Featured Fellow: Tian HePhoto by Never House (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

I am interested in utilizing the latest metropolitan-scale taxi networks for urban pollution monitoring and reduction. Currently, smart vehicles are equipped with sensors such as GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes. This enables crowd-based sensing, a new technique for gathering information that offers unprecedented flexibility, scale and resolution. Crowd-based sensing has the potential to generate a comprehensive view of phenomena such as urban traffic patterns, real-time city pollution maps and the micro-scale monitoring of land use that is difficult or impossible for previous techniques to produce. It also can offer direct benefits to individuals, such as faster and more fuel efficient commuting.  Continue reading

Study: Ag production contributes to CO2 spikesPhoto by James Clear (Flickr/Creative Commons)

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/19/14) The application of a recently developed crop statistics database at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in conjunction with a carbon accounting model developed at Boston University has shown that intensified agricultural production in the northern hemisphere is generating up to a quarter of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality, reports a paper published in the November 5 issue of the journal Nature.

Deepak Ray, research associate at IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, who led the development of the dataset and contributed to this study, said, “This is the perfect example of assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of experts tackling an intractable problem of why the atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality is intensifying.”

Each year in the northern hemisphere, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide drop in the summer as plants inhale (absorb it for photosynthesis), and then climb again after their growing season. Over the past 50 years, the size of this seasonal swing has increased by as much as half, for reasons that aren’t fully understood. “Most of the explanations put forward to date involve climate warming, particularly at high latitudes, a longer growing season and enhanced photosynthetic activity, and greater plant productivity due to increasing atmospheric CO2,” says study co-author Steve Frolking of the University of New Hampshire.

The multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Boston University scientists has shown that agricultural production may generate up to a quarter of the increase in this seasonal carbon cycle, with corn playing a leading role. GLI’s crop database allowed the scientists to find that production of four leading crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans — that represent about 64 percent of all calories consumed worldwide in the northern hemisphere above the tropics has more than doubled since 1961, and after accounting for the carbon translates to about a billion metric tons of carbon captured and released each year.

These croplands are “ecosystems on steroids,” says Josh Gray, BU research assistant professor and lead author on the paper, noting that they occupy about 6 percent of the vegetative land area in the northern hemisphere but are responsible for up to a quarter of the total increase in seasonal carbon exchange of atmospheric CO2. “The fact that such a small land area can actually affect the composition of the atmosphere is an amazing fingerprint of human activity on the planet,” notes Mark Friedl, a professor in Boston University’s department of Earth and environment and senior author of the paper.

While increased crop production does not have much impact on the long-term increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, understanding the effects of agricultural production, the researchers say, will help to improve models of global climate, which currently do not represent agricultural management very well.

The paper, titled “Direct human influence on atmospheric CO2 seasonality from increased cropland productivity” can be viewed online at the journal Nature.

The research team includes lead authors Mark Friedl and Josh Gray of Boston University; Eric Kort, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire at Durham; Christopher Kucharik, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Navin Ramankutty, then at McGill University and now at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver; and Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment.

The research was funded primarily though programs supported by the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Deepak Ray was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and IonE.

Photo by James Clear (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Can computers protect us from swine flu?Flickr: Photo by Steven & Claire Farnsworth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

What can computer models tell us about disease transmission in animals?

A lot, says Meggan Craft, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine who is working to reduce the toll of animal disease by improving our ability to understand disease transmission.

Craft uses computer modeling as an efficient and ethical tool for figuring out how diseases spread within animal populations — and between animals and humans — and beginning to understand how to control them.

Continue reading

U of M students attend national sustainability summitPhoto by David Grant (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Five students represented the University of Minnesota Sustainability Education at the largest conference on campus sustainability in North America last month. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Portland attracted sustainability thought leaders from every state and 12 countries to share strategies, research and leadership initiatives, and included a keynote address by Annie Leonard, creator of “The Story of Stuff.” Read the full story.

Photo by David Grant (Flickr /Creative Commons)

6 things we learned about connecting kids with natureFrontiers in the Environment Children November 12

Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:

Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside.

Nature is important. Nature has been proven to be beneficial for children in almost all parts of their life. Not only does it help prevent obesity, reduce stress and build self-esteem, it can also help increase focus inside of the classroom. Moreover, cognitive functions, social skills, leadership and collaboration can all be improved by spending time outside. But the list doesn’t stop there. These are just some of the many benefits that children can gain by being connected with the natural world around them.

Never underestimate the benefit of a scraped knee. As a society, we’ve shifted our perception of risk. We’ve traded the physical risks of the outdoors in favor of the safety of the indoors. But it is important to recognize that this type of lifestyle carries its own types of risk, such as a reduced sense of community, lowered levels of self-confidence and many other psychological impacts. By spending less time outside, children are losing the opportunity to experience what they’re capable of. Falling and scraping your knee may hurt, but it also plays a fundamental role in childhood development by teaching kids about limits, danger and consequences.

Parental choices matter. Parents can help by getting outside and playing with their children. They can encourage free play and continue to emphasize play as children age. These experiences don’t always have to be adventurous trips to national parks. A trip to a local park or even playing in the backyard can be just as effective. Parents can also make intentional choices in other parts of life, such as where they send their children to school. They can also bond together to create groups that encourage outdoor play, such as the Family Nature Club.

Education and the environment don’t have to be an either-or. Instead of simply teaching about the environment, educators can use the environment to teach about all everything else. Known as the Environment as an Integrating Context model, this approach gets students actively engaged in what they’re learning. Students could read about a park while they’re sitting in it, or they could take inspiration from the outdoors to journal. Using the environment in this way also promotes transdisciplinary work, where teachers can work collaboratively across class boundaries.

It takes a village. True connections between children and nature will need more than individual actions. It will take a community effort. Policy-makers and planners can help by promoting green spaces. For example, Minneapolis has a goal of having every resident live within six blocks, or a 10-minute walk, from a park. This type of thinking and development can help re-create the bond between children and nature.

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

A healthier diet could save you and the planetgirls, kids with carrots, salad, garden fresh

Eating less meat and fewer empty calories can help people live longer, healthier lives and also dramatically reduce environmental degradation, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

David Tilman, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and graduate student Michael Clark synthesized data on environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth. They found that adopting variations on three common diets — Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian — on a global scale would not only boost health, but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to the current emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships on Earth and prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas equivalent to half of the United States. Read the full news release.

Banner photo by Michel Bish (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Plants will soak up less CO2 than expected in the futurePhoto  by Free Photos & Art (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Scientists have long believed that plants’ ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the air will help mitigate the effects of global warming. But a new a study by Institute on the Environment resident fellows has uncovered limits to that assumption.

IonE resident fellows Peter Reich, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences professor; and Sarah Hobbie, College of Biological Sciences professor, are co-authors with Tali Lee of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire on the study, which was published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. In a five-year field experiment, the researchers found that plants grown in poor soils and with less-than-average rainfall lost their ability to use extra CO2. Read the full press release.

Photo by Free Photos & Art (Flickr/Creative Commons)

7 things we learned about the ag transformationFrontiers in the Environment Agriculture November 5

What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by  IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:

1. Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity.

2. Continuous living cover is the first step. Continuous living cover involves the use of winter crops or coverings so large fields don’t remain barren during winter. Options include cover crops, green manures, agroforestry and polycultures. These crops can produce multiple benefits, such as being turned into biofuels.

3. Remember the economy. Continuous living cover may sound great, but unless it’s economically competitive it will not succeed. Luckily, new technologies have allowed for an expansion of bioeconomy into new foods, animal feeds and biofuels, and have boosted potential for local markets.

4. Expect new technology. New advances will be necessary to optimize sustainable intensification and utilize its products. Some are already well on their way to development, including the AFEX method (a biomass treatment process developed at Michigan State University) and advances in genome editing. Technology also has played a crucial role through geodesign technologies.

5. We’re already on our way. Through a series of workshops over the course of several months, researchers taught residents of the Seven Mile Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota about sustainable intensification and provided them with tools to apply this knowledge through geodesign. The results were positive.

6. Success involves collaboration. Collaboration played a key role in the workshop process and will be crucial in broader applications of the agricultural transformation. Successful implementation of sustainable intensification will require participation from all relevant stakeholders, including community members, governments, conservation groups and the agricultural industry.

7. Win + win + win + win. These concepts are especially exciting because they can benefit people across the board. Not only can they increase the productive capacity of agriculture and save money, they also have the potential to reduce environmental wrongs while utilizing local knowledge.

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

Big opportunity for cereal manufacturersPhoto by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Manufacturers of breakfast cereal have a far greater opportunity to reduce their supply chain carbon footprint than do the farmers who produce the grain, according to a new study by IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

Agriculture, a leading emitter of greenhouse gas, is often the main target of carbon reduction strategies, leaving food manufacturers off the hook. But not so fast, says the NiSE study. Examining cereal’s supply chain, NiSE researchers  found that manufacturing has more than six times more opportunity than ag to reduce the carbon footprint of corn cereal products and more than three times the ability for wheat cereal products. Read the full press release

Photo by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)


4 things we learned about the environment and electionsFlickr: Photo by Animesh Kumar (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Voters don’t always rank the environment high on their list of priorities during elections. With midterms coming up, Frontiers in the Environment took the problem head on and asked some local experts about the role of the environment in this year’s elections in Minnesota. David Gillette, special correspondent for Twin Cities Public Television, moderated a lively debate between Amy Koch, small business owner and former Minnesota Senate Republican majority leader, and Mark Andrew, a Democrat and former Hennepin County commissioner and president of GreenMark. Here are four things we learned.

  1.  Don’t underestimate PolyMet. What is the biggest environmental challenge facing Minnesota this year? Koch said it’s the proposed PolyMet mine. Andrew countered that this proposed copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota promises to bring hundreds of jobs, but at what cost? Toxic waste and pollution from the mine could pose a real threat to the natural areas of northern Minnesota, especially to the watersheds that feed into Lake Superior. This wedge issue could mean a lot for the future of Minnesota and could influence future decisions as well.
  2. Energy is big. In addition to the PolyMet mine, the debate focused heavily on the topic of energy efficiency. Koch said Republicans tend to see the issue through an affordability and reliability lens; Andrew argued that renewables are actually the more economical choice if you take into account the life cycle costs of traditional energy sources. Is solar competitive? Does nuclear have a future in Minnesota? These are among the types of questions that face politicians and the public.
  3. Politics continue to be politics. From energy efficiency to campaign spending, Andrew and Koch didn’t agree on much. Despite the polarization, as the debate shifted to questions about water quantity, both sides agreed that the system was flawed and inefficient, providing a glimmer of hope of possible cooperation in the future.
  4. “Emails, calls, visits to politicians do matter.” These wise words are from the insider’s perspective Koch received during her time in office. If you don’t like how things are being handled, then you have to make your voice heard, she said. That means voting and getting to know your representatives. You can’t complain if you aren’t acting.

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

Photo by Animesh Kumar (Flickr/Creative Commons)


Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonEPhoto: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (Flickr/Creative Commons)

There’s a panda at the Institute on the Environment — a World Wildlife Fund “panda,” that is. Derric Pennington, a senior conservation scientist with WWF and part of Natural Capital Project–WWF, has taken up residency here and is collaborating with IonE on several research projects, including one with The Coca-Cola Company and the Luc Hoffman Institute to assess just how effective sustainability certification standards are at improving our environmental footprint.

Sustainability certification of a commodity is like a best-management-practices treaty among stakeholders in the commodity’s supply chain. Take the Bonsucro certification standard, for example. A worldwide sugar cooperative, Bonsucro requires “producers, buyers and others involved in sugar and ethanol businesses to obtain products derived from sugarcane that have been produced according to agreed, credible, transparent and measurable criteria . . .  that promote measurable improvements in the key economic, environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production,” according to its website.  Continue reading

Acara: from idea to enterprisenews_AcaraSp15_main

University of Minnesota students: Do you have an idea for a business that could help solve a social or environmental problem at home or abroad? Whether that idea has been bouncing around in your brain, written on a napkin or is in the planning stages, IonE’s Acara social venture program can help you make it a reality.

Acara guides students through the steps it takes to turn ideas into viable enterprises. Through course work, competition and collaboration Acara prepares the next generation of leaders to develop practical business solutions that address some the world’s most pressing challenges. Here’s what they have in store for spring and summer 2015. Continue reading

8 things we learned about a clean water futureOctober 22 Frontiers in the Environment - Minnesota Clean Water

What would a clean water future look like for Minnesota? Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota; Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stein; and Deborah Swackhamer, a professor in the Humphrey School and School of Public Health, explored answers to that Big Question at last week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Here are eight things we learned: Continue reading

The Big Boreas Booya bashnews_boreas_main

Traveling around the Twin Cities and Minnesota this time of year, you may have seen a sign for a community event that read something like, “Booya on Saturday.” Earlier this month, folks at the University of Minnesota got to experience a booya right here on campus. The Boreas Leadership Program held a Big Boreas Booya that brought together current and future leaders from across campus and beyond to share stories and ideas.

Why booya?

A booya is an upper midwestern tradition of community stew, generally held in the fall. “Booya” refers to both the stew and the event. Booyas are often held by churches, fire departments and other community groups.

So, why a booya on campus for an environmental leadership development program?

Continue reading

Resilient community on the risecourtesy of City of Rosemount

Only one month into the fall semester there is already an unseasonable chill in the air. But things are heating up in classrooms across the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth campuses as more than 200 students in dozens of classes begin work on an impressive array of projects with the City of Rosemount, this year’s Resilient Communities Project partner community.

RCP, 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 and the Institute on the Environment, organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities. The partnership is bringing the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Rosemount city staff and community partners. Continue reading

6 things we learned about valuing natureOctober 15 Frontiers in the Environment - Wetlands

Should we put a price tag on nature? IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, Regent’s Professor of Applied Economics, Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior, and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota, explored that Big Question at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Following the talk, attendees participated in a lively Q&A session. Here are six things we learned: Continue reading

Earth science for your viewing pleasurePhoto by Will von Dauste

Did you know that humans eat more water than we drink? That tidbit is explained in “Eating Water,” one of four three-minute films that use data and imagery to explain scientific concepts. The films were created by the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of Science on Sphere, a project of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that aims to explain complex environmental concepts in easy-to-digest portions. Continue reading

5 things we learned about urban developmentUrban Innovations

Frontiers in the Environment sat down with Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiative, Wednesday for a lively panel discussion on urban development featuring Anne Hunt, the environmental policy director for the City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, director of strategic partnerships for Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, program director for the Resilient Communities Project at the University of Minnesota. Here are the five key things we learned: Continue reading

Ten things we learned about the energy transitionclean energy transition

This week’s Frontiers in the Environment was presented David Letterman–style by Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson and Energy Transition Lab faculty director Hari Osofsky, who is also an IonE resident fellow and Law School professor. The pair explored the “Top 10″ key areas of energy transition and the Energy Transition Lab’s role in them. Continue reading

New exhibit pays homage to ’60s “Earth art”news_exhibit_60s_art

A new exhibit opening Thursday, Oct. 2, in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space pays homage to the earth art movement of the 1960s. Also called land art and earthworks, the movement, according to Wikipedia, was an “artistic protest against the perceived artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialization of art at the end of the 1960s in America.” The exhibit features four prize-winning artworks created in spring 2014 by student groups from the University of Minnesota Art History course “Art and the Environment” (ArtH3434).

The title of the exhibit, 3434, is both practical and intriguing. “3434 was the course number, but it also characterizes some of the works’ experimental nature. Students from all over the University, including mechanical engineering, IonE, some science disciplines, music and studio art, learned about the history of the earth art movement,” says Jane Blocker, the College of Liberal Arts professor who taught the class. “Then they emulated the collaborative style of earth art groups working around the world today by contributing their distinctive skills and abilities to create art in response to an environmental problem.” Continue reading