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Taking conservation to where the wild things are: farmlands and cities as the new frontiers for carnivore conservation

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 4:08pm

Written by Rekha Warrier, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Monarch of all it surveys

In popular conception, the tiger is painted as a creature of the jungle. A beast most at home in the shadows of dense woods and grasslands. Existing conservation measures for the species help perpetuate this imagery - most tiger reserves begin and end at the boundaries of jungles. Only when we look past these boundaries does a surprising image of the tiger unfold. My research in the sugarcane farmlands of the Terai region has revealed that the tiger is as much at home in a sugarcane field as it is in Kipling’s vividly imagined forests in the Jungle Book. Moreover, in the sugarcane farmlands of northern India, where I conduct my research, the presence of tigers on village lands is a commonly accepted social reality not different from our acceptance of raccoons or foxes as part of the Fort Collins cityscape.

The night is dark and full of terrors!

This surprising fact about the tiger can be generalized to most large carnivores. Mountain lions have been documented to use parks within the city of Los Angeles at dusk (Riley et al 2014). In fact, the celebrity mountain lion P-22 is the chief suspect in the death of the koala housed in the city zoo last year ( Leopards have been shown to eke out a modest living off stray dogs amidst the urban sprawl of Mumbai, India. Western Europe, the most industrialized place in the world today, harbors more wolves than the continental USA.

These examples are only a few from among myriad cases involving large carnivores living in very close proximity to humans. It should be unsurprising then to learn that almost 90 % of the ranges of large carnivores today lie outside the boundaries of protected areas. In most cases these species rely on patches of natural habitats during the day and expand their territories into human modified areas at night to exploit resources. These resources could include the trash that dots urban areas that attract bears and coyotes or the dense cover that sugarcane crop offers to tigresses with cubs. What then does this portend for the future of large carnivores on our increasingly crowded planet?

“The boundary between tame and wild exists only in the imperfections of the human mind!” Aldo Leopold


Where will large carnivores persist in the face of human population explosion and climate change? Addressing this question has been an area of active research in conservation biology (Minin et al 2016). Possible answers to this question however have long been predicated by our prejudices of where these species can persist (Ghosal et al 2013). A dichotomous view of the world underpins the prevailing conservation paradigm. As per this view the world is comprised of wild and tame areas and large carnivores are creatures of the wild.  Vast and pristine protected areas have therefore been the preferred locations for the conservation of large carnivores. Consequently, large carnivores have remained outside the purview of modern debates surrounding biodiversity conservation on human modified lands. For example, the conversations about how agricultural lands should be managed in the future for biodiversity conservation (land sharing vs land sparing) (Phalan et al 2011) have excluded large carnivores. In addition, the myopic conservation focus on existing protected areas comes at the cost of neglecting individuals that range beyond their boundaries seasonally and/or sporadically.

It is therefore important to acknowledge that wide ranging species such as tigers and other large carnivores do not share our binary view of landscapes. To them, landscapes are a continuum of resources and threats that they often navigate expertly. It is therefore conceivable that given appropriate measures, human modified lands could help expand the area currently available to carnivore conservation world-wide. The pertinent question then is what measures need to be put in place to realize this vision?

“Tigers, except when wounded or when man-eaters, are on the whole very good-tempered...” Jim Corbett

In his book ‘The Descent of Man’, Charles Darwin suggested that our innate fear of darkness may be an adaptation to the risk of predation. Through much of our evolutionary history we have dealt with the very real risk of predation from lions, tigers, bears and wolves (Packer et al 2011). The vilification or deification of these species across human cultures is a response to the persistent threats they posed to human life and property. Engendering support for the conservation of large carnivores is thus most encumbered by the deep rooted and diverse prejudices that humans nurture towards them.  For example, this year alone, a man-eating tiger killed 17 people in my research site, yet community attitudes remain favorable towards tiger conservation. Can this favorable attitude be interpreted to mean that 17 human lives in a year is an acceptable price to pay for the conservation of an endangered species? In contrast, the issue of reintroduction of wolves in the western US remains highly contentious despite there being no known threat to human life on account of the species.

The most important measure, therefore, to ensure the conservation of large carnivores into the future is for conservationists to understand and address the actual and perceived risks that these species pose to the human communities with which they interact. In the case of tigers in my study area, the risks are largely the result of accidental or deliberate attacks on humans by tigers. Wolves and bears in the US and Europe may cause significant losses of livestock. While compensation schemes exist in all landscapes to mitigate losses, they are no panacea. A principal reason for this is that the valuation of the loss that someone experiences is often difficult, and where human lives are concerned, perhaps immoral. A more comprehensive strategy should involve devising measures to reduce the absolute risk that communities experience on account of these species. This may be achieved through a more thorough understanding of carnivore ecology in human modified landscapes and devising conflict prevention strategies. Such strategies could include devising better livestock herding practices that are based on an understanding of depredation behavior. In areas where attacks on humans are common putting in place safety measures and warning systems based on an understanding of carnivore habitat use are possible risk-reduction measures.

Whose conservation is it anyway?

The history of carnivore conservation is a checkered one. In the tropics, it is riddled with instances of eviction of communities from protected areas and the denial of community access to forest resources. Conservation of these species has typically been driven by the “existence value” placed on the species by people who are buffered from the potential risks these species may pose. If we are to embrace a landscape-scale conservation vision for carnivores it is important first to acknowledge that our attention cannot be narrowly focused on the species alone. Rather, this new vision of conservation should explicitly recognize the fact that it is local communities who shoulder the burden of our conservation ethos. Regardless of the attitudes that local communities may display towards carnivores, they should be made beneficiaries of the conservation program. This could take the form of a payment for ecological services style scheme or even placing a premium on products generated from carnivore friendly practices.

From the time of our inception as a species, we have shared the world with large carnivores. Yet it is only now that we are beginning to fully comprehend their behavioral complexity. Similarly, we are only just starting to recognize the complexity of human attitudes towards them. Hopefully, these nuanced insights into the full scope of human-carnivore interactions will help us understand how we might better coexist with these species in our rapidly changing world.


Di Minin, E., Slotow, R., Hunter, L.T., Pouzols, F.M., Toivonen, T., Verburg, P.H., Leader-Williams, N., Petracca, L. and Moilanen, A., 2016. Global priorities for national carnivore conservation under land use change. Scientific Reports, 6.
Ghosal, S., Athreya, V.R., Linnell, J.D. and Vedeld, P.O., 2013. An ontological crisis? A review of large felid conservation in India. Biodiversity and conservation, 22(11), pp.2665-2681.
Packer, C., Swanson, A., Ikanda, D. and Kushnir, H., 2011. Fear of darkness, the full moon and the nocturnal ecology of African lions. PloS one, 6(7), p.e22285.
Phalan, B., Onial, M., Balmford, A. and Green, R.E., 2011. Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: land sharing and land sparing compared. Science, 333(6047), pp.1289-1291.
Riley, S.P., Serieys, L.E., Pollinger, J.P., Sikich, J.A., Dalbeck, L., Wayne, R.K. and Ernest, H.B., 2014. Individual behaviors dominate the dynamics of an urban mountain lion population isolated by roads. Current Biology, 24(17), pp.1989-1994.

Farm Fresh Alexa: Implication of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods for sustainable food system

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 11:45am

Written by Libby Christensen, PhD. a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics

Last week I posed the question to my class, if you had $200 million, what would you do to fix the food system? Over the last two and half months, I have been meeting weekly with 40 undergraduate students in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. During class, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the current food systems, and efforts around the country to improve or develop alternatives to that system. Each week, I encourage my student to consider the challenges to creating a sustainable food system by exploring a particular topic be it food waste, livestock production, food deserts, or the distribution system. One event that was recently in the news with important implications for the future of the U.S. food system is Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods.

At its core, the issue is around concentration in the food system. Amazon simplified many of our lives. Through their coordinated supply chains and easy online interfaces, they created a one-stop shop for all of our modern needs from entertainment to toilet paper. While their expansion into food has the potential to increase efficiencies and expanded access to a greater array of food products, the consolidation of market share by one entity has the potential to distort the market. As was noted in Spider Man, “With great power, comes great responsibility”.

Whole Foods started in 1980 as a small natural food store in Austin, Texas. Beginning in 1984, Whole Foods quickly expanded beyond the city of Austin. First opening stores in Houston and Dallas, and in 1989 opening their first California location. It then began aggressively expanding through the acquisition of smaller, geographically limited, natural food stores across the country (Howard, 2009). Whole Foods opened its 100th store in 1999, quickly becoming the nation’s most visible natural and organic food retailer.

As organic foods increased in popularity and represented one of the biggest growth categories for traditional food retailers, competition for market share increased. By 2015, traditional grocers and supercenter centers were responsible for 53% of organic food sales, while natural retailers, like Whole Foods, accounted for just over 37% (OTA, 2016). By the first quarter of 2017, Whole Foods reported its worst performance in a decade, and closed nine stores. As one analyst for Edward Jones explained, “Whole Foods created this space and had it all to themselves for years, but in the past five years a lot of people started piling in. And now there is a lot of competition” (quoted in Dewey, 2017).

In June of 2017, Amazon announced its plan to acquire Whole Foods. After one month of review by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Amazon closed on the acquisition on August 29, 2017 for $13.7 billion (Bhattarai, 2017). The acquisition catapults the e-commerce giant into hundreds of physical stores and fulfills a long-term goal of selling more groceries.

Despite its impressive growth, Whole Foods is still relatively small compared to other food retailers, accounting for 1.2% of the food retail market share (Cheddar Berk, 2017). Yet, it presents a unique opportunity for Amazon to finally successfully enter the world of food sales. Despite being the world’s largest online retail, with sales greater than the next ten online retailers combined, Amazon has continued to struggle with food sales. In 2007, Amazon tried to break into food sales with Fresh, and expanded its food offering with Prime Pantry and experimented with Go, a fully automated grocery store in Seattle, without much success. The acquisition of Whole Foods provides Amazon a proven venue for food sales.

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods sent shockwaves throughout the food retail sector. Stocks for other food retailers dropped dramatically. It has also left many of us in the field of food systems, considering the broader implications for the future of the U.S. food system.

The first visible impact of the acquisition for consumers was lower prices on key food staples across the store. The lower prices were concentrated at the front of the store on items like bananas, eggs, and avocados. Newspaper articles led with headlines like, “The real price of Whole Foods’ suddenly cheaper avocados” from Slate, “ Amazon’s play to rattle Whole Foods rivals: Cheaper kale and avocado” from the NY Times, and “Amazon will cut prices on avocados at Whole Foods” from The Verge. In an industrial sector with relatively inelastic pricing, the company made a concerted effort to effectively highlight the change in prices, showing prices before and after the acquisition. While this may have a short-term positive impact on the accessibility of healthy food options for consumers, some fear the initial lowering of prices is a ploy to attract new customers. Once the company secures the desired market share, Amazon will be able to make monopolistic decisions regarding what products are available and at what price. Quotes from two food system experts capture the potential opportunities and threats of the merger. Marion Nestle, professor of in NYU’s Nutrition and Food Studies program was quoted as saying, “This is monopoly capitalism in action” while Brian Frank, a food tech investor and advisor, posits that Amazon knowledge and expertise in the world of supply chain logistics “will democratize access and over time hopefully will create efficiencies that will reduce price” (both quoted in Giller, 2017).

For now it seems only time will tell how the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon will play out with regards to the sustainability of the U.S. food system. Much of the conversation surrounding the acquisition echoes the fears and hopes expressed during the expansion of Wal-Mart.



Bhattarai, A. (2017, August 23). FTC Clears Purchase of Whole Foods. Washington Post.

Cheddar Berk, C. (2017, June 16). Amazon and Whole Foods Control Only a Sliver of the Grocery Market – For Now. CNBC.

Dewey, C. (2017, February 9). Why Whole Foods is Now Struggling? Washington Post.

Giller, M. (2017, August 24). Whole Foods Prices Will Drop Significantly After Amazon Deal. Eater.

Heins, S. (2017, August 28). Whole Foods Trots Out Cheap Avocados and ‘Farm Fresh’ Alexa Devices on 1st Day of Amazon Takeover. Gothamist.

Howard, P. (2009). Organic Industry Structure. Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, 5(3).

Organic trade Association. (2016). U.S. Organic Sales Post New Record of $43.3 Billion in 2015. Washington, D.C.

Artificial Intelligence and the Challenge of Sustainability

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 4:03pm

Written by Faizal Rohmat, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

The challenge of sustainability

Today we are faced with the monumental challenge of sustainability. By the middle of this century, the United Nations predicts the earth will be inhabited by more than 10 billion people [1]. This high rate of population growth puts serious pressures on ecosystems, both wild and agricultural. One example of how our population strains resources is the increase, nearly 100%, in our grain demand [2]. Attaining sustainable outcomes is even more important because the world is being impacted by our population today. Unless something unimaginable happens, human population growth is inevitable. To accommodate such growth, humans must be able to manage their interaction with the ecosystems in sustainable ways. This means that current demand on resources must be met without compromising the supply of resources that will be needed for future generations to meet their needs, as sustainability is defined by WCED [3].

Pryshlakivsky and Searcy mentioned that numerous efforts to implement sustainability over the past two decades on a national, regional and organizational scale have been generally less than satisfactory [4]. Researchers refer to this failure of to implement sustainable development, or sustainability in general, as “complexity and uncertainty of natural and social phenomena” [5], “seemingly random interpretations and competing frameworks” of sustainability [6], and the “difficulties experienced in implementing any holistic approach” [7]. The challenge of sustainability is a wicked problem because it lacks clarity, incomplete, contradictory, and has system-of-system complexity [4]. We need to solve this sustainability problem in a way better than we have for the past two decades.

What is AI, its history, and where we are

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be the way to solve the wicked challenge of sustainability. AI is the intelligent behavior performed by the machine, as opposed to the behavior of natural intelligence performed by living things. The AI discipline first appeared in 1956 through the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence [8]. In the next decade, research on the idea of AI blossomed, followed by various disappointments in the late 1970s, then reached its nadir point at the "AI winter" in the late 1980s [9]. Followed later in the 1980s - 1990s with research focusing on machine learning, i.e., ways to achieve artificial intelligence. Then in the early 21st century, with advances in computer software and hardware, promotes we saw the growth of AI research, development, and use in several disciplines. Today, AI has become a part of our daily lives, such as Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, IBM's Watson, and even the driverless cars that will soon fill our streets [10].

The AI forms we have used in our daily life, according to Stephen Hawking, are still the primitive forms of AI. Nevertheless, it is enough to worry him about the dangers of intelligence, one of which includes the has the power to either destroy humanity [11]. Even back in March 2016, the world was shocked by the defeat of Lee Sedol, 18-times world champion Go chess game, by AI AlphaGo with a score of 4-1 [12]. Deep blue had beaten human chess grandmaster two decades ago, but the Go victory was special because Go chess is more analytically hard to crack for the computers and requires a more human-like way of thinking [13]. This breakthrough in the ability of a machine to compete against and beat humans in a game that challenges human analytical ability brings anxiety regarding evil AI robots like those in the Terminator films.

On the other hand, the emergence of AI also presents us optimism. We have a long history of success being innovative. Fire, domestication, steam machines, electricity, cars, smartphones are just a few examples where we have used technology to benefit our species. We had fears of strange and powerful things until we eventually managed to tame them and utilize them to achieve our objectives. Now, we are going to do the same and use AI to solve the wicked challenge of sustainability.

AI, machine learning, and how we can utilize them

The first cause of dissatisfaction with sustainability efforts is the complex nature of sustainability issues and our lack of understanding of how ecosystems work. The ecosystem is very complex; everything interacts with everything. We do not know exactly what the consequences of what we do. But, as Pedro Dominggos says in his book "The Master Algorithm", with more sensors and more data we have now through the big data blast combined with better machine learning, we are able to create better models so we can understand better about how the whole ecosystem works [14]. Dominggos even calls "the automation of discovery" as one of the definitions of machine learning. Machine learning helps us automate the discovery by learning from the existing knowledge, fill in the gaps, and systematically reduce uncertainties [14]. This is basically traveling down the road of discovery by cars instead of walking. Machine learning, as a subset of AI, can amplify what we already know and accelerate the pace of discovery to make us better understand how the ecosystem works.

The next point about the challenge of sustainability is the difficulty of implementing a holistic approach to addressing the challenges of sustainability. The approach that has been done to address sustainability challenges is through computer modeling to gain understanding and simulate scenarios of the specific components of the ecosystem. Currently, we already have computer models of specific components of the ecosystem, such as the model of ocean currents, atmospheric models, or models of animal diseases. However, we still lack a great way to combine these specific components into a holistic model. AI, especially through machine learning approach, with the characteristics of input-output mapping, adaptivity, very-large-scale-integration implementation, and neurobiological analogy [15], can help us combine individual models into a more holistic ecosystem model. An example is what Triana did in Lower Arkansas River Basin where he simulated the effects of agricultural practice scenarios to the sustainability of the irrigation valley by utilizing machine learning techniques for coupling groundwater and stream water models [16]. His research has proven to be way faster than the classical approach of groundwater-stream water model coupling. This example of coupling two individual models can be scaled to any numbers of individual models. With a more holistic ecosystem model, we can better understand ecosystems as a whole and see what happens to the ecosystem if we do different things. We can model scenarios that are of great benefit to us while minimizing the side effects on ecosystems without doing them in a real situation. With the application of AI, we can see further down the road and gain public support for proposing the sustainability solution.

In conclusion, we need to address this sustainability challenge in a better way than we have done so far and AI has great potential to help us answer those challenges. AI can amplify the knowledge we already have about the ecosystem, accelerate the pace of discovery, incorporate individual models into holistic, and help us simulate what-if scenarios so that we can make better decisions to answer the challenge of sustainability.


[2] Alexandratos, N., 1999. World food and agriculture: Outlook for the medium and longer term. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96(11), p. 5908–5914.

[3] WCED (1987) Our common future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4] Jonathan Pryshlakivsky and Cory Searcy. 2013. Sustainable Development as a Wicked Problem.

[5] Midgley G, Reynolds M (2004) Systems/operational research and sustainable development:

towards a new agenda. Sustain Dev 12(1):56–64.

[6] Frame B, Brown J (2008) Developing post-normal technologies for sustainability. Ecol Econ


[7] Espinosa A, Harnden R, Walker J (2008) A complexity approach to sustainability—Stafford Beer

revisited. Eur J Oper Res 187:636–651







[14] Domingos, Pedro. The master algorithm: How the quest for the ultimate learning machine will remake our world. Basic Books, 2015.

[15] Haykin, Simon S. Adaptive filter theory. Pearson Education India, 2008.

[16] Triana, E., Labadie, J. W., Gates, T. K. & Anderson, C. W., 2010. Neural network approach to stream-aquifer modeling for improved river basin management. Journal of Hydrology, 391(3-4), pp. 235-247.

The Changing Climate of Science

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 1:34pm

Written by Brandon Wolding, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student for the Department of Atmospheric Science.

The Denver March For Science

I was cold. I knew I should have worn a sweatshirt. Clutching my mug for warmth, I looked pensively at the sky, and then decided to drink the last of my coffee. It had been raining on and off for the last couple of hours, but it looked like the sky was about to clear, just in time for the march. There was a feeling of nervous excitement in the air, and people around me were finding comfort in chitchat. I met Mary from Castle Rock, CO, who likes to write in her free time, and works as a Zoologist. I met Megan, Bob, and their son Luis, who were from Niwah, CO. Megan and Bob spend most of their weekends biking, and both work as doctors. I met Jeanette and Deb, who had beaming smiles, and Paul, who loves photography and watercolor. We had all come, along with the thousands of other people gathered around Denver’s Civic Center Park, to join in the March for Science.

According to the March for Science Facebook page, the goal of the march was to “… defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” Marching with Mary, Megan, and Bob, I found myself wondering how it had come to a point where our scientific institutions needed to be “defended.” I couldn’t imagine there were many people that didn’t like Mary, Megan or Bob. I also couldn’t imagine that there were many people who thought that what they did wasn’t useful. But it seems that when Mary, Megan and Bob are viewed as part of a larger collective, as part of a broader scientific institution, it becomes easier for false narratives to arise about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why it does or doesn’t matter.

Putting Faces To Science

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that false narratives can arise about our scientific institutions, narratives that are counter to who scientists are as individuals. We scientists are particularly adept at abstracting our individuality from our work. It is trained into us through years of schooling and research. Our papers, our talks, our presentations, they all have the same predictable storyline: introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and finally conclusions. We are largely trained to give explanations of our research devoid of personal information about who we are and why we do what we do. But the growing distrust of scientific institutions highlights the importance of the broader public identifying with scientists as individuals, as friends, neighbors, and family, not as strangers in a lab in some remote land.

This blog was an opportunity for me to try something different, to present my work in a fashion different than my usual introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and conclusions. Given the changing climate of science, I thought there may be as much value in introducing myself as there would be in introducing my work.

I Am A Scientist

Hi, my name is Brandon. Here is a photo of me with my wife Jennifer, and our two dogs Dobie and Kaia.

Jen and I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and have been living in Colorado for 6 years now. We love the mountains, and just like many other mid-west transplants to Colorado, we spend every free weekend climbing, biking, and camping in the mountains. We also binge-watch Netflix and HBO every time a new season House of Cards or Game of Thrones comes out. Jen works as a speech-language pathologist in a grade school just down the road from our house, and I recently completed my Ph.D. in atmospheric science. I love the drama of research, the rollercoaster of excitement and frustration in trying to understand something new. Digging through data sets feels like a giant treasure hunt to me. It almost makes me as happy as surfing and climbing, almost. I am often kept up at night running over equations in my mind, looking for a solution I haven’t found yet. I am a scientist.

What I Research And Why It Matters

I have spent the better part of a decade researching a completely different type of organization than that which occurred in Denver this weekend; the organization of clouds, and how this organization will impact our changing climate. Look at any photo of Earth taken from space, and one of the first things you will notice is that clouds cover a large portion of the Earth’s surface. You may also notice that the clouds are not randomly scattered, but instead tend to organize into clusters or groups of various sizes. The tendency of clouds to organize into groups affects the weather that we experience, as well as the climate of our planet. My research is focused on understanding why clouds like to organize, and how this may impact the Earth’s changing climate. Understanding how clouds, and their organization, will change as the climate warms is crucial to answering one of the most important questions of our time: How warm is our planet going to get?

Last year the United States became a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, a primary aim of which is to hold “… the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.” The role the United States should, or should not, play in combating climate change has become an incredibly contentious issue. Taxpayers want to know how much it is going to cost, and parents want to know if it will be enough to secure a safe future for their children. Understanding “feedbacks” between clouds and climate, which my research aims to do, is absolutely central to answering both of these questions.

The Importance of Communicating Who Scientists Are

History has taught us that there is a very simple formula that can be used to pit ourselves against one another. Step one is to make “them” be seen as different: to erase the commonalities we share, which are many, and exaggerate the differences we have, which are few. This experiment of division need not be repeated again. Just as creating change requires people to act at both an individual and an institutional level, creating unity requires people to be understood at both an individual and an institutional level. If the changing climate of science is to be combated, it is important that scientists and scientific institutions put as much effort into communicating who they are as they put into communicating what they do.

An overlooked carbon sink? The influence of rivers and floodplains on the carbon cycle

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 12:57pm

Written by Katherine Lininger, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate for the Department of Geosciences.

Carbon is all around us— it is an essential component of air, and it forms the foundation for all living things. Carbon is taken from the atmosphere by plants through photosynthesis, incorporated into soils by organisms, and released to the atmosphere during decomposition of organic matter. The carbon dioxide that we emit by burning fossil fuels warms our planet and disrupts our climate. Having a grasp of the global carbon cycle, or how carbon moves between the land, ocean, and the atmosphere, is important for understanding human-induced climate change. As we emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we can’t accurately predict future warming unless we know where carbon is, how it moves, how likely it is to go into the atmosphere, and where it is stored on the earth. In other words, we need a better understanding of the carbon cycle in order to understand how humans are modifying the climate by releasing carbon into the air.

Rivers play a role in the carbon cycle because they erode the landscape and carry soil and carbon from the land to the ocean. As carbon moves in and along rivers, it can decompose and be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Eventually, rivers can deliver carbon and soil to the ocean. Along it’s path from the land to the ocean, however, carbon can also be deposited in floodplains and stored for up to thousands of years. Unfortunately, the ability of river channels and floodplains, together known as river corridors, to store carbon has been reduced due to human modifications of our river systems.

The role of river corridors in the carbon cycle

The amount of carbon stored in soil globally is about twice the amount that is in the atmosphere. Needless to say, soil carbon is a large and important stock within the global carbon cycle. As described by SoGES sustainability fellow Derek Schook, rivers erode and transport soil from the land, moving it around and depositing it elsewhere. Rivers also transport and deposit dead trees (known as large wood), and about half of the mass of large wood is carbon. Carbon that enters a river has three potential fates. First is that bugs and microbes will eat the carbon as an energy source, eventually releasing it to the atmosphere. Second, some of the carbon that enters rivers will make it out to the ocean and be buried in ocean sediments. A third fate of carbon in river corridors is burial in floodplains, which results in carbon being stored for long periods of time.

As a PhD candidate, I am determining how much carbon is stored in floodplain soils in the Yukon River Basin in central Alaska. My research is part of a larger reserach initiative looking looking at carbon in many different river corridors. We are trying to figure out what physical characteristics of rivers result in carbon storage in river corridors. How do rivers erode and deposit carbon in their floodplains, and what parts of the floodplain store the most carbon? How long does carbon stored in floodplains stay there before being re-eroded by the river? How important is carbon storage in floodplains and rivers compared to carbon storage in other parts of the landscape? These are the questions that will help us better understand the role of river corridors in the global carbon cycle. Little is known today, and we are only beginning to answer these questions.

Human activities have likely reduced carbon storage in river corridors

A striking example of humans reducing floodplain carbon storage can be found in a study of the lower Mississippi River valley. The scientists estimated that the amount of carbon stored in floodplain soils and floodplain forests is only about 2% of what was historically present before agricultural development and river modification.  Worldwide, we have modified river corridors extensively by damming and extracting flow from rivers, modifying river banks, removing large pieces of wood and beavers from rivers, building levees and disconnecting the river channel from its floodplain, and clearing native vegetation to allow for agriculture and urban development.

Floodplain soils are good places to grow crops—they are nutrient rich and full of carbon because the river has delivered sediment and nutrients over long periods of time. Without human modification, wet and messy floodplains have the potential to store a lot of carbon. Decomposition, which releases carbon into the air, is slow when soil is submerged by water, and physically complex floodplains with lots of oxbow lakes, side channels, and space for sediment provide good trapping areas for carbon. Pieces of large wood, either by themselves or in large accumulations, trap sediment and help to create more complex floodplains. Similarly, beavers create extensive wetlands, storing sediment, nutrients, and water.

But, if we simplify river channels and their floodplains, river corridors likely store less carbon. Damming rivers and extracting flow can reduce flooding, cutting off delivery of wood, organic material, and sediment to the floodplain. Building levees also cuts off the connection between the river and floodplain, and removing large wood reduces the physical complexity of rivers. We have drastically reduced historic beaver populations through beaver trapping, removing an animal that actively promotes storing carbon on the landscape by creating beaver ponds and wetlands. Replacing native floodplain vegetation with crops and urban development reduces the amount of carbon stored in plants in the floodplain. The carbon in river corridors doesn’t just disappear when humans modify floodplains and channels—it can be added to the atmosphere, joining the other carbon molecules emitted by burning of fossil fuels. So, when thinking about managing atmospheric carbon and greenhouse gases, we shouldn’t forget about all of the potential storage areas for carbon on the land, including river corridors.

Can we manage rivers and floodplains to enhance carbon storage?

Although river corridor restoration efforts have yet to explicitly state that enhanced carbon storage is a main goal, there are examples of floodplain restoration that are increasing carbon storage. For example, The Nature Conservancy is restoring floodplains along the Illinois River at Spunky Bottoms and Emiquon. In these areas, the river and its floodplain are being reconnected, and floodplain wetlands are being re-established. Internationally, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Australia has been restoring the Barmah Floodplain forest, allowing for water releases from dams to flood the floodplain. There are many ecological benefits to restoring the connections between rivers and floodplains and promoting messy, physically complex river corridors. But, an overlooked and added benefit of floodplain restoration could be increased carbon storage on the landscape. In order to better understand the impact that river corridors have on the carbon cycle, we need more research on carbon in river corridors.

Crop production faces extinction in Colorado, can video gaming be the answer?

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 4:16pm

Written by André Dozier, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Flying out of Denver International Airport reveals a landscape on the eastern plains of Colorado rarely seen by most people in the rapidly urbanizing region. Lush fields of corn, sugar beets, wheat, alfalfa, and even sunflower contrast the vastly dry, brown landscape. Availability of river water supplies is essential to the existence of these farming communities. While mountain streams supply water from melted snow to Colorado and many other western states, river water supply is already over-allocated. Rapidly growing cities vie for water to support their ballooning populations, purchasing water from farmers because new supplies from reservoirs or other basins are very difficult to procure. If this trend continues, farming communities may be crippled almost to the point of extinction.

What if I told you that you can help to find an answer to this dilemma (and others like it) by playing a video game?

Colorado’s Water Plan, a stakeholder-driven effort at managing Colorado’s vital water resources (link), aim to stop the decline of agriculture by making it easier to shift water use temporarily from farms to cities in times of drought, which is currently difficult to do under the existing water law. Our research indicates that adoption of these “alternative agricultural water transfers” (ATMs) can improve farmer profits from the production and sale of their crops by up to about 15% (in 2050). However, utilizing ATMs can also degrade the value of a farmer’s water by up to 25%, because cities are more slowly buying water up. Much like how you would tremble at seeing the value of your house drop by 25%, a farmer could very likely be devastated by such a loss. Similar trade-offs exist with any policy attempting to save agriculture, so decisions must be made carefully to benefit the most number of people and stakeholders at least cost.

Some solutions and proposed policy adaptations have better trade-offs. For example, if Solution A costs $1 million and keeps 1000 acres in production and Solution B costs more ($2 million) and keeps fewer acres (only 500) in production, then Solution B is said to be dominated by Solution A, because Solution A beats Solution B in both cost and acreage. However, if there is another solution, Solution C, that both costs more ($2 million) and keeps more acres (1500) in production, then neither A nor C dominates the other. Operations research scientists would call Solutions A and C “nondominated” out of the solutions considered. Our previous research has indicated that nondominated solutions typically always incorporate more efficient irrigation equipment for crop farmers, while xeriscaping and conserving water for new urban developments are some of the most cost-effective strategies for reducing the amount of water cities acquire.

Other solutions that benefit both farmers and cities may likely exist. Through our research, we are asking people like you to help explore these new solutions and give us your opinions at the same time by playing a video game! The game is similar to SimCityTM by Electronic Arts, except you play as a water manager who attempts to find the most cost-effective, “nondominated” strategies to solving real world water problems such as those described about Colorado. With a limited budget of play money, you decide:

  1. How farmers irrigate their fields
  2. What farmers grow in their fields
  3. How much to set city water and wastewater rates
  4. How city residents save water through more efficient appliances or educated water use
  5. What city residents grow in their yards
  6. How many reservoirs to build
  7. How much groundwater to pump
  8. What regional water policies are adopted

As you play, you can see the outcomes of your decisions by observing how they impact cities and farmers. Various measures of impacts include the reliability of meeting their demands with water supply, the cost of water to cities, farmer profits, the amount of cropland still used for farming production, and the price of water. By finding good, nondominated solutions to water problems, and especially ones that “dominate” solutions by other players, you earn more play money that you can use within the game to purchase more water-saving technologies, invest in new supply, etc. The game will send our research center your solutions to help us learn:

  1. How to more effectively manage water
  2. What your opinions on effective water management are
  3. Learn better computer algorithms to support effective water management

You will also learn a lot about water management at the same time! We are releasing the video game publicly later this year to ask people like you to solve water management issues by playing the role of a water manager in real world systems like Colorado’s (please sign up to be notified of its release and receive other updates about the game).

Finding Hope in a Climate of Uncertainty: Reflections on Climate Change Education and Action with Children

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 11:33am

Written by Carlie D. Trott, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow with the Colorado State University STEM Center and Department of Psychology. Website: Twitter: @CRDTRO

This past weekend, I got the chance to feel like a kid again. While in Los Angeles for the annual National Science Teachers Association  (NSTA) conference, it was hard to contain my exhilaration as I roamed a football field-sized exhibit hall with reptile terrariums, astronaut gear, racing robots, and steamy experiments. Memories of school science flooded my mind, and I had to do a double-take near the registration table when indeed I caught a glimpse of the conference’s keynote speaker and science icon himself: Bill Nye. Themed “Sun, Surf, and Science,” the conference embodied the best of the science classroom—wonder, adventure, discovery—all in one noisy and cheerful place. More importantly, it was a convergence of educators from across the United States who are daily on the front lines against the anti-science and post-truth sentiments that currently have a foothold in our nation’s capital.

Between sessions, a recurring topic of conversation was the recent campaign launched by the Heartland Institute—a climate change denying thinktank—to distribute to 200,000 K-12 science teachers a book entitled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warm­ing.” The reaction from teachers with whom I spoke ranged from dismay to rage, feelings that were grounded not only in a solid grasp of the science of climate change, but in a sense of concern that some teachers may fall for it. While volunteering at the exhibit booth for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a middle school science teacher approached me to ask, “Just one question: Is global warming happening?”

The unfortunate findings of a 2016 report by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) are clear from its title: “Mixed Messages: How Climate Change is Taught in America’s Public Schools.” According to its authors, less than half of U.S. science teachers are aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is caused mostly by human activities, and more than a quarter of teachers allocate “equal time” in the classroom to perspectives that raise doubt about this consensus. A possible explanation, the researchers noted, was that most teachers had little if any formal training on climate change, and many lacked confidence to teach about it. At the same time, more than two thirds of those surveyed were interested in professional development on the issue. The report concluded with recommendations for science teachers’ increased access to climate change educational resources, as well as professional training on the science of climate change and classroom strategies for dealing with its ever-increasing politicization.

Research I’ve conducted on children’s climate change engagement landed me in the NOAA booth that day, and the NCSE report was on my mind while responding to the friendly and inquisitive teacher. Before long, other science teachers joined the conversation to share resources and classroom experience. As it turned out, rather than questioning the veracity of climate change, the teacher was seeking an evidence-based response from the NOAA booth to address an individual student’s uncertainty. With some new instructional resources and a satisfied smile, the teacher disappeared into the exhibition hall crowd.

This raises yet another reason I got the chance to feel like a kid again this weekend: feeling awed and inspired by classroom teachers. As an adult, however, my admiration was for somewhat different reasons. In a largely underpaid and under-appreciated field, teachers often love their work and do it well. Perhaps many are motivated by larger forces, a wider understanding lost to so many adults long since removed from school, that the classroom is much more than a colorful room with scheduled activities for daytime learning. Perhaps they’re in on the “secret” that’s not really a secret at all, if you think about it. That the role of educators in society is one of society-making. That, as a collective force, the teachers among us have an indelible influence on the culture at large.

I was invited to the conference to present my dissertation research, which consisted of an after-school program for youth climate change education and action, conducted as part of the NOAA Climate Stewards Education Program. Named Science, Camera, Action!, the program was carried out in partnership with Northern Colorado Boys and Girls Clubs, and combined hands-on science activities with digital photography as a platform for individual and collaborative climate change action. The youth-led action projects by the ten- to twelve-year-old participants included a city council presentation, a tree-planting campaign, website development, a photo gallery opening, and a Boys and Girls Club community garden. Beyond expanding kids’ perspectives on the role of science in society and supporting their interest in STEM education and careers, the program strengthened their sense of agency to make a difference in the world around them. At the conference, I planned to encourage teachers to provide action opportunities to youth while teaching about climate change.

Embarking on my dissertation project, I hoped to strengthen kids’ knowledge about climate change, support their engagement, and empower their confidence as change agents. In short, I wanted to inspire kids in the way that classroom teachers often do, except using methods that teachers often cannot through the flexibility afforded by informal learning spaces. Departing for Los Angeles last week, I hoped to motivate teachers to integrate climate change into their elementary science classrooms, offer evidence of positive student-centered outcomes, and encourage linking kids’ enthusiasm for problem-solving with (even small) opportunities for action. In brief, I aimed to share my experiences and offer compelling reasons to engage. It’s likely that I achieved some of these goals. But in the Boys and Girls Clubs and at the conference, something unexpected happened.

Through the youth-led action projects, I became abundantly aware of kids’ potential to transform their communities, if given the opportunity. Through simple activities, they understood climate change as an urgent environmental and social problem, and they wanted to be a part of the solution. They became vocal advocates and active agents of change in their families and communities. Their eagerness to create change—and to lead the process—was beyond inspiring. During the conference, I learned of a dizzying array of climate action projects being led by teachers, from school gardens to anti-idling campaigns to “greening” the lunch line and setting up composting systems. Sessions focused on climate change and science denial were packed to capacity, with educators sitting in aisles, standing along walls, and spilling out into the hallway. The motivation I wished to inspire was already there, and it gave me hope. In other words, the inspiration and motivation I’d carefully planned to generate among children and teachers became the impact they had on me.

Despite the political climate, from Colorado to California, climate change education and action with children felt far from controversial. From the conference hall to the classroom, pathways to a sustainable future are being paved and trod along, bridges built and traversed. I want to live in the society being constructed in these spaces. While at the airport returning home, it seemed oddly appropriate to stumble across, in my social media feed, an aphorism by the teacher, politician, and philosopher Confucius: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.”

The worst part of feeling like a kid is the frustrating sense that your own decisions and actions are beyond your control. Amidst the slew of recent anti-science cabinet and agency appointments, executive orders, and the proposed federal budget cuts, it’s easy to feel a similar sense of frustration—that external forces are converging to stamp out possibilities for a sustainable future. The devastating impact of the new administration on the planet and its people is, like climate change itself, undeniable and difficult to imagine. And yet, in my own tangible experience, first with the children of Northern Colorado and most recently at NSTA, I saw people rising up—taking steps to transform themselves and their communities.

The best part of feeling like a kid is the all-encompassing sense of wonder and possibility about the world and your place in it—the feeling of endless energy to ask big questions, experience new things, and invent the perfect future. It is a belief that, despite it all, you can change the world. The sources of this infinite and seemingly impossible hope are often hiding in plain sight. I found it in the Boys and Girls Clubs last year, and again this weekend in small interactions and crowded events in the bustling LA Convention Center. I carry it with me as I endure the headlines. I use it as fuel to start new projects.

The story of our sustainable future is still being written. Rebecca Solnit once noted that, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” In this way, finding hope in the present is a matter of rediscovering our surroundings to notice the transformative potential of everyday interactions and inventive projects. In these uncertain times, as we imagine and work towards creating a sustainable global society, we must recognize about the world what kids so easily do: that, individually and collectively, we make it up as we go along. The rules—perhaps not of nature, but certainly of social institutions—are ours to change. As a twelve-year-old in my program put it, “To save the world, you don’t need a superpower. You don’t need anything like that. All you need is yourself and others to support you. That’s all you need.”


When there's something strange in your water...

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 11:38am

Written by Isabella Oleksy, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

It’s a beautiful day. There is not a cloud in the sky, the temperature is perfect, and there is no wind to speak of. You are walking up on what appears to be a crystal clear body of water surrounded by menacing rock formations, towering overhead. This is Sky Pond, an appropriately named waterbody. It is situated at the headwaters of one of the Platte River’s many tributaries. Sky Pond and its surrounding views are the reward for the 5 miles of hiking and 1500 feet of climbing it takes to get here from the trailhead; a reward so sweet that thousands of people make the strenuous round trip each year. As you take a moment to catch your breath while simultaneously having it taken away by what surrounds you, everything stands still, if only for a moment. This place is teeming with life. Depending on the time of year, you may see elk, wildflowers, trout, moose, marmot, big horned sheep, and ill-prepared tourists. Curiosity brings you close to the water’s edge. Upon closer inspection, the crystal clear waters reveal extensive mats of green slime, flowing with the gentle water current. This green slime is everywhere, and it looks like it came straight out of Ghostbusters. You kneel down to take a sample of the green slime. A curious onlooker asks what you are doing, and you look up and quote Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) himself, “Back off, man, I’m a scientist.” If you’re still following along, this is what I experience on a weekly basis, except I don’t really tell curious onlookers to back off. The scene I am describing is a day in the life of field work in the Loch Vale watershed, and that “green slime” is actually filamentous green algae. I’m trying to figure out why the algae are growing here, because until recently, this sight was more common in a retention pond in Michigan than in a “pristine” alpine lake in the Rockies.

The beauty of the Loch Vale Watershed is no secret. It’s situated in one of the most visited areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, just east of the continental divide. My research is a complement to what my advisor, Dr. Jill Baron, might call her life’s work. In 1983, Dr. Baron established the watershed as a long-term ecological research site with the goal of understanding watershed-scale ecosystem processes and how air pollution and climate-variability affect ecosystem function.  At the time, many ecologists were focused on understanding the effects of acid rain. While Loch Vale was not getting hit with acid rain, it was (and still is) getting hit by precipitation carrying particles of nitrogen, sourced from automobile emissions, power plant exhaust, and increasingly even the by-products of industrial agriculture, which are so prominent on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies.

Nitrogen alone is not exactly a bad thing; it is essential for life. It is the nutrient whose absence is responsible for limiting a plant’s growth. This is precisely why, if you buy into the scourge of the American lawn, you use nitrogen-based fertilizer to make your lawn look greener than the Jones’ next door. The problem is, the Loch Vale watershed and surrounding areas can’t process all of the incoming human-made nitrogen. Mountainous areas are particularly sensitive because there is little plant and forest cover to absorb the excess nitrogen. Since the mid-20th century, mountainous areas in Colorado have been receiving much more nitrogen than is needed for biological uptake. Where does all that excess go? Unfortunately, much of it ends up in surface waters, running downhill into the wetlands, lakes, and streams.

Ecologists and biogeochemists have a range of tools in our toolbox that we can use to answer questions about the natural world. Working in Loch Vale, one of our most valuable tools is in analyzing the high-quality, weekly, long-term measurements of water chemistry and weather data in this watershed. We can ask and answer questions such as does the water chemistry leaving the watershed match the precipitation chemistry entering the watershed (1)?  Or, what is the ecological critical load of incoming nitrogen deposition before adverse ecological effects occur (2)? However, how can we assess changes in ecosystem processes for variables that we do not routinely measure? For example, Loch Vale researchers have known for years that surface waters were high in nitrate, but the impacts on aquatic plant life, particularly algae, were not fully understood.  For those kinds of questions, we put on our detective hats and pull out our paleo-toolkit.

Paleolimnology is a sub-discipline of limnology (the study of inland waters) that primarily uses lake sediment cores to meticulously reconstruct past environments of inland waters. By analyzing physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of sediment layers deposited in lakes, paleolimnologists can get a glimpse into the past. Sediment core analysis allows us to piece together how lakes are affected by climate on short and long time scales as well as by a numerous other factors such as land-use change (e.g., deforestation), food-web manipulations (e.g., fish introductions), and other human impacts (e.g., acid rain, nitrogen deposition).

The effect of nitrogen deposition on lake algae has been well documented with sediment cores collected across Europe and North America. Most show a pattern very similar to what we have observed in the Colorado Rocky Mountains: for hundreds of years these lakes were home to a diverse flora of diatoms, single-celled algae that spend their life photosynthesizing in the water column and are preserved in sediments when they settle and die because of their strong, silicate shells. Once nitrogen inputs increased, one or two species of diatoms outcompeted the rest and dominate to this day. To our knowledge, no one had observed the green slime until very recently. In Loch Vale, is it new or has it been there all along? Are we still seeing the response of algae to nitrogen or are other factors involved? For my doctoral research, I am further diversifying our paleo-toolkit and looking at not only diatoms, but all algal species, by analyzing a diverse range of algal pigments from layers throughout lake sediment deposits. This technique is useful for reconstructing changes in algal groups through time, especially those that don’t leave us microscopic fossils to count under a microscope, like the green algae we observe today.

Last March, our team of researchers and volunteers embarked on an expedition to The Loch, the subalpine lake in the Loch Vale watershed. With our crew loaded down with sleds and heavy packs full of equipment, what is normally a moderate 2-mile snowshoe hike turned into a strenuous uphill slog. We drilled a hole through the ice over the deepest spot in the lake and dropped a gravity corer into the sediments to obtain a short core of the most recent lake sediments. We used a special device to extrude the mud out of a plastic core tube and sliced the sediments into fine layered intervals for laboratory analysis. In less than a foot of sediment, we captured several hundred years of lake ecological history!

What the sediment core has told us so far is that this prolific growth of slimy green algae is indeed a new phenomenon in The Loch. Recent sediments show strong signs of increased chlorophytes (green algae) and colonial cyanobacteria, with well-preserved but relatively small amounts of those pigments just a few centimeters from the top of the core. Interestingly, The Loch never saw a substantial increase in diatoms, as Sky Pond did, potentially because it is lower in elevation and slightly buffered by the forest surrounding it. While we now can confirm that our recent observations have not occurred within the last several hundred years in this lake, we still do not fully understand why. Luckily for me, my job is to solve this mystery with laboratory and field experiments.

What has changed in the last few decades that might be causing these algal blooms? We know that our surface waters have been warming steadily in the peak of summer, at the rate of about 0.7°C a decade since we began measuring (1). We also know that glaciers, rock glaciers, and permafrost are shrinking and releasing additional nutrients that were previously locked up and frozen (3,4). Could filamentous green algae be appearing because of dust from forest fires and drought? (5) There are a myriad of potential drivers of ecological change in these lakes, and scientists are only beginning to understand how these mountain jewels are changing right before our eyes. Our world is changing rapidly and we don’t fully understand the cost nor the consequences. Luckily, there are people in local, state, and federal government that are seeking partnerships and solutions to minimize the impacts that are within our control, such as air pollution. There are farmers in Colorado who are voluntarily changing their management practices to reduce nitrogen volatilization from their farms. And soon, you too can help us document where these algal blooms are (and are not) occurring across the intermountain West! Simply download WATR2016 from the App Store and document lake conditions as you hike anywhere in the western United States. All submissions will be automatically uploaded to our database on  


(1) Mast, M. A., Clow, D. W., Baron, J. S., & Wetherbee, G. A. (2014). Links between N Deposition and Nitrate Export from a High- Elevation Watershed in the Colorado Front Range. Environmental Science & Technology.

(2) Baron, J. S. (2006). Hindcasting Nitrogen Deposition To Determine an Ecological Critical Load. Ecological Applications, 16(3), 433–439.

(3) Leopold, M., Lewis, G., Dethier, D., Caine, N., & Williams, M. W. (2015). Cryosphere: ice on Niwot Ridge and in the Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range. Plant Ecology & Diversity, 874(March 2015), 1–14.

(4) Barnes, R. T., Williams, M. W., Parman, J. N., Hill, K., & Caine, N. (2014). Thawing glacial and permafrost features contribute to nitrogen export from Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range, USA. Biogeochemistry, 117(2–3), 413–430.

(5) Neff, J. C., Ballantyne, a. P., Farmer, G. L., Mahowald, N. M., Conroy, J. L., Landry, C. C., Reynolds, R. L. (2008). Increasing eolian dust deposition in the western United States linked to human activity. Nature Geoscience, 1(3), 189–195.

Designing Conservation Programs to Protect Coffee from Climate Change

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 11:07am

Written by Xoco Shinbrot, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

Your alarm goes off, the light is creeping into your bedroom, you stumble out of bed and into the kitchen to grab the life-raft that gets most people through the day: a bag of coffee beans. It’s a morning ritual, a culturally embedded, addictive and habit-forming part of waking up. Even the smell of coffee can provide a pleasant refuge from the world outside the comforts of our sheets.

Now imagine a world without that steaming cup of coffee, where you stumble to your kitchen and instead of coffee there is an empty cabinet with a few sad bags of tea. I study how to keep that coffee in your hands.

Farming generally, and coffee farming particularly, is changing rapidly. Coffee likes to grow in very particular climates; it’s a bit like the story of Goldilocks, not too hot and not too cold, just right. This Goldilocks though also needs to live in climates that are not too moist and not too dry. The combination means that there are only certain places, usually mountainous, tropical regions—between 800 and 1,800 meters about sea level—around the world that are suitable to coffee cultivation.

Mexico’s southern states are home to most f Mexico’s production of coffee, with over 250,000 US tons of high quality Arabica bean produced in 2015 (USDA FAS 2015). Mexico ranks as one of the top ten coffee producing nations worldwide. But its farmers have been hard hit by weather –frost, untimely rainfall, excessive humidity, and cyclones – that aside from their direct impacts also facilitate the spread of fungal diseases like coffee rust that can destroy whole farms.

Recently, Mexico’s national agricultural organization, SAGARPA, has given small-scale farmers incentives to adopt strategies to deal with climate-related weather impacts. The climate adaptive strategies are tucked into conservation plans that farmers can sign up for which provide: (1) training on how to decrease impacts of weather and climate, such as how to build living walls to prevent soil erosions; (2) inputs such as coffee-rust resistant plants; and (3) workshops on intercropping with other species like citrus and avocado.

In some programs, farmers receive cash payments for setting aside land for conservation for a contracted period, usually ten to fifteen years. These payments for ecosystem service programs, developed by Mexico’s national forestry commission (CONAFOR), are designed to be win-win for conservation of forests (with benefits for water supply downstream) as well as social outcomes like poverty alleviation.  Recent changes in the program have allowed matching from local stakeholders to promote other goals like climate change adaptation strategies for farmers. 

In light of the expansion in multifaceted conservation strategies, poverty alleviation, and climate adaptation programs, the question is whether and how these programs are actually providing the benefits to the environment and the farmers that live there.

The vast majority of coffee farmers are considered small scale—most on fewer than 10 acres of land—and rely almost completely on coffee production for their livelihoods. Rural areas are home to over 61% of Mexico’s extreme poor, many with no schooling beyond elementary education (USAID 2011). These conditions affect the way in which natural resources are perceived, sustainability is practiced, and how land management occurs. As traditional methods of coffee production are rapidly becoming less productive, farmers are strongly in need of information and resource sharing programs that teach new methods that suit the changing climates.

Local cooperatives have tended to fill this need by pooling farmer resources together and providing an important source of information. As new government programs are developed it is unclear whether they also improve climate adaptation strategies. By understanding which programs are successful, as well as which people tend to adopt new strategies, government policies can hone in on the most important leverage points.

This is just the first part the puzzle to connect, engage and facilitate healthy social-ecological systems for farmers and for consumers in this quickly changing climate. The impact goes beyond that morning cup of coffee to people’s livelihoods, culture and very identity.

References Cited:

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. 2015. Mexico, Coffee Annual. Global Agricultural Information Network. Available HERE.

USAID. 2011. USAID Country Profile: Property rights and resource governance, Mexico. Available HERE.

The power of stories in combating our shifting baselines

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 1:57pm

Written by Drew Bennett, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology

In 2009, my wife and I moved in with my grandfather in a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A photo of the three of us taken shortly after the move sits on my desk. I often look at the photo and am reminded of the incredible stories my grandfather shared with us – stories of a time long past. Born in Nebraska, my grandfather’s family lost their farm in the Dust Bowl. With my grandfather and his three young siblings in tow, they moved west in search of a new life. After spending several seasons as itinerant farm workers in California’s Central Valley, they eventually settled in Oregon on the banks of a tributary to the mighty Willamette River.

It was the height of the Great Depression and, like nearly everyone living in their rural community at the foothills of the Cascade mountains, my grandfather’s family was poor. With a river in their backyard, my grandfather would watch salmon on their seasonal runs en route to spawning grounds upstream. At times, the salmon were so thick that he and his siblings used pitchforks to haul them out of the water. In a time of great scarcity, these salmon runs were a seemingly limitless bounty - literally there for the taking. Stacking the fish into huge piles along the shore, there was more meat than a family could eat. To extend the bounty, they dried the fish to feed their chickens. This kept the chickens healthy and allowed them to sell eggs along the roadside to earn a little extra income to supplement the family’s inconsistent work. In hard times, nature helped provide for the family. 

It would have been unimaginable to that boy that this abundance would vanish during his lifetime. Impacted by dams, higher river temperatures, and the loss of habitat, only a handful of salmon now make the pilgrimage to spawn in the headwaters of their ancestral river. The Foster Dam, built in 1968, completely blocked salmon passage in this tributary. Today, still lacking a fish ladder to provide passage around the dam, the few returning salmon are collected from the base of the dam, loaded into the back of a truck, and driven around the dam’s reservoir before being dumped back in the river to continue their journey a few more miles upstream. The salmon that still make the trip are hardly enough to maintain a viable population. Instead less hardy fish raised in hatcheries are released to try to increase salmon populations. The salmon migration that was once one of nature’s great marvels has been reduced to a process dependent on continual human intervention.

While my natural tendency is to lament the loss of the wild salmon runs, my grandfather’s story is emblematic of a larger and more insidious phenomenon in our society. This story represents a quintessential example of a shifting baseline, or a change in the reference points we use to judge changes in the environment based on our own lived experiences. If what we perceive is only a small change in our lifetimes, we do not recognize the drastic changes that accrue over generations. Over time, viewing our own experiences as normal, we slowly shift our standards and expectations. There are many other examples, from the gradual decline of the now extinct passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous in the eastern United States that migrating flocks darkened the sky, to the dimming of stars we see at night as urban areas grow. Each decision made on the path to the salmon’s decline seemed rational and the impacts so minor that few noticed. Our baselines deceived us, and it is only in hindsight that we question our logic.

The photo that sits on my desk connects my own family’s history to the story of the salmon. In the background is a reservoir created by the construction of the Foster Dam. At the time, few would have had concern for the impact of the dam. After all, the dam provided electricity, flood control, consistent water for irrigation, and recreational opportunities. It represented the forward progress of a poor town in the backwoods of Oregon towards a more prosperous future. But Foster was not the only dam built in the Willamette Valley. It is just one of more than 20 major dams in the basin, not to mention the hundreds of levees, dikes, and artificial channels that control the flow of water in the region. Farmers also cleared streamside forests to plant to the river’s edge. Side channels that provided habitat were drained and cultivated. Towns and cities were built on its banks and soil and vegetation were replaced by concrete. While any one of these changes may not have been catastrophic, their combined impact is immense.

Impressive efforts are now underway to restore the Willamette Basin. Hundreds of miles of streamside forests have been replanted. Smaller levees and other barriers to fish passage have been removed. Conservationists in Oregon even won the 2012 Riverprize from the International River Foundation for their efforts. In 2015, the Oregon chub, a small fish that only lives in the Willamette Basin, became the first fish in the United States to be removed from the Endangered Species list after its population recovered. The chub’s recovery was possible in part because of voluntary conservation efforts that engaged farmers in the restoration of backwater channels that provide critical habitat. Indeed, bandages are slowly being placed over the basin’s numerous wounds.

There are many reasons to celebrate the progress that has been made in the Willamette and in many other locations. But my grandfather’s stories still linger in my mind. This is not the basin of his youth.  As exciting as recent progress appears, these accomplishments are incremental positive steps in a landscape that, when viewed through a generational lens, still bears deep scars. Are our measures of success too timid? Are we thinking too small? By most measures, the ecological health of the Willamette has significantly improved in my lifetime. But my baseline deceives me. My grandfather’s stories remind me of what was truly lost. We need to hear more stories like his. Stories that humanize this history and connect us to our past. We need these stories to combat our shifting baselines and recalibrate our perceptions.

When I look at the picture on my desk, I sometimes wonder about the stories I will tell one day. Will I celebrate the small victories while ignoring the long-term changes in the landscapes in which I live and work? As a scientist, I use data such as satellite images to ground my perceptions, yet these data typically only go back a few decades at best. These short-term perspectives guide us in making decisions that appear rational today, but blind us to the larger context. Data, while essential, are also limited in shaping public opinion. Our brains are wired to think in stories. It is often strong personal anecdotes that move us to action. In a technological world that connects us more to screens than people, stories help reconnect us with each other and our surroundings. If we knew our ancestors' stories - stories of prairies filled with bison and seas teaming with fish – would we accept the status quo? These stories are our best defense against the insidious shifts that have lulled us into accepting the slow decline of our natural systems. We need these stories to inspire us to strive for what we have yet to achieve.

More Information

For more information on salmon issues in the Pacific Northwest, the Nature episode “Salmon: Running the Gauntlet” provides an excellent overview.

To learn more about restoration efforts in the Willamette, several Freshwaters Illustrated short films, such as “Water and Wood”, provide an entertaining introduction.

How to get rid of a houseguest: Alternative strategies for antivirals

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 2:57pm

Written by Becky Gullberg, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

We’ve all experienced those annoying guests that overstay their welcome. They take up your time and eat your food. Now imagine one 10 times worse, who trashes your house and wrecks havoc. You need to get rid of this guest before everything is ruined. You turn off the heat and crank up the air conditioning to encourage them to leave. Luckily the guest leaves, but they stole your coat and tried to get to your neighbor’s house. You just want them to take your old and tattered jacket rather than your nice one. Perhaps this will prevent them from bothering your neighbor.

Unwelcome houseguests can be parasites. They are very successful at ruining your life and difficult to get rid of. The cells in your body are like little homes for your genetic material and viruses are the unwelcome houseguests. In fact, viruses are completely dependent on host cells.  Without the cell, the virus cannot make more viruses and will fall apart without passing on its genetic material.

Viruses are also minimalists. When a virus shows up in a cell to replicate itself, it doesn’t bring much with it. Instead it relies on the cell for its building blocks and energy source to make new viruses – just like an unwelcome houseguest raiding the fridge.  Additionally, the virus takes its jacket from part of the cellular membrane and uses that to get into a new cell. If we can trick the virus and change these building blocks, perhaps give them a defective jacket so they freeze when they leave the house; we can stop the spread of the virus to your neighbor.

My lab studies dengue virus (see video) and how it interacts with the cell to make the building blocks it requires. This virus is transmitted from one human to another through the bite of a mosquito. Dengue virus causes a painful fever, quite similar to the flu, but often much worse. In some cases the disease can progress to hemorrhaging, (excessive bleeding, as seen in this picture). This often leads to death. Currently, there isn’t a way to treat this disease and so many people, often babies, suffer unnecessarily.

It has been very difficult to find good treatment options for this disease. It can take a drug 10-20 years to go from a research setting to being used in clinical trials. Along with this comes millions of dollars in research funds. Dengue virus evolves quickly and can gain resistance to drugs that directly impact the replication of the virus. This quickly renders the drug useless and requires starting from square one to find another antiviral treatment. A better option is to use drugs that the virus cannot adapt to so quickly. These drugs could be useful in the clinic for many more years and save the time and money of developing something new.

An attractive approach to making more robust antivirals is using host-targeted drugs. These are drugs that act to change the host cell rather than directly inactivating the virus. Meaning, they change the building blocks of the house that the virus is trying to use for its replication and energy needs. These types of drugs are thought to be more effective for a few reasons.

First, they are less likely to make resistant viruses since it is much harder for viruses to mutate and overcome these drugs.  It is very difficult for the virus to adapt to new building materials - thus it won’t be able to assemble and spread. 

Second, the cellular proteins that are impacted by these drugs are quite stable meaning the cell isn’t likely to mutate in response to the drug. It is likely that these types of drugs can be used in a clinical setting longer and treat many more people.

Third, since these drugs act to change the host, they may be effective against different types of viruses that have common needs. Many viruses use the same building blocks or energy sources and could be treated with the same drug that depletes these resources.

Since host-targeted drugs impact our cells, it is important to consider their safety.  We need to be sure that we aren’t changing the cells irreversibly or unnecessarily. Importantly, a viral infection is an acute and relatively short-lived condition.  People wouldn’t have to take these drugs for very long, and thus they can avoid some of the potential toxicity. Additionally, many of these drugs have already been developed to treat other diseases. Some are FDA approved and currently being used, but not against viruses.

It is predicted that global range of dengue virus will continue to grow due to climate change and subsequent spread of mosquitoes that harbor the virus. More cases of this infection without good treatment options means continued loss of productivity and unnecessary suffering. It is important that we find new ways to interrupt these viruses with sustainable treatment options. Changing the energy source or building blocks viruses use to replicate and assemble, may be an effective strategy.

Society may continue to struggle with the challenge of in-laws that overstay their welcome, but we are on the cusp of important breakthroughs in making our cells less hospitable to viruses such as dengue viruses.

Rolling rocks, pushing pebbles, and slinging sand: How rivers change landscapes, and how people change rivers

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 2:41pm

Written by Derek Schook, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoc in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, CSU and Water Resources Division of the National Park Service.

Tumbling down from the mountains, rivers cut across the land on voyages to the sea. Although we primarily think of rivers as transporters of water, an equally significant role they play lurks beneath the water’s surface. Under natural conditions, rivers scour the earth to create landforms and habitats, both in the channel and on the land. However, the ability of rivers to do this is directly affected by human activities. Recent human-induced modifications to rivers are leading the waterways and their dependent species into uncharted territory.

In vast networks that sprawl across the landscape, river systems erode, transport, and deposit rocks of all sizes. The amount of material transported by rivers is massive. For example, every year the Mississippi River deposits 150 million tons of sand, silt and clay (which, when combined with rocks, are collectively termed “sediment”) into the Gulf of Mexico. To picture that quantity, imagine a sediment pile neatly stacked within the confines of a football field. By the end of the year, the pile would ascend 13 miles into the sky, or twice as high as you were on your last flight across the country.

Zooming in from the landscape scale down to the channel itself, the rocks found along river beds provide habitat that supports aquatic-terrestrial food webs, an ecological system well-described in a previous post by Alisha Shah. At the base of the food web are invertebrates that rely on the right size, placement, and stability (or lack there-of) of rocks on the river bed. These invertebrates are eaten by fish, which are eaten by other fish, and these tasty relationships eventually provide food for a variety of terrestrial animals ranging from spiders and warblers to grizzlies and eagles. The river bed itself appears to be comprised of a chaotic assemblage of rocks randomly strewn about. However, the rocks’ positions are determined by physical processes governed by hydraulics (the physics of fluids in motion). Gravity provides the underlying engine that moves both water and rocks downhill, and the burden of potential energy is reduced along each inch of the descent. As water flows with velocity and momentum, it contains kinetic energy capable of destroying natural and manmade structures. Destruction of natural things, such as river banks, can be beneficial to the river and its watershed, but destruction of human infrastructure is problematic.  

This destruction of infrastructure, coupled with our desire to harness water for human uses, has led to widespread changes to water and sediment flows. These changes have damaged river health. One change is that flow regulation often allows rocks on the river bed to stagnate. Through time they “armor”, or become increasingly difficult to mobilize because of long intervals between high scouring flows. A locked-down river bed is a worse substrate for bugs and food webs, and also for fish like spawning salmon who form redds among river cobbles.

Along the sides of rivers, people have built walls made out of concrete, metal, and even old cars. These barriers prevent rivers from gathering sediment as they attempt to go about their natural meandering ways. The walls protect human infrastructure in the short term. However, they deprive the river of sediment it would naturally collect from its banks. This, in turn, leaves more energy in the channel and increases the potential for destruction downstream.   

Even more disruptive than preventing a river from eroding its banks, damming creates a pronounced barrier to water and sediment transport downstream. Instead of sediment crashing into the dam before it is halted, sediment transport is indirectly prevented. This happens because as water backs up behind a dam, its velocity decreases so the water loses the energy required to transport it. Another way to think about velocity affecting transport capacity is to consider the ease with which fast winds in a tornado can pick up and transport a cow, but a gentle breeze may just make the grounded cow smile.

In addition to the severe alterations dams impose on the timing and magnitude of flows, by denying sediment passage, dams modify the downstream river in two main ways. The first is that reduced sediment transport means the river will retain more erosive energy downstream, which often results in bed incision and channel lowering. Channel lowering separates the river from the floodplain it created. Many floodplain plants need either flooding or river-supported high water tables for their reproduction and growth, so some plants can disappear after sediment transport is modified. As a result, animals living among the vegetation can be forced out too as their habitat is lost.

The second result of dam-induced sediment deprivation is that downstream sediment deposition is reduced in and around the river channel. The consequences of this seemingly mundane process become evident after decades have passed. Like the barren landscape left behind after a volcanic eruption, channel movement followed by sediment deposition creates a clean slate of new land. This land is readily colonized by floodplain plants. For example, sand that deposits on the inside of a river bend provides ideal habitat for regeneration of some floodplain plants such as willows and cottonwoods. These plants eventually mature and become the backbone of biodiverse floodplain ecosystems. Episodic, even cyclic, sediment deposition and forest regeneration sustains floodplain forests that are a mosaic of habitats young and old, big and small.

Sediment transport is one of many issues worth knowing something about when it comes to the complexity of natural systems. We are living in a time of changes that are occurring faster than the natural world has ever seen. Species, ecosystems, and watersheds develop slowly, but they generally have evolved to find a delicate balance of interactions. You might already have your favorite environmental issues to think about, to talk with others about, and even to take action on. To bolster this list, I encourage you to head down to a local river and think about processes occurring beneath the surface. Maybe you’ll be inspired to learn more about the rocks that roll down the river, and the tricky solutions we must find to balance the needs of people and nature. Even if you’re not hooked on the cryptic topic of sediment transport, at the very least you’ll likely enjoy your time along the river and strengthen your bond with nature. And that in itself is a win, both for people and for rivers.

View Derek Schook's website here.

Reflections on Environmental Racism & Justice: “My Sustainability will be Intersectional…”

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 10:16am

Written by Stacia Ryder, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology.

Standing in a cell that could barely hold one person, let alone the 3+ it had restraints for, my eyes darted back and forth from the rusted shackles to the view outside the cell bars. Through the bars, the sun dimly lit the room and I stared straightly at the main house of the Whitney Plantation—the only place dedicated to educating visitors about the plantation experience from the slaves’ perspective—in Wallace, Louisiana. I stood frozen by the discrepancy between the cell and house, the discrepancy between my experiences in America as a privileged white cis woman and those who this cell was intended for.  The disparity demonstrates the very unequal and racialized dynamics of Americans’ historical experiences of agriculture, capitalism, and the environment, where expendable Black bodies were violently destroyed in the name of sugarcane profits for White owners. It also demonstrates contemporary relevance, as the auction block cell used to contain Africans as they were sold into slavery bears striking resemblance to modern day jail cells where African Americans are contained as they are pushed into the penal system by our nation’s prison-industrial complex.

Environmental studies, like most sciences, aim to move us forward and are future-focused. This is particularly true of sustainability, which concerns itself with the utilization of our environment and natural resources in a way that preserves them for future generations. But sustainability science is not ahistorical, and we must also engage in reflexivity, that is, critically reflecting on how the past influences the present and the future. Moving forward requires addressing where we’ve come from and where we are.

Here, I reflect on sustainability and environmental racism and justice in our capitalist society. I make the case that moving forward, we must address issues of inequality, specifically, racial inequality, in order to see success in sustainability practices. My focus on the experiences of African Americans should not discount the intersectional realities of environmental injustices–the unequal distribution of benefits and costs in our relationship to the environment–for countless other marginalized and oppressed peoples in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, injustices in our agricultural and food systems continue to exist for migrant workers of color today.

Environmental justice (EJ) scholar David Pellow recently called for an advancement of ‘critical environmental justice studies’ to explore the intersections of the relationship between social categories (like race) with the environment. Pellow (2016) focuses specifically on violence to Black bodies at the hands of the state, noting that:

“Black Lives Matter challenges the scourge of state-sanctioned violence…with a primary emphasis on police brutality and mass incarceration…If we think of environmental racism as an extension of those state-sanctioned practices—in other words a form of authoritarian control over bodies, space, and knowledge systems— then we can more effectively theorize it as a form of state violence, a framework that is absent from most EJ scholarship” (p. 13).

In addition to state-sanctioned violence, capitalism also plays a role in environmental racism and inequality. It serves to tie together the exploitation of Black Americans in our agricultural history, the disproportionate distribution of toxins that environmental justice was founded upon, and the variety of injustices in the urban and built environment (i.e. neighborhood amenities, public housing, food deserts, gentrification, toxic exposures in the home, and the prison industrial complex). Together, these environmental inequalities (among others) represent the issue of intergenerational environmental justice and its evolving manifestation within capitalism. Like neoliberalism’s ruthless impact on our environment, Black lives continue to be utilized and destroyed as part and parcel of our nation’s drive for profit maximization, in a political and economic system that constantly reinvents more covert strategies for oppressing them.

The relationship between race, the environment, and natural resources extends beyond U.S. borders. W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that the concept of race is a socially constructed and politically meaningful tool of capitalism which was born out of modernity. He posited that the capitalist system functioned on the backs of people of color, globally, and that it was the growth of capitalism prompted the development of the chattel slavery system. In 1920, Du Bois wrote that capitalism brought about “a chance for exploitation on an immense scaled for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples.” (p. 504-505). These ‘dark nations’ are what today are referred to (devoid of explicit reference to race) as the “Global South,” or less developed countries. Historically, people of color in the Global South bear the biggest burdens of resource development, while receiving very little payoff (Timmons Roberts and Parks 2006). The globalization of neoliberal ideology, then, has been toxic to both the environment and to our people—but its toxicity is felt most heavily by the marginalized. Faber and McCarthy (2003) note that “the most politically oppressed segments of the population” are “selectively victimized” by corporate practices (p. 39).

How is this connected to issues of sustainability? Environmental justice frequently concerns itself with the distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, while sustainability goals are often aimed at reducing environmental burdens. But it is the global capitalist system—a neoliberal system which operates at times both consciously and unconsciously as racist, patriarchal, classist, and heteronormative—that is driving both the volume and the distribution of unequal environmental burdens. Pellow (2016) and others discussion of intersectionality–the understanding interlocking systems of oppression–can help us bridge understandings of environmental justice with sustainability via a discussion of climate justice and just sustainability.

In the context of sustainability and climate change, impacts are often felt “first and worst” by marginalized groups both in the U.S. and worldwide—groups who typically contribute least of all to the problem. On a global scale, these uneven burdens and benefits create a stalemate over how actions to reduce the impacts of climate change can be engaged in, in a fair and equitable way (Timmons Roberts and Parks 2006). As a result, little progress is made. The consequences of this non-action will indeed affect us all, but it will not do so evenly. This is problematic from a day-to-day standpoint, as we know that more equal societies tend to fair better—in terms of health and social problems—than unequal ones. Our sustainability efforts must therefore take into account equity issues from the onset, and must be designed to ensure that climate adaptation efforts work to guarantee the establishment and preservation of a safe environment for all, now, and indefinitely.

So how do we begin to do so?  We must acknowledge the systemic root of our environmental problems and their embeddedness in our political and economic system which oppresses in the name of unbridled capitalism. Actors and institutions in power must acknowledge their role in perpetuating oppression and work to deconstruct it. We must continue to focus on inclusive environmental governance efforts, both within and outside of our public service institutions and our current economic system. As an example, executive director of Green 2.0 Whitney Tone has developed directives for diversifying the sustainability C-suite, and points to a diversity checklist organizations can use in their hiring process. We need people of color to gain access to and power over environmental decision making processes, to reflect considerations in decision making that can only come from knowledge gained within the set of their collective historical experiences of environmental oppression. The same is true for all marginalized groups.

Pellow (2016) argues we must also start to conceptualize what it looks like to work entirely outside of our system of state governance. Working to disrupt oppression within a system that creates it can only take us so far. Faber and McCarthy (2003) call for enhanced grassroots strategies to develop a sustainability movement that incorporates justice and equity.

Finally, we must prioritize diversity as imperative for the success of sustainability and science more generally. All of this has been established by scholars and activists of color, but it is critical that we continue to highlight and support these voices. When calls for diversity and inclusivity sprung up in the planning of the Science March on Washington, a barrage of scientists reacted poorly and expressed disdain for the injection of ‘identity politics’ into science. Yet science undeniably is a system of knowledge that was largely developed in a way that privileges people in power, historically, wealthy white men. And in the past it has been repeatedly used to justify discriminatory practices. For those of us whose research reveals that colonization, racism, classism and sexism are indeed scientific and sustainability issues, we have a responsibility to speak up. In addition, (and particularly those of us who wield the most privilege) we have a responsibility to listen. In that spirit, here is a list of leaders of color working on environmental issues.

All of this has become even more urgent as we have witnessed a resurgence of dangerous nationalist and racist ideology permeating through U.S. government leadership. It is this same leadership which threatens the progress of sustainability and environmental science, has deemed the environmental movement “the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world,” and has been guided by an ethos not just of “America First,” but “Market First.” Intersectional sustainability efforts, that is, those that consider interlocking systems of oppression, are how we push back on the exploitation of marginalized people and of resources, the economic drivers of our changing climate. To borrow a frank line from Flavia Dzodan’s approach to feminism, “my sustainability will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.”


Faber, D. and McCarthy, D., 2003. Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, pp.38-63.

Pellow, D.N., 2016. Toward a critical environmental justice studies: black lives matter as an environmental justice challenge-corrigendum. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), pp.1-16.

Roberts, J.T. and Parks, B., 2006. A climate of injustice: Global inequality, north-south politics, and climate policy. MIT press.

Herbicide resistance: An agricultural arms race

Thu, 02/02/2017 - 9:42am

Written by Anita Küpper, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.

The journey of a tumbleweed

Sometimes skipping, sometimes lurching, seemingly without a sense of direction, a tumbleweed rolls over the prairie in Eastern Colorado. The thick scrub made of scrawny branches is arched so much that it resembles the round shape of a ball. While the harsh and strong south wind sweeps over the treeless plains, it effortlessly propels the weed along its journey. A second tumbleweed joins the sheared plant, chased by the relentless gusts. The two are rolling away, sometimes snagged together, sometimes as distant travel partners. Soon the two of them are no longer alone and a whole flock of detached scrubs stagger over the shortgrass steppe. First in tens, then hundreds and finally thousands they steadily mill ahead, like an armada of withered skeletons. A thick row of snow fences emerges and suddenly interrupts the cheerful march of the tumbleweeds. But other tumbleweeds that have previously come this way already piled up in front of the obstacle, forming a convenient ramp for our shrub, enabling it to climb over and continue its journey over the Great Plains.

Long after our tumbleweed and his companions passed and the landscape had forgotten about their transit, the soil seedbank had not. While the seemingly dead plant jumped over the soil, little three-lobed seeds had detached from the bolls and landed in a wheat field. The following spring after the snow melts and spring temperatures cause seedlings to emerge from the soil by the score, Ken Hildebrandt, a farmer and aerial pesticide applicator in Eastern Colorado, gets ready for another busy season. The constant economic pressure on farmers to produce high yields at low prices on limited space forces them to spray herbicides to avoid weeds from competing with their crops for water, light and nutrients. This particular season was not any different from others except that the herbicide applied killed most of the unwanted plants but not all of them: Despite having been sprayed, a clearly visible trail of sprouts remained growing where our tumbleweed had passed a few months earlier. Why is it that these survived while others did not?



Our tumbleweed got lucky. It had a genetic mutation that allowed it to survive the herbicide. Continuous selection pressure due to the repeated usage of the same herbicide favors plants that evolved to survive an application. When this resistant tumbleweed’s offspring reproduces and the next generation gets exposed to the same herbicide again, the number of resistant plants in the population will increase and at some point replace the susceptible plants, rendering the chemical no longer effective at controlling the weeds. The problem is comparable to that of antibiotic resistance in bacteria: If we re-use the same antibiotic over and over again, we are selecting for the bacteria that have the genetic set-up to survive the application, ultimately leaving us with antibiotic-resistant bacteria only. Similarly, herbicide resistance is a numbers game: If a herbicide gets used very frequently over the course of several years without any alternative ways of weed management techniques it is not a question of if but a question of when resistance will evolve.

A farmer’s struggle

The case of resistant weeds is especially troubling because some plants are able to produce up to a million seeds. So, if the farmer does not detect resistance in his field in time or chooses to ignore it, then he will have a much more severe problem in the next year. “I can see it from the air,” Ken Hildebrandt explains. “At first I didn’t quite understand how everything was dead in the field except for this one trail. The next year I noticed it is three to four times worse than that and five years later the whole field had escaped weeds despite spraying. One plant is enough to start a problem. Some farmers think resistance came over from the neighbor’s field because he didn’t control his fields or only used one kind of chemistry. No one will get excited about one escape in the field, but once it starts to have a monetary consequence the farmers will start to do something about it.”

And the economic impacts resistant weeds can have on crop production are severe. “They can take over the field. Sometimes I can see weeds as high as the crop the farmers are trying to grow. We are having weeds that we can’t seem to get rid of. In the last few years the problem seems to have increased at an exponential rate.” Hildebrandt elaborates further. “Resistance is costing us. I remember the times when you spent a few dollars on chemistry and could clean up a whole field. Now it can cost over 30 dollars an acre because you have to use more expensive combinations to get adequate control. With the price of herbicide as high as it is, it drives down the profit. Production agriculture has to make the farmer money.”

Once weeds have become resistant to a particular herbicide, farmers need to resort to other options to continue producing at high yields. They can either change to a different herbicide mode of action that still works or switch the crop rotation. But if all these possibilities fail, the only option left is to use mechanical cultivation which might include tillage, plowing, disking or sweeping. These techniques have the disadvantage that they deteriorate and dry out the soil, are more labor- and time-intensive and therefore also more costly. Not being able to use herbicides anymore drives up the price of food production, making food less affordable. “It once was more cost-effective to spray a field than to mechanically work it. Now it can be the other way around when we don’t have anything that works, it forces us to go back to the farming practices of the old days. We have come full circle.” Hildebrandt describes. “Farmers are willing to adapt. They try out different things but at some point they are going to run out of options. Right now, farmers are hoping there are new chemistries coming out or some new technology is going to come to help with the problem.”

Ken Hildebrandt spraying a field with his air tractor (Video by Curtis Hildebrandt)

Developing ways to fight herbicide resistance

So what is it that we can do to counteract herbicide resistance? This is where the weed science laboratory at Colorado State University comes in. Here, we are trying to understand how the weeds evolved mechanisms of resistance and how these work. To me doing research on resistant weeds often feels like visiting an inverse crime scene because I study the individuals that survived instead of the ones that were killed. And the question is always: How did the survivors manage to pull this off? What is the strategy that makes them superior to their susceptible peers? Like a detective I am trying to hunt for clues that would give an idea of how the weed managed to survive with the final goal of finding the mutation that is responsible for resistance. Several possible mechanisms of resistance are already known: They range from reduced herbicide uptake or reduced translocation within the weed over plant-internal changes at the herbicide binding site to metabolic detoxification. Often enough weeds come up with mechanisms that we did not know were possible and have little knowledge about.

It is a fascinating area of research because despite us spending a lot of money, weeds seem to have an amazing ability to get around every effort to kill them. It is like a fast-paced arms race, like a game of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny where each party is trying to outsmart the other by being a step ahead. And in the process, we learn a lot about basic science and plant evolution in general. Since herbicide resistance has only been an issue since the 60’s, its research is still in the early stages. But thanks to technological advances in the areas of molecular and genetic sciences many new methods are available to answer these pressing questions.

Ultimately, the aim of these studies is to provide better weed management strategies for farmers and aerial applicators like Ken Hildebrandt. This can be done by developing diagnostic markers for monitoring resistance occurrence and helping to provide the farmers with the knowledge of which herbicides still work before the spraying season starts. The evolution of herbicide resistance in weeds is a human-made problem that will continue to be a challenge because wherever there is selection pressure, individuals with evolved traits to survive the selection pressure will prevail. Therefore, it is questionable if herbicides are a sustainable solution to our problems with weeds as it is just a matter of time until weeds become resistant to a herbicide. However, understanding how herbicide resistance works is a crucial step in preventing further resistance development from happening. This will help prolong the usage of herbicides that are already on the market, keeping food production affordable for years to come.

For more information on weed management and herbicide resistance visit the blogs by the weed research group at the University of Wyoming and by the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (AHRI). Information, graphs and maps on the occurrence of resistant weeds can be found at

Soil Health and an Era of Ecological Experimentation in Agriculture

Wed, 01/25/2017 - 1:46pm

Written by Steven Rosenzweig, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

Curt Sayles is doing something radical in his part of the world. There are only a handful of farms like his in eastern Colorado. Purple flax, yellow sunflowers, and every conceivable shade of green – it’s a welcome sight to see some color in a landscape of brown wheat and fallowed fields.

Curt grew up farming the conventional way. Farmers in Colorado grow wheat every other year, alternated with a year of fallow, where the land lays bare to store up rainwater for the next wheat crop. It’s been that way ever since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. But at 60, Curt is experimenting with a greater diversity of crops than conventional wisdom would suggest is possible in his climate, which is famous for wildly variable weather and multiyear droughts. He grows a mix of six different crops at once that his wife and son-in-law move cattle through to graze. He grows this forage mix in rotation with other crops like rye, corn, sunflowers, and millet. And he’s completely eliminated fallow, a daring move for a farmer without irrigation or much rain. It’s not easy trying something new in plain sight of judgmental eyes.

“I quit going to the coffee shop because [other farmers] look at you like you're… I mean you may as well have flown a UFO in because they think you're crazy,” he says.

But Curt is inspired to farm differently. After a trip to Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, a group that’s been pushing boundaries in agriculture since the early 90s, Curt became a different kind of farmer. And he’s not the only one who is making changes. Curt is swept up in an excitement that is inspiring thousands of farmers and ranchers around the country to try a new approach. Agriculture is on the brink of another revolution.

A New Vision for Agriculture

Farm-to-table, local food, organic – they all seek to tie the consumer to alternative agriculture. These strategies have societal merit, but they haven’t yet inspired the large-scale changes necessary to repair the hostile relationship between agriculture and the environment. Agriculture needs a vision that improves the land.

That is what the concept of soil health promotes. It seeks to foster a regenerative approach to farming and ranching.

The mindset in conventional agriculture is all about simplification, and it has a singular focus on maximizing this year’s crop yields. It loses sight of the agricultural system as, well, a whole system. You mined your soil organic matter and there are no nutrients left? Buy some more fertilizer. Never mind that building organic matter will not only feed your plants, but also prevent erosion and store more water.

In contrast, soil health is inspired by the way native ecosystems function. It appreciates the whole system. Soil health a philosophy that guides a farmer’s management, such that every action taken on the farm seeks to adequately feed and protect the living organisms in the soil, thus unlocking the enormous potential of soil microbes to release nutrients, create soil structure, build organic matter, and confer drought and disease resistance to plants. In practice, this mindset is realized through four simple principles: minimize soil disturbance, maximize diversity of plants, animals, and soil organisms, keep a living plant root growing as long as possible throughout the year, and maintain residue cover on the soil.

For Curt, these principles are transformational. He eliminated tillage so he doesn’t disturb the soil. By integrating livestock, crop rotation, and a diverse forage mix, he maximizes diversity. And by eliminating the fallow year, he extends the amount of time with a living root in the ground, and maintains residue cover on the soil.

But there is a reason he is only one of a handful of people farming this way in his region. Curt is taking a big risk.

“It’s like a fight all the time.”

Many of the practices associated with soil health have been more quickly adopted “out east,” as Colorado farmers refer to the Midwest, but their adoption has been slower in drier climates. Successfully eliminating fallow or growing a diverse forage mix is much trickier with less water, and no one has developed the recipe for success in eastern Colorado. As a soil health pioneer in this region, Curt realizes it’s not easy.

“Show me the book and formula and I’ll just go do that. Well, there is no book and there is no formula. We're trying to find things that work here. You know winter pea, does that work here or not? It's like a fight all the time. Nothing's easy.”

But without farmers like Curt pushing the limits of diversity, dryland agriculture would be forever confined to one or two crops and years of bare land. Without anyone willing to get rid of fallow, no one would ever know whether it is truly a necessity, or a relic from the years following the Dust Bowl. It would be an admission that there will always be erosion in agriculture, and that the soil is as good as it’s ever going to get.

But soil changes slowly, and it will take time to tell if Curt’s changes have worked. Now, more inspired than ever, Curt is worried he wont have enough time to complete all of his experiments.

“We’ve opened a whole new chapter. I have lots to learn. My biggest fear now is, I'm sitting here at 60. I maybe have 10 more harvests… That's all I've got left. I wish I'd known 20 years ago what I know today.”

Curt’s success with the soil health approach is more important to the Movement than he may realize. In one of the driest and most volatile climates in the country to be a non-irrigated farmer, the obstacles to Curt’s success are greater than just about any farmer in America. If he can make soil health work in Colorado, it will work anywhere.

But the pressure doesn’t rest solely on Curt’s shoulders. He has a close network of other farmers in his region who are undertaking a variety of creative and daring changes on their own farms. Many other farmers and ranchers throughout the US and beyond recognize that soil health may be the way of the future. Universities, government agencies, industry, non-profits, and international experts are responding to the farmers’ excitement to usher in an era of ecological experimentation in agriculture. The age of soil health is here.

As the mosquito bites

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 3:30pm

Written by Ajit Karna is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology.

Can we predict Zika virus transmission to humans and provide sustainable solutions to contain the spread?

I have always been fascinated with viruses, ways to detect them earlier, and stop their spread before they make people sick. In the Animal Disease Laboratory at Colorado State University, we do experiments to explore the role animals play in emerging virus transmission including Zika virus. We do not fully understand the sources of the Zika virus yet. In this blog, I explore options available to bridge scientists and policy makers in the development of sustainable solutions to contain the spread of this virus.

Zika virus is a mosquito borne virus, first discovered in a rhesus monkey in the Ziika forest of Uganda in 1947. Until recently, Zika virus outbreaks have been spotty, but a massive outbreak in Brazil in 2015 and its association with incomplete development of fetal brain (microcephaly) in pregnant women with the Zika virus infection made the current Zika virus outbreak a public health emergency. We do not have fully understood the factors that resulted in this sudden geographic spread and emergence of birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine available for the prevention and treatment of Zika virus. Transmission (see figure) primarily occurs by the bites of Aedes mosquitoes carrying the virus but the transmission of the virus through sexual contact between person to person increases the likelihood of transmission. The inadequacy of data from previous outbreaks has impeded the science community’s ability to predict the course of Zika virus and inform the policy makers to take evidence-based actions.

The importance of forecasting the next outbreak in human populations and how best to allocate, use and mobilize the monetary, physical and human resources is well demonstrated by the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The predictions can help policy-makers understand the magnitude, duration, and consequences of such outbreaks in human populations, and to manage the outbreaks effectively and sustainably. Even in the absence of detailed data on Zika virus, we can learn a lot from other closely related mosquito borne viruses including dengue virus and yellow fever virus. Database on dengue and yellow fever viruses can be used to derive and synthesize empirical data on outbreak and transmission of Zika virus. The resulting approximated data along with known outbreak patterns of Zika virus can be modeled under different modelling approaches. Using mathematical models, we can figure out some of the unanswered questions, such as the relative role of sexual contact adds to the mosquito bites, and sylvatic, or animal, cycle to the urban cycle in current Zika virus transmission context (see figure). Scientists using the data only on mosquito transmittable viruses need to be mindful that Zika virus is also sexually transmittable. In addition, data on dengue or yellow fever diseases do not reflect observed patterns in Zika. For instance, women have 80% or higher incidence of Zika infection than men in Brazil, perhaps associated with an exponential increase in women visits to a doctor during the epidemic.

The unique property of Zika virus adds complexity in designing a mathematical model to answer several questions. In such situations, mathematical modelers can take into consideration these differences and work through different types of models for (i) only sexually transmitted scenario, (ii) combined sexually and mosquito transmitted scenarios, and (iii) only mosquito transmitted scenario. For (i) and (iii), it will be useful to use data from other purely sexually transmitted disease systems or purely mosquito transmitted disease systems. The combined sexual and mosquito transmitted scenario can be a little tricky to model and even more difficult to parameterize appropriately. Dynamic and compartmental models can be used to formulate hypotheses, and increasing availability of data will allow testing these hypotheses. Among many, one approach to estimate the proportion of sexually transmitted cases compared with the proportion of mosquito transmitted cases of Zika virus is through an integrated biological-behavioral surveillance approach in communities where clinical settings are ongoing. This approach can also be used to untangle human exposure to virus via animal reservoir (sylvatic) compared with urban sources (e.g. Human-mosquito-human transmission). Once we know the incubation period of Zika virus in humans and mosquitoes, frequency of mosquito bites, relative density of the mosquitoes, and proportion of the blood-fed mosquitoes, we can use them to forecast the current Zika virus epidemic in humans. Similarly, the genetic data of the Zika virus isolated from the current and past outbreaks could reveal if the virus from recent outbreaks has new mutations, and may explain the emergence of birth defects that were not observed in previous outbreaks. Before we fully understand the transmission and course of the spread, these models will add possible randomly determined data or pattern that the existing data may not inform, and help scientists inform policy-makers how to respond early.     

While prediction of an outbreak is useful, investing in long-term surveillance programs with training, laboratory capacity building, information systems strengthening and community participation could sustainably contain the spread of the Zika virus. Programs based on community participation can build trust and will likely bring more men and women to the health centers to get tested for Zika virus, thereby preventing sexual transmission from infected cases to non-infected person at least to certain extent. At the same time, virus surveillance in mosquitoes and the mosquito control should be ongoing to detect areas of risk for human transmission. In an outbreak situation, subsidizing the cost of hospital visits, contraceptives, or window and door screens could greatly reduce Zika transmission. In addition, constant national and international support is necessary for such programs to be sustainable. The low and middle income countries can face an extra challenge to stop emergence and spread of Zika virus due to their insufficient monetary and trained human resources. Sustainable scenarios also need to be explored while forecasting the next Zika virus emergence and spread.

Zika virus is an urgent example of how scientists take active roles to protect communities facing uncertain challenges. Existing data, theoretical frameworks, epidemiological and ecological methods can help the scientists forecast the spread and future emergence of Zika virus. Just as data from other mosquito-borne viruses can inform predictions of Zika virus outbreaks, Zika virus may contribute vital information to address emergence of future viruses before they result in an epidemic.

Six ways soil biodiversity sustains us!

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 3:54pm

Written by Elizabeth Bach is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biolody.

As a 5-year-old, one of my favorite things to do was play in the dirt.  My cousins and I would make “soup,” a mixture of soil, leaves, twigs, and some unfortunate bugs, with just enough water to easily stir.  The “recipes” were endless; from which part of the yard we got the soil, the ratio of twigs to leaves, the addition of a stray earthworm or insect all contributed to different “soups.”  As a kid, this play occupied my imagination for hours at a time.  As an adult, the interactions of soil and organisms, dead and alive, continue to fascinate me.  Just like a hearty stew, soil provides nutrients and energy to all organisms living aboveground, including people, and sustains ecosystems and humanity now and into the future.  How, you ask?  Well, here are 6 ways soil biodiversity sustains us!

  1. It’s Alive!  Soil is home to ~25% of all described species on Earth.  These range from microscopic nematodes and tardigrades to small psuedoscorpians and even larger animals like burrowing owls.  But wait, there’s more!  The majority of soil species likely have not even been described by scientists.  That means soil holds numerous biological mysteries and likely supports far more than 25% of all species on Earth.  Soil is a frontier for exploration and discovery, right beneath our feet.

  1. It grows our food!  Some soil organisms people can eat directly, like mushrooms, truffles, and some insects.  Other soil organisms help fruits, vegetables, and grains grow by recycling nutrients from dead plant material.  All plants, including crops, need nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, from soil.  Most soils have limited reservoirs of these nutrients.  But dead plants, perhaps from the previous year’s crop, retain many of these nutrients in their tissue.  Soil organisms like insects, earthworms, micro-invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria break down dead plant material, releasing nutrients for new plant growth.  Soil organisms are critical to recycling nutrients to grow food and support sustainable farming.

  1. It helps us live long and prosper!  Soil organisms impact our health and lifestyles in both negative and positive ways.  For example, anthrax, tapeworms, histoplasmosis, and brain encephalitis are all caused by soil organisms, including bacteria, pictured above.  Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is a nasty and often deadly disease caused by the soil fungus Coccidioides immitis native in the southwest USA.

Other soil organisms can cure many diseases.  In soil, all these organisms live together in a community.  Some organisms have evolved defenses, such as antibiotic compounds, that can minimize disease agents.  Antibiotics like penicillin, originate from soil organisms, and can combat many illnesses caused by bacteria or fungi, like pneumonia and strep throat.  Soils are also a promising frontier in the development of new pharmaceuticals, which may reduce antibiotic resistance.  People around the world, like the child receiving a shot in the photo above enjoy healthy lives thanks to soil organisms.

  1. It supports wildlife!  Nutrient cycling from decomposition also supports food for wildlife that we enjoy viewing, hearing, and in some cases, hunting.  Without soil biodiversity, wildlife would not have plants, fruit, and nuts to eat.  Much like the effects on people, however, soil can also harbor disease organisms that can make wildlife sick, or even result in death.  For example, in July 2016, anthrax, a soil bacterium, released from thawing soil in Siberia killed >1500 reindeer. That’s right, Santa’s sleigh may be running slow this year because of a soil organism!

  1. It filters water!  As water moves through soil, soil organisms use the nutrients and minerals dissolved within it.  This effectively removes excess nutrients and some pollutants before water reaches ponds, streams, lakes, rivers, etc.  This is important not only for clean drinking water for animals and people (pictured above), but also for healthy fish and other aquatic organisms.  In many areas of the US, there is extra nitrogen and phosphorous in surface waters, in part due to run-off of fertilizers from crop fields and lawns.  When there is excess nitrogen and phosphorous in water, algae use it grow, consuming large amounts of dissolved oxygen.  Reduction in dissolved oxygen can cause fish and other large aquatic organisms to suffocate, generating a “dead zone,” also known as hypoxia.  The 2016 “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico was estimated to be about the size of Connecticut (5,898 square miles)!  Soil organisms can reduce this nutrient load, and the number of algae that grow, keeping our waters oxygenated and healthy.

Soli biodiversity also helps store water in soil.  Earthworms, insects, and other animals create tunnels, which allows water to flow into the soil more easily during precipitation events.  In addition, soil organisms generate organic matter, made up of the byproducts of biological metabolism (think compost) that gives soils a dark color.  Because soil organic matter is charged, it holds water between organic molecules, allowing soil to store more water than clay, slit, and sand particles alone.

  1. It recycles the air!  Before plants covered our planet, cyanobacteria (pictured above) used simple carbon molecules and minerals from rocks as energy sources.  This released oxygen, which eventually built up in the atmosphere to levels that could support the evolution of more microbes, plants, fungi, and animals, like us.  We still rely on plants and soil organisms to maintain enough oxygen in the atmosphere for us to live. Soil organisms also cycle greenhouse gasses, which trap heat near the surface of Earth (pictured above, bottom panel). 

Soil organisms can both pull greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, out of the atmosphere and respire carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.  When soil organisms decompose dead material, they use carbon from the tissue as an energy source.  Some of that carbon is used for growth and reproduction.  That carbon can stick around in soil for weeks, years, decades, or even longer.  Some of the carbon is used for respiration, just like when we breath, soil organisms produce carbon dioxide.  This adds up to a lot of carbon!  As shown above, soils contain 2,300 gigatonnes of carbon.  By comparison, respiration by soil organisms contributes only 60 gigatonnes of carbon back to the atmosphere.  We can help soil organisms potentially reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere through land management choices like ecosystem restoration, conservation farming practices, and increased urban green space.

Soil organisms are truly the unsung heroes of sustainability.  We need them. Wildlife needs them.  Fish need them. Ecosystems need them.  Soil biodiversity not only sustains life on earth, it is intrinsically fascinating.  From bioluminescent fungi (pictured far left) to dog vomit slime mold (pictured top right) and adorable tardigrades (pictured bottom right) soil is home to some awesome living things.  It is organisms like these that captured my adult imagination long after my “soup” making days as a kid.  The best part is, it is not imaginary at all.  The real world beneath our feet is astounding and essential.  We all need living soil, so future generations can play and thrive in the dirt.

All images, except the reindeer, are from the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas and available for free download (pdf) and use!  Learn more about soil biodiversity from the Atlas and the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

Bears and people and garbage, oh my!

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 4:29pm

Written by Stacy Lischka is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

Imagine you are hiking along a trail, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, taking in the scenery, breathing the fresh air, and hoping you’ll see some wildlife to round out your adventure. It’s a lovely fall day.  The sun is shining and the service berries are abundant.  You stop to snack on a few berries, and as you look up from foraging, you see a large, black animal, also eating its fill of berries some distance away. You squint, mind racing, trying to figure out what it is that you see. Could it be a bear?

Now, imagine you are taking your dog for a walk down the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Your 5-year old is riding his bike along next to you. Its 5 pm, and the late fall, so its nearly dark. You’re busy trying to keep your son from riding his bike into the street, and hardly notice that many of your neighbors have their garbage cans out on the curb, waiting for tomorrow’s garbage pickup. You turn a corner and walk nearly into a large, black animal eating its fill out of a tipped over garbage can in your neighbor’s driveway. The animal looks up, hears you yell “Oh my god!” and runs off down the street to the nearby natural area. Could that have been a bear?

These two different experiences likely made you feel entirely different things. In the first scenario, you might have felt excitement about seeing a bear in its natural habitat, filling up on natural foods to prepare for hibernation. You probably felt that this interaction was natural, no cause for alarm, and that the bear was behaving in a way consistent with its evolutionary needs. You would probably walk away from this interaction feeling pretty excited that it had happened and ready to brag about it to all of your friends.

The second scenario might have caused you to feel very differently. You might have felt scared by the situation, especially for the safety of your son. You might also have been concerned for the health of the bear, knowing that garbage is not a natural food for bears.  You would probably walk away from this situation feeling like there was a problem and maybe planning to call your local wildlife office to report the incident.

Both of these scenarios are common in Colorado and in other states with black bears. Unfortunately, examples like the second scenario have increased alarmingly within the last 10 years.  In fact, wildlife managers have reported increases in conflicts between people and black bears in 30 of the 41 states that have bear populations.  In Colorado, the total number of human-black bear conflicts reported to Colorado Parks and Wildlife has more than tripled in the past 15 years.  Because of this, people like me are spending lots of time and effort to figure out why conflicts occur. Are bear populations increasing, and do more bears on the landscape mean more conflicts with people?  Are bears preferentially seeking out human foods over natural foods?  Does seeking out human foods hurt or help individual bears and bear populations? What are the best approaches to discourage bears from seeking out human foods?  How will changing climate and drought change natural food availability for bears? Exploring the answers to these and many more questions will help us understand how to reduce conflicts between people and black bears, and maintain healthy black bear populations across the U.S. and Canada.

The perfect storm

Researchers and biologists don’t completely understand what is causing the increase in conflicts between people and black bears, but we know human food is a potential culprit. We know that people and bears prefer to live in the same types of areas, especially areas along rivers and in forested areas with lots of natural foods. In LaPlata County, one of the areas with the best quality bear habitat in Colorado, human development has increased by more than 600% since 1970. This means that people are much more widely distributed across the landscape than they have been in the past. As a result, there are fewer areas where bears can be bears without running into people, their homes, their gardens, and their garbage.

We also know that bears evolved to be very efficient food-finding machines. Between July and September each year, bears enter a period called hyperphagia, where they are putting on massive amounts of body fat to prepare for hibernation.  In this period, they need to take in approximately 20,000 calories a day. That’s the equivalent of 36 Big Macs, every single day! Bears also have long life spans (more than 20 years in the wild), and readily learn and remember the locations of reliable food sources.  Moreover, bears have a very keen sense of smell and can smell foods up to 5 miles away. 

When people live in an area, they bring with them a wealth of calorie-dense, plentiful foods such as garbage, gardens, fruit trees, pet foods, bird feeders, and grills. These foods require little energy for bears to find. This creates a literal smorgasbord for bears in many areas. Unfortunately, eating human food can compromise the health of bears and potentially change their natural food-finding behaviors, leading them to be involved in conflicts with people. The outcomes of these interactions for people are usually inconvenient (e.g. having to pick up strewn trash), but the consequences for bears are often lethal, as problem-causing bears are often killed. Conflicts have become so frequent in some areas, that some cities require all residents to own and use a bear-resistant garbage container, which reduces the garbage available to bears.

How you can help

To keep bears acting like bears and maintain the “naturalness” of the areas where we live, we must all take action to prevent bears from getting into trouble with people. You may feel like there is nothing you can do to reduce conflicts or that your actions will not make a difference. I argue that the most effective thing we can do is securing all food available to bears and by convincing our friends and neighbors to do the same. We can make our communities a better place for people and bears to live, just by taking a few simple actions ourselves and helping the idea spread across our communities.

What can you do to reduce your chance of having a bear knock over your garbage can, harass your pets, or damage your fruit trees?  It’s simple, really. First, make all of the things that taste delicious to a bear very difficult to access. By securing your trash in a bear-proof container, fencing your fruit trees, keeping pet food indoors, and cleaning your grill, you will remove items that attract bears into urban areas. This will encourage bears to feed in natural areas - where there is more than enough food to keep them healthy and well-fed.

Second, talk about what you are doing with your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, anyone who will listen! Neighbors tend to develop similar habits over time, especially if they see and hear others talking about their actions. Disaster preparedness research tells us that this sort of social learning is much more effective at motivating action than impersonal information from experts (e.g. city officials, wildlife managers, etc.). Tell them how easy it is to secure your garbage until the morning of trash pick-up. Tell them what a large apple crop you’ve had this year because no bears are breaking limbs off your apple tree. And, most importantly, tell them how your actions have helped you feel in control of your own risk of having a conflict with a bear.

Your actions can, and will, have a real effect on bears.  We must all do our part to reduce the food that attracts bears into towns and cities, to keep bears acting wild and safe from the lethal consequences of a free lunch. Please join me in me in ensuring that our communities stay beautiful, natural, and safe places for people and black bears to co-exist.

Raccoons and Rabies: A complex and under-recognized sustainability issue in the United States

Thu, 12/08/2016 - 3:07pm

Written by Stacey Elmore is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Post Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

About a month ago, I was walking my dogs around the apartment complex for their evening excursion. I bent over to untangle their leashes, and when I straightened up, I heard what can best be described as a “snorty growl” that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. And it was very close to my face. I slowly turned my head to the left and locked eyes with a raccoon. The masked critter was also out for an evening jaunt, and had been sitting quietly in the tree – within spitting distance from my head!

As my brain connected the snorty growl with the presence of a raccoon, recognition took hold, and the familiarity became clear. As a post-doctoral researcher for Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), I encounter this sound frequently during my job duties. Luckily, healthy raccoons usually want nothing more than to be left alone by people, so my raccoon friend and I parted ways with no damage done.

I work with the rabies research group at the NWRC. A large portion of our group’s activities focus on studying the ecology of the raccoon (Procyon lotor) rabies virus, and the wildlife that transmit the virus to people and other animals. My job includes studying how raccoon movement influences the spread of disease, and which rabies management techniques might help to eliminate the virus from certain animal populations. This kind of investigation can not be done without collaboration, however, and I am fortunate to work with scientists from not only the NWRC, but also the National Rabies Management Program, Land and Sea Systems Analysis, Inc. (Quebec, Canada), and Colorado State University.

The Raccoon Rabies Virus

Rabies is an ancient disease that might bring to mind the dogs from the tear-jerking “Old Yeller”, or perhaps the horror movie “Cujo”. The rabies virus causes the disease “rabies”, which leads to inflammation of the Central Nervous System, including the brain. The virus travels mainly through nerves, but in the last stages of disease, it is also found in the salivary glands. When an infected animal bites a person or a pet, the rabies virus can enter the bite wound through the animal’s saliva. Although an encounter with an infected animal might not result in disease, rabies is 100% fatal in those unfortunate individuals that do show symptoms. This fact is scary - and is the reason that rabies is such a concern worldwide. The good news, however, is that rabies is also very preventable in people, pets, and many wildlife species through pre- and post-exposure vaccination, and a little common sense.

There are multiple genetic variants of the rabies virus, and each variant prefers to infect a different animal species. For example, the canine variant, which is what Old Yeller and Cujo likely suffered, no longer circulates in the United States, thanks to responsible pet ownership and dog vaccinations. Other variants, however, such as the ones that circulate in wildlife (bats, skunks, foxes, or raccoons), are not as easy to control. It seems that these species have a very difficult time keeping veterinary appointments!

Luckily for the wildlife, and for the general public, there is a federal program that organizes vaccine appointments on behalf of the animals – the National Rabies Management Program (NRMP). Along with the NWRC, the NRMP is part of the Wildlife Services program of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The NRMP implements an oral rabies vaccination (ORV) program and other management techniques to control the spread of rabies virus in wild carnivore populations. Of all the rabies virus variants, however, the raccoon rabies virus variant receives the most intensive management. This variant is only found in the eastern U.S. and a vaccination zone stretches south from Lake Erie Maine to northern Alabama.

Every year, the NRMP drops around 8 to 10 million oral rabies vaccine baits from aircraft within targeted zones. To minimize the chance of a bait being picked up by people and pets, the program distributes baits by hand, helicopter, and bait stations in urban and suburban areas. The number of baits distributed in a particular area is determined by how many raccoons are likely to be living there and how many other animals might compete with the raccoons to eat the baits. The goal is to reach as many raccoons as possible to prevent the spread of rabies within and beyond the vaccination zones. 

Raccoons populations aren’t declining… So why is this a sustainability problem?

Raccoons are a common, versatile and resourceful wildlife species. Unlike endangered species, whose limited or declining populations are easily linked to sustainability issues, abundant raccoons may seem out of place in this discussion. But, I’d argue that they do relate to sustainability because they are so abundant.  Raccoon populations are the most dense in areas with lots of food, especially leftovers from people, and good places to hide during the day. Urban and suburban neighborhoods and parks fit this description, which brings a lot of raccoons into potential contact with a lot of people. When raccoon density is high, a rabies outbreak can move quickly through the population and chances of an encounter between a rabid animal and a person or a pet increase.  

If a person is bitten or otherwise contacts the saliva of a potentially rabid animal, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is administered and will prevent disease progression. In this event your local public health department is the first call that a person should make if he or she might have been exposed to a rabid animal. The public health workers will determine if PEP is warranted. Rabies PEP consists of a series of injections and it is very costly - roughly $3000 or more for one exposure event, and it is usually the patient who must pick up the bill. This is the crux of the sustainability issue with North American rabies. If we didn’t have to deal with raccoon rabies, how much of this money could be reassigned for other important and pressing ecological problems? There would still be a need for PEP in the U.S., but perhaps with a much lower frequency.

Recently, the NRMP met with rabies experts and stakeholders, to formulate a plan to eliminate the raccoon variant of the rabies virus from the eastern U.S. over a 30-year period. The plan entails moving the barrier eastward, as ORV efforts clear raccoon rabies from previously infected areas, according to carefully selected criteria. It is an ambitious goal, and also an achievable one. Through ORV activities, raccoon rabies has been largely eliminated from Canada, although the virus constantly challenges the southern regions of border provinces (i.e., Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick). Once the U.S. is declared free of raccoon rabies, the extreme need for PEP is expected to decrease over time and funds can be redirected to other sustainability needs. Also, by improving the health of raccoon populations, perhaps some of the fear of wildlife-associated diseases will abate.

But keep an ear out for that familiar snorty growl…the raccoons are not going to leave the neighborhood trash cans alone anytime soon…

Staying informed about rabies is a key prevention method for both people and pets. For more information, please visit the following websites:

Creating a Sustainable Future for the Ogallala Aquifer

Mon, 11/21/2016 - 3:46pm

Written by Aaron Hrozencik is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

The sun wanes as I drive east towards the looming Rocky Mountains, leaving the vast expanse of the plains in my wake. I blast the air conditioning but the hope for comfort seems futile given the amount of time the car baked under the cloudless prairie sky.  It’s a typical summer day on the eastern plains of Colorado, which early settlers called the great American desert. Yet fields of lush field crops and small towns punctuate the drive east on Highway 34. The heart of the transformation from desert to agricultural oasis lies in the discovery and exploitation of the Ogallala aquifer. 

The Ogallala is the largest aquifer in North America. Developments in pumping technology in the 20th century facilitated the expansion of high capacity groundwater wells across the aquifer, turning the arid high plains into the grain basket of America. However, groundwater pumping rates that exceed natural aquifer replenishment threaten the future sustainability of the resource.   

Aquifers around the globe provide vital water resources that allow agriculture to persist despite insufficient rainfall. Climate change compounds the implications of groundwater depletion on global food production by increasing the frequency and severity of drought. The future of the world’s aquifers and their ability to support agriculture depend on the development of management strategies that conserve groundwater for future generations.   

The rate of groundwater depletion depends on the underlying characteristics of the aquifer, the density of groundwater wells and the rate of natural replenishment. Variation in depletion rates within an aquifer complicate resource management decisions and diminish the effectiveness of aquifer-scale conservation initiatives.  In some areas of the southern Ogallala the water table, the vertical height of the aquifer, has fallen by more than 150 ft., roughly 70%.  However, other regions in the northern Ogallala of the Nebraska have seen relatively small decreases in groundwater levels. To conserve groundwater resources, the aquifers of the world need management strategies that recognize this variation as well as the impact of groundwater extraction on the local economy when designing conservation initiatives.

The groundwater pumped from the Ogallala serves as the backbone of the rural economies built around irrigated agriculture. The economic impact of irrigated agriculture extends beyond the profit margins of farmers and ranchers. Irrigation creates jobs and supports local agricultural and consumer service industries. Aquifer conservation measures must account for the important role of irrigation in the local economy and aim to minimize the adverse economic impacts of groundwater management.

My research focuses on understanding how variation in aquifer characteristics influences the costs and benefits of differing management strategies. I integrate hydrologic, agronomic and economic models to investigate how groundwater users respond to conservation policies and changing aquifer conditions. Research results inform stakeholders of the tradeoffs inherent in alternative conservation strategies, allowing groundwater users to choose policies that best fit their community’s long-term objectives. I am currently working on an interdisciplinary research initiative funded by USDA-NIFA which partner economists, hydrologists and agronomists from research institutions across the Ogallala to create sustainable food production systems and rural economies across the region. 

Conserving groundwater to meet future food demands and to sustain the agricultural communities built on irrigated agricultural requires management strategies that balance the costs of conservation today with benefits of a healthier aquifer tomorrow. Incorporating localized variation in aquifer characteristics and accounting for the economic impacts of groundwater pumping is paramount in designing policies that find this balance and effectively save groundwater for future generations. 

To learn more about the Ogallala interdisciplinary research project visit