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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Lewis Gilbert named interim directorPhoto of the Institute on the Environment sign

In April, we announced that IonE director Jonathan Foley will be departing the University of Minnesota Aug. 15 to take a new position with the California Academy of Sciences. Under Foley’s leadership, IonE has grown to be a prominent, internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, and the University intends to uphold those high standards as senior leaders work to define IonE’s future direction and leadership.

To guide IonE through this transition, Vice President for Research Brian Herman has appointed Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s current managing director and chief operating officer, as interim director. Gilbert joined IonE in 2011, bringing with him extensive experience in academic entrepreneurship and in the design, implementation and management of complex interdisciplinary activities in large research universities. Among other accomplishments, Gilbert was one of the key architects in the creation of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Gilbert will assume leadership of IonE Aug. 15.

Additionally, the Office of the Vice President for Research has appointed a committee to lead a broad, consultative process that will result in a set of recommendations and a strategy for IonE going forward. As part of that process, the committee will consult widely with both internal and external stakeholders to determine the right path forward. Once the committee has made its recommendations, a search committee will be established to develop the profile and search process for the director position. The vice president for research hopes to have the new management structure in place by next summer.

Your input and support will continue to be invaluable going forward as the University establishes a firm foundation and launching pad for the future of IonE.

Ellen Anderson named executive director of energy labWind Turbines for Energy Transition Lab

Our energy system is in the midst of a major transition. Our power sources are shifting from coal to more natural gas and renewables. We need to upgrade our aging grid to accommodate those new sources. As our grid becomes “smarter,” we need it to be responsive and reliable. And new greenhouse gas emissions regulations and the need to make our grid resilient as the climate changes add further complexities.

This energy transition has the potential to spark innovation in business and the public sector, leading to new jobs and better outcomes for the community and our environment. Reaching that potential requires strong leadership. To provide that leadership, the University of Minnesota is launching the Energy Transition Lab with former state senator Ellen Anderson (J.D. ’86), senior advisor on energy and environment to Governor Dayton, as its inaugural executive director. Continue reading

Biofuels and the fiction of the average farmCorn Ethanol

Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?

I say “obvious” because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a “bad idea” because of corn’s apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

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Frontiers: Understanding urban eutrophicationUrban runoff

When you think about the primary sources of water pollution, you probably imagine a factory pipe or perhaps massive livestock farms. But would you believe that your quiet neighborhood could be degrading water quality locally and downstream?

Portrait: Sarah HobbieThat was the topic of the season finale of Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture series on Wednesday, May 7, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “A Watershed Approach to Understanding Urban Eutrophication,” Sarah Hobbie, an IonE resident fellow and professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, discussed how nutrients from lawns, pets and boulevard trees contribute to excessive algal growth in urban water bodies.

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Accolades for Acaraacara banner

With its innovative work to encourage impact entrepreneurship around the world,we’ve always had a hunch the Acara program is something special. That hunch got some solid affirmation recently when Acara won the C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives (III Award) from the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. The award recognizes faculty and staff who internationalize their work or the work of their department. The recipients receive an award trophy and a $2,500 professional development or program assistance stipend.

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Leaders are made, not bornseagull

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made,” said revered football coach Vince Lombardi. That’s the guiding principle behind the Boreas Leadership Program, a strategic initiative of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Boreas offers leadership development opportunities to graduate, professional and postdoctoral students from all University colleges.

Boreas seeks to develop the next generation of social and environmental leaders — those who will tackle the tough challenges facing the world today — through skills workshops, networking and mentoring events (the weekly Boreas Booyah!), and participation on a student advisory board.

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Frontiers: Adventures in carbon reductionElectricity transmission lines

Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed for reductions in carbon emissions. Now, it seems the era of carbon regulation may be upon us.

Portrait: J. Drake HamiltonBut implementing these complex regulations is complicated and takes place at both the federal and state levels. This was the topic of Fresh Energy science policy director J. Drake Hamilton’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Wednesday, April 30 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Adventures on the Frontiers of Carbon Reduction,” Hamilton emphasized the need to educate the public on new and existing policies impacting carbon emissions for broader public involvement.

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Paddle forward: Mississippi RiverPaddle group

Last fall, 10 other people and I paddled more than 2,000 miles in canoes. Our trip was called Paddle Forward, and we were on a mission to paddle the length of the Mississippi River. I’ve been paddling for years but mostly in wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters. While I love these places and enjoy the quiet time alone in nature, recreating on local waterways brings a new appreciation to the place you live.

I spent the majority of college learning about environmental issues surrounding climate change, such as energy usage, water depletion, resource extraction and decreases in biodiversity. Alone, secluded in serene wilderness, you are less likely to think about difficult climate issues. However, while paddling a river that more than 50 cities depend on for daily water supply, you can’t escape noticing the effects humans have on the fourth largest watershed in the world. Continue reading

Go Minnesota NatCap!Natural Capital

Policy makers, land managers, and other stakeholders confront a dizzying array of environmental decisions. How do we best manage our natural resources? Where should we invest in conservation? Do we need stricter regulation of development or industry?

The Natural Capital Project, a core program of the Institute on the Environment, develops innovative tools and approaches to inform these important questions. Starting this year, the Minnesota team will add three full-time research positions — a lead scientist, an ecologist and an economist. The growing NatCap presence at IonE will enhance the program’s ability to meet increasing demand for data and tools that quantify the values of natural capital. Continue reading

Frontiers: Sustainability & corporate social responsibilityScandinvian Flags

When you think about Scandinavia, you probably think of its cold climate, warm people and high quality of life. But you may want to add “sustainable business model” to that list.

Portrait: Robert StrandRobert Strand, assistant professor of leadership and sustainability at the Copenhagen Business School and director of the Nordic Network for Sustainability, delivered his Frontiers in the Environment lecture about the Scandinavian approach to sustainability in the private sector on April 23 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Scandinavia: Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Strand discussed why large corporations are earning a bad reputation among members of the general public.

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Unfair air?Air Pollution

People of color in the U.S. are exposed to 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide air pollution in the neighborhoods in which they live than are white people, according to new research from the University of Minnesota. The exposure they receive results in approximately 7,000 heart-related deaths per year.

U of M Instititute on the Environment resident fellows Julian Marshall and Dylan Millet and fellow researcher Lara Clark compared U.S. Census data and nitrogen dioxide levels in cities across the country and found that, irrespective of income, nonwhites had higher average exposure to nitrogen dioxide than whites. The findings received extensive coverage in the media this past week. Continue reading

Frontiers: Global capital & disease hot spotsPigs

Our world is more connected than ever. It’s now easy to live in the United States, buy airfare to Europe, send money to Africa and eat food from Asia. And while this global connectivity comes with a slew of benefits, it also opens the door to the spread of disease and potential for worldwide epidemics.

Portrait: Robert WallaceRobert Wallace, visiting scholar with the Institute for Global Studies, discussed the need to rethink how we define “disease hot spots” from locations where outbreaks originate to global centers of capital that drive disease-causing practices in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture on April 16.

In his talk “Global Capital and Disease Hot Spots,” Wallace presented the concept of One Health, a new public health approach focusing on the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

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