Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Fri, 05 Feb 2016 19:22:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 IonE investments take on lives of their own Wed, 03 Feb 2016 17:33:25 +0000 Continue reading IonE investments take on lives of their own ]]> Children are the future, goes the familiar adage. Here at the Institute on the Environment, our projects are like our children. We invest in them with the expectation that their ideas and actions will change the world for the better.

“IonE’s mission of seeking solutions to grand environmental challenges spurs us to invest in innovative projects that will have major impacts,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE managing director and chief operating officer. “The Resilient Communities Project, for example, is changing how we think about engaged teaching. We see our investments as catalysts for evolution at the U of M writ large.”

IonE has invested in many promising activities that have gone on to live independent lives of their own, supported through our funding vehicles, including Project Grants (formerly Discovery Grants), the Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment, and Mini Grants. Just like proud parents, IonE has nurtured the following programs and sent them out into the world to do good.

The Center for Sustainable Polymers

The mission of the Center for Sustainable Polymers is to create strong yet biodegradable plastic. To accomplish this work, CSP brings together researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who collaborate on every step of the process, including chemistry, chemical engineering, polymer processing, metabolic engineering and materials science. CSP has received more than $200,000 in funding from IonE’s IREE grant program.

“I’m not sure we would have been successful without institutional support from IonE,” says CSP director Marc Hillmyer, an IonE fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Thanks in part to the IonE funding, CSP was able to secure a large grant from the National Science Foundation. “IonE’s investment allowed the center to start several research efforts, initiate new collaborations and develop center infrastructure. This allowed us to make a very strong case to the NSF for continued support,” Hillmyer says.

“Now the CSP is flourishing and has had several major discoveries since its inception. Moreover, We have initiated collaborations that have resulted in the integration of research in polymer, organic, biosynthetic, inorganic, computational and materials chemistry. The CSP approach to research is transforming how plastics are made and unmade, and CSP members are developing technologically competitive, environmentally friendly, cost-effective plastics from natural, sustainable and renewable materials,” says Hillmyer.

CSP also supports outreach and education programs. To reach the next generation of scientists and broaden participation of underrepresented minorities, CSP partners with groups such as 4-H, SciGirls and St. Paul Public Schools.

The Resilient Communities Project 

Each year, the Resilient Communities Project organizes yearlong partnerships that connect a Minnesota community with University of Minnesota expertise to tackle community-identified sustainability projects. The program was launched with a $30,000 IonE Discovery Grant. The following year, RCP partnered with the city of Minnetonka on 14 projects that engaged 25 classes and more than 200 students across eight colleges at the University. Student work helped the city advance initiatives to reduce phosphorus and sediment pollution in local lakes and rivers, evaluate and improve local housing assistance programs, plan for transit-oriented development around future light-rail stations, reduce traffic congestion, and increase engagement with local residents. Other partners include North St. Paul, Rosemount and Carver County.

“The IonE Discovery Grant in 2012 was instrumental in launching the program and that provided key support during RCP’s first two years of operation,” says RCP director Mike Greco. “Thanks to IonE and the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, RCP has connected more than 100 graduate and undergraduate courses across 11 U of M colleges and more than 1,000 students with meaningful experiential-learning opportunities during our first three years of operation. Those students have provided assistance with 59 community-identified projects that help to advance local sustainability in the Twin Cities metro area.”

The project is now evaluating its early operations and looking for ways to encourage implementation of the sustainability initiatives that come out of the partnerships.

College of Education and Human Development Ph.D. student Doug Moon is currently conducting a comprehensive evaluation of RCP’s first three partnerships. “We hope to use insights gathered from this process to inform how we can best support our community partners in implementing their sustainability efforts once the formal RCP partnership has ended, as well as how we might modify the program to better meet the needs of participants,” says Greco.

RCP is an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. 

River Life 

River Life began in 2005 as a vehicle to better integrate the campus with the Mississippi River. After coming under the IonE umbrella as a temporary program a few years later, the project began more strategically merging river science with cultural and conservation activities.

Patrick Nunnally, River Life’s director, says his academic background in environmental humanities and professional experience in planning, community development and preservation have given him a rich understanding of the Mississippi River’s cultural meaning. He says working with IonE gave him a more scientific perspective and understanding of the complexity of rivers.

“It wasn’t until River Life came to IonE and I spent time with a diverse array of scientists that I came to understand anything about how the river works,” Nunnally says. “Sediment is maybe the most visible pollutant, but not the most dangerous; within the general flow direction of the water, there are many crosscurrents and eddies at different levels in the water column; the composition of the riverbed is vitally important to the makeup of the aquatic ecological communities in a particular place; the site-specific particulars of river-adjacent land use are fundamentally important to water quality. All kinds of things like that … are second nature to river scientists but are poorly understood by many planners, community development people and folks who work in education and interpretation of human stories,” he says.

River Life is now housed within the Institute for Advance Study, where it can take advantage of the Institute’s community-building focus. Follow the River Talk blog here. 

Nutrient Network 

Catalyzed by a $480,000 IonE Discovery Grant, the Nutrient Network is a unique global research network aiming to understand the effects of human-induced fertilization on grasslands — land dominated by nonwoody vegetation.

Research from NutNet “helps us better understand human impacts to decomposition and nutrient cycling, carbon and nutrient movement into groundwater, soil microbial communities, plant-associated microbial communities, and insect diversity,“ says NutNet co-director Elizabeth Borer, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

Recent studies made possible in part by IonE have found that exotic plant species in grasslands thrive on added nutrients, whether from active or passive (nitrogen transported in the air, for example) fertilization, while the abundance and diversity of native plants declines.

“With IonE support for travel and meeting space, NutNet has hosted two working meetings, bringing in researchers from 12 countries spanning six continents,” says Borer. “NutNet meetings hosted at IonE have led to 15 research publications [and] dozens of press releases and news articles for non-scientific audiences, and have generated an exceptional collaborative and learning environment for the project’s researchers.”

NutNet is now hosted by the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences.

Sustainability Symposium 

The Sustainability Symposium started as a one-time student exhibit, presentation and networking event funded by a $4,200 IonE Mini Grant. It proposed in 2011 to build a student community around research communication and intended to connect students across disciplines and across the University system.

“We felt a lack of unifying activities for students doing sustainability work in disciplines outside CFANS and biology,” says Jennifer Schmitt, lead scientist for IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and one of the co-founders of the event. “We wanted a forum for people from across campus doing sustainability work to practice communicating their work in a safe, fun environment.”

The Sustainability Symposium has continued as a yearly event hosted by the Sustainability Studies undergraduate program. “The event has grown from a few dozen to nearly 50 presenters and more than 200 attendees,” says Beth Mercer-Taylor, who heads the Sustainability Studies program and coordinates the symposium. “Each year, as our symposium approaches, I look forward to the abundance of new ideas and approaches to issues related to sustainability that will be on display. The buzz of energy from our students and a highly engaged audience of fellow students, faculty, staff and community members who care passionately about this work is electrifying.”

Every year in April, undergraduate, graduate and professional students from such diverse programs as civil and mechanical engineering, psychology, architecture, music, finance, chemistry, animal science and more present their projects through posters, five-minute “lightning talks,” art, design and video, describing how their work supports or advances sustainability goals.

“The new relationships that are built are what make the day really matter for our students, and even for the faculty and staff who get to see new ways of looking at sustainability questions,” says Mercer-Taylor. “We pull in graduate, professional and undergraduate students from across 12 different colleges and dozens of departments. The cross-pollination going on is amazing — it’s like a flourishing prairie ecosystem in full summer bloom.”

Get details on all IonE funding opportunities on IonE’s Fellowships & Grants page.

Photo by Josh Kohanek

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New water scarcity map offers tool for better planning Wed, 20 Jan 2016 17:07:56 +0000 Continue reading New water scarcity map offers tool for better planning ]]> MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (1/20/16) Water is essential to human well-being, yet reports of water shortages surface daily. Now, thanks to a team of global water experts, planning for water development and use just took a giant leap forward.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, the Global Water Policy Project and the Center for Environmental Systems Research at the University of Kassel in Germany measured global water scarcity — the lack of sufficient water resources to meet demand — around the world at unprecedented resolution, incorporated seasonal and dry year shortages, and synthesized the information into a single, easily understandable global map that planners and policy-makers can use to improve access to water around the world. The result of their work was published today in the journal Elementa.

Most global water availability or scarcity maps look at big watersheds, sometimes as big as the whole Mississippi River basin, and average water use across the entire area. The new map examines watersheds at a smaller scale, offering a more detailed and accurate look at the water picture.

Zooming in to smaller areas within the Mississippi River watershed and incorporating data from dry seasons and dry years allows water planners, policy makers and others to better plan present and future water use. Blue areas have the least fresh water scarcity risk, using less than five percent of their annually renewable water. Orange and red colors mark areas that experience dry years and dry seasons, respectively. Areas colored in brown consume most of their renewable water in a year, with the darkest areas using more than 100 percent of their renewable fresh water.
Zooming in to smaller areas within the Mississippi River watershed and incorporating data from dry seasons and dry years allows water planners, policy-makers and others to better plan present and future water use. Blue areas have the least fresh water scarcity risk, using less than 5 percent of their annually renewable water. Orange and red colors mark areas that experience dry years and dry seasons, respectively. Areas colored in brown consume most of their renewable water in a year, with the darkest areas using more than 100 percent of their renewable fresh water. Image courtesy of Kate Brauman.


“By zooming in we are able to see more precisely where water is being used and whether more is being consumed than is renewed each year,“ said Kate Brauman, project lead and lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Initiative.

“The good news is that in two-thirds of the world’s water basins, the renewable water supplies are being only lightly used,” said Brian Richter, study co-author and chief scientist at TNC’s Global Water Program. “The bad news is that water supplies are being very heavily exhausted in the other one-third. In those water-stressed basins, it is highly likely that freshwater ecosystems and species are in serious trouble from over-depletion of water flows.”

The map, created using the WaterGAP 3 global water resources model developed at the University of Kassel, examined water use and supply for more than 15,000 watersheds and sub-watersheds. The finer resolution and inclusion of seasonal and dry-year information allows researchers, planners and others to compare water scarcity in different areas.

“Cities, businesses, farmers and ecosystems all need a secure water supply to function. This tool identifies regions where steps may need to be taken to build resilience against the possibility of shortages during dry spells,” said Sandra Postel, study co-author and director of the Global Water Policy Project. “While no tool can serve as a crystal ball, this one helps remove some uncertainties by pinpointing at-risk areas.”

In addition to providing higher resolution and incorporating seasonal and dry-year information, the new map offers the additional benefit of summarizing global water data in a single place.

“This tool will make it so much easier to target water use, investment and conservation strategies. You don’t want to look at 12 maps of your watershed to see a seasonal trend, or try to compare those multiple watershed maps to maps from other parts of the world,” Brauman said. “We’re already using it to evaluate risk to different crops from water shortage, and to think about where to target conservation to improve river habitat. What I really hope is that people use these maps to explore and evaluate all kinds of questions that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Marcus Malsy and Martina Flörke from the Center for Environmental Systems Research also contributed to the study.

The map is freely available to download at

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

Photo © Bartosz Hadyniak (iStock)

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We make a bridge Tue, 29 Dec 2015 14:49:55 +0000 Continue reading We make a bridge ]]> The University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center, which has been a focal point for forestry research at the University for more than a century, is located near the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota. The two communities often share educational and cultural resources, and are developing a plan to facilitate those connections.

In early December, landscape architecture professor John Koepke spoke with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about the class he will lead in spring 2016 that aims to design a bridge and trail that will literally and figuratively help connect the two communities. The project is funded by an IonE Mini Grant.

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

Photo by John Brueske (iStock)

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What is the future of clean water in Minnesota? Wed, 23 Dec 2015 14:47:13 +0000 Continue reading What is the future of clean water in Minnesota? ]]> Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce and valuable resource in the state. Does that matter? It does if we want to have enough water to support growing towns and cities, healthy ecosystems, and thriving industry and tourism sectors. An ambitious project underway at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment will assess the state of Minnesota’s water resources and provide cutting edge research and models to support more informed management of the state’s most valuable natural resource.

Minnesotans use water for drinking, farming, producing energy, recreating and a host of industrial endeavors. Securing long-term sustainability for Minnesota’s water resources will require the most up-to-date information about how water is used, plus forecasts of how future climate, development, and use scenarios might affect availability and quality of our water.

The project is the first to integrate a water balance (water inputs and outputs) model with social and economic data on how different groups use water and are likely to be affected by changes in water quality and quantity. This information on the value of water can then be used in cost-benefit studies, risk analyses and return-on-investment calculations, according to the project team.

Heading up the project are Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of IonE’s Natural Capital Project; Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Initiative; and Tracy Twine, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The team received a $240,000 grant in July from the state of Minnesota’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund to implement the project. The trust fund was established by the state “for the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources,” according to the ENRTF website.

The project, called “Informed water management: Mapping scarcity, threats and values,” aims to answer three main questions: How much water does the state have available and what is it being used for?  What is the state’s water risk — how will changes in water quality and quantity affect the availability of clean water? What is the value of clean water to Minnesota?

To answer the first question, Brauman will first determine Minnesota’s water balance by studying the state’s Department of Natural Resources water permits, used to regulate water use by municipalities, farms and businesses, including large-scale endeavors such as mining and power generation.

The second question will be approached by mapping and modeling the state’s water risk using a state-of-the-art model of climate, soil and vegetation to simulate how plants respond to changes in climate, and produce a more accurate water balance estimate than what the state currently is using. Twine, co-developer of the new model, will use the state’s water balance model to predict how changes in water quality and quantity will affect the amount of water statewide available to industries, municipalities and ecosystems. This information can help inform water resource management decisions by state agencies and policy makers.

The third question — What is the value of clean water to Minnesota? — will be tackled by Keeler. “Planners and managers underestimate the value of water because they lack an accounting of the full costs associated with changes in water quality and quantity,” she says. The economic value of clean water includes costs associated with water treatment, lost property values, degraded recreational opportunities, beach closures and waterborne diseases, impacts to groundwater-dependent ecosystems and water-related infrastructure investments.

“Although some of this data exists, it has not been compiled for use in planning or integrated with alternative use scenarios,” says Keeler. “This project is an opportunity to apply state-of-the-art science on water and climate to Minnesota,” Keeler said. “The valuation work is really about linking this science back to impacts on households and communities so we can tell more meaningful stories about our relationship to clean water.”

Photo by Monique Dubos

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New study finds world forest carbon stocks overestimated Mon, 21 Dec 2015 16:17:50 +0000 Continue reading New study finds world forest carbon stocks overestimated ]]> Scientists have been significantly overestimating the amount of carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests, a new study shows. Carbon storage estimates matter because world leaders use these numbers to devise carbon trading and mitigation agreements, such as those at the center of the recent 21st United Nations Climate Change talks in Paris.

Deforestation is a huge source of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and leaders recognize forest conservation and restoration as a critical tool for reducing and mitigating climate change.

The new findings, published in Nature Communications, apply to forests where people have cleared trees — usually for roads, timber or agriculture. The more intensely humans use a forest, the more fragmented it becomes. This fragmentation creates more dry, exposed forest edges, which are less able to store carbon.

“This is the first predictive study of how exactly carbon storage changes with distance from forest edge,” said lead author Becky Chaplin-Kramer, of The Natural Capital Project and based at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Such predictions can be used to inform how to manage these systems, and refocus priorities towards maintaining larger patches of forest.”

Forest clearing accounts for an estimated 12–15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through the annual loss of nearly 200,000 square kilometers of forest (an area about the size of Cambodia), a third of which is in the tropics. These emissions are calculated through forest carbon inventories which do not take into account the decrease in carbon stocks occurring in forests where they meet with converted land. If current carbon stock estimates for tropical forests are low, then mitigation plans designed to offset timber cutting will need to be adjusted to achieve climate stabilization goals.

“It turns out that when you account for lower carbon stored in the forest edges, the global total in tropical forests is about 10 percent lower than current estimates,” said co-author Paul West, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “Our results highlight the impact of breaking up large blocks of forests into smaller chunks. Targeting forest conservation and restoration efforts to fill in the gaps is a win-win for both the climate and natural habitat.”

The authors used insights gained from local studies, and coupled remotely-sensed biomass data with land cover data, showing that edge effects vary considerably across forests. Wetter, tropical forests are more affected than drier counter-parts. This research stems from an earlier collaboration which found a similar edge effect looking only at forests in Brazil. The authors then expanded their analysis to tropical forests throughout the world.

Co-authors include Richard Sharp and Lisa Mandle, of the Natural Capital Project; Nick M. Haddad, of North Carolina State University; Ivan Ramler, of St. Lawrence University; James S.Gerber and Peder Engstrom of the University of Minnesota; Alessandro Baccini, of Woods Hole Research Center; and Sarah Sim, Carina Mueller and Henry King, of Unilever.

The Natural Capital Project is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, Stanford, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

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Jessica Hellmann named Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow Wed, 16 Dec 2015 17:18:04 +0000 Continue reading Jessica Hellmann named Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow ]]> IonE director Jessica Hellmann has been named to the first cohort of Public Engagement Fellows of the Leshner Leadership Institute at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The 15 fellows were chosen based on demonstrated leadership and excellence in their research careers and interest in promoting meaningful dialogue between science and society in the area of climate change. Hellmann’s research focuses on global climate change and climate adaptation; she was among the first to propose and study ways to reduce the impact of climate change through new techniques in conservation management.

Fellows will convene in Washington, D.C., for a week of intensive public engagement training and development, science communication training, and networking during summer 2016.

“I’m honored to be part of the first cohort of the Leshner Leadership Institute,” says Hellmann, professor in the College of Biological Sciences and the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.  “I plan to use this opportunity to improve the way that the Institute on the Environment serves the public and to advance my own outreach capabilities. No matter how much or how well we scientists interact with the public, we can always do more and do better.”

AAAS is the largest general scientific association “dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.”

Read the full press release.

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Climate adaptation is crucial, but how much will it cost? Tue, 15 Dec 2015 15:16:13 +0000 Continue reading Climate adaptation is crucial, but how much will it cost? ]]> Most of the international and scientific community knows that adaptation is a vital part of how the world will confront climate change. Gone are the days when we worried that adaptation was a distraction from mitigation. Now we know the two concepts go hand in hand. Climate change has started and will continue for coming decades, thanks to the greenhouse gases we have already emitted, and continue to emit. On the other hand, adapting to the extreme climate change that would come about if we carried on with business as usual would overwhelm adaptation in much of the world.

While there is broad agreement that adaptation (and therefore money) is needed, there are many aspects of adaptation that remain quite murky. Several of these have been discussed at COP 21 over the past few days. To make progress in reducing the effects of climate change worldwide, we will need to rapidly overcome these adaptation shortcomings.

We have no idea how much adaptation will cost, beyond expecting it to be a lot. In 2010, the World Bank released a report suggesting that by 2050, adaptation might cost between US$70 billion and US$100 billion per year.

At a COP 21 session on finance, the United Nations Environment Programme announced that the World Bank’s numbers could even be underestimates, once you factor in all sectors and look beyond the middle of this century. In some respects, this does not matter because public commitments to adaptation internationally are just a small fraction of either estimate anyway.

So here, broadly speaking, is what we know (and don’t know) about climate adaptation so far:

Some costs of adaptation remain unaccounted for.

Some costs are easier to estimate than others. For example, we can readily estimate the cost of increased fertilizer use or reinforcing buildings and infrastructure. But we know that climate change will also undermine the resilience and functioning of natural ecosystems that provide essential services.

The costs of shoring up, relocating or reintroducing those services is largely unknown. Furthermore, according to UNEP, only 14 percent of adaptation spending is currently directed to natural resource management. Most of it currently goes to agricultural projects. We will need to expand those expenditures to ecosystem restoration and preservation.

We lack ways to evaluate the success of adaptation.

International agencies have a long track record of evaluating development activities by collecting data where projects are implemented in comparison to areas where they are not. In theory, this method can be used to evaluate adaptation projects as well, but the timescale of adaptation is different than traditional economic development. In adaptation, the environment will be different at the start of the project than at the end, and we will want to know not if the project has improved on the original situation, but rather whether it is durable under future conditions. We must develop new standards for judging when adaptation activities have been successful.

Adaptation actions are not yet helping vulnerable people.

McGill University researchers reported two interesting results from their study on country-level adaptation activities, based on reporting provided to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change each year.

First, they found that the wealthier a country is, the more it spends on adaptation. This suggests that adaptation activities may be limited by the availability of funds.

Second, they found that high-income countries are making little or no progress on adaptation for vulnerable populations, including the poor, the elderly and indigenous groups. The poor and vulnerable will need the most adaptation so this apparent inequality will need to be fixed.

There still is disagreement about what adaptation even is.

At an adaptation session co-hosted by the University of Maryland, McGill University, the ND Global Adaptation Index and others, some debate focused on the definition of adaptation itself. Klaus Radunsky, an Austrian member of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Adaptation Committee, offered (in my opinion) the best definition of adaptation:

It is all the extra effort that we will need to put in, thanks to climate change, to achieve the recently announced U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals invite us to end hunger, deliver clean water to people around the world and protect vital ecosystems. It will take the best of humanity to achieve these goals, and climate change will make getting there even harder. We will need climate change adaptation to reach these goals, and we need to understand adaptation better to do it right.The Conversation

Photo by WorldFish (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Recyclable polyurethane foam project wins Dow SISCA Wed, 09 Dec 2015 14:59:57 +0000 Continue reading Recyclable polyurethane foam project wins Dow SISCA ]]> MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (12/9/2015) A project aimed at developing polyurethane foam that can be recycled has won the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award competition held Dec. 3 at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.

The award, made possible by a collaboration between IonE and the Dow Chemical Company, recognizes and rewards students and universities for innovation and research that encourages and promotes sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. The competition is open to full-time graduate and professional students enrolled at all campuses of the University of Minnesota. This year’s award was presented to a team of four Ph.D. candidates in the University’s College of Science and Engineering.

“Polyurethane foams are useful and important materials that are utilized in a range of applications including mattresses, seat cushions and home insulation,” says Tessie Panthani, project team member and chemical engineering and materials science Ph.D. candidate. “Unfortunately, the majority of polyurethane foams are derived from nonrenewable resources, do not degrade in the environment, and have chemical structures that preclude these materials from being recycled by melt reprocessing.”

To address those limitations, the winning team, which also includes Alex Mannion, Debbie Schneiderman and Marie Vanderlaan, developed a polyol — the main building block for polyurethane foam — made from renewable sources that can degrade into environmentally benign products or be recycled, creating a closed-loop life cycle. KARE-11 featured the project in a recent news cast.

The winning project was one of 24 submitted to the University’s Dow SISCA challenge, one of 18 such competitions around the world. Judges were from Dow Chemical, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services and the University of Minnesota.

The runner-up, Gabriel Al-Ghalith — a biomedical informatics and computational biology student in the BioTechnology Institute — received $2,500 for developing techniques that use microbes as environmental and geochemical sensors.

Other finalists were:

Snober Ahmed (bioproducts and biosystems science, engineering and management, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences) — Selenium Nanomaterials and Devices for Mercury Removal from Water and Gas Flue

John Brockgreitens (BBSE, CFANS) — Food Packaging Sensors for Continuous Monitoring of Food Spoilage

Abhirup Datta (biostatistics, School of Public Health) and Farideh Fazayeli (computer science, CSE) — Global Mapping of Plant Traits

Lauren Jackson (plant pathology, CFANS) — Characterization and Optimization of Ligninolytic Systems to Improve Human and Environmental Health

Peter T. Krenzke and Stephen J. Sedler (mechanical engineering, CSE) — Solar Fuels From Water and Carbon Dioxide via the Ceria Redox Cycle

Maria Kristine McClintock (chemical engineering, CSE) — Developing a Portfolio of Value-added Monomers from Fermentation of Lignocellulosic Feedstocks

Matthew Overby (computer science, CSE) — Efficient Simulation of Urban Heat Transfer

Hao Tian (mechanical engineering, CSE) — Variable Timing Active Valve Technology and “Steer-by-Wire” Valve Operation for Energy Efficient Fluid Power Systems

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 on IonE, visit For more information on the Dow SISCA program, see

Photo: Dow SISCA competition winners Tessie Panthani, Debbie Schneiderman, Alex Mannion and Marie Vanderlaan. Courtesy of Brian Bell.

Global plant growth not keeping up with rising CO2 Mon, 07 Dec 2015 16:26:25 +0000 Continue reading Global plant growth not keeping up with rising CO2 ]]> MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (12/7/2015) Because plants need carbon dioxide to grow, scientists have expected rising atmospheric CO2 to substantially enhance plant growth, offsetting a portion of human CO2 emissions and, in turn, slowing climate change. However, new research from the Institute on the Environment published today in Nature Climate Change adds to a growing body of research challenging this expectation.

The study, led by William Kolby Smith, a Luc Hoffman Institute postdoctoral fellow working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project, found that global plant growth has indeed increased over the past 30 years, but not as much as expected given the change in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Comparing their findings with results of widely used on-the-ground measurements and the best available models of plant responses to increasing CO2, Smith and colleagues concluded that current model estimates of plants’ ability to offset growing greenhouse gas emissions may be unrealistically optimistic.

Portrait: William Kolby Smith
Project lead William Kolby Smith

“Current Earth system models assume that global plant growth will provide the tremendous benefit of offsetting a significant portion of humanity’s CO2 emissions, thus buying us much needed time to curb emissions,” says Smith. “Unfortunately, our observation-based estimates of global vegetation growth indicate that plant growth may not buy us as much time as expected, [so] action to curb emissions is all the more urgent.”

The authors identify two important factors that could be driving the divergence between satellite-based results and model-based results: availability of water and availability of nutrients. Satellite data indicate that warmer climate conditions resulting from rising atmospheric CO2 may be increasing plant water stress, counteracting any positive effect of CO2. Additionally, limited availability of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment could also limit the ability of plants to soak up additional CO2 (see also previous work co-authored by Smith).

These findings indicate that current climate models do not accurately predict future plant growth and suggest that allowable emissions targets based on these models may need reevaluation. The authors recommend better integration among model, satellite and on-the-ground measurement approaches to improve our understanding of the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 on plant growth.

The work provides an important step forward in the understanding of how plants may respond (or not respond) to rising atmospheric CO2, as well as highlights ways scientists from different specialties can work together to reach a deeper understanding of how ecosystems will respond to global change, says Sasha Reed, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and co-author of the paper. “We have many scientific tools in our toolbox, and bringing them together is a powerful approach to asking questions and to solving problems.”

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

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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The Germany-Minnesota energy connection Wed, 02 Dec 2015 15:29:34 +0000 Continue reading The Germany-Minnesota energy connection ]]> Minnesota and Germany have a lot in common — ancestry, cultural traditions, climate. Now, in a German-Minnesota energy policy exchange, the two are also sharing technology and policy innovations as they both transition from coal-based to low-carbon energy economies. And the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment is facilitating the partnership.

For the past five years, leaders from the University, the Minnesota Legislature and the business and non-profit communities have been meeting to strategize how best to achieve Minnesota’s goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. Sabine Engel, then director of the University’s Center for German and European Studies, connected those leaders to energy experts in Germany to exchange knowledge about transitioning to a clean energy economy. IonE and the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research have co-sponsored the exchanges, known as the Berlin Seminars on Energy Policy, with funding for University staff to travel to Germany.
engel_sabineBetween 2011 and today, Engel has put together five delegations of Minnesota energy leaders to participate in the annual policy exchanges. The June 2015 seminar delegation included IonE managing director Lewis Gilbert, University of Minnesota Energy Transition Lab director and IonE fellow Ellen Anderson, Minnesota commissioner of agriculture Dave Frederickson, state senators David Senjem and Vicki Jensen, and state representatives Kurt Daudt, Joyce Peppin, and Melissa Hortman. Hortman and state senator John Marty, another Berlin seminar alumnus, are co-authors of recent legislation to facilitate more widespread implementation of community solar projects.

“I think there has been a real magic in the connections at the local levels. Sabine has connected city leaders from across the Atlantic who are dealing with the same challenge: ‘How can our local government take meaningful action to address climate change?’” says Hortman. “The German-Minnesota policy exchanges have been deeply productive and led very directly to Minnesota’s adoption of community solar.”

Recently, Engel was brought on staff at IonE to help Minnesota “understand the difference between renewable energy technology and deployment in Germany and Minnesota, why they are different and how Minnesota can learn and benefit from those differences,” says Gilbert.

In addition to the community solar legislation, other agreements have come out of the policy exchanges, including an international collaboration between Minnesota and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and a partnership between sister cities Morris, Minnesota, and Saerbeck, Germany, “with the joint goal of contributing at the local level to meeting the global challenge of climate change and to creating paths toward a climate friendly future on the transition to renewable energy,” according to the agreement. Both rural cities have opportunities to explore solar, biomass and wind technologies.

In her role as program director of international energy policy and cooperation at IonE, Engel will work with community partners to mine the most current research and solutions available around the world.

“These agreements show three things,” says Engel. “Even in our fast-paced world of virtual communication, direct face-to-face encounters and exchanges matter; bringing together individuals with diverse interests in a science-rich context will lead to the best understanding and truly collaborative solutions; and the U of M’s long-standing relationship with Germany — currently the world’s leading nation when it comes to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy — allows Minnesota to tap more directly the experience on what works and what doesn’t. Building on that expertise and improving it will lead to a great ‘made in Minnesota’ solution to one of the world’s grand challenges.”

Photo by TebNad (iStock)

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IonE experts attend Paris climate talks Tue, 01 Dec 2015 21:03:38 +0000 As NatCap turns 10, a Q&A with co-founder Stephen Polasky Wed, 25 Nov 2015 11:23:59 +0000 Continue reading As NatCap turns 10, a Q&A with co-founder Stephen Polasky ]]>

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

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

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

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

How do conservationists view economics these days?

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

Are you ever still treated as the enemy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were you doing in China?

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

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

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

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

You also spent time in Rwanda during this trip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you imagine NatCap will be like in 2025?

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

Might it be more than a 20-year project?

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

Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Britta Kasholm-Tengve (iStock)

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10 things we learned about biodiversity and climate change Fri, 20 Nov 2015 11:28:41 +0000 Continue reading 10 things we learned about biodiversity and climate change ]]> The atmosphere is getting hotter, and the conditions for plants and animals worldwide are changing. It’s a challenge that slaps a big question mark on our future: Can we save biodiversity from climate change?

That’s the issue we tackled at IonE’s Frontiers in the Environment talk October 21. Jessica Hellmann, who serves as director of the Institute on the Environment and a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, studies just that. Here’s what she had to say:

  1. Earth is warming fast. It’s not news that our planet is heating up, but what really matters is how much. If we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by the time this century is over Earth could be 5 to 6 °C hotter than in the recent past.
  1. Climate change means colossal change for life on Earth. Today’s changes are big for plants and animals. Every species has its geographic range, and climate change fundamentally reorganizes those distributions. Hellmann pointed out that last time there was as much carbon dioxide in the air as we’ll likely get within the next few decades, relatives of alligators lived near the poles.
  1. Glance at the flip side, and you’ll recall that we have a name for the last time Earth was 6°C cooler than it is now: the Ice Age. During that most recent glacial period (really one of many ice ages over the eons), Minnesota was covered by a mile of ice. In California’s Death Valley, today punishingly hot and dry, an evergreen forest spanned the landscape. It gave shelter to an entirely different crop of species, one that held none of the plants or animals now dwelling there. Modern climate change could bring a similar degree of warming over a much shorter time.
  1. Organisms react to climate change in four ways. When the climate changes, life takes the heat. In response to a shifting climate, biological organisms do one of a few things: deal with it, evolve, move or die. Some plants and animals have genes that act differently under different environmental conditions, a phenomenon called phenotypic plasticity. Others can evolve over generations to fit a new climate, an approach that only works when the change isn’t too fast. Those strategies aside, organisms have two paths: move or die. If a population can migrate — say, northward, to keep the kind of habitat it needs—it might survive. If a species can’t move, or it can’t most fast enough, it’ll likely go extinct.
  1. Biodiversity is about more than species. Biodiversity is seemingly simple, though deceivingly so. It’s not just about preserving individual species. Seen properly, conservation isn’t some video game with the sole goal of saving species after species until we rack up enough points to move to the next level. Instead, Hellmann explained, biodiversity is a complex concept encompassing not only species diversity, but also genetic diversity, and diversity of ecosystem function and ecosystem services.
  1. Populations within a species can react differently to change. When pondering climate change, asking only how a species’ geographic range will shift misses the point that populations within one species might differ. As an example, Hellmann discussed her work on the Karner blue butterfly. The two distinct populations of this endangered insect, a western form and an eastern form, live in different climates. Since evolution has equipped each population to withstand different pressures, the two will respond differently to climate change. When modeling how climate change will shift species ranges, Hellmann and her colleagues treated the two forms as separate entities. If scientists treat distinct subpopulations as one, they’ll get entirely different—and probably wrong—results, hindering conservation planning.
  1. Adaptation matters. “I had worked on this word [adaptation] for a long time, and then someone—the entire discipline of climate science—came along and they stole it,” Hellmann joked. “So now it has two meanings.” Biologists talk about adaptation as how organisms evolve over time in response to their surrounding. Climate researchers talk about adaptation as management: humans adjust to improve our lot in a new situation. Smart climate adaptation on the part of humans considers adaptive evolution. We need both uses of the term to turn biodiversity loss around.
  1. Conservation should work to build adaptive capacity in species and ecosystems. An example that entails both meanings of adaptation is the notion of adaptive capacity. Species have a fundamental adaptive capacity, a theoretical limit to what they can adjust to. they also have a realized adaptive capacity: The areas and conditions they could actually fit, given ecological constraints not considered by fundamental capacity, such as interactions with other organisms. Fundamental adaptive capacity sets a hard limit to adaptation; realized adaptive capacity is where a species is at right now. Hellmann says that to effectively manage biodiversity under climate change, we should expand adaptive capacity as close to its theoretical, fundamental limit as possible. Strategies include breeding organisms to bolster genetic diversity and connecting habitats to enlarge living space.
  1. Managed relocation holds promise, mystery — and complexity. Managed relocation, or assisted migration, involves helping organisms disperse to a new location. If humans actively help other species move to areas that suit them better as the climate changes, we can save species that might otherwise go extinct. Potential problems concern some researchers, though, including opportunity cost, endangering source populations, and the chance that transplanting organisms to new areas could unleash devastating invasive species on those places. Some of Hellmann’s work on the issue seems to show that the risk of new pests from managed relocation is low. Hellmann also talked about her research showing that, while managed relocation is often seen as a point of divisive controversy, expert opinions are more middling, with few scientists loving the idea, but few scientists hating it. Hellmann’s conclusion: Context matters, so relocation decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
  1. Can we save biodiversity from climate change? Hellmann’s answer: No — and yes. On one side, we don’t have a deep understanding of ecological predictions and adaptive capacity. We also don’t have much money, and we’re running out of time. On the other side, scientists are open to new methods, researchers do have some understanding of adaptive capacity, and managed relocation holds promise. That said, adaptation, while important, can’t fix everything. Hellmann contends that mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is cheaper and easier. “We will come back to mitigation,” Hellmann said. “If we really think our way through adaptation, we will come back to mitigation. They are two sides to the same coin.”
Twin Cities heat island study yields surprises Wed, 18 Nov 2015 15:31:55 +0000 Continue reading Twin Cities heat island study yields surprises ]]> MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/14/2015) Some parts of the Twin Cities can spike temperatures up to 9° F higher than surrounding communities thanks to the “urban heat island” effect, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by MYDinga (iStock)

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

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

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

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

A climbing threat

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

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

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

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

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

How and why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by RegiMu (iStock)

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5 things we learned about spatial thinking and environmental challenges Fri, 13 Nov 2015 12:44:55 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about spatial thinking and environmental challenges ]]> Space and place permeate today’s pressing problems, so spatial thinking can help.

That was the message of IonE’s October 14 Frontiers on the Environment talk, in which Institute fellow Steve Manson listed example after example as he addressed the Big Question, “How can spatial thinking solve environmental grand challenges?”

In addition to his IonE title, Manson is a professor of geography, environment, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and director of U-Spatial, an initiative that has worked with every college on campus to offer software, training and consulting for spatial thinking. Here’s what he made clear:

  1. Spatial technology has grown up. As environmental challenges — from a changing climate to a battered biosphere — have grown worse, spatial tech has grown up. The field made important baby steps in the mid-1800s, when British doctor John Snow took on London’s killer cholera outbreak by plotting sickness on a map and finding the cause: a single water pump. This early meeting of space, health and the environment pushed us toward a more mature spatial mind set. Today, with cellphones possessing processors and memory far greater than the supercomputers of 20 years ago, companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Uber invest millions of dollars in mapping while academia — including big places like Harvard and big journals like Science — embrace spatial thinking like never before.
  2. Zoomed-in data enable powerful projects. Today’s data take the level of spatial resolution to, well, the next level. A satellite suspended hundreds or thousands of miles above Earth can snap photos that let us pick out individual cars, single trees, and wrinkles in the ice of a glacier. We can even count penguins from space — and that’s exactly what researchers at the Polar Geospatial Center did, doubling previous estimates of the number of penguins that inhabit Antarctica. And conservation is not the only environmental subject that gets an assist from high-resolution aerial data: Manson also described a a detailed map of solar potential in the state that University of Minnesota students crafted to help homeowners and companies decide where to install solar panels.
  3. Better technology means community collaboration. Faculty at the U’s School of Nursing used geographic information systems and new imagery to help plan responses to Ebola. The resulting maps can be updated by health professionals working on the ground, bolstering shared information. Meanwhile, U-Spatial has rolled touch screens into towns in rural Minnesota, enriching conversations about sustainable agriculture by giving community members the opportunity to draw their idealized landscapes on shared maps.
  4. Big spatial data open big spatial questions. Manson said Big Data is “remaking the nature of science,” and spatial is no exception. Armed with large data sets, scientists are addressing global grand challenges. Regents Professor Vipin Kumar of the College of Science and Engineering and others use lots of data to map vegetation across Earth in a bid to predict how climate change will affect future plant life. The Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project also draw on and create huge stores of data. Meanwhile, IonE keeps working with partners both inside and outside the University to build out Terra Populus, which Manson says will — once it’s finished — be the largest curated human-environment data set in the world.
  5. Spatial still faces obstacles. While spatial technology can help us face environmental grand challenges, it still has some challenges of its own. Database issues are plentiful, with scientists thinking about how to efficiently store, manage and use vast swaths of data. Manson mentioned one student working on airplane noise who had to devise his own solution to keeping track of several million data points. Spatial, Manson said, needs strides for a better future. Likewise, with more data and higher-resolution images available, privacy remains a growing concern.
Turning to India for insights on water use Tue, 10 Nov 2015 19:54:41 +0000 Continue reading Turning to India for insights on water use ]]> Is drip irrigation an effective tool to increase crop production while conserving water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Sarath Kuchi (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by digitaltree515 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National resiliency studio
Ozayr Saloojee, College of Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by BraunS (iStock)

6 things we learned about the power of community solar Mon, 02 Nov 2015 21:36:17 +0000 Continue reading 6 things we learned about the power of community solar ]]> Solar power’s prospects become brighter each day.

One way to flip that light switch even higher is community solar, in which local neighborhoods or villages share ownership of a solar power system. At our second Frontiers in the Environment “Big Questions” talk October 7, IonE resident fellow Kathryn Milun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, presented the case for this renewable energy approach in “Why Do We Need Community Solar?”

Here are six things we learned:

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

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

7 questions for IonE’s new director Fri, 30 Oct 2015 16:18:36 +0000 Continue reading 7 questions for IonE’s new director ]]> Jessica Hellman became director of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment this summer. As an expert on the relationship between climate change and ecosystems, Hellmann was also appointed to the Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the College of Biological Sciences. She took time to talk about about her new roles, her research and advancing collaboration around environmental challenges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What can we do about climate change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Josh Kohanek

Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this week Tue, 27 Oct 2015 10:02:45 +0000 Continue reading Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this week ]]> More than 2,300 sustainability educators and students have descended upon Minneapolis to take part in the 2015 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference, the largest sustainability-related conference of its kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Meet Minneapolis (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibit Tue, 20 Oct 2015 13:00:56 +0000 Continue reading Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibit ]]> A new art exhibit is coming to IonE’s  Commons: Meeting & Art Space October 22 that aims to spark conversation between artists and scientists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Banner photo/art by David Malcolm Scott

Acara helps students become heros Mon, 19 Oct 2015 14:22:26 +0000 Continue reading Acara helps students become heros ]]> Acara student impact entrepreneurs —  people who have set out to solve some of the world’s stickiest problems— along with mentors, donors, friends and family came together to celebrate Acara teams, enjoy tasty Indian cuisine and listen to brief venture update presentations one evening in late September. The annual Acara Open House and Showcase highlighted the progress of the 2015 Acara Challenge winners.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Banner image: iStock / inline photos: Brian Bell

Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCap Fri, 16 Oct 2015 15:20:09 +0000 Continue reading Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCap ]]> For the more than 200 attendees at a recent Minnesota Water Technology Summit, one thing was clear:  Water is essential to life in Minnesota. “Water touches every aspect of our health, our recreation and our economic development,” said Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project and one of the panelists at the summit. “Water crises in California and elsewhere have added new urgency to understanding and anticipating water risks. Minnesota is a state rich in water resources, but even we are starting to see signs of stress in the form of polluted drinking water and depleted aquifers.” With this growing urgency comes increasing demand to understand the interactions between land management and water quality and to better quantify the benefits and costs of actions to protect and improve our water supply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Holly Hayes (Flickr / Creative Commons)

IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in Americas Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:23:10 +0000 Continue reading IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in Americas ]]> Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and Forest Isbell, associate director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and an adjunct faculty member in CBS, were selected to participate as lead authors in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,  an independent intergovernmental body open to members of the United Nations. Authors contribute to periodic reports on biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services, ranging from regional assessments for the Americas, Africa and Asia to thematic papers and broad global assessments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of CBS

Soils serve food and much more Fri, 09 Oct 2015 14:21:06 +0000 Continue reading Soils serve food and much more ]]> Soils are the birthplace of food: They provide a substrate, nutrients and water to grow most of the food we eat. They also perform a whole host of other services, including purifying our water and stabilizing our climate. Today more than half of the world’s land surface is being managed for agriculture and forestry. These lands are increasingly under pressure to meet the needs of a growing population.  In many areas, the land and soil have become degraded to a point where they can no longer grow the food and fiber they once did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A new resource on the global food system Mon, 05 Oct 2015 15:21:46 +0000 Continue reading A new resource on the global food system ]]> Is there enough food for the future?

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

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

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

Is There Enough Food for the Future?

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

Change Your Diet, Change Our Destiny?

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



Waste Not, Want Not?

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


Charts and graphs courtesy of Environment Reports

Acara alumna wins big Tue, 29 Sep 2015 18:59:11 +0000 Continue reading Acara alumna wins big ]]> Why aren’t menstrual cups mainstream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by BraunS (iStock)

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