Research Shines New Light on Trees and CO2news_reich_main

How much do trees vary in the way they suck carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make roots, trunks, branches and leaves? The answer to that question is an important one because it has a huge impact on our ability to predict how destroying or creating forests influences climate change. And the correct answer is a surprising one, according to two related studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week by University of Minnesota forest ecologist Peter Reich and colleagues in Minnesota, Arizona, Australia, China, Poland and Germany.

Conventional models used to assess the impact of forests on greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere assume that the way trees use carbon to build roots, leaves and trunks is fairly constant across a range of conditions — that is, that trees everywhere devote the same fraction of new growth to each component and that components have the same durability everywhere. However, analyzing massive amounts of data gathered from around the globe, Reich and colleagues documented predictable differences in key properties of forests across north-south climate gradients.

“These findings both advance our understanding of how trees vary and provide useful tools for making earth system models more accurate,” said Reich, a Regents professor and distinguished McKnight University professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and resident fellow of the Institute on the Environment. “[Most of all, they dramatically improve our ability to accurately assess the impact of forests on climate change and vice versa.]”

In one paper, the scientists addressed the question of whether trees invest more heavily in building roots to enhance uptake of water and nutrients in cold climates, where these resources are scarce. Using data from more than 6,000 forests in 61 countries, the researchers discovered that cold-climate forests tend to build more roots and less leaves than those found in warmer climates. This information will improve scientists’ ability to estimate how much carbon trees store worldwide.

The second study looked at how the amount of time cold-climate evergreens such as spruce, fir and pine hang onto their needles varies with climate. Until now, research looking at the flow of carbon through ecosystems generally assumed that evergreens like spruce and pine keep their needles for an average of two years pretty much everywhere. These new findings, gathered from more than 125 sites in North America and Europe, paint a far different picture. The researchers found that the needles of evergreen trees such as spruce and pine in the cold, far north of Canada and Scandinavia last longer but have a lower capacity for capturing carbon than do needles of trees in warmer (relatively speaking) climates such as Minnesota or Germany. These north-south geographic patterns are similar enough among pines and spruces and Europe and North America to enable their incorporation into global vegetation and earth system models, resulting in more accurate projections of forest productivity, carbon flow and how forest are likely to change in the future.

The research involved multiple partners, including a large IonE-sponsored initiative, the Plant Data Synthesis project, which seeks to bring together massive amounts of data from around the world in search of big-picture patterns related to how trees and forests function.

“By improving our understanding of how forests vary from tropics to temperate zone to the polar edges of boreal forest, we hope to provide fundamental advances to basic science and new tools for better modeling forest growth and climate regulation today and into the future,” Reich said.

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

Photo by Jim Brekke (Creative Commons / Flickr)

Study: Pollinators play vital role in human nutritionnews_study_-pollinators_nutrients

Pollinators have a direct impact on human nutrition, especially in the developing world where malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent, according to new research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The Natural Capital Project study — a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford Woods Institute on the Environment — overlapped data of 115 common food crops with data on pollination dependence and micronutrient content and found that, in places like Southeast Asia and Latin America, almost 50 percent of plant-derived vitamin A requires pollination. Read more

Banner photo @iStockphoto.com/hkratky

Acara alum furnishes sustainable solutions to Ugandanews_strapchair_main

A 2014 Acara Challenge winner is using his award to pilot his start-up in Uganda. Brice Aarrestad, a student in the College of Design, won the Acara Challenge International Bronze Award for his venture, Help Desk, which aims to address three major issues Aarrestad saw in Uganda: inadequately furnished schools, high unemployment and deforestation. By exporting high-quality, artisan-made furniture to America, he hopes to provide job training and stable employment, support sustainably sourced materials, and provide resources to schools in need.

The Acara Challenge is a competition held each year by IonE’s Acara program to spur start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have impact in the world.

Read more about Help Desk’s work in Uganda.

Banner photo: Help Desk’s Strap Bench prototype on the bank of the River Nile in Jinja, Uganda, by Brice Aarrestad.

Ecologist David Tilman awarded prestigious Balzan PrizePhoto of Ecologist David Tilman

University of Minnesota ecologist and IonE Resident Fellow David Tilman has received a 2014 Balzan Prize in recognition of his outstanding scholarly contributions in ecology. The international award comes with an $800,000 prize, half of which is to support young researchers working with Tilman.

According to a release by the International Balzan Prize Foundation, Tilman received the distinction for his “huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.”

The Balzan Prize recognizes achievements in the humanities and natural sciences, as well as in advancing peace among humanity. The foundation varies the fields it recognizes each year with an eye to uplifting innovative research across disciplinary boundaries. Tilman was one of four scholars from around the world to receive the prize this year. Past recipients of the award include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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Boreas is a stew of leadership opportunitynews_booya_main

The Boreas Leadership Program is gearing up for its fall programming. Boreas is a co-curricular leadership development opportunity at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. We invite all U of M graduate and professional students to participate in Boreas programming, which helps students catalyze environmental solutions.  The program is idealistic in its aim of helping emerging leaders at the U develop into the world-changers they want to be and world-changers society needs.

The program is also pragmatic in its approach; leadership skills workshops are a core part of the programming. A schedule of workshops is offered each semester in four areas: communications and media, public skills, integrative leadership, and systems thinking and tools. Continue reading

Market scienceBanner, from left to right: College of Biological Sciences grad students Derek Nedveck, Mohamed Yakub, Beth Fallon and John Benning; Minnesota Zoo conservation biologist Erik Runquis; CBS postdoctoral student Ryan Briscoe-Runquist and Jack!

It’s a Saturday morning at the Midtown Farmers Market. Arranged across tables, in crates and under awnings are this season’s colorful bounty of tomatoes and green beans, sunflowers and . . . scientists? Wearing purple shirts imprinted with the slogan, “I’m a scientist … ask me what I do,” several University of Minnesota graduate students are at the market to engage kids and their parents in science experiments and activities aimed at bridging the divide between science and the public. To accomplish this task, the team is facilitating hands-on activities to get market goers talking about gardens and the natural processes that sustain them.

The students were concerned by a study that showed that Minnesota’s racial minorities and women are falling behind in math and science and chose the Midtown market at Lake Street East and 22nd Avenue South in Minneapolis for its diverse ethnic population. They wanted to bring science down from the proverbial ivory tower and make it available to the public. Five Market Science days were planned on alternating Saturdays, each with a different theme, with activities and experiments based on the theme. To fund supplies for the activities, they applied for and won a Mini Grant from the Institute on the Environment.

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A global strategy for road buildingdeforestation from road building in the Amazon

Build it and people will follow — that’s the nature of roads. In many parts of the world, that fact is having an impact on ecosystems, with increased human access leading to habitat and wilderness loss, fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation. With a 60 percent increase in global road expansion predicted by 2050, careful planning of road building is crucial.

In a report published this week in the journal Nature, researchers have offered a “global road map” to steer road expansion into areas that would have maximum human economic and social benefits while protecting areas with high environmental values such as biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage. Continue reading

Helping sugarcane growers reduce water wasteIrrigation canal next to a sugarcane field

The Institute on the Environment’s mission is to discover solutions to Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges. Kate Brauman, lead scientist of the Global Water Initiative at IonE, is helping bring this mission to life. Her recent research looking at global irrigation patterns is now being used by Bonsucro, an organization working to use less water in the production of sugarcane around the world. IonE communications director Todd Reubold recently sat down with Brauman to hear the story.

How did you get started in this field?

Agriculture is heavily managed and most of the focus is on the food products that are grown. But at the end of the day crops are still just plants that need water. So when I was working with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative team and the data it produces around crop yield, I started asking, “How big a food bang are people getting for their water buck?” In other words, what is the “crop per drop?” Continue reading

Big questions: Frontiers’ fresh lookbig questions

This fall, the Institute on the Environment is refreshing our popular Frontiers in the Environment series. We’ll ask some Big Questions and host solutions-focused conversations about the next wave of research and discovery.

Each week, we’ll ask a pressing question such as, “Can we build a more resilient food distribution system?” Researchers and other experts from IonE and the greater University and Twin Cities’ communities will dive into the topic, sharing cutting-edge insights to move us closer to the answer. Continue reading

What I did on my summer vacation in Scandinaviatour guide at trash incinerator in Denmark

Who would think a visit to a plant that harvests energy from burning trash and features a smokestack so tall “it seemed to curve in the air” would rank among the highlights of a summer study abroad trip to Europe? A dozen University of Minnesota students, that’s who.

In May and June, I led a group of University students from a variety of majors – art, political science, accounting and architecture, to name a few – on a three-week sustainability tour of Denmark. We spent a some precious days on a small agricultural island in the North Sea, a place of sleepy villages, fishing piers and miles of beachfront that draw Danish tourists. We marveled at the island of Samso, which draws visitors from as far away as South Africa, Japan and Australia who come to learn how an isolated community of 5,000 transitioned to using only renewable energy for electricity and heat. Continue reading

Focusing ag expansion can save billions of tons of carbonAir view, birds eye view of the fields and hills

Meeting the growing demand for food and other agricultural products is one of the most daunting challenges we face today. At the same time, clearing forests and grasslands for farming releases carbon into the atmosphere, fueling climate change, a similarly alarming and expensive problem.

A study published today by University of Minnesota researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that limiting agricultural expansion to several key global regions could meet the predicted need to double food production by 2050 while preserving nearly 6 billion metric tons more carbon than would be safeguarded with unguided expansion. Preserving this much carbon is worth approximately $1 trillion in terms of climate change mitigation. Continue reading

Sustainability studies: Something for everyonenews_students_outside

Sustainability. It has become such a common word, we take it for granted that everyone knows what it is and how to practice it. But what is it, really?

Sustainability is the concept that humans use natural resources to meet current physical, social and economic needs while maintaining adequate resources for future generations.

In our homes, schools, communities and businesses we incorporate sustainability into our day-to-day lives. Some things are so ingrained we hardly think about them anymore: flipping off the lights when we leave the room; tossing bottles into the recycling bin; taking shorter showers. University of Minnesota Twin Cities undergrads from any major who want to do even more can make sustainability part of their academic program — and eventually, their career — through the sustainability studies minor.
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Repair stations boost biking with Mini Grant helpComo residents lined up to receive a free tune-up, courtesy of SECIA and the I on E Grant

Located halfway between the St. Paul and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota, Como neighborhood is home to hundreds of students. And where there are students, there are bikes.

To accommodate all the two-wheeled traffic, the Southeast Como Neighborhood Improvement Association, in partnership with the U’s urban studies program and with support from an IonE Mini Grant, installed two bike tune-up stations in the neighborhood this spring. Continue reading

Supporting the White House Climate Data Initiativenews_white_house_climate_data

The Office of the President of the United States announced a significant expansion of the White House Climate Data Initiative yesterday in Washington, D.C. Through a partnership with the Kellogg Company, the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative will support this effort by providing maps and data showing the potential impacts of climate change on global agriculture.

“Through his Climate Data Initiative, President Obama is calling for all hands on deck to unleash data and technology in ways that will make businesses and communities more resilient to climate change,” said John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, in a press release. “The commitments being announced today answer that call by empowering the U.S. and global agricultural sectors with the tools and information needed to keep food systems strong and secure in a changing climate.”

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Visiting scholar brings fresh eyesSiew in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, northwest China

This summer, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is hosting visiting scholar Tuck Fatt Siew, a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, who is exploring ways to integrate ecosystem services valuation into watershed management in China.

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

Study: How existing cropland could feed billions moreRice being grown in rural China

Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.

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

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Fellows capture MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary AwardsPhoto by Adrian S Jones Flickr Creative Commons

Four Institute on the Environment-related research projects have been awarded a total of $2 million from MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Awards, a state-funded grant initiative. Nine IonE resident fellows from six colleges are named as principal investigators or co-investigators on projects to advance renewable energy use in rural food processing systems; produce a database of bacteria that break down chemicals in the environment; develop tools for early disease detection in fish and swine; and create new agricultural products from emerging agricultural technologies. Continue reading

IonE all-stars win MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures grantsGround Beef

Four Institute on the Environment–related research projects won grants from MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures, a state-funded grant program. Four IonE resident fellows, as well as IonE’s managing director, are named as co-investigators on projects that seek to develop holistic and integrated approaches to ensuring a sustainable, safe and resilient food system.

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

Science on a SpherePhoto by Will von Dauste

What would you get if you crossed a map of the world with the Discovery Channel? You’d get something close to Science on a Sphere, a mash-up of science data and video artistry.

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

Study: Groundwater contamination in SE MinnesotaFarm field in Minnesota

Conversion of grasslands to agricultural fields across Southeastern Minnesota is increasing groundwater nitrate contamination in private drinking water wells according to a new study by researchers with the University of Minnesota and the Natural Capital Project.

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

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

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