5 things we learned about groundwaterFlickr: Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, Natural Capital project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading

Student start-ups win 2015 Acara ChallengeAcara Challenge participants explain their projects to attendees during an afternoon poster session. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.

Student-run impact ventures focused on solar-powered microgrids for rural India and environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products have been selected Gold Level winners of the 2015 Acara Challenge, a competition held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management. The top-level teams and other awardees will have the opportunity and resources to further develop their innovative business solutions for environmental and social challenges. Continue reading

10 things we learned about sustainability & happinessFlickr: Photo by Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?

1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits.

2. Trust. You might not realize how untrusting we are until you take a look at Denmark. It’s common for bikes to remain unlocked, violent crime rates are very low, and parents tend to give young children more freedom than is common in other countries.

3. Wealth. We all know money can’t buy happiness, but as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the people of Denmark have some peace of mind.

4. Civil society. Civil society is highly valued in Denmark. Roughly 35 percent of Danes preform unpaid voluntary work.

5. Freedom. Where words fail, unconventional entertainment might succeed. Nothing says freedom and fun more than small trampolines in the sidewalk.

6. Work. While many Americans operate on a 40-hour work week, the Danes generally work 33 hours. Even though most don’t work on farms, Danes feel connected to rural life because 60 percent of Danish land is agricultural.

7. Democracy. With numerous political parties, Denmark isn’t a replica of our system in the United States, but democracy is important to Danes.

8. Balance. A shorter work week gives Danes more free time. While hard work is important, they also value a healthy balance between work and life. For many, this may mean taking advantage of the long summer days by relaxing at a local park.

9. Hygge. Hygge is a Danish word that might be translated as a state of being cozy and comfortable. Although hard to describe, this is a huge part of how Danes see themselves and it helps to inform the decisions they make.

10. Design. From creatively shaped buildings to foosball tables in the streets, Denmark has a look all its own. The Danes have already start to recognize the opportunity to use design to promote environmentally conscious behavior.

So what does happiness have to do with sustainability? Do the Danes have something figured out? It’s hard to say for sure, but they do seem to be onto something. As a small nation of 5 million, translation of Denmark’s successes into a U.S. context won’t be easy. In addition to being vastly different sizes, each nation comes with their own culture and history. In Denmark, sustainability has become a way of life instead of a concept or vocabulary word. Creating this cultural shift of our perception of sustainability might be key if we want to follow their lead.

Photo by: Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr Creative Commons)

Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-BaresBanner photo by Nate Hughes (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. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work align with the mission of IonE?

All of my projects focus on various aspects of biodiversity — origins, monitoring biodiversity remotely, links in biodiversity between trophic levels, patterns of biodiversity in urban areas, the value of biodiversity to humans. Most relevant to IonE’s mission, perhaps, is the SESYNC (Socio Environmental SYNthesis Center) working group I am leading with Steve Polasky on the ecosystem services that plant species around the globe provide. A component of this project involves putting a partial monetary value on a species, which is obviously very controversial. Continue reading

4 things we learned about the human–environment bondevents_frontiers_feb_18_2

In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:

Continue reading

Earth as artPhoto of painting by Marjorie Schalles: Lena Delta, Siberia

Artist Marjorie Schalles had a case of cabin fever and needed an escape from the house in the winter of 2010. She and her husband decided to take a walk around the Mall of America, where they stumbled upon an exhibit of images of Earth captured by NASA satellites, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Service. The shapes, colors and textures of deltas, mountain ridges and other geographical features so excited her that she decided to use them as subjects for her paintings.

The result is an ever-expanding collection called earth, currently on display in the Institute on the Environment’s Commons Meeting & Art Space.

“I love re-creating the textures,” says Schalles, who came to Minnesota in 1991 and started painting a few years later.

Schalles paints with acrylic paints and uses paper, glue, string, packing material, the fake grass from a serving of sushi — any found object to represent the landscapes of Earth. “If you look down, there’s always something to use. I find stuff that’s been flattened by traffic. I’ve made a canyon out of a broken radio knob.”

An employee of the University since 2000, Schalles has created pieces that have been exhibited at Boynton Health Service, Coffman Union and various galleries in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her favorite installation was a demonstration for a group of 5th and 6th graders at a Shakopee Public Schools art and science fair, where she brought a white-painted canvas and demonstrated how she created the textures and colors for earth. “They were really fascinated with how a white canvas could be transformed,” she says. “They especially enjoyed the tactile aspect of the process.”

“This project has increased my awareness of how small we are in the universe,” says Schalles. “No matter where you look on the globe, if you zoom in, it’s beautiful and fascinating.”

An opening reception for earth is being planned for later this spring; the exhibit will run through May 2015.

Photo of painting by Marjorie Schalles: Lena Delta, Siberia

6 things we learned about cities and climate changePhoto by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

What better way to kick off the new round of Frontiers than by crossing national boundaries? In the first talk of 2015, Frontiers was joined by Martin Bigg, professor at the University of West England; Gayle Prest, sustainability manager for the City of Minneapolis; and Simon Sharpe, head of climate risk for the UK Foreign Office. This international panel provided information and inspiration on the ways in which cities matter for climate change. With case studies from Bristol to Minneapolis, here are six things we learned:

  1. The many lessons of Bristol. Located in the western UK, Bristol is not just any city — it’s the 2015 European Green Capital. After beating out serious competition, such as Brussels and Glasgow, the city does not take this title lightly. Now ranking with the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bristol has a commitment to reduce emissions and promote public transportation. To do this, it has reduced speed limits inside the city, added hybrid buses and invested in “poo-buses” (yes, really) powered by biomethane made from human and food waste.

Continue reading

Unraveling the complex web of global food tradePhoto by Louis Vest (Flickr Creative Commons)

Growing global trade is critically important for providing food when and where it’s needed — but it makes it harder to link the benefits of food and the environmental burden of its production. A study published this week in the journal BioScience by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at IonE proposes to extend the way we characterize global food trade to include nutritional value and resource consumption alongside more conventional measures of trade’s value.

“Trade is usually described in terms of the value or weight of the goods being exchanged,” said study lead Graham MacDonald, a postdoctoral research scholar with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “But these don’t necessarily capture other important aspects of food production and distribution. Accounting for food’s nutritional value and the land and water resources needed to produce exports offers a more holistic view of how trade affects global food security and the environment. Our study uniquely juxtaposes these perspectives.” Continue reading

A course of a different colorImage © wildpixel (iStock)

Each spring semester since 2011, scholars from places as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, Arizona and Minnesota have met in a virtual classroom. They hail from many disciplines and represent diverse cultural perspectives. Despite their differences, they convene under a common goal: the study of sustainability science.

This unique course, known as the Sustainability Science Distributed Graduate Seminar, focuses on core theories of sustainability science, an emerging field of problem-driven research dealing with interactions between humans and the environment, says Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. With support from the Institute on the Environment, Cavender-Bares and Steve Polasky, Regents Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a director of IonE’s Natural Capital Project, developed the course four years ago when they recognized that a diverse body of research would need to be integrated to meet the challenge of improving the well-being of future generations while conserving the planet’s life support systems over the long term. They have been teaching it ever since, bringing together faculty and graduate students from different disciplines,  universities, and cultures to discuss key concepts and controversies in the field, drawing upon research from earth systems science, resource economics, institutional analysis, ecology, evolutionary biology, geography, development studies and engineering. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnoldnews_BillArnold_main

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. Here we interview IonE resident fellow William Arnold, professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is the current focus of your work?

My team in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo- Engineering is studying how human impacts on the composition of organic matter in natural waters — due to wastewater, stormwater or agricultural runoff — affect the solar-driven reactivity with various contaminants, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We are trying to understand how the molecular structure and properties of organic matter influence the production of highly reactive intermediates (such as the hydroxyl radical) that are important in the destruction of contaminants. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict how fast various contaminants will degrade in different impacted waters and to design treatment systems that take advantage of sunlight-driven reaction processes. Continue reading

A ray of sunshine for bioenergymain_sunshine

Even at historically low natural gas prices, bioenergy may not be out of the running — it just may need a little help from the sun. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota examining the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute product concludes that combining these renewable resources can make economic sense.

In traditional biomass gasification, 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock is burned to produce heat for the process. But if the required thermal energy is supplied from a concentrated solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas. The study, published in Biomass and Bioenergy this week, developed a financial feasibility metric to determine the breakeven price of natural gas at which the produced syngas could be sold at a profit. The study suggests that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04–$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration. Continue reading

Online photos offer evidence for the value of clean waterPhoto by MJI Photos (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Flickr-based study shows lakes with greater water quality receive more visits and users are willing to travel further to reach them

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (2/2/15) – Think of the last time you planned a visit to a lake. Why did you choose the lake you did? Did you consider the quality of the water? The answers to these questions are critical to understanding how lake users make decisions about their recreation choices and the value society places on water resources.

New research published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution presents a novel approach to calculating the value of clean water. Analyzing photos posted to the online photo-sharing site Flickr, researchers at the Natural Capital Project and Iowa State University found Minnesota and Iowa lakes with greater water quality receive more visits than dirtier lakes, and that users are willing to travel farther to visit those clean, clear lakes. Continue reading

IonE researchers named Leopold Leadership FellowsPhoto © evirgen (iStock)

Two IonE-affiliated University of Minnesota faculty were among 20 environmental researchers from across the U.S. and Canada recently named 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellows.  Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences and an IonE resident fellow, and Elizabeth Borer, CBS associate professor and project lead of the IonE-funded Nutrient Network, will receive intensive leadership training to help them engage effectively with public and private sector leaders who face complex decisions about sustainability and the environment.

Leopold Fellows are chosen for their outstanding qualifications as researchers, demonstrated leadership ability and strong interest in sharing their knowledge beyond traditional academic audiences. Fellows participate in a weeklong training session on leadership and communications, followed by a year of practicing skills that will advance their efforts to lead change. The fellowship also offers peer networking and mentoring through the Leopold Leadership Network of program advisers, trainers and past fellows. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Mansonnews_StevenManson_main

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. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

While I believe sustaining humanity in the face of gradual climate change is probably the biggest challenge we face overall, I am particularly concerned about the potential for rapid shifts in climate-related systems that catch us by surprise. Continue reading

Climate has a big say in crop yield variabilitynews_climatecropyield_main

What impact will future climate change have on food supply? That depends in part on the extent to which variations in crop yield are attributable to variations in climate. A new report from researchers at IonE’s Gobal Landscapes Initiative has found that climate variability historically accounts for one-third of yield variability for maize, rice, wheat and soybeans worldwide — the equivalent of 36 million metric tons of food each year. This provides valuable information planners and policy makers can use to target efforts to stabilize farmer income and food supply and so boost food security in a warming world. Continue reading

Measuring carbon & water footprints just got easierione_main_warehouse

Which bag of coffee is more sustainable? Which television emits the lowest levels of greenhouse gases over its lifetime? Does a grass-fed beef hamburger use less water? For many who want to do right by the environment, these questions are not easily answered. Now, imagine that you buy hundreds of thousands of products every year. How would you decide which make the most difference from an environmental standpoint? Whether suppliers’ environmental performance claims hold water? What combination of environmentally preferred purchases is most cost-effective?

These questions are increasingly being asked by sourcing and supply chain managers at the largest global corporations and governments — arguably, some of the biggest buyers in the world. Today, the Global Environmental Management Initiative, in collaboration with the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and Climate Earth, introduced a tool that takes a first step at helping answer some of these questions. Continue reading

Investing in watersheds: Back to basicsPhoto by Steve Dunleavy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Investing in watersheds makes sense. Keeping water clean and flowing at the source is cheaper and more reliable than fixing problems downstream. It’s something people have been doing for a long time and in lots of places. Where I grew up in California there are lots of water supply reservoirs that are pretty to look at but off limits for swimming. Across the country in the Catskills watershed, New York City is paying folks to replace septic systems and keep cattle away from riverbanks instead of building a water filtration plant. And we’ve seen some pretty bad things happen when watersheds aren’t managed right, such as streams turning brown from sediment or drying up all together.

So watershed investments are hot. All over the world, governments, non-profits and businesses are getting excited about the possibility of paying residents upstream to take actions that will keep clean water flowing consistently downstream. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura MusacchioPhoto by Ryan Blyth (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. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work fit into the transdisciplinary framework of IonE?

With my IonE resident fellowship, I am working on how to enhance theory-to-practice integration of landscape stewardship and ecosystem services. There is a vast storehouse of academic knowledge that is waiting to be translated to real-world problems in professional practice. It is a key opportunity to enhance knowledge and action across the numerous disciplines at universities. However, one of the challenges is the multiple steps needed to decode the language of scientific research into the language of professional application and then back again.

Continue reading