As NatCap turns 10, a Q&A with co-founder Stephen PolaskyPhoto by Jeffrey Zeldman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This article is repubublished with permission from the Natural Capital Project and the author, Stacey Solie.

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. Continue reading

Disease forecasting in a One Health worldPhoto by Britta Kasholm-Tengve (iStock)

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. Continue reading

10 things we learned about biodiversity and climate changeFrontiers October 21 – Can we save biodiversity from 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 surprisesPhoto by MYDinga (iStock)

Results provide valuable insights into efforts to reduce heat-related harm in metro areas globally

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. Continue reading

Vines inhibit forests’ ability to store CO2Photo by RegiMu (iStock)

This article is republished with permission from Inquiry and the author, Deane Morrison.

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. Continue reading

5 things we learned about spatial thinking and environmental challengesFrontiers October 18 – How can spatial thinking solve environmental grand 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 usePhoto by Sarath Kuchi (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading

Making ecosystem services countPhoto by digitaltree515 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading

New Mini Grants fund energy, education, health & morePhoto by BraunS (iStock)

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. Continue reading

6 things we learned about the power of community solarFrontiers October 7 – Why do we need 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:

Continue reading

7 questions for IonE’s new directorjessica_hellmann_0108

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences and the author, Colleen Smith.

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.” Continue reading

Sustainability & higher education meet up in Minneapolis this weekPhoto by Meet Minneapolis (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading

Art as activism: SAMEE art exhibitArt by David Malcolm Scott

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.

Continue reading

Acara helps students become herosphoto by iStock

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. Continue reading

Watershed moment for IonE’s NatCapPhoto by Holly Hayes (Flickr / Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading

IonE fellow to author study of biodiversity in AmericasPhoto courtesy of CBS

This article is reprinted with permission from the College of Biological Sciences and the author, Stephanie Xenos.

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. Continue reading

Soils serve food and much morePhoto courtesy of Asian Development Bank (Flick/Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading

A new resource on the global food systemBanner courtesty of Environment Reports

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. Continue reading

Acara alumna wins bignews_ovawoman_main

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. Continue reading

NiSE director to influence how U.S. buys greenPhoto by Photos by Clark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Consumers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the growth and diversity of environmental labels attached to the products they buy, from breakfast cereal to furniture. U.S. government purchasing agents also struggle to identify which standards and ecolabels to consider when buying greener products.

Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and an IonE resident fellow, is about to make going green easier for the U.S. government — the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. Along with a select panel of experts, Smith will oversee and coordinate a series of pilot tests of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new draft guidelines advising government buyers on how to take product environmental performance standards and ecolabels into account when making purchases. Continue reading