Institute on the Environment http://environment.umn.edu Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Mon, 28 Jul 2014 21:07:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Visiting scholar brings fresh eyes http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/visiting-scholar-brings-fresh-eyes/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/visiting-scholar-brings-fresh-eyes/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 17:38:01 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3467 This summer, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is hosting visiting scholar Tuck Fatt Siew, a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, who is exploring ways to integrate ecosystem services valuation into watershed management in China.

Visiting scholars bring fresh perspectives, “positive disruption” to the day-to-day way of seeing and doing, says Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director. Visiting scholars are not paid by the University or IonE but are given desk space and the use of office equipment.

“I’ve worked a lot on water-related ecosystem services and thinking about design and monitoring of payment for watershed services projects, but my work has really been focused in the tropics,” explains Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Assessment and Siew’s sponsor. “Because Tuck Fatt’s project is focused in an arid region, we’ve been able to get into the details of what parts of these projects are general and what are specific. Things like identifying important hydrologic fluxes, and also issues like how water users might be similar or different and have similar or different demands. It’s also been a lot of fun to compare and contrast the theoretical models and ideas we have about ecosystem services,” she says.

We asked Tuck Fatt about about his experience at IonE and the role of visiting scholars in academia, and here’s what he had to say:

How did you become a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota?

It happened by chance. I got to know Kate when I emailed her for a copy of her paper, Ecosystem Services and River Basin Management. After we’d exchanged a few emails I asked if there was an opportunity to become a visiting scholar with the Institute. And I received a positive answer.

How is your research related to Kate’s work?

I’m involved in a German-Chinese consortium project, sustainable management of river oases along the Tarim River in Xinjiang, northwest China. In this project, I’m working on the integration of ecosystem services into land and water management in the Tarim River Basin using a transdisciplinary research approach. One of my core tasks is to integrate scientific and stakeholder knowledge on land and water management as well as ecosystem services in the area. Therefore, I work very closely with German and Chinese scientists from multiple disciplines and Chinese stakeholders from multiple sectors.

Another main task, which is also my major work focus while I am at IonE, is analyzing ecosystem services trade-offs in the Tarim River Basin using Bayesian network modeling. I apply this model to assess impacts of water and land use, such as irrigation of cotton fields, on ecosystem services and to optimize a bundle of ecosystem services. For Bayesian network modeling, which is a participatory method for transdisciplinary research, we are integrating data and information from various sources including literature, expert knowledge and results from the consortium project.

As you can see, Kate and I are working at different scales and in different focus regions using different approaches. What connects us are the issues related to water and ecosystem services.

What do you hope to learn while you’re here? Who are you interacting with?

I wanted to come here to learn about the approaches and methods used for ecosystem services assessment from different perspectives and continents. By interacting with ecosystem service experts here, I wanted also to improve my Bayesian network model. I know that there are many experts in the office where I am sitting. So far, I’ve talked to a couple of people from the Natural Capital Project and of course Kate, who is a close collaborator. There was also a great opportunity to talk to a Chinese visiting scholar while she was here. At the beginning, I presented my work at two different group meetings which paved the way for further interactions.

I see this visiting scholarship as an exchange program which is not only about improving my research work. Of course I intend to look for further project collaboration as well as to have a joint publication with Kate or others as concrete output of my visit. But I am also very much interested in gaining new perspectives and broadening my horizon with respect to understanding how people work and how life is like here as compared to Germany or Europe. I like to discover the world. And I want to improve my English.

How do you like it here at IonE?

I like the working environment here. I share a room with a Ph.D. student in Frankfurt. Here it’s open, I have a lot of space but can work privately on my computer.

What do you think of the Twin Cities? What have you seen?

I like it very much, it’s very green. I am told I am very much lucky to be here in the summer.

I’ve explored downtown and walked along the river by Nicollet Island. I take the light rail, it’s very convenient to get downtown and to St. Paul. And I went to the Mall of America, which was amazing. There is no big mall like this in Germany. I’ve also been to Minnehaha Park and enjoyed the green surroundings. Lately, I rented a green bike and cycled along the river. And I visited the Mill City Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I like them very much. I found a Malaysian restaurant and had a dish my mother only makes at Chinese New Year, with cabbage and mushrooms and glass noodles. Buddha something. Also something called poppiah, like spring rolls. It was very authentic. I also joined happy hours and the fireworks on the Fourth of July. That was fun.

Do you have any other plans for the summer?

I have some big trips planned to D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.

Would you recommend the visiting scholar experience to others?

Definitely. IonE is a great place to be at. The working environment with all the facilities is amazing. That’s the place where innovative thinking is promoted and emerging. And people here are very friendly and helpful. Being here, I feel very much integrated to the group. The visiting scholar experience will surely help advance one’s personal and career development.

Banner image: Siew in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China (photo courtesy of Tuck Fatt Siew).

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Study: How existing cropland could feed billions more http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-how-existing-cropland-could-feed-billions-more/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-how-existing-cropland-could-feed-billions-more/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 17:58:52 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3433 Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The report, published today in Science, focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale. It proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that that have the greatest potential for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and boosting our ability meet global food needs. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can target food-security efforts for the greatest impact. The biggest opportunities cluster in six countries — China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan — along with Europe.

“This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people,” said lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.”

The major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production are:

1. Produce more food on existing land. Previous research has detected the presence of a dramatic agricultural “yield gap” — difference between potential and actual crop yield — in many parts of the world. This study found that closing even 50 percent of the gap in regions with the widest gaps could provide enough calories to feed 850 million people. Nearly half of the potential gains are in Africa, with most of the rest represented by Asia and Eastern Europe.

2. Grow crops more efficiently. The study identified where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve the efficiency with which we use nutrients and water to grow crops.

Agriculture is responsible for 20 to 35 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely in the form of carbon dioxide from tropical deforestation, methane from livestock and rice growing, and nitrous oxide from crop fertilization. The study found that the biggest opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas production are in Brazil and Indonesia for deforestation; China and India for rice production; and China, India and the United States for crop fertilization.

With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow. China, India and the U.S. — and three crops, rice, wheat and corn — are the biggest sources of excess nutrient use worldwide, so offer the greatest opportunity for improvement.

With respect to water, rice and wheat are the crops that create the most demand for irrigation worldwide, and India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Boosting crop water use efficiency, the researchers found, could reduce water demand 8 to 15 percent without compromising food production.

3. Use crops more efficiently. The third major category of opportunities characterized for boosting food production and environmental protection relate to making more crop calories available for human consumption by shifting crops from livestock to humans and reducing food waste.

The crop calories we currently feed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The study noted that the U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn the main crop being diverted to animal feed. Although cultural preferences and politics limit the ability to change this picture, the authors note that shifting crops from animal feed to human food could serve as a “safety net” when weather or pests create shortages.

In addition, some 30 to 50 percent of food is wasted worldwide. Particularly significant is the impact of animal products: The loss of 1 kilogram of boneless beef has the same effect as wasting 24 kilograms of wheat due to inefficiencies in converting grain to meat. The authors illustrate how food waste in the U.S., China and India affect available calories, noting that reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people.

“Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food,” West said. “Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.”

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 environment.umn.edu.

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Fellows capture MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Awards http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/resident-fellows-capture-mndrive-transdisciplinary-awards/ http://environment.umn.edu/ione-resident-fellow/resident-fellows-capture-mndrive-transdisciplinary-awards/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 17:35:22 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3387 Four Institute on the Environment-related research projects have been awarded a total of $2 million from MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Awards, a state-funded grant initiative. Nine IonE resident fellows from six colleges are named as principal investigators or co-investigators on projects to advance renewable energy use in rural food processing systems; produce a database of bacteria that break down chemicals in the environment; develop tools for early disease detection in fish and swine; and create new agricultural products from emerging agricultural technologies.

MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy – is a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota, administered through the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research. Funding is intended to foster discoveries in four of the state’s key and emerging industries: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatment for brain conditions. The Transdisciplinary Research Program funds projects that bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines across the university, including researchers from the sciences, arts, humanities, business, education and policy.

The IonE-affiliated recipients of the MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program awards are:

Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is the principal investigator on a project that will explore how advanced sensors and control systems can be used to better integrate renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power with electricity demand to improve the sustainability and reliability of the electric power system. 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 the College of Science and Engineering, are co-investigators.

College of Biological Sciences professor Lawrence Wackett is the principal investigator on a project that will use computer modeling to identify optimum enzymes and bacteria for breaking down hazardous chemicals in the environment, as well as develop a method for detecting and degrading acrylamide, a chemical found in water from frac sand mining and in certain foods.

Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Jian-Ping Wang, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in CSE, are co-investigators on a team that aims to develop technology and mathematical models to detect and understand disease transmission in fish and swine that poses a risk to the food supply in Minnesota and globally.

Nicholas Jordan, CFANS professor, is the principal investigator on a project that seeks to reap economic, environmental and social benefits from emerging technologies that produce new products (foods, industrial products and biofuels) from new agricultural crops. Co-investigators include Timothy Smith; Volkan Isler, associate professor, CSE; and Carissa Schively-Slotterback, associate professor, Humphrey School.

To read more about the projects, visit the MnDRIVE website.

Banner photo: Adrian S. Jones (Flickr Creative Commons)

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IonE all-stars win MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures grants http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/ione-researchers-among-mndrive-global-food-ventures-awardees/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/ione-researchers-among-mndrive-global-food-ventures-awardees/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:03:45 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3382 Four Institute on the Environment–related research projects won grants from MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures, a state-funded grant program. Four IonE resident fellows, as well as IonE’s managing director, are named as co-investigators on projects that seek to develop holistic and integrated approaches to ensuring a sustainable, safe and resilient food system.

MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy – is a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota, administered through the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research. Funding is intended to foster discoveries in four of the state’s key and emerging industries: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatment for brain conditions.

“Continued progress in the field of agriculture is vital not only to Minnesota, with its more than 200 food companies throughout the state, but to the world as a whole,” said Brian Buhr, dean of the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), in a press release.  “These groundbreaking proposals evaluated by the Global Food Ventures team will help address the critical challenges facing the U.S. and the world. ”

IonE-affiliated recipients of Global Food Ventures grants are:

Nicholas Jordan, CFANS professor and Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director and chief operating officer, are on a team that aims to develop a master’s degree program in food systems, including defining core competencies, creating new ways to deliver curriculum, and enhancing or creating courses.

Matteo Convertino, School of Public Health assistant professor, will collaborate on a project to develop a new model for measuring and addressing salmonella contamination in ground meat and poultry to effectively and efficiently manage outbreaks.

Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is part of a team that will tackle emerging and current threats to Minnesota livestock production by developing a surveillance system for early disease detection and designing disease control strategies to minimize disease impact.

Tim Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Development and associate professor in CFANS, will co-investigate the urban organic waste cycle – where waste is generated, its flow through city-farm systems and how to re-engineer the flow to improve sustainability.

Read more about Global Food Ventures on the MnDRIVE website.

Banner photo: Danielle Scott (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Science on a Sphere http://environment.umn.edu/news/science-on-a-sphere/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/science-on-a-sphere/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 18:22:15 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3290 What would you get if you crossed a map of the world with the Discovery Channel? You’d get something close to Science on a Sphere, a mash-up of science data and video artistry.

SOS is a cool piece of technology that can illustrate — with compelling imagery and narrative — earth science to audiences at museums, zoos, universities and research institutions around the world.

SOS is a globe with a 68-inch diameter (about the width of a car) onto which a video is projected. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration created it to help explain complex environmental processes, such as ocean currents and weather patterns, happening across the planet.

With support from the Institute on the Environment, the Science Museum of Minnesota is creating an SOS film series focused on global change. Led by Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the museum’s Global Change Initiatives, the project already has produced four short films – currently on the playlist at SMM — about how humans dominate and change the planet. Three are about how humans are changing Earth’s land surface, ocean, and atmosphere and star two IonE researchers. Kate Brauman, lead scientist at IonE’s Global Water Assessment, contributed to the film on water and Tracy Twine, co-leader of Islands in the Sun, a collaboration of IonE and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences that monitors the Twin Cities heat island, is featured in the film about the Earth’s atmosphere. The fourth film explores the human capacity to innovate solutions to big environmental challenges.

Brauman routinely uses maps to explain her research on the implications of agriculture on water resources, but says maps have their limitations.

“We’re great at making maps, they’re good for telling stories. But one thing we wrestle with is they are flat and static.” With SOS, she says, audiences can not only see all points on the globe where corn is grown, for example, but also the variations of corn yields based on water use. “And you can see the corn growing,” she says.

“It’s a great way to get our research out to the public,” explains Twine . She says SOS can be tailored to the topic or audience.

“Producers have created the movie in a way that chapters can be selected to be shown by any institution with the Science on a Sphere,” she says. “In this way the particular institution could just show one part of the movie relevant to an exhibit. This should allow more information to be disseminated broadly to fit the goals of any institution.”

Science on a Sphere is on display as part of the Future Earth exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota and in more than 100  institutions around the world.

Banner photo: Will von Dauster (courtesy of NOAA)

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Study: Groundwater contamination in SE Minnesota http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-groundwater-contamination-in-se-minnesota/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-groundwater-contamination-in-se-minnesota/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:18:31 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3371 Conversion of grasslands to agricultural fields across Southeastern Minnesota is increasing groundwater nitrate contamination in private drinking water wells according to a new study by researchers with the University of Minnesota and the Natural Capital Project.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers outline the economic costs associated with groundwater pollution along with threats to overall water quality and ecosystem services.

“Households can dig a new well, purchase bottled water, or install a home nitrate-removal system, but dealing with a contaminated well is expensive and these costs are typically born entirely by private households,” said Bonnie Keeler, lead author and lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “We found evidence that recent trends in grassland loss to agriculture between 2007 and 2012 are likely to increase the future number of contaminated wells by 45%, leading to millions of dollars in lost income and remediation costs for private households.”

The analysis focuses on eleven counties in Southeastern Minnesota — a region classified as highly vulnerable to groundwater contamination and having one of the highest rates of recent grassland conversion to agriculture in the state, but the results can also be extrapolated to regions across the Midwest U.S. undergoing rapid land conversion.

The researchers used publicly available well data and nitrate chemistry readings to predict how changes in land use will affect the likelihood of well contamination.  The team also discovered a significant relationship between high-nitrate wells and nearby agricultural lands.  Using this relationship, along with other soil and geologic information and well characteristics, they created a model that could be used to evaluate how recent trends in grassland loss to agriculture may affect the future number of contaminated wells in the region.

Steve Polasky, Fesler Lampert Professor of Ecological/ Environmental Economics and an Institute on the Environment Resident Fellow co-authored this recent paper.

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.

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Campus garden sprouts at U of M Crookston http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/campus-garden-sprouts-at-u-of-m-crookston/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/campus-garden-sprouts-at-u-of-m-crookston/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:29:33 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3160 Between the seemingly interminable June rains, ground was broken and crops began to sprout in the Allen and Freda Pederson Garden near the U of M Crookston campus. 

Dan Svedarsky, director of the Crookston Center for Sustainability, says completion of the project is “due in no small measure to support of the garden suppers,” funded through an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant.

The project also received a $25,000 grant from 98-year-old Allen Pederson to honor his wife, Freda. The couple were active gardeners, often sharing their bounty with the community.

A variety of produce, including cucumbers, onions, cabbage and peppers, has been planted in hopes of being ready to harvest in time for returning students in September. All produce from the garden will supply the Crookston campus food service.

The garden, which occupies three-quarters of an acre of city land adjacent to the campus, was a true campus-community collaboration, with expertise, interest and equipment harnessed from students, the university extension service and community members. “Even the chancellor of student affairs was out planting,” says Svedarsky.

Dan Svedarsky distributes fertilizer on the three-quater-acre plot

Dan Svedarsky plants corn in one of the garden plots.

 

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Tomatoes have begun to sprout.

 

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U of M Crookston Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs Barbara Keinath, garden benefactor Allen Pederson and Chancellor Fred Wood at the dedication ceremony.

The project has also been featured in a local news story — check it out!

Photos: Tashi Gurung

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Incredible India http://environment.umn.edu/business/incredible-india/ http://environment.umn.edu/business/incredible-india/#comments Tue, 01 Jul 2014 16:04:46 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3208 “Incredible India” is the Government of India’s international marketing tagline, and it is spot on. But when Acara travels to India, the question is not which Himalayan peak to summit. It is, “How can business be used to impact the grand societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century?”

In May 2014, Acara sought to gain further insights into this question through our most recent study abroad program. We spent three eye-opening weeks in Bangalore, India with 14 University of Minnesota students from engineering, business, public health and design. We were there to discover challenges at the nexus of community development, infrastructure, and environment, as well as the entrepreneurial venture solutions that India’s change makers are passionately pursuing.

During many long days in India, we interacted with executives from various social ventures diving deep into Bangalore’s unsightly locales: jam-packed roads, reeking garbage dumps, bustling scrap markets, flowing wastewater treatment facilities, and numerous “slum” communities that house many of the city’s low-income workers. We also spent time learning about rural development issues in villages. Through field visits, we discovered not only about India’s intriguing culture, delicious food, and vibrant history, but also about issues ranging from water access (or lack thereof) in slums to solid waste challenges to women’s livelihoods in rural villages. This is the real incredible India!

We visited the waste contractor and his employees that are part of Bangalore's house-to-house garbage collection network .

We visited a waste contractor and his employees, part of Bangalore’s house-to-house garbage collection network .

 

Our group spent a day on the “trash trail” with Saahas, a solid waste management venture, following garbage from neighborhood collection, to sorting facility, to landfill, to scrap market and to the informal plastic waste recycling sector. Once waste reaches the landfill, rag pickers (who pay the authorities to live and work on the landfill) extract the remaining recyclables and sell them to scrap dealers.

Our group spent a day on the “trash trail” with Saahas, a solid waste management venture, following garbage from neighborhood collection to sorting facility to landfill to scrap market – and on to the informal plastic waste recycling sector. Once waste reaches the landfill, rag pickers (who pay the authorities to live and work on the landfill) extract the remaining recyclables and sell them to scrap dealers.

 

A young man in Bangalore's informal recycling area  oversees the plastic extrusion process before the pellets are sold to local manufacturers.

A young man in Bangalore’s informal recycling sector oversees the plastic extrusion process before the pellets are sold to local manufacturers.

 

Garbage piles, loose electrical wires, broken sidewalks --  these are the streets of India, one of many tragedies of the commons. To learn about the issues and take action, we spent a day with Ugly Indian, an anonymous group of “spot-fixing” Indian citizens. Watch as this public wall gets a make-over (video).

Garbage piles, loose electrical wires, broken sidewalks — these are the many tragedies of the commons. To learn about the issues and take action, we spent a day with Ugly Indian, an anonymous group of “spot-fixing” Indian citizens. Watch this public wall get a make-over.

 

With SELCO, we explored their approach to providing solar lighting and energy access to low-income communities using distributed, pay-per-use battery rental ventures.

With SELCO, we explored their approach to providing solar lighting and energy access to low-income communities using distributed, pay-per-use battery rental ventures.

 

When rural immigrants make their way to urban centers, they use what they can find to build their homes, and to begin to build a better life for their families, resulting in commonly unauthorized informal settlements known as slums. Our teams spent a day with Biome learning about water access issues in both high-end gated communities as well as low-income informal settlements.

When rural immigrants make their way to urban centers, they use what they can find to build their homes and to begin to build a better life for their families, resulting in commonly unauthorized informal settlements known as slums. Our teams spent a day with Biome learning about water access issues in both high-end gated communities as well as low-income informal settlements.

 

Life in Bangalore is especially onerous for low-income families living illegally on unauthorized land in tent slums constructed from locally available materials.

Life in Bangalore is especially onerous for low-income families living illegally on unauthorized land in tent slums constructed from locally available materials.

 

Local farmers in northern Tamil Nadu rely on “Government gobra,” chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to grow their crops. We spent a day on the Navadarshanam (meaning “New Vision”) organic farm learning about traditional farming practices, organic methods and rural development challenges.

Local farmers in northern Tamil Nadu rely on “Government gobra,” chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to grow their crops. We spent a day on the Navadarshanam (New Vision) organic farm learning about traditional farming practices, organic methods and rural development challenges.

 

The auto rickshaw, a three-wheel that runs on liquified petroleum gas, vehicle, is ubiquitous in urban India, a form of transportation you come to know well while sitting in traffic for hours.

The auto rickshaw, a three-wheel vehicle that runs on liquified petroleum gas, is ubiquitous in urban India, a form of transportation you come to know well while sitting in traffic for hours.

 

Sikshana Foundation

We spent an afternoon with elementary and middle school students at Sikshana Foundation learning about their families, answering questions about the U.S., enjoying their talent show (and performing!) and planting trees to commemorate the occasion.

 

In northern Karnataka, we spent a day learning about livelihoods issues and how TIDE is working to help rural women’s groups develop income-generating opportunities through their Women’s Technology Park.

In northern Karnataka, we spent a day learning about livelihoods issues and how TIDE is working to help rural women’s groups develop income-generating opportunities through their Women’s Technology Park.

 

After a long day, nothing beats a sweet chai. For three weeks we enjoyed India’s delicacies, including various street foods and chaats (snacks), though sometimes paid the price.

Brian Bell is assistant program director of Acara at the Institute on the Environment, as well as network coordinator of IMNPACT Angels and member of the Minneapolis Hub of Global Shapers. When not facilitating Acara teams, Brian enjoys traveling to developing regions, cycling around the Twin Cities and cooking international eatables.

Banner photo: The challenges of rural India drive thousands upon thousands of villagers to seek opportunities in urban India, leading to overpopulated and overstressed urban environments. All photos courtesy of Brian Bell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Study: Oil palm plantations alter water quality http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-oil-palm-plantations-alter-water-quality/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/study-oil-palm-plantations-alter-water-quality/#comments Mon, 30 Jun 2014 19:04:44 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3156 New research from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford University shows that freshwater stream ecosystems are highly vulnerable to oil palm plantation expansion.

The three-year study compared streams draining watersheds dominated by four land uses — intact forest, manually logged forest, community agroforest and oil palm plantation — in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, which is ground zero for palm oil production.

Kimberly Carlson, an IonE postdoctoral scholar and lead author on the study, says the research yielded some unexpected findings. “First, oil palm plantation land use seems to have a greater effect on streams than community agroforest or low-impact logging.” Researchers were also surprised to discover that a stream in a mature, closed-canopy oil palm plantation was almost as hot as, and yielded even more sediment than, a stream draining a watershed recently cleared for oil palm.

The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, found that streams draining oil palm plantations can be up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and have up to 550 times higher sediment concentrations than streams draining intact forests. In Indonesia, where people depend on rivers for food and water, alteration of stream temperature and sediment levels — which may affect the health of freshwater fisheries as well as coastal ecosystems including coral reefs — could have big implications for human livelihoods.

“Local communities are deeply concerned about their freshwater sources. Yet the long-term impact of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams has been completely overlooked until now,” said study co-author and team leader Lisa Curran in a Stanford University press release.

Palm oil land being cleared and drained for oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

Land being cleared and drained for oil palm plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo: Kimberly Carlson

“These plantations are huge, with an average plantation approximately 39 square miles, slightly larger than the island of Manhattan,” said Carlson. Previous work by the same group predicts that 35 percent of Kalimantan’s lowlands will be cleared for oil palm by 2020 if expansion trends continue.

IonE Global Water Assessment lead scientist Kate Brauman also contributed to the study. Carlson, Curran, Brauman and colleagues suggest that practical ways to mitigate the impacts of plantations on freshwater ecosystems may include limiting the number of roads that intersect with streams and maintaining or restoring natural vegetation cover along the edges of streams.

Banner photo: Yadi Purwanto. Individual oil palm fruit.

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Summertime viewing to enlighten and inspire http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/summertime-viewing-to-enlighten-and-inspire/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/frontiers/summertime-viewing-to-enlighten-and-inspire/#comments Wed, 25 Jun 2014 16:42:43 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3150 Keep your brain limber this summer by learning about cutting-edge solutions to the planet’s environmental grand challenges. During your down time, we invite you to watch video recordings of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment series, a forum for experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to informally share their work on a wide-range of cutting-edge issues, wrapped up with a lively Q&A.

Browse the archives or choose from this list of nine, hand picked from nearly 40 talks. They are sure to enlighten and inspire!

The videos are ready to go for viewing on a laptop or desktop computer; if you want to enjoy them lakeside from your tablet or phone, just download Adobe® Connect™ Mobile for iOS or Adobe Connect for Android.

From spring 2014, check out “Science Communication” to learn about MinuteEarth, a YouTube-based animation series that’s getting people around the world excited about earth and climate science; “What IS the Green Economy, and How Do We Get One?,” a discussion about government, corporate and consumer approaches that can move us closer to a green economy; and “Yellowstone: More Valuable Then Gold,” the account of the successful campaign to keep gold mining out of Yellowstone National Park.

From fall 2013, see “The Palm Oil Problem,” a look at the environmental consequences of — and potential solutions to — the ubiquitous ingredient used in countless household products; “Redefining Agricultural Productivity,” a conversation about how small changes in diet could feed more people and reduce the impact of agriculture; and “Tracking the Wild Ones” on field research that seeks to understand how a changing climate is affecting wild animal populations.

From spring 2013, watch “Is Frac[k] a Four-letter Word?” a discussion about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing and emerging technologies that may mitigate its environmental impact; “Are All Tomatoes Created Equal?,” exploring whether exposure to agricultural and food processing chemicals are contributing to obesity and chronic illness; and “University-Community Collaboration to Advance Sustainability,” a peek into the U’s Resilient Communities Project and its partnership with the City of Minnetonka.

Live Frontiers talks will resume in the fall – watch this website for more information and plan to attend a live presentation, stream online or check out the archived videos on your own schedule. Everyone is welcome!

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On the edge of the Amazon, efficiency matters http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/on-the-edge-of-the-amazon-efficiency-matters/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/on-the-edge-of-the-amazon-efficiency-matters/#comments Wed, 18 Jun 2014 21:10:24 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3047 As land resources come under more and more pressure — to grow food, support cities and house valuable ecosystems — scientists, activists and others are on the hunt for better ways to manage the terrestrial biosphere. One strategy is to increase the efficiency of croplands and pasture lands, particularly in ecosystems such as the Amazon forest where converting more land to agricultural use is environmentally costly.

As the world’s largest contiguous tropical forest, Amazonia is an important store of carbon, provides habitat for biodiverse communities and plays a part in regulating the global water cycle.

Moreover, the Amazon is a prime candidate for exploring whether increasing efficiency can help make agricultural land use more sustainable. Recently, David Lapola of Universidade Estadual Paulista and colleagues pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change that agriculture in Brazil, including Amazonia, is intensifying and becoming more dominated by commodity production, leading to systematic changes in land use. This intensification has been accompanied by lower rates of deforestation.

There are open questions, however, about how these intense cropping systems will affect the environment. Here in the U.S. and in Minnesota, we associate high-yield farms with water pollution, runoff and declining soil fertility. Will the same environmental impacts manifest when we put an intensified cropland farm into the Amazon?

Sandro Rocha, of the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, records data while measuring greenhouse gas emissions from a forest site in the Eastern Amazon. Credit: Christine S. O’Connell

Sandro Rocha, of the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, records data while measuring greenhouse gas emissions from a forest site in the Eastern Amazon.
Photo: Christine S. O’Connell

In my position with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, I’m working with colleagues around the world to try and answer this and other questions via a field study in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Since 2012, we have been measuring how the nitrogen cycle has been altered as a result of cropland intensification; whether emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas emitted from soils, have gone up or down as nitrogen fertilizer use becomes common; how soil nitrogen availability has changed; and if more nitrogen is running off into streams or moving through the soil column into groundwater. These effects — nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen runoff into the freshwater system — may accompany improved cropland efficiency in the region. If it does, it could change how we assess sustainability on tropical croplands.

Our pursuit of data that can help us investigate sustainability on Amazonian cropland has brought us to a large industrialized farm in Mato Grosso. Working with local research partner Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia and colleagues at Centro de Energia Nuclear na Agricultura – Universidade de São Paulo, Woods Hole Research Center, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Vermont, we have taken greenhouse gas, soil and water measurements for the last year in primary Amazon forest on the farm’s property and on intensified croplands that are planted twice a year — once with soybeans, a nitrogen-fixing crop, and once with corn, which receives nitrogen fertilizer. As on many large, intensified farms, both crops are also treated with pesticides, herbicides, phosphorus, potassium, micronutrients and lime to manage the acidic soils common in tropical forests.

Field research is my favorite way to engage with science.  Having boots on the ground gets me thinking more creatively and puts small but potentially crucial details into my line of sight. Rainstorms can be so patchy that they affect one field but not another one directly next to it. How much light is available in these forests, and what might that mean for how plants below the canopy use nutrients? Does it matter to the nitrogen cycle that wild tapirs might leave the forest to forage in these soybean fields? These are observations or questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not been tromping around this landscape collecting data in croplands and their adjacent primary forests.

A Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) browsing in a soybean field in Mato Grosso, Brazil Credit: Christine S. O’Connell

A Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) browsing in a soybean field in Mato Grosso, Brazil
Photo: Christine S. O’Connell

When it comes to the environmental impacts of intensified — and efficient — Amazonian croplands, the verdict is still out. But exploring those impacts is exciting because it allows us to learn more about the nitrogen cycle in the context of an actively changing socio-environmental context. The agricultural frontier of the eastern Amazon is a dynamic system that on first glance is following the trajectory of the intensification of American farms — but in fact is forging its own path to land use efficiency. The ecological and farming conditions are different and we hypothesize that the environmental impacts will also be different. Just how different remains to be seen.

Banner photo: Christine S. O’Connell. Intensified croplands that grow commodities such as soybeans and maize are becoming more common in the eastern Amazon; here, primary Amazon forest exists meters away from high-productivity agricultural fields.

Christine O’Connell is a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and a research fellow with the Global Landscapes Initiative. She uses ecosystem ecology to ask questions about tropical ecosystems on a changing planet when not riding her bike or scrambling around outside.

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Estar en el Prairie http://environment.umn.edu/event/estar-en-el-prairie/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/estar-en-el-prairie/#comments Tue, 17 Jun 2014 19:14:01 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=3016 Imagine yourself living in a foreign country where the native language is different from your own. Perhaps you have relocated with your family, or maybe your family is thousands of miles away and most people are strangers to you. What would you say about yourself to the people in this new country or to your family far away?

Dozens of Latino immigrants to western Minnesota are being asked this very question — and invited to display that message to the world.

Estar en el Prairie,” the current installation in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space, is a montage of immigrants photographed in their work,  home or school environment, holding a written message about themselves and their lives.

“I’m happy to experience a new world and meet people with their own universes,” and “Far from home with new horizons” are two of the messages. One newcomer chose to write that he prefers working in Minnesota to California.

The project was led by students at the University of Minnesota Morris. Come see the images and the stories they have to tell now through the end of summer.

Commons Meeting & Art Space
R350 Learning & Environmental Sciences Building
1954 Buford Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108

Directions >>

Photo: Nic McPhee

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Acara teams make Minnesota Cup semifinals http://environment.umn.edu/business/acara-teams-make-minnesota-cup-semifinals/ http://environment.umn.edu/business/acara-teams-make-minnesota-cup-semifinals/#comments Thu, 12 Jun 2014 14:21:32 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=2989 Four teams with roots in the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program have advanced to the semifinals in the 10th annual Minnesota Cup, the state’s largest venture competition.

Acara is a social entrepreneurship program that helps University of Minnesota students develop impact ventures that address societal and environmental challenges through courses, workshops and field experiences.

The four Acara-based social ventures were chosen from a pool of 1,300 and will be competing against 66 other teams for up to $30,000 in seed money for their start-ups. The ventures are:

  • MyRain – supplies drip irrigation systems to small-plot farmers in India
  • Pragati Palms – markets sustainably sourced Indian artisan crafts
  • Mighty Axe – grows Minnesota hops for local brewers
  • BDW Technologies –  is instituting a process for genetically engineering probiotic bacteria to counteract infection in farm animals.

In addition, IonE managing director and chief operating officer Lewis Gilbert has been advising another finalist, Kate Thompson of Ground Truth Collaborative.

Learn more about the Minnesota Cup and the semifinalists here.

Photo: Matthew Wildenauer

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Tropic of Twin Cities http://environment.umn.edu/event/tropic-of-twin-cities/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/tropic-of-twin-cities/#comments Tue, 10 Jun 2014 21:23:46 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=2954 For many Minnesotans, “tropical” connotes vacation, beaches, pineapples and suntans. With the help of an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network (TC-Tropics for short) hopes to expand this view to include the great diversity of tropical environments beyond the beach.

Why the Tropics?

Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area of the earth surrounding the equator. The tropics contain the greatest levels of biodiversity in the world, including charismatic animals such as the orangutan and numerous species that have not yet been discovered by humans. Equatorial regions are home to beautiful coral reefs, forests that are critically important to global climate, and billions of people who live in remote rural areas, cities and everywhere in between. In other words, the tropics are a varied and vital part of the planet.

Despite residing more than a thousand miles away from the nearest tropical region (Mexico), plenty of tropical enthusiasts populate the Twin Cities. These include people who work at not-for-profit organizations, businesses that source products from tropical farms or academic institutions, as well as individuals who are from or feel a strong connection to the tropics. A common theme among such individuals is their recognition of the many challenges, such as deforestation and rapid urban development, faced by tropical environments.

TC-Tropics was founded in order to bring these people and organizations together. The group aims to foster connections and networking in an atmosphere where ideas and collaborations surrounding tropical environments flow freely. TC-Tropics provides a venue in which tropics-specific projects are developed, funding sources are identified and ideas are shared. It’s modeled on the Bay Area Tropical Forest Network, a group in the San Francisco Bay Area broadly interested in tropical forest conservation and ecology.

Tropical Feature: Dry Forests

In 2014, TC-Tropics is hosting monthly meetings all over the Twin Cities. At the April event, hosted at the Institute on the Environment, Maga Gei, a University of Minnesota doctoral candidate, discussed her research in the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica.

One of the most endangered tropical ecosystems is tropical dry forest, such as the Atlantic Forest on the coast of Brazil. Unlike their lush, green and humid forest cousins, tropical dry forests are often spiny, hot and, during parts of the year, very dry. These attributes make dry forests very suitable for agriculture, and many tropical dry forests have already been converted to croplands or pasture.

Gei told us that most of the world’s nitrogen fixation — the process by which plants gather nitrogen from the air and use it to support growth — occurs in the tropics. She is doing experiments in Costa Rica to understand how trees tune nitrogen fixation to available resources such as light. If you are interested in learning more about her work, you can check out Gei’s website.

Upcoming Events

During the summer months, TC-Tropics events will be relaxed happy hours for networking and conversation. The next get-together is June 17 at Republic 7 Corners at 5 pm. Check the TC-Tropics website for upcoming July and August events.

Starting in Fall 2014, TC-Tropics will feature discussions with some amazing scholars and practitioners who have worked extensively in tropical regions. William Moseley, a geography professor at Macalester, will be talking on Thurs., Sept. 11. Jahi Chappell, director of agroecology and agriculture policy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, will be joining us Nov. 11 to discuss the need for action, ethics and values in ecology, with examples from food systems in the tropics.

If you are interested in speaking at a TC-Tropics gathering, hosting an event or suggesting a speaker, please email twincitiestropics@gmail.com with your idea!

For more information about the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network, please visit our website.

 

When not researching how to improve the sustainability of tropical agriculture as a post-doc at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, you can find Kimberly running around a lake, learning to speak Portuguese or dancing Lindy Hop.

Photo: Robert Pittman (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Four new Project Grants awarded http://environment.umn.edu/news/four-new-project-grants-awarded/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/four-new-project-grants-awarded/#comments Mon, 09 Jun 2014 19:23:45 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=2939 Congratulations to the four latest recipients of Institute on the Environment Project Grants! IonE Project Grants (formerly known as Discovery Grants) help highly innovative, world-class research activities get off the ground with a one-time investment of venture capital funding. The new recipients for fiscal year 2014 are:

Climate, Conflict and Displacement: Shifting Patterns in Kenyan Pastoral Communities

Project Leads: Cheryl Robertson (School of Nursing), Paul Porter (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences), Innocent Rwego (School of Public Health) and Fred Rose (Institute on the Environment)

This project will conduct a focused study to better understand the human experience of climate variability, conflict and displacement due to climate change. It will also build multidisciplinary academic and multisectoral partnerships to develop a program that can improve the health and resilience of climate-displaced communities.

Releasing the Power of Nature for Cleaning Pollutants in Drinking Water

Project Leads: Alptekin Aksan (College of Science and Engineering) and Larry Wackett (College of Biological Sciences)

This collaboration between industry, academia and regulating federal, state and multinational agencies aims to develop a low-cost, low-energy-demand self-sustained bioremediation system that can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world.

Food System Design for Resilient Population Health: The Minnesota Model

Project Lead: Matteo Convertino (School of Public Health)

This project will apply a comprehensive approach to designing an integrated, transdisciplinary food transportation system that intends to build resilience into the food web by providing dynamical indication over time of critical pathways, trade suggestions, disease outbreak locations, stakeholder connectivity needs, local investigation needs and real-time updates.

Sustainable Cities: Building an Integrative Research Network to Incorporate Natural Capital Into Design of Urban Systems     

Project Leads: Sarah Hobbie (College of Biological Sciences), Bonnie Keeler (Institute on the Environment) and Stephen Polasky (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences)

The goal of this project is to advance understanding of the role of green infrastructure in sustainable cities and position the University of Minnesota as a leader in the field of urban sustainability and environmental science. The project aims to stimulate new collaborative research on urban ecosystem services through short-term, high-impact research activities; identify key knowledge gaps and barriers to sustainability and develop proposals to address those gaps; and support integration of research and practice through partnerships, opportunities and stakeholder engagement.

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Lewis Gilbert named interim director http://environment.umn.edu/general/lewis-gilbert-named-interim-director/ http://environment.umn.edu/general/lewis-gilbert-named-interim-director/#comments Wed, 04 Jun 2014 14:52:51 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=2913 In April, we announced that IonE director Jonathan Foley will be departing the University of Minnesota Aug. 15 to take a new position with the California Academy of Sciences. Under Foley’s leadership, IonE has grown to be a prominent, internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, and the University intends to uphold those high standards as senior leaders work to define IonE’s future direction and leadership.

To guide IonE through this transition, Vice President for Research Brian Herman has appointed Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s current managing director and chief operating officer, as interim director. Gilbert joined IonE in 2011, bringing with him extensive experience in academic entrepreneurship and in the design, implementation and management of complex interdisciplinary activities in large research universities. Among other accomplishments, Gilbert was one of the key architects in the creation of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Gilbert will assume leadership of IonE Aug. 15.

Additionally, the Office of the Vice President for Research has appointed a committee to lead a broad, consultative process that will result in a set of recommendations and a strategy for IonE going forward. As part of that process, the committee will consult widely with both internal and external stakeholders to determine the right path forward. Once the committee has made its recommendations, a search committee will be established to develop the profile and search process for the director position. The vice president for research hopes to have the new management structure in place by next summer.

Your input and support will continue to be invaluable going forward as the University establishes a firm foundation and launching pad for the future of IonE.

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Ellen Anderson named executive director of energy lab http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/ellen-anderson-to-head-new-energy-transition-lab/ http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/ellen-anderson-to-head-new-energy-transition-lab/#comments Tue, 27 May 2014 19:54:54 +0000 http://environment.umn.edu/?p=2754

Our energy system is in the midst of a major transition. Our power sources are shifting from coal to more natural gas and renewables. We need to upgrade our aging grid to accommodate those new sources. As our grid becomes “smarter,” we need it to be responsive and reliable. And new greenhouse gas emissions regulations and the need to make our grid resilient as the climate changes add further complexities.

This energy transition has the potential to spark innovation in business and the public sector, leading to new jobs and better outcomes for the community and our environment. Reaching that potential requires strong leadership. To provide that leadership, the University of Minnesota is launching the Energy Transition Lab with former state senator Ellen Anderson (J.D. ’86), senior advisor on energy and environment to Governor Dayton, as its inaugural executive director.

A strategic initiative of the University’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Law School, the Energy Transition Lab will bring together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways, institutions and regulations. As executive director, Anderson will work with the lab’s faculty director, Law School professor Hari Osofsky, to build collaborations, establish and monitor projects, and develop the lab into a focal point for innovative solutions.

“Ellen Anderson has been a leader in Minnesota’s energy transition for over two decades, and I cannot imagine someone more qualified to serve as the Energy Transition Lab’s inaugural executive director and help this lab make a major impact,” Osofsky said. “Her experience as a legislator crafting our key renewable energy legislation, as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission regulating energy in the state and as a senior advisor to Governor Dayton on these issues will be invaluable to this new initiative.”

“We need the University of Minnesota’s great researchers and thought leaders to help our energy system transition to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Anderson said. “I am thrilled to lead this critical endeavor, and look forward to working with the public, private and community sectors to catalyze innovative solutions.”

The Energy Transition Lab will focus on four core strategies: boosting energy efficiency; increasing use of clean, renewable energy sources; improving systems that move energy to where it’s needed; and advancing energy and environmental justice. The lab will address these by taking on projects in partnership with community leaders, moving from problem to tangible solution through consultations, research, public meetings, and outreach initiatives. An annual conference will bring together business, public policy and thought leaders to report on progress and identify next steps—which could include other high-impact activities. Specific products will include policy reports, legislative testimony, model legislation and regulations, as well as valuable learning opportunities for students, who will participate in shaping solutions through class activities and capstone projects. Public events will build awareness of the energy transition and of the lab’s activities.

According to Osofsky, the Energy Transition Lab aims to become the “go-to” place for experts and leaders beyond the University to work with University faculty, students and staff toward solutions to energy challenges.

“We have already begun the process of collaborating with key leaders in business, government and non-governmental organizations to develop projects that will help advance the energy transition in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, nationally and internationally,” Osofsky said. “We are excited to continue work with these and other leaders to make the Energy Transition Lab’s efforts as helpful as possible. We are aiming to find the leverage points in which our work can fill a gap and make a difference in important law and policy areas.”

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Biofuels and the fiction of the average farm http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/biofuels-and-the-fiction-of-the-average-farm/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/biofuels-and-the-fiction-of-the-average-farm/#comments Fri, 16 May 2014 15:29:56 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2702 Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?

I say “obvious” because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a “bad idea” because of corn’s apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

To answer the question, researchers at the U’s Institute on the Environment, supported by an Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment grant, asked farmers around the Gevo facility about everything they do up to and including delivery of their grain to the plant gate. We then used this information to calculate the carbon footprint of a kilogram of corn coming from their farms.The average corn farmer, it turns out, is no more real than the average family of 2.5 children. Thirty or so farmers gave us enough detail to assess their carbon footprints. It turns out they are from Lake Wobegon – all “above average” – with carbon footprints far smaller than the U.S. average.

More interesting is how different these individual farms are from each other. The best performing farmers (that is, the lowest carbon footprint farms) deliver corn with less than one-fifth the carbon footprint that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others typically assume for average U.S. corn. The most carbon-intensive farms come in somewhere close to the U.S. average. Indeed, the best farm we found was achieving a net sequestration of carbon in its fields.
Gevo per kg comparison v5
Why are they so different? An analysis of our data tells us that farmers at the low end of the scale are doing a few very important things:

  1. They have integrated animals and animal manure into their production systems, allowing them to avoid fossil energy-intensive fertilizers.
  2. They are applying conservation tillage practices that help to build up organic carbon in the soil — leading to healthier soils and fields that are carbon sinks instead of carbon sources.
  3. Many of the farmers who are not using animal manure to reduce their fertilizer use are being much more careful about how much fertilizer they apply. In fact, the farmers with large carbon footprints are using up to twice as much fertilizer as they need to be.

So, what can we learn from all this? For one thing, averages can be misleading — and discouraging. Regulators should be finding ways to encourage farmers to perform like the best farmers, rather than discouraging the best farmers by lumping them all together as average farmers. In a follow-up study released by Colorado State University, researchers have taken a deeper dive into understanding just how much more this cohort of farmers could reduce their carbon footprint by combining the strategies identified in the IonE study.

In the meantime, there are many opportunities for low-carbon biofuels that don’t require massive investments in new technology. We may need those new technologies in the long run, but we can start on the path toward low carbon fuels by simply learning from the best of the best.

John Sheehan was Biofuels Program coordinator at the Institute on the Environment at the time of the study. Currently he is the systems analyst in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University.

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Frontiers: Understanding urban eutrophication http://environment.umn.edu/event/understanding-urban-eutrophication/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/understanding-urban-eutrophication/#comments Wed, 14 May 2014 18:30:08 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2508 When you think about the primary sources of water pollution, you probably imagine a factory pipe or perhaps massive livestock farms. But would you believe that your quiet neighborhood could be degrading water quality locally and downstream?

Portrait: Sarah HobbieThat was the topic of the season finale of Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture series on Wednesday, May 7, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “A Watershed Approach to Understanding Urban Eutrophication,” Sarah Hobbie, an IonE resident fellow and professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, discussed how nutrients from lawns, pets and boulevard trees contribute to excessive algal growth in urban water bodies.

“We get a lot of benefits from the lakes that we have here in the Twin Cities: recreation, aesthetics, lakes support biodiversity, among other services,” Hobbie said. “But our lakes are widely impaired by a process that we call eutrophication, which is overabundant algal growth that occurs because of excessive inputs of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.”

So what are the sources of those nutrients in urban watersheds? According to Hobbie, biological fixation of nitrogen, imported nutrients from pet waste or fertilizer and atmospheric deposition can all contribute to nutrients in residential neighborhoods.

During rain or snowmelt, the nutrients on these landscapes runoff into local water bodies. This problem is exceptionally bad in urban areas, given how the landscapes were developed.

“In an urban watershed, we’ve constructed the landscape in order to move water very quickly from land to downstream because we don’t want the landscape to flood,” she said. “We have a lot of impervious surface, so the landscape doesn’t drain very well. So we want to get that water off of our impervious surface to prevent flooding and move it downstream. We’ve created a very dense drainage network in our urban landscapes.”

Managing nutrient runoff in urban areas is challenging, but strides are being made by placing a restriction on phosphorus fertilizers and implementing street sweeping programs to remove nutrients from the landscape before they runoff. Because different tree species are influenced uniquely by seasonal variations in climate finding an optimal time for street sweeping can be challenging.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing is trying to gather more data on how trees vary in their phenology of both the flower drop in the spring, and seed drop and also in litterfall,” Hobbie said. “So we’ve established a citizen science monitoring network and this was actually done with an IonE mini grant.

“So this is linked into the National Phenology Network if you’re familiar with that but we call it the Minnesota Phenology Network and we have about 30 citizen scientists who monitor phenology of street trees and submit their data to this public database through their smartphones or their computers.”

The Minnesota Phenology Network isn’t the only way citizens can have an impact. The nutrient sources from urban landscapes are typically the result of individual decisions. While this makes the sources difficult to control, it also provides an opportunity for homeowners to improve water quality with their everyday actions.

“If we think of where nutrients are coming from that ultimately come into this landscape, they’re coming from fertilizer, they’re coming from pets, they’re coming from atmospheric deposition which is arising from combustion of fossil fuels,” she said. “And if you think about all of these sources of nutrients, they are controlled by individual household decisions. So if we want to try to manage nutrient inputs to these watersheds, we need to think about how we can influence household decisions.”

Watch Hobbie’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.

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Accolades for Acara http://environment.umn.edu/design/accolades-for-acara/ http://environment.umn.edu/design/accolades-for-acara/#comments Wed, 14 May 2014 18:24:22 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2641 With its innovative work to encourage impact entrepreneurship around the world,we’ve always had a hunch the Acara program is something special. That hunch got some solid affirmation recently when Acara won the C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives (III Award) from the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. The award recognizes faculty and staff who internationalize their work or the work of their department. The recipients receive an award trophy and a $2,500 professional development or program assistance stipend.

acara group photo

Lewis Gilbert, Brian Bell and Fred Rose of Acara accept the award, with C. Eugene Allen

“The team that launched the idea of Acara at the University has energized students and faculty around creative solutions to basic problems. Students step out of the classroom into the laboratory that is society, and learn how to put theory into action. Students work across culture and across disciplines in responding to social concerns that affect people’s most basic needs. That work combines creativity with practicality and theory with practice, providing students with the confidence that they can contribute to positive change,” says Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean of international programs.

acara awardAcara sets educational and impact goals to:

  • educate and inspire the next generation of leaders
  • bring real global challenges into the classroom, requiring academic skills plus teamwork, customer interaction and research, multicultural understanding, effective communication and real-world deliverables
  • develop a like-minded network of international university partners
  • incubate the best ideas and the best students beyond the classroom in the real world
  • foster an ecosystem of corporate and foundation partners, impact investors, venture incubators and professional mentors to support student venture to become real and viable businesses.

Acara’s primary programs include the Acara Challenge, a yearly impact venture plan competition for University of Minnesota student social entrepreneurs focused on addressing grand challenges in the U.S. and globally, as well as international venture design workshops, Minnesota venture design workshops, monthly Acara impact venture reviews, and ongoing incubation of University social entrepreneurs. While undergraduate and graduate students at the University are the core participants in Acara’s programs, the programs also work with students from universities in India and East Africa.

The III Award is named for C. Eugene Allen, former University of Minnesota Provost for Professional Studies, dean of agriculture, and associate vice president for the Office of International Programs (predecessor to the GPS Alliance).

Read more about the award on the GPS Alliance website.

Award photos courtesy of GPS Alliance

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Leaders are made, not born http://environment.umn.edu/news/leaders-are-made-not-born/ http://environment.umn.edu/news/leaders-are-made-not-born/#comments Thu, 08 May 2014 18:12:21 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2619 “Leaders aren’t born, they are made,” said revered football coach Vince Lombardi. That’s the guiding principle behind the Boreas Leadership Program, a strategic initiative of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Boreas offers leadership development opportunities to graduate, professional and postdoctoral students from all University colleges.

Boreas seeks to develop the next generation of social and environmental leaders — those who will tackle the tough challenges facing the world today — through skills workshops, networking and mentoring events (the weekly Boreas Booyah!), and participation on a student advisory board.

“Boreas programming complements a traditional graduate education and helps develop the kinds of leaders we need in the transition to a more sustainable world. Boreas students move beyond the University as stronger communicators and better-networked leaders ready to jump into making an impact,” says Boreas program director Kate Knuth. “It’s exciting to see what they’re up to and where they’re going.”

We recently caught up with a couple of busy Boreas alums to see how they are putting their experiences into practice. John Bussey graduated from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences in spring 2013; Julia Eagles is completing her master’s degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

John Bussey

John Bussey
Program Director
YMCA Camp St. Croix

What did you do at the U and what are you doing now?

I studied conflict around environmental choices, researched the relationship between the U.S. Forest Service and tribal groups, and assisted in teaching a few environment-related classes. I loved it.

Service on the student advisory team of IonE’s Boreas Leadership Program was a breath of fresh air through much of my second year. It gave me an outlet for my creative energies and kept the academic and nonacademic firmly joined in my mind. Really, it’s a wonderful program.

I’m now a program director for YMCA Camp St. Croix, where I manage a staff of 15 program coordinators and 60 counselors who work their butts off in the summer to provide safe, fun, and enriching weeklong programs for kids and teens in the woods south of Hudson. I am having so much fun.

How did Boreas prepare you to make the transition to your current leadership role?

A year ago, in the spring of 2013, I and a few others on the Boreas student advisory team helped put together a nonprofit board service workshop. It went wonderfully; we brought in three leaders from the nonprofit community to share their perspectives with a dozen or two Boreas students. It was just weeks after that event that I was asked to join the community board of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, the camp where I had guided wilderness trips for many years. While I can’t say for certain that planning the workshop got me the spot on Widjiwagan’s board, service there certainly set me apart as I applied for my current role.

Was there a Boreas experience that gave you an “aha” moment?

I remember Mark Tercek, the leader of The Nature Conservancy, asking us why there were no MBAs at a Boreas networking event — he jokingly asked if they all got lost on the way over. Of course the point was that individuals with business skills are increasingly important in the efforts to solve complex environmental problems. That moment plays in my head still and was the first of several experiences that has me on the brink of pursuing business school.

I also feel that I learned a ton from getting to know Kate Knuth. She so genuinely cares about people and about the work that she is doing. I can’t imagine a better mentor for sustainability-minded graduate students trying to figure out how to make an impact in the world.

Can you give an example of how you use what you learned at Boreas in your current work?

Incredibly, just last week I spent 15 minutes drawing out a systems map related to staffing at St. Croix, a skill that I learned through a Boreas workshop, “Systems Thinking & Tools.” I can’t say I remembered all the correct labels and I probably should have used more double arrows, but the process certainly helped me clarify my thoughts.

Julia Eagles

Julia Eagles
Research Assistant
City of Minneapolis

What are you doing inside and outside of academia?

I’m a master of public policy student at the Humphrey School, with a minor in science, technology and environmental policy, and will be finishing up my program in the next couple of weeks (graduate is May 18!). I also work for the City of Minneapolis in the Sustainability Office and as a smart grid policy research assistant with professor Elizabeth Wilson.

I got involved with the Boreas Environmental Leadership program at Institute on the Environment in my first semester as an opportunity to connect with students from other departments at the University, develop tangible skills for work in the environmental field, get exposure to leadership and professional development opportunities, enjoy networking opportunities with environmental professionals working in the field, and have an excuse to visit the pastoral St. Paul campus (plus the delicious food and drink at the networking events doesn’t hurt!).

How did Boreas prepare you to make the transition to your current leadership role?

The Boreas program has given me some excellent skills for my current positions — both as a research assistant and in the City of Minneapolis Sustainability Office. The key theme throughout the Boreas workshops I participated in was communications — how to effectively communicate the message of your research or your work to a general audience. It started with [IonE Communications Director] Todd Ruebold’s “Building Better Presentations” workshop, which changed the whole way I think about PowerPoint, and continued with “Interacting With the Media” and “Telling Your Story.” Being able to put together an effective (and visual — no bullet points!) PowerPoint, press release, poster presentation or policy brief has served me again and again in my work. Then being able to talk about it in a way that’s compelling and accessible is the icing on the cake.

Which Boreas event gave you the “aha” moment?

As I said, “Building Better Presentations” was a game-changer for me. It turned me into a total PowerPoint snob, but has also made me the person my colleagues and classmates turn to for presentation design advice. Whenever I start a presentation now, my process is to go analog — to sketch out my main points and supporting visuals, and then go to the computer to lay it out. It’s changed the whole way I think about presentations and comes in handy all the time in my work.

Another slightly less exciting skill I gained was the nuts and bolts of meeting planning in the “Meetings that Matter” workshop. We spend so much time in meetings for work and school, and yet spend very little time preparing for those meetings to make them effective. Taking the time to sketch out an agenda, outcomes and goals ahead of time has made me much more effective in the time I spend in meetings.

Can you give an example of how you use what you learned at Boreas in your current work?

Last spring I was working with the Environmental Quality Board at the State of Minnesota, a board consisting of five citizens and the heads of nine state agencies that shape shared priorities for Minnesota’s environment and development. I was involved in helping to plan and create the program for the Minnesota Environmental Congress in March of 2013. One of my tasks was designing the presentation summarizing the outreach and public participation leading up to the congress, which was presented by Kate Knuth, who was the newest Environmental Quality Board citizen member at the time. That process gave me a chance to put my presentation skills to work, to tell the story of what citizens around Minnesota were saying about environmental issues, in a way that combined quantitative and qualitative data and was visually compelling. Kate and I got to work together on the design and it came together really nicely (and she of course presented it like a rock star!), thanks in large part to the skills I learned in Boreas.

My co-workers at the city regularly ask me to put together presentations for them, which gives me a chance to learn a variety of subject matter topics and practice visualizing them effectively. Most recently I put together a presentation for the Community Environmental Advisory Commission and the Minneapolis City Council Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee on setting a long-term carbon reduction goal for Minneapolis. It resulted in the council setting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Banner photo by somebody_ (Flickr | Creative Commons); profile photos courtesy of John Bussey and Julia Eagles.

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Frontiers: Adventures in carbon reduction http://environment.umn.edu/event/adventures-on-the-frontiers-of-carbon-reduction/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/adventures-on-the-frontiers-of-carbon-reduction/#comments Wed, 07 May 2014 18:00:07 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2473 Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed for reductions in carbon emissions. Now, it seems the era of carbon regulation may be upon us.

Portrait: J. Drake HamiltonBut implementing these complex regulations is complicated and takes place at both the federal and state levels. This was the topic of Fresh Energy science policy director J. Drake Hamilton’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Wednesday, April 30 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Adventures on the Frontiers of Carbon Reduction,” Hamilton emphasized the need to educate the public on new and existing policies impacting carbon emissions for broader public involvement.

“As we go into this new world and some of the adventures of this new world of carbon regulation that has not happened before, everyone will need more of a working knowledge about what has already happened and what is possible, but we’ll need more people talking about these issues to policymakers, to opinion-leaders, and to their colleagues,” she said. “We will need much more engagement in order to be successful.”

A proposed rule expected to be issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency next month is bringing the issue of carbon regulation to the forefront. The regulation will impact existing power plants and is expected to be finalized after a year-long public comment period. By June 2016, states will need to develop implementation plans to allow them to meet the new standard.

Carbon reductions at the state level is where Minnesota’s policies surrounding energy have laid a solid foundation, according to Hamilton.

“We have a very strong base in Minnesota and in many other states in that in determining our mix of electricity we use least cost principles, and there have been very recent examples in Minnesota of how–based on just economics–wind power and solar energy have come out ahead of all other competitors,” she said. “In addition, Minnesota utilities or regulators or a combination thereof have found ways that we can retire and replace, so far, 10 coal burning units in Minnesota and those retirements and replacements are happening in every region of the state of Minnesota. So some of it is already happening because of good energy policy that is driving down carbon emissions and we need to move faster and further there.”

In order to make progress toward carbon reduction goals, Hamilton believes a collaborative approach bringing together multiple interests is essential.

“At Fresh Energy and with many of the partners we work with, we don’t think about people as opponents on an issue,” Hamilton said. “We think there is a great deal in the way of shared core values and shared world views. There are certainly divergences in world views, but I think that’s what makes life interesting and I think that means that we may need more people coming to the table as stakeholders to talk about how Minnesota is going to move forward on implementing carbon reductions because we will get a better outcome.”

To say that reducing carbon emissions is going to be a challenge is an understatement, but Minnesota is well-situated to be a leader in the field. Most importantly, it’s imperative not to become overwhelmed by the first-ever limits on carbon emissions from power plants. Inaction simply is not an option, according to Hamilton.

“When you look around at your future kids and grandkids and you think about what we knew about climate change, its impacts, what the world scientists were saying we needed to do right away and those future kids and grandkids ask you what you did back in 2014, we need to tell them we did everything we could to fight climate change,” she said. “And Fresh Energy goes on from there. We need to tell them we did everything we could to fight climate change, and it worked.” 

Watch Hamilton’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.

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Paddle forward: Mississippi River http://environment.umn.edu/water/paddle-forward-mississippi-river/ http://environment.umn.edu/water/paddle-forward-mississippi-river/#comments Wed, 07 May 2014 17:56:30 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2614 Last fall, 10 other people and I paddled more than 2,000 miles in canoes. Our trip was called Paddle Forward, and we were on a mission to paddle the length of the Mississippi River. I’ve been paddling for years but mostly in wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters. While I love these places and enjoy the quiet time alone in nature, recreating on local waterways brings a new appreciation to the place you live.

I spent the majority of college learning about environmental issues surrounding climate change, such as energy usage, water depletion, resource extraction and decreases in biodiversity. Alone, secluded in serene wilderness, you are less likely to think about difficult climate issues. However, while paddling a river that more than 50 cities depend on for daily water supply, you can’t escape noticing the effects humans have on the fourth largest watershed in the world.

I became interested in sustainability issues after I took an off-campus course from HECUA that opened my eyes to the many environmental challenges we face today. After completing the HECUA course, I immediately signed up for the sustainability studies minor, housed at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, to dive even deeper into the complexity of these issues. The minor furthered my knowledge on sustainability topics and provided the necessary tools to think critically about complex environmental systems. I also thrived in the experiential learning environment provided by the minor. I graduated in 2012 from the College of Food Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences with a B.S. in environmental science and policy management.

Big ShipsPaddle Forward was part of a pilot program for Wild River Academy, a Twin Cities non-profit dedicated to watershed education. The eleven of us in five 15 to 16 foot canoes accomplished three goals. First, we completed the paddle from Bemidji, Minnesota (we couldn’t start at the headwaters because of low water) to New Orleans, Louisiana. Second, while paddling we connected with organizations, individuals, and community members to learn about how they relate to the river and filmed these conversations to be used in a documentary about our experience. Finally, using an interactive website, we shared these stories with over 40 K-12 schools across the country, engaging them in adventure learning educational programming. The result was 70 days of intense interactions with everything Mississippi River.

Paddling the river, I experienced the diversity of industry, people, species and communities that rely on the watershed. I felt how warm the water feels after paddling past a nuclear plant, saw the runoff from pipes connecting drain tiles flowing into the river, and heard stories from people struggling to maintain livelihoods in dying river towns. I also saw pure kindness in strangers who displayed radical hospitality to 11 smelly river rats, encountered countless numbers of people working to ensure the river continues to be integrated in their community, and wildlife thriving due to conservation efforts. I ultimately came to appreciate the complexity of the great Mississippi watershed and the potential to share its importance with others.

It wasn’t until we almost reached Baton Rouge that I truly understood the significance of the waterway I was paddling. We rounded a corner and there it was: the last bridge before the first major port on the Mississippi River. After we passed under the bridge, there were huge ocean-going ships docked and anchored on the river. They made barge tows look like bathtub toys and our fleet of small canoes look like ants on a sidewalk. I could see them being loaded and unloaded with oil, sand, natural gas, corn, soybeans and other commodities to be delivered around the world. I paddled passed a ship and read on the side that its home port was in China. Later, I passed another boat from Russia. Some ships’ captains had southern accents so thick we couldn’t really understand them. It was at this moment that I understood the power of the Mississippi River: It connects me, I mean us, everyone, to the rest of the world. It deserves for us to respect and appreciate its utility and beauty.

Before & AfterCurrently, the Wild River Academy Team (myself included) manages and operates two programs. The first is a multiday summer educational program of canoe trips for junior high and high school students. The second is Paddle Forward. Each year we will pick a different river to explore in the Mississippi River watershed and complete a similar adventure learning program, connecting K-12 classrooms to our paddle. This fall we will start at the headwaters of the Chicago River and end our trip at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Every time I’m near the Mississippi River, my heart will skip a beat or a tear will roll down my face as I think about the trip. I sometimes look around at the people walking by and keep myself from yelling, “do you know how incredible this river is?”  Instead, I just keep moving with a big bright smile on my face and reflect about my experience: the people I met, the conversations I had in the boats with the other paddlers, the students who followed our blog, and the restorative power of my paddle dipping into the water and pulling me gently forward down the Mississippi River.

Elizabeth Just is a teaching assistant for the sustainability studies minor capstone course at the University of Minnesota and the Paddle Forward program coordinator. She loves (almost) everything outdoors and will blow off all commitments to throw a Frisbee with friends.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Just. Top to bottom: starting off in Bemidji; paddling passed oceangoing vessels in Lousiana; the author before and after.

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Go Minnesota NatCap! http://environment.umn.edu/economics/go-minnesota-natcap/ http://environment.umn.edu/economics/go-minnesota-natcap/#comments Fri, 02 May 2014 16:59:33 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2525 Policy makers, land managers, and other stakeholders confront a dizzying array of environmental decisions. How do we best manage our natural resources? Where should we invest in conservation? Do we need stricter regulation of development or industry?

The Natural Capital Project, a core program of the Institute on the Environment, develops innovative tools and approaches to inform these important questions. Starting this year, the Minnesota team will add three full-time research positions — a lead scientist, an ecologist and an economist. The growing NatCap presence at IonE will enhance the program’s ability to meet increasing demand for data and tools that quantify the values of natural capital.

What is Natural Capital?
How we manage our environment can directly or indirectly affect our stock of natural capital, the ecosystems (e.g., forests, grasslands, wetlands) and natural processes that provide valuable goods and services to people. We know these ecosystem services — things like clean air and water or an aesthetically pleasing landscape — are valuable. But how valuable? And how can we capture the values of nature in decisions about resource management, conservation and environmental regulations?

One thing is clear: the conventional market-based tools we use to value goods like corn, timber and houses don’t translate well to public goods like clean air, bird-watching or beautiful views. Special methods are needed that look beyond markets to estimate the true value of these goods and services to society, and new types of institutions are required to manage natural capital resources.

A Global Partnership
TanzaniaThe Natural Capital Project was formed, in part, to address these challenges. The founders of NatCap, including Regents Professor and IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, recognized a growing demand for information on the value of nature’s benefits to inform decisions. A partnership was formed among Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and two of the world’s largest conservation organizations, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. The goal of the partnership was to bring together leading natural scientists and economists to develop user-friendly tools and approaches that could inform conservation and development decisions worldwide. Since its founding in 2006, NatCap has informed decisions in more than 20 global projects — guiding investments in water security in Latin America, in coastal protection in the Gulf of Mexico, in food security and economic diversification in Belize, and in conservation and land-use planning in China.

The Natural Capital Project has always had strong ties to the University of Minnesota. Polasky continues to co-direct the project. U of M researchers designed and coded many of the early ecosystem service models that now make-up the software suite called InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs).Minnesota data have been used in statewide ecosystem services assessments (see Polasky et al. 2011, and Kovacs et al. 2013), including a study estimating the value of the state’s public lands.

This diagram illustrates a typical workflow for a NatCap project using the biophysical and economic models in InVEST.

InVEST workflow

The scope of the analysis is driven by the needs of stakeholders. Potential actions or decisions related to changes in natural capital or land use are translated into scenarios. The scenarios are run through multiple InVEST models to produce estimates of ecosystem services. Outputs of the models can be presented either in biophysical terms (tons of carbon, sediment, or nitrogen) or in economic terms (social costs of carbon, avoided treatment costs, or lost recreation value). Models are run with frequent interaction between scientists and stakeholders to co-produce knowledge and build capacity for future work within our partners and clients. The InVEST software suite currently includes 16 models that can be used to quantify the ecosystem services provided by both terrestrial and marine systems.

The Minnesota-based NatCap team continues to build on its strengths in model development and testing, including new approaches for the economic valuation of ecosystem services, and exciting technological advancements such as agent-based simulation models and spatial optimization tools. We are applying these innovations to estimate the social costs of nitrogen pollution in Minnesota, quantify the value of forests in Tanzania, design payment for ecosystem services programs in China, and better target agricultural expansion and conservation in Latin America.

The challenges associated with making informed environmental decisions remain. However, the Natural Capital Project, guided by U of M researchers, is making a serious impact in this space, both in elevating the recognition of the values of nature, and providing resources and tools to capture those values in decisions. The long-term mission of NatCap is to integrate the values of nature into ALL major decisions affecting the environment to improve both the state of biodiversity and human well-being.

For more information on the Natural Capital Project, visit our website or contact the IonE-based NatCap team:

Steve Polasky, polasky@umn.edu
Bonnie Keeler, keeler@umn.edu
Peter Hawthorne, hawt0010@umn.edu
Justin Johnson, joh07536@umn.edu

Photos – Banner: Upper Yangtze River basin, China, by C.Tam; Woman at sunrise in the foothills of the Uluguru Mountains, Tanzania, by Taylor Ricketts

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Frontiers: Sustainability & corporate social responsibility http://environment.umn.edu/event/sustainability-corporate-social-responsibility/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/sustainability-corporate-social-responsibility/#comments Wed, 30 Apr 2014 18:30:40 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2424 When you think about Scandinavia, you probably think of its cold climate, warm people and high quality of life. But you may want to add “sustainable business model” to that list.

Portrait: Robert StrandRobert Strand, assistant professor of leadership and sustainability at the Copenhagen Business School and director of the Nordic Network for Sustainability, delivered his Frontiers in the Environment lecture about the Scandinavian approach to sustainability in the private sector on April 23 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Scandinavia: Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Strand discussed why large corporations are earning a bad reputation among members of the general public.

“You look at what we’re teaching business school students and what business leaders are essentially going out and doing is saying, ‘I’m going to go and get mine,’” Strand said. “The public picks up on this and sees corporations as going out and getting theirs and maybe not necessarily serving the common good and the well-being of society.”

Strand attributes Scandinavian companies’ sustainability leadership to a business model that emphasizes cooperation over competition. He even provides the example of Swedish fashion giant H&M, who refers to other clothing companies as “industry peers” rather than “competitors.” The different terminology may seem subtle, but it makes a difference.

“This little shift in language is really indicative of a cooperative approach,” he said, “and when we look at some of the greatest challenges that we have, often times we need so-called competitors to come together in pre-competitive spaces and say, ‘What are we going to do about issues of climate change? What are we going to do about issues of child labor?’

“To the degree that companies and the businesspeople within them are using language like ‘competitors,’ it prevents the opportunity for engagement in areas that aren’t competitive. I would argue that child labor and climate change aren’t necessarily issues where we should be in competition but should be things that we come together and discuss.”

Integrating this business model in the United States is challenging, but it’s already beginning in some forward-thinking corporations. The key is to educate the business leaders of tomorrow on this cooperative business approach. To accomplish this, Strand leads a group of MBA students–including some enrolled at University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management–on a trip to Scandinavia.

“A lot of these students are part time MBAs who work with companies in the Twin Cities area like Target, Best Buy, General Mills and the like,” Strand said. “It’s very interesting to see the different perspective those students have when they come back because they see effective cooperation as being the underpinnings of business as opposed to this notion that business is fundamentally about war, about competition.”

So what should other corporations take away from successful Scandinavian companies? According to Strand, the most important lesson is that when it comes to sustainability, teamwork is more effective than cutthroat competition.

“I would argue cooperation between companies and their stakeholders is increasingly necessary for the social and environmental sustainability of the world,” he said. “Sustainability challenges that we all face are simply too big and too urgent for any single actor to effectively address alone.

“I would argue that we need to shift focus from achieving competitive advantage to recognizing that sustainability challenges actually represent opportunities for businesses also, so let’s focus on how do companies try to encourage business students to say, ‘How do you achieve a cooperative advantage?’ This can help to change the conversation and the mindset. And finally, from my experiences I would see that inspiration for effective cooperation may be prosperously drawn from Scandinavia.”

Watch Strand’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.

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50 ways to leave your food http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/50-ways-to-leave-your-food/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/50-ways-to-leave-your-food/#comments Tue, 29 Apr 2014 19:19:30 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2520 Did you know that nearly half the American food supply gets neglected or outright rejected?

Love Letter to Food, the latest video from MinuteEarth, laments the myriad abuses suffered by food because the convenience of wasting it outweighs the cost.

The video is based on a new issue brief by Alex Reich, a graduate research assistant at Institute on the Environment and one of the creators of MinuteEarth, and IonE director Jonathan Foley. Among other things, the brief, Food Loss and Waste in the U.S.: The Science Behind the Supply Chain, reports that roughly 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is never eaten, with much of the waste occurring when edible food is discarded at home or in restaurants and cafeterias.

MinuteEarth offers mini science lessons via YouTube to engage the general public in science and environmental issues.

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Unfair air? http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/unfair-air/ http://environment.umn.edu/energy-2/unfair-air/#comments Fri, 25 Apr 2014 16:21:36 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2511 People of color in the U.S. are exposed to 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide air pollution in the neighborhoods in which they live than are white people, according to new research from the University of Minnesota. The exposure they receive results in approximately 7,000 heart-related deaths per year.

U of M Instititute on the Environment resident fellows Julian Marshall and Dylan Millet and fellow researcher Lara Clark compared U.S. Census data and nitrogen dioxide levels in cities across the country and found that, irrespective of income, nonwhites had higher average exposure to nitrogen dioxide than whites. The findings received extensive coverage in the media this past week.

“The molecule [nitrogen dioxide] is not racist,” said Marshall, responding to a tongue-in-cheek comment from Melissa Harris-Perry on her Sunday, April 20, MSNBC show. “But people do not live in places at random, as people have talked about on your show thus far. On average there are differences in exposure by race.”

Marshall says that because this type of pollution comes from burning fuels, such as gas and diesel from motor vehicles and coal from electricity generation, the way to close the “pollution gap” would be to target emission reductions where people are the most exposed.

Speaking on MSNBC’s NewsNation on Monday, April 21, Marshall said the next step will be to determine why there are large differences between cities.

Julian Marshall is an associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering; Dylan Millet is associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Lara Clark is a CSE doctoral student.

Read more about the study on the U of M homepage in “Groundbreaking Study Finds that People of Color Live in Neighborhoods with More Air Pollution than Whites, and check out this YouTube video abstract of the report. Of course, a Google search will yield many more articles about the study.

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Frontiers: Global capital & disease hot spots http://environment.umn.edu/event/global-capital-and-disease-hot-spots/ http://environment.umn.edu/event/global-capital-and-disease-hot-spots/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:27:51 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2515 Our world is more connected than ever. It’s now easy to live in the United States, buy airfare to Europe, send money to Africa and eat food from Asia. And while this global connectivity comes with a slew of benefits, it also opens the door to the spread of disease and potential for worldwide epidemics.

Portrait: Robert WallaceRobert Wallace, visiting scholar with the Institute for Global Studies, discussed the need to rethink how we define “disease hot spots” from locations where outbreaks originate to global centers of capital that drive disease-causing practices in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture on April 16.

In his talk “Global Capital and Disease Hot Spots,” Wallace presented the concept of One Health, a new public health approach focusing on the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

“The standard One Health approach integrates investigations of wildlife, livestock, and human health in an ecological context,” he said. “The approach convenes medical doctors, veterinarians, and wildlife biologists under the rubric [that] many species at a locale share infectious, chronic and environmental illnesses. The approach is not without precedence. Historically, multiple efforts have been made to connect human and animal health, but the renewed interest appears in part driven by practical matters as by theoretical developments.”

A major driving force of disease is consolidation in the agricultural sector. Livestock farms have grown larger and more confined, making it easy for disease to spread rapidly.

“Profound shifts in stock breeding over the past three decades appear to have selected for new swine and avian influenza which now serve as a growing reservoir of potentially pandemic strains,” Wallace said.

But pointing fingers at a single operation in one part of the world is not sufficient, according to Wallace. Instead, he argues that centers of global capital–places like New York, London, or Hong Kong–along with multinational corporations are funding the agribusiness practices that propagate disease in the first place.

Swine flu (H1N1), one of the most recent and highly-publicized disease outbreaks, provides evidence that large, globally-connected companies may be responsible.

“Every one of H1N1′s genetic segments proved most closely related to influenza circulating among swine together originating on wholly different continents, and that’s a geographic extent in commodity chain no smallholder operation can cover,” he said. “Only internationally connected companies can pull that off.”

So how can epidemiologists and public health officials use this information to get ahead of new disease outbreaks? The first step is to revisit the One Health approach by looking beyond simply where an outbreak originates and taking into account the factors causing it.

“In an era marking the end of capitalism’s cheap ecology–the end of cheap energy, cheap labor, cheap raw materials and cheap food–a One Health able to actually control new epizootics from the ground up must account for the structural crises underlying the deforestation, development and dispossession driving new disease,” Wallace said.

Watch Wallace’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.
Photo by thornypup (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Boreas leadership alum gets Earth Day spotlight http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/boreas-leadership-alum-gets-earth-day-spotlight/ http://environment.umn.edu/climate-change-2/boreas-leadership-alum-gets-earth-day-spotlight/#comments Wed, 23 Apr 2014 14:14:00 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2456 Plenty of folks were out enjoying the overdue warmth of the spring sunshine on Earth Day yesterday — appropriate weather and occasion for a TV news spot highlighting an IonE-supported study at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on how different landscapes affect local temperatures. The study is part of a project on the urban heat island effect, in which buildings and other urban infrastructure absorb and radiate the sun’s heat, causing cities to be relatively warmer than their rural neighbors.

Brian Smoliak, a postdoctoral student in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, spoke confidently in front of the WCCO cameras as they tracked him installing temperature sensors at the arboretum. Smoliak credits an IonE Boreas Leadership Program workshop for his confidence in front of the camera.

“I attended the Boreas class called ‘Interacting with the Media,’ where we got to talk with media from print, TV and radio. It was helpful to get in front of people from media and practice talking about my work,” he says. “They also suggested reaching out and pitching stories to the media, so that’s what I did.”

Smoliak contacted WCCO, suggesting that the project would make a good Earth Day story, and they agreed. “What you saw is what we got,” says Smoliak about the news clip, which can viewed on the WCCO website.

The project to install temperature sensors at the arboretum was funded by an IonE Mini Grant. Smoliak’s work with Islands in the Sun on the urban heat island effect is also supported by an IonE Discovery Grant.

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Common ground http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/common-ground/ http://environment.umn.edu/agriculture-2/common-ground/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 18:13:09 +0000 http://dev.environment.umn.edu/?p=2442 This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

Conventional wisdom has it that farmers and conservationists don’t see eye to eye. Conservationists want to see farmers plant diverse vegetation, in addition to crops like corn and soybeans, that produces ecosystem services; farmers’ main priority is earning a living. Right?

“Farmers care just as much about the environment as anyone, but there are financial realities,” says Nick Jordan, a resident fellow with the Institute on the Environment and an agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Tim Gieseke, a fourth-generation Minnesota farmer with a background in environmental science, explains that it’s just not that easy to plant multiple crops on a landscape. “Adding crops means more work, more equipment, more time. Plus, lots of third- and fourth-generation farmers don’t know how to grow crops other than the ones they’ve been growing,” says Gieseke. “The level of expertise for the crop they know is high and the margin of error is tight. You only get one season, one chance.”

How can these interests be reconciled? With the help of two cool technologies, Jordan and a cross-disciplinary team from the University of Minnesota are bringing farmers and conservationists together in an attempt to satisfy both economic and environmental bottom lines.

Jordan aims to prove that farmers and conservationists can find common ground. What makes him optimistic is — cool technology number one — a process being developed at Michigan State University that can turn biomass (plant material) into a marketable commodity. “This could be a game-changer,” he says.

“Traditionally, biomass has conservation value but little economic value,” Jordan says. The new technology treats biomass with ammonia to make the sugars accessible, transforming it into a high source of energy. “It has the potential to increase the value of a cornstalk 80 percent,” says Jordan.

Autumn storm approachingBiomass, typically corn stover in Minnesota, is considered an untapped resource, constituting up to half of crop residue. “A very large amount of biomass can be produced in the upper midwest with little competition from food production and lots of environmental benefits,” says Jordan. “The new technology makes pellets that look like alfalfa pellets that you can feed to cows or sell to a biorefinery that’s making cellulosic ethanol. Or make biodegradable plastic bottles.”

With a market for biomass comes greater incentive to grow a variety of crops, such as perennial grasses that improve water quality and filtration while increasing biodiversity. And there is an added benefit of making existing cropland more productive.

“It was a chicken and egg problem. Farmers could grow biomass crops, but there was no market to sell them to. Investors were reluctant to build the refinery because there wasn’t enough supply to make it cost-effective. This technology brings both sides together,” Jordan says.

With the possibility of a market for biomass crops, Jordan and his team needed to get farmers and conservationists together. They convened eight workshops in the Seven Mile Creek Watershed in south-central Minnesota, a high- producing agricultural region with poor water quality and good potential for improved biodiversity and water quality services. The first four workshops offered farmers, resource conservationists, state agencies and business interests a forum for sharing concerns and perspectives.

“These workshops were like a fast-forward for the evolution of a conversation — from the very simplistic agriculture-vs.-environment ‘conflict’ to a much more nuanced, complicated and respectful understanding of costs, benefits, trade-offs and perspectives surrounding the potential of biomass production to be a driving force of positive outcomes for multiple interests,” says Karen Galles, coordinator for the Seven Mile Creek Watershed. “It started out  feeling like people were there to defend their own positions and silos of interest. But as people began to get to know each other and work together toward a shared vision for the watershed, those barriers began to subside. A little bit of empathy goes a long way to creating the mental space for meaningful collaboration on tough issues.”

Enter cool technology number two. For the next four workshops, participants got to roll up their sleeves and “plant” crops on a parcel of land in various configurations without ever getting their boots dirty. Using a touch screen technology developed by U-Spatial, a transdisciplinary, collaborative U of M project, attendees were able to choose and place crops on a 5,000-acre farm, get instant feedback on the economic and environmental impact of their design, and compare alternatives side-by-side.

Touch Screen“The touch screens give a good visualization of the landscape, the soil, slope, water quality and habitat protection laid out with metrics to calculate the risks and benefits of different planting patterns,” says Gieseke. “The next step would be to get down to the field scale, at the level where farmers make decisions.”

The workshops provided Jordan and his team encouragment to move forward with the next phase of the project. “We wanted to see if we could get folks to go through the process, see if there could be a win-win.” And the answer? “Yes!”

With funding from an IonE Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment grant, Jordan and his team will try to match farmers willing to produce biomass with buyers who can market it.

“As a land-grant University, the U of M needs to provide a constructive presence, highlight opportunities and reduce friction. And we need to apply research in the real world,” says Jordan. ”We have good funding and good tools and good folks on the team – U-Spatial, landscape architecture, Extension. And we have a business model we think will work.”

Check out this video, put together by U-Spatial’s Molly McDonald, that shows the touch screens in action.

Images of the farm by Tim Gieseke; using touch screens by Carissa Schively Slotterback

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