and Engineering.

“Our novel approach to gasification has demonstrated its benefits at the bench scale, and testing with our 3 kW prototype is ongoing in the University of Minnesota’s High Flux Solar Simulator,” said Hathaway. “We hope to find industry partners to join us in the next steps as we scale up the process and move towards testing on-sun,” Davidson added.

This work was funded by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota (RL-0001-09). 

Photo by Green MPs (Creative Commons / Flickr)

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Online photos offer evidence for the value of clean water Tue, 03 Feb 2015 19:29:24 +0000 Continue reading Online photos offer evidence for the value of clean water ]]> Flickr-based study shows lakes with greater water quality receive more visits and users are willing to travel further to reach them

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (2/2/15) – Think of the last time you planned a visit to a lake. Why did you choose the lake you did? Did you consider the quality of the water? The answers to these questions are critical to understanding how lake users make decisions about their recreation choices and the value society places on water resources.

New research published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution presents a novel approach to calculating the value of clean water. Analyzing photos posted to the online photo-sharing site Flickr, researchers at the Natural Capital Project and Iowa State University found Minnesota and Iowa lakes with greater water quality receive more visits than dirtier lakes, and that users are willing to travel farther to visit those clean, clear lakes.

The traditional approach to gathering lake visitation data would be through expensive and time-consuming surveys, asking people where they recreate and why. In this study, the researchers used online photographs taken of lakes that were uploaded to Flickr and could easily be analyzed with minimal expense. The researchers used this information, along with spatial analysis techniques and models, to estimate the values users place on lakes.

“The photos tell us a story about what lakes people prefer, where they live, and how far they travel to visit different lakes” said Bonnie Keeler, co-author and lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project.

As the authors note, there are many lakes and rivers that are impaired and efforts to restore or improve water quality can be expensive. This study offers one approach to capturing the value of water quality improvements — information that can inform cost benefit assessments and better targeting of restoration investments. The study is also valuable because it underscores the potential for social-media data to inform social–ecological research.

The Natural Capital Project is a partnership combining research innovation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford University with the global reach of conservation science and policy at The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

Photo by MJI Photos (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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IonE researchers named Leopold Leadership Fellows Tue, 03 Feb 2015 17:35:02 +0000 Continue reading IonE researchers named Leopold Leadership Fellows ]]> Two IonE-affiliated University of Minnesota faculty were among 20 environmental researchers from across the U.S. and Canada recently named 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellows.  Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences and an IonE resident fellow, and Elizabeth Borer, CBS associate professor and project lead of the IonE-funded Nutrient Network, will receive intensive leadership training to help them engage effectively with public and private sector leaders who face complex decisions about sustainability and the environment.

Leopold Fellows are chosen for their outstanding qualifications as researchers, demonstrated leadership ability and strong interest in sharing their knowledge beyond traditional academic audiences. Fellows participate in a weeklong training session on leadership and communications, followed by a year of practicing skills that will advance their efforts to lead change. The fellowship also offers peer networking and mentoring through the Leopold Leadership Network of program advisers, trainers and past fellows.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to receive the Leopold training so that I can communicate effectively about biodiversity issues at a time when the world is undergoing massive extinction largely caused by humans,” says Cavender-Bares. “The skills I gain will be put to use with the new ‘Dimensions of Biodiversity’ project I’m leading that has the long-term goal of monitoring biodiversity from space. I am also leading a working group, along with IonE colleague Steve Polasky, on ecosystem service hot spots in the tree of life and the value of biodiversity to humans.”

For her Leopold training year, Borer plans to develop and offer workshops for early-career scientists on communicating science to a mainstream audience. “My current plan is to get each participant to write, edit and record a podcast about their science aimed to engage the general public. If the length and content are appropriate, I may be able to work with a radio station I’ve worked with before to have some of the podcasts go live. I will develop and offer some of this training as part of an annual meeting of researchers from around the world that is funded by my IonE research grant.”

Read the full news release

Photo © evirgen (iStock)


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Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Manson Mon, 26 Jan 2015 18:22:08 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Manson ]]> 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 Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

While I believe sustaining humanity in the face of gradual climate change is probably the biggest challenge we face overall, I am particularly concerned about the potential for rapid shifts in climate-related systems that catch us by surprise.

Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of S. Manson.
Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Photo courtesy of S. Manson.

Who was your most influential mentor?

B. L. Turner II, the Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society at Arizona State University. Dr. Turner studies human-environment relationships or how humans utilize and transform the environment and, in turn, how these changes affect the Earth’s system and people.

What is your current favorite project?

A project that’s in the beta testing phase called Terra Populus, or TerraPop, which seeks to integrate the world’s population and environmental data. TerraPop, an NSF-funded project for which the Institute on the Environment is a partner, integrates data such as population census data, land cover information and land use records, climate records from weather stations and more to make it easier for researchers to describe people and the places they inhabit. TerraPop will significantly reduce the amount of time researchers working on human-environment issues need to spend collecting, processing and integrating data from a variety of sources.

You can see examples of how natural and social scientists save hundreds of hours by using Terra Pop on our website.

What gives you hope?

The future as seen by my students and my children.

What’s the thorniest question on your mind?

Is it really possible to model the future of human-environment interaction?  We are getting good at some things, like broad-stroke estimates of climate change into the future or short term weather forecasts. We do less well in projecting the future of many important systems, ranging from coastal community responses to sea-level rise to the nature of agriculture in a warming world, because so many different groups of stakeholders are involved.

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Climate has a big say in crop yield variability Thu, 22 Jan 2015 22:18:17 +0000 Continue reading Climate has a big say in crop yield variability ]]> What impact will future climate change have on food supply? That depends in part on the extent to which variations in crop yield are attributable to variations in climate. A new report from researchers at IonE’s Gobal Landscapes Initiative has found that climate variability historically accounts for one-third of yield variability for maize, rice, wheat and soybeans worldwide — the equivalent of 36 million metric tons of food each year. This provides valuable information planners and policy makers can use to target efforts to stabilize farmer income and food supply and so boost food security in a warming world.

  • The work was published today in the journal Nature Communications by Deepak Ray, James Gerber, Graham MacDonald and Paul West of IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.
  • The researchers looked at newly available production statistics for maize, rice, wheat and soybean from 13,500 political units around the world between 1979 and 2008, along with precipitation and temperature data. The team used these data to calculate year-to-year fluctuations and estimate how much of the yield variability could be attributed to climate variability.
  • About 32 to 39 percent of year-to-year variability for the four crops could be explained by climate variability. This is substantial — the equivalent of 22 million metric tons of maize, 3 million metric tons of rice, 9 million metric tons of wheat, and 2 million metric tons of soybeans per year.
  • The links between climate and yield variability differed among regions. Climate variability explained much of yield variability in some of the most productive regions, but far less in low-yielding regions. “This means that really productive areas contribute to food security by having a bumper crop when the weather is favorable but can be hit really hard when the weather is bad and contribute disproportionately to global food insecurity,” says Ray. “At the other end of the spectrum, low-yielding regions seem to be more resilient to bad-weather years but don’t see big gains when the weather is ideal.” Some regions, such as in parts of Asia and Africa, showed little correlation between climate variability and yield variability.
  • More than 60 percent of the yield variability can be explained by climate variability in regions that are important producers of major crops, including the Midwestern U.S., the North China Plains, western Europe and Japan.
  • Depicted as global maps, the results show where and how much climate variability explains yield variability.
The connection between climate and yield variability differs around the world. It is strongest in the red areas and weakest in the light green and gray areas.
The connection between climate and yield variability differs around the world. It is strongest in the red areas and weakest in the light green and gray areas.

The research team is now looking at historical records to see whether the variability attributable to climate has changed over time — and if so, what aspects of climate are most pertinent.

“Yield variability can be a big problem from both economic and food supply standpoints,” Ray said. “The results of this study and our follow-up work can be used to improve food system stability around the world by identifying hot spots of food insecurity today as well as those likely to be exacerbated by climate change in the future.”

Banner photo © Avalon_Studio/

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Measuring carbon & water footprints just got easier Thu, 22 Jan 2015 22:17:03 +0000 Continue reading Measuring carbon & water footprints just got easier ]]> Which bag of coffee is more sustainable? Which television emits the lowest levels of greenhouse gases over its lifetime? Does a grass-fed beef hamburger use less water? For many who want to do right by the environment, these questions are not easily answered. Now, imagine that you buy hundreds of thousands of products every year. How would you decide which make the most difference from an environmental standpoint? Whether suppliers’ environmental performance claims hold water? What combination of environmentally preferred purchases is most cost-effective?

These questions are increasingly being asked by sourcing and supply chain managers at the largest global corporations and governments — arguably, some of the biggest buyers in the world. Today, the Global Environmental Management Initiative, in collaboration with the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and Climate Earth, introduced a tool that takes a first step at helping answer some of these questions.

GEMI’s Supply Chain Sustainability tool helps businesses identify the purchased inputs that emit the highest levels of GHGs and use the most water in their production. It then helps supply chain managers assess, within three initial categories (paper packaging, plastic film and sheet packaging, and soap and cleaning compounds), strategies for reducing GHG emissions and water use.

“Although many have talked about the need for organizations to coordinate environmental improvement opportunities across sourced inputs, this is the first time that a user-based system has been developed to move the discussion into action,” said Tim Smith, NiSE director, in a news release. “We still have a long way to go before environmental performance can stand alongside price and quality at the scale of corporate and institutional sourcing, but this tool demonstrates that with improved information and coordination across supply chains, cost-effective environmental improvements can be found,” he added.

The NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise works with the private sector to develop sustainable solutions to production and consumption challenges — reducing adverse impacts and accelerating innovation to meet the growing demand for materials and energy. NiSE is a strategic initiative of the Institute on the Environment.

Photo courtesy of Nick Saltmarsh (Creative Commons/Flickr)

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Investing in watersheds: Back to basics Tue, 20 Jan 2015 16:10:02 +0000 Continue reading Investing in watersheds: Back to basics ]]> Investing in watersheds makes sense. Keeping water clean and flowing at the source is cheaper and more reliable than fixing problems downstream. It’s something people have been doing for a long time and in lots of places. Where I grew up in California there are lots of water supply reservoirs that are pretty to look at but off limits for swimming. Across the country in the Catskills watershed, New York City is paying folks to replace septic systems and keep cattle away from riverbanks instead of building a water filtration plant. And we’ve seen some pretty bad things happen when watersheds aren’t managed right, such as streams turning brown from sediment or drying up all together.

So watershed investments are hot. All over the world, governments, non-profits and businesses are getting excited about the possibility of paying residents upstream to take actions that will keep clean water flowing consistently downstream.

But are we getting what we’re paying for? And if we can improve water resources through watershed investment, what exactly should we be investing in?

We know that investments in water quality work pretty well: If you don’t let fertilizer runoff or human waste get into water, whether by restricting activities in a watershed or by building natural buffers around farms and toilets, you don’t have to remove excess nutrients or pathogens later on. There are still many questions that lots of scientists are working hard on — how big do buffers need to be, what should they be made of — but the benefits are pretty clear.

Brauman downloads measurements (relative humidity, temperature, solar radiation) from a weather station near her research site.

Having enough water, especially in the dry season, is the big question everybody wants answered, though. And this one’s a lot tougher. The amount of water available is determined by how much rain or snow there is in the current month or year. Vegetation can and does affect this, changing how fast water moves over the ground surface, whether it ends up in surface or groundwater, and whether it gets used up by plants or moved downstream. But since the amount of water coming into a watershed via rain or snow changes from year to year, it takes a lot of measuring and modeling to figure out how the amount of water downstream would have been different, given the particular weather conditions of the current year, if the land management had been different — especially because the effect plants have on water is often small compared to the big variations in rain and snow between years.

So I set out to measure how much changes in land cover change water availability and to calculate how much that change is worth. I did my fieldwork on the dry side of the Big Island of Hawai’i. What started as a summer project turned into a six-year Ph.D. project, the results of which were recently published in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

In this very peculiar place — an active volcano on which the ground is only about a 1,000 years old — in the places that are most important for groundwater recharge, dense forest recharges groundwater more than pasture land does, but sparse forest recharges groundwater less than pasture. But the differences in recharge are small compared to the total amount of recharge under all of those land covers. Very small.

How do I know the effects of land cover are small? We also estimated differences in the value of landowner income, carbon storage, and bird habitat given these different land cover types, and those differences were a lot bigger. Sometimes 50 times bigger. So it’s not that managing the landscape doesn’t matter, it’s just that here it might matter more for benefits other than water. And not only that, some changes in land cover would improve bird habitat and carbon storage but reduce groundwater recharge while other changes had other combos of ups and downs, so it’s hard to optimize all three.

While not exactly the sexiest or most accessible research in the world, I think it’s cool for two reasons. First, we actually did a fully integrated, interdisciplinary ecosystem services study for water, quantifying biophysical impact and connecting it to economic value, which is pretty rare.

Second, quantifying the benefits of land management for water showed that it’s complicated! And while the specific findings from Hawai’i may not be easily transferable, the takeaway is how important it is to understand the unique biophysical and social particulars of a watershed investment project — rather than slapping on a one-size-fits-all pronouncement like “more forest.”

So what about those watershed investment projects? Colleagues and I published some guidelines in November 2014 in the science journal Ambio. In the paper, we advocate that, when considering a watershed investment, one should evaluate how the proposed change will affect key hydrologic fluxes like infiltration, evapotranspiration or erosion, whatever matters in that particular place, keeping in mind how all the weird and important peculiarities of that place could affect those fluxes The best way to evaluate a watershed investment is to take lots of measurements, to build a model and to keep track of how changes in each hydrologic flux show up downstream. But when that’s not possible, keeping track of the fluxes at the site of intervention will, at the very least, make sure the dial is being pushed in the right direction!

It’s more like getting back to basics than rocket science, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Kate Brauman is the lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative and frequently collaborates with the Natural Capital Project. Both are strategic initiatives of the Institute on the Environment . 

 Banner photo by Steve Dunleavy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura Musacchio Fri, 16 Jan 2015 15:37:00 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura Musacchio ]]> 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 Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work fit into the transdisciplinary framework of IonE?

With my IonE resident fellowship, I am working on how to enhance theory-to-practice integration of landscape stewardship and ecosystem services. There is a vast storehouse of academic knowledge that is waiting to be translated to real-world problems in professional practice. It is a key opportunity to enhance knowledge and action across the numerous disciplines at universities. However, one of the challenges is the multiple steps needed to decode the language of scientific research into the language of professional application and then back again.

Associate professor Laura Musacchio, College of Design. Image courtesy of L. Musacchio.
Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Image by Warren Bruland.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

More and more college students, who work on environmental and conservation issues, will find part of their professional roles will include being intermediaries between experts and the public. They will need to successfully navigate across the boundaries of groups with different perspectives about the environment, conservation, and development. I call this process “translational landscape research and practice” because its goal is to prepare future professionals to leverage their disciplinary knowledge by building new skills to connect to decision makers and the public.

For example, I enjoy working with scientists to help them understand how their scientific research about ecosystem services can be connected to new audiences such as designers, planners, managers, and policy makers.

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

When I was in the early 20s, one of my mentors recommended that I pursue a Ph.D. At that time, very few people in landscape architecture had Ph.D.s — just a few professors in the whole United States. It took me a few years to decide that a Ph.D. was the right direction for me. The pivotal moment came when I got introduced to landscape ecology, which at the time was a relatively new discipline in the United States. I was particularly interested in how the knowledge of landscape ecology could be applied to design, planning, policy and management.

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

One of the books I am reading right now is Our Once and Future Planet by Paddy Woodworth, which has a lot of intriguing case studies about ecological restoration throughout the world. Ecological restoration is very popular with students across campus because it is a practical way to integrate scientific knowledge into their projects.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

One of my big ah-ha moments was coming to the Twin Cities in 2003 to teach at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Landscape Architecture. In the Twin Cities, green infrastructure design was more than just a concept on paper, but it was actually being implemented in a number of innovative ways in urban design, planning and policy. Many green infrastructure projects provide important ecosystem services such as stormwater management, habitat restoration and recreational amenities.

Moreover, these projects can also integrate the principles of ecological restoration, which builds on the work of pioneers such as Aldo Leopold. With my research, I am very interested in how such innovations can be used to inform the next generation of scientific research about landscape stewardship and ecosystem services.

Photo by Ryan Blyth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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New video for a new year Wed, 14 Jan 2015 16:11:55 +0000 The Institute on the Environment cultivates collaboration across disciplines among scientists, academics, and business, government and community leaders. This new video highlights how we work together to solve some of humankind’s grand challenges. Enjoy it and pass it along!


Banner photo © kamisoka (iStock)

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Inquiry’s top 10 overflows with IonE folks Mon, 12 Jan 2015 21:57:35 +0000 Continue reading Inquiry’s top 10 overflows with IonE folks ]]> What a year! Of the University of Minnesota Office of the Vice President’s Top 10 Inquiry stories of 2014, six feature IonE-related people and projects.

At number 10, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering and IonE resident fellow Jian-Ping Wang’s disease-detecting device is a noted example in “How to create a successful start-up – a university’s perspective.”

Number eight, “Patent roll call, fall 2014,” lists CSE professor and IonE resident fellow Martin Saar among the U of M faculty who won patents for their inventions. Saar and his team developed a geothermal energy system powered by carbon dioxide.

Seventh on the list is “A Q&A with Carissa Slotterback.” Slotterback, Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor and IonE resident fellow, discusses her involvement with the Twin Cities strategic plan and her new role as director of research engagement at OVPR, among other topics.

At number six, three IonE resident fellows are named in “Collaboration seeks to boost renewable energy in Minnesota,” a feature about a MnDrive-funded project that seeks new ways to integrate renewable energy into the rural Minnesota power grid.  Elizabeth Wilson, Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor, is the lead investigator of the project. Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Development and associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Peter Seiler, assistant professor in CSE, are co-investigators.

Transdisciplinary awards fund projects targeting grand challenges,” at number five, doesn’t mention researchers by name, but describes the MnDRIVE research programs in which many IonE resident fellows are involved. Awards in this category were given to four projects on which nine IonE resident fellows are principal or co-investigators. Get the list and read about the projects here.

Finally, “University start-up develops fast, accurate early disease detection,” comes in at number two on Inquiry’s top 10 list of 2014, delving more deeply into Jian-Ping Wang’s research.

“We are deeply proud of our resident fellows and the role the Institute on the Environment plays in providing infrastructure for their innovative, transdisciplinary knowledge ventures,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE interim director. “Their projects aim to create a better future for us all.”

Photo © Robert Churchill (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Chemist Marc Hillmyer Fri, 09 Jan 2015 16:30:49 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Chemist Marc Hillmyer ]]> 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 Marc Hillmyer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Nonrenewable plastics that contribute to land and water pollution. And the global water crisis.

Professor Marc Hillmyer, College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of M. Hillmyer.

Which of your projects addresses these concerns?

I lead a team of researchers in the Center for Sustainable Polymers working on efficient and precision conversions of renewable raw materials into innovative polymeric products that outperform the current suite of nonsustainable polymers from performance, environmental and cost perspectives.

Who was your most influential mentor?

My Ph.D. mentor Robert H. Grubbs at Caltech and my postdoctoral mentor Frank S. Bates at the University of Minnesota.

What’s the most useful thing in your backpack?

A USB drive (with some free space on it)!

What makes you happy?

Getting grants, publishing papers (in that order), and learning a new (difficult) song on guitar.

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

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson.

Banner photo: Shaun Amey (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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