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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Campus garden sprouts at U of M CrookstonPhoto by Tashi Gurung

Between the seemingly interminable June rains, ground was broken and crops began to sprout in the Allen and Freda Pederson Garden near the U of M Crookston campus. 

Dan Svedarsky, director of the Crookston Center for Sustainability, says completion of the project is “due in no small measure to support of the garden suppers,” funded through an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant. Continue reading

Incredible Indiaindianboy

“Incredible India” is the Government of India’s international marketing tagline, and it is spot on. But when Acara travels to India, the question is not which Himalayan peak to summit. It is, “How can business be used to impact the grand societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century?”

In May 2014, Acara sought to gain further insights into this question through our most recent study abroad program. We spent three eye-opening weeks in Bangalore, India with 14 University of Minnesota students from engineering, business, public health and design. We were there to discover challenges at the nexus of community development, infrastructure, and environment, as well as the entrepreneurial venture solutions that India’s change makers are passionately pursuing. Continue reading

Study: Oil palm plantations alter water qualityPhoto: Yadi Purwanto

New research from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Stanford University shows that freshwater stream ecosystems are highly vulnerable to oil palm plantation expansion.

The three-year study compared streams draining watersheds dominated by four land uses — intact forest, manually logged forest, community agroforest and oil palm plantation — in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, which is ground zero for palm oil production. Continue reading

Summertime viewing to enlighten and inspireearth_east_nasa

Keep your brain limber this summer by learning about cutting-edge solutions to the planet’s environmental grand challenges. During your down time, we invite you to watch video recordings of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment series, a forum for experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to informally share their work on a wide-range of cutting-edge issues, wrapped up with a lively Q&A.

Browse the archives or choose from this list of nine, hand picked from nearly 40 talks. They are sure to enlighten and inspire! Continue reading

On the edge of the Amazon, efficiency mattersIntensified croplands that grow commodities like soybeans and maize are becoming more common in the Eastern Amazon; here, primary Amazon forest exists meters away from high-productivity agricultural fields.
Credit: Christine S. O’Connell

As land resources come under more and more pressure — to grow food, support cities and house valuable ecosystems — scientists, activists and others are on the hunt for better ways to manage the terrestrial biosphere. One strategy is to increase the efficiency of croplands and pasture lands, particularly in ecosystems such as the Amazon forest where converting more land to agricultural use is environmentally costly.

As the world’s largest contiguous tropical forest, Amazonia is an important store of carbon, provides habitat for biodiverse communities and plays a part in regulating the global water cycle.

Moreover, the Amazon is a prime candidate for exploring whether increasing efficiency can help make agricultural land use more sustainable. Recently, David Lapola of Universidade Estadual Paulista and colleagues pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change that agriculture in Brazil, including Amazonia, is intensifying and becoming more dominated by commodity production, leading to systematic changes in land use. This intensification has been accompanied by lower rates of deforestation.

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Estar en el PrairieOur difference is our strength

Imagine yourself living in a foreign country where the native language is different from your own. Perhaps you have relocated with your family, or maybe your family is thousands of miles away and most people are strangers to you. What would you say about yourself to the people in this new country or to your family far away?

Dozens of Latino immigrants to western Minnesota are being asked this very question — and invited to display that message to the world.

Estar en el Prairie,” the current installation in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space, is a montage of immigrants photographed in their work,  home or school environment, holding a written message about themselves and their lives.

“I’m happy to experience a new world and meet people with their own universes,” and “Far from home with new horizons” are two of the messages. One newcomer chose to write that he prefers working in Minnesota to California.

The project was led by students at the University of Minnesota Morris. Come see the images and the stories they have to tell now through the end of summer.

Commons Meeting & Art Space
R350 Learning & Environmental Sciences Building
1954 Buford Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108

Directions >>

Photo: Nic McPhee

Acara teams make Minnesota Cup semifinalsMighty Axe Hops Hub

Four teams with roots in the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program have advanced to the semifinals in the 10th annual Minnesota Cup, the state’s largest venture competition.

Acara is a social entrepreneurship program that helps University of Minnesota students develop impact ventures that address societal and environmental challenges through courses, workshops and field experiences.

The four Acara-based social ventures were chosen from a pool of 1,300 and will be competing against 66 other teams for up to $30,000 in seed money for their start-ups. The ventures are:

  • MyRain – supplies drip irrigation systems to small-plot farmers in India
  • Pragati Palms – markets sustainably sourced Indian artisan crafts
  • Mighty Axe – grows Minnesota hops for local brewers
  • BDW Technologies –  is instituting a process for genetically engineering probiotic bacteria to counteract infection in farm animals.

In addition, IonE managing director and chief operating officer Lewis Gilbert has been advising another finalist, Kate Thompson of Ground Truth Collaborative.

Learn more about the Minnesota Cup and the semifinalists here.

Photo: Matthew Wildenauer

Tropic of Twin CitiesPhoto by Robert Pittman, Flickr Creative Commons

For many Minnesotans, “tropical” connotes vacation, beaches, pineapples and suntans. With the help of an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network (TC-Tropics for short) hopes to expand this view to include the great diversity of tropical environments beyond the beach.

Why the Tropics?

Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, the area of the earth surrounding the equator. The tropics contain the greatest levels of biodiversity in the world, including charismatic animals such as the orangutan and numerous species that have not yet been discovered by humans. Equatorial regions are home to beautiful coral reefs, forests that are critically important to global climate, and billions of people who live in remote rural areas, cities and everywhere in between. In other words, the tropics are a varied and vital part of the planet.

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