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Pathogens, People, and Pachyderms in Transfrontier Conservation

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 12:06pm

Written by Laura Rosen, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of Clinical Sciences

“Jane” is 31, a mother of two working in international tourism, and weighs 6,000 pounds. Jane (name changed to protect her identity) is an African elephant, one of about 60 elephants working at ecotourism facilities in the Victoria Falls area of Zimbabwe and Zambia. These elephants live moments away from one of the seven natural wonders of the world, surrounded by a diversity of wildlife. But all is not perfect here, and one of the less visible problems that poses a threat is that of infectious diseases. Tuberculosis (TB) is still a major problem in humans in this part of the world, and can spread to animals as well.

We often think of zoonotic diseases as those we can get from animals, such as avian influenza, rabies, or Lyme disease. Animals can also get diseases from us – as with elephants and TB. Elephants have probably been getting TB from humans for at least 2000 years, and it has been diagnosed more frequently in the last 20 years in elephants cared for by humans. Elephants can also transmit TB back to humans and to other elephants. Given how common human TB is here, Jane and other elephants around the Victoria Falls area were tested to look for antibodies to the bacteria that cause TB. This collaborative project between researchers in the US and South Africa, and local veterinarians and conservationists in Zimbabwe was the first study looking at TB in working elephants in Africa.

While TB might be thought of as a disease from a bygone era in the United States, it has not been forgotten elsewhere in the world. One in four people in the world is infected with bacteria that cause TB. Most will never develop TB, which typically affects the lungs, and can cause general symptoms like cough and weight loss. Even so, every year more than 10 million new TB cases are diagnosed, and more than 1.5 million people die of the disease. Millions of dollars are spent around the world every year on efforts to test for, treat, and prevent TB.  Domestic animals like cattle also get TB, and in some cases, people can get sick if they have extended close contact with an infected animal or consume products like milk from an infected animal. TB affects species around the world, including wildlife such as rhinos, primates, and elephants like Jane.

We found that several elephants tested positive for TB antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the immune system when it encounters something foreign, like bacteria, and remain in the blood to allow for a quick response should that bacteria be encountered again. When antibodies to a specific pathogen are present, they indicate that the animal has been exposed to the bacteria at some point, but don’t tell us whether an animal is currently infected. These results do suggest that we should be monitoring animals in this area for TB and trying to minimize the spread of diseases like TB among humans, livestock, and wildlife.

TB can spread from working elephants to wild elephants when these elephants use the same areas and when people encourage mating of captive females and wild males. The spread of TB to wild elephants is a major concern, because TB is very difficult to eradicate in wild populations. Within the last 5 years, there have been reports of TB in wild elephants in Africa and Asia. Elephant populations are declining, so it’s vital to focus on their conservation to ensure that these iconic species remain a part of the landscape for generations to come.

Finding TB in wild elephants where Jane and the rest of her herd live would be alarming, because this area is home to Africa’s largest connected populations of elephants. Victoria Falls is at the center of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which incorporates land from Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe into a region about the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined. As the name suggests, transfrontier conservation areas are designed to promote conservation and sustainable management of the rich natural resources of these areas, and benefit economic development of local communities through tourism. They combine large tracts of public, private, and communal lands across the borders of multiple countries in southern Africa. Historically, people built fences throughout this landscape to separate livestock and wildlife, but these fences disrupted migration paths for wildlife. Connecting land within a conservation area involves removing fences and joining fragmented habitat to allow wildlife to move freely. While unrestricted wildlife movement can benefit conservation, it can also increase disease transfer among wildlife, livestock, and people.

Southern Africa is home to many diseases of economic or public health significance, including TB, which must be considered in the management of these areas. Take an example from another transfrontier conservation area, which includes South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park. In the 1990s, African buffalo in the park began getting sick with bovine TB, a disease that came from cattle outside the park. The disease spread through the park, not just in buffalo but in other species like kudu and warthog. Carnivores like lions prey on the buffalo weakened by TB and then become infected themselves. Now TB appears to have spread across the Zimbabwean border to buffalo in Gonarezhou National Park. This real-life scenario serves as a warning for the potential for disease spread within a transfrontier conservation area.

Avoiding a similar outcome in Kavango-Zambezi is an opportunity to implement the One Health Initiative, which emphasizes the connections between human, animal, and environmental health. Preventing and managing TB in people and animals requires coordinated efforts in among multiple species. Routinely testing the elephants and their handlers for TB is important to recognize whether TB is present. Keeping the elephants away from livestock and wildlife minimizes the risk of disease transmission. Testing livestock and, when possible, wildlife as part of regular TB surveillance will allow for a more complete understanding of how much TB is present, and where. Keeping people and animals like Jane healthy means a healthier planet for all species, and a chance for successful conservation in places like Kavango-Zambezi.

See more from Laura at or follow @LERDVM on Twitter

Balancing wildlands and Oil: Perspectives of working in Northern Alberta

Mon, 12/18/2017 - 12:08pm

Written by Andrea Borkenhagen, 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Graduate Degree program in Ecology and the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

Ten years ago, I was paddling across a wetland in the boreal of Alberta. I had been contracted to survey for impacts from the oil sands mine across the road to make sure the wetland was healthy. Even though we were next to development, it felt like we were in the middle of wilderness.

A loon’s call echoed across the water as our canoe navigated past a beaver lodge and through the cattail marsh. We stopped to identify the plants and I dipped my hand in to have a closer look at the smaller species. There they were, Wolffia borealis (northern watermeal) and Riccia fluitans (liverwort), two rare plants in Alberta1.

I knew then that it was possible.

With thoughtful planning and monitoring, it was possible to have development while conserving biodiversity.

I know oil sands mining is controversial, but I have seen a lot of progress as well. The protection of rare plants and ecosystems, industry supporting novel restoration approaches, and passionate people who strive to mitigate impacts.

The boreal of Alberta is a beautiful place.

I worked for many years in Alberta to survey the land, identifying all the plants along our path. We would walk through upland forests of aspens and poplars rustling over willow, gooseberry, and rose thickets. The perfect place to cross paths with a bear or wasps nest. Drier forest sites had sandy soils with lodgepole pine and dense carpets of blueberries and puffy-white reindeer lichen. Descending from the hillsides, wetter depressions support paper birch trees with airy fields of horsetail2. River alders bushels entwine to buttress the soggy ground, hiding sink holes amongst cow-parsnip and sedge grass leaves. Further down still, the alder wall breaks to a view of scattered patches of larch, willows and bog birch over a blanket groundcover of moss3. Rubbers boots are necessary in these saturated fen peatlands as you float on mats of moss and sedges. In some areas moss mounds can grow into bog peatlands with pillows of red and green sphagnum and small gnarly black spruce4. Here, the horse flies and mosquitos viciously buzz and bump into your face looking for crevasses to burrow into for a chance to bite unprotected flesh5.

This pristine landscape hides underlying black gold.

Alberta has the third largest reserve of oil in the world. Millions of years ago, an inland sea existed on our continent where salty sand and marine organisms accumulated. Pressure and temperature transformed the organic matter into petroleum deposits we have today. Currently, the entire deposit is estimated to be under 142,200 km2 of the boreal forest, or about the land area of Illinois.

The vast majority of the deposit is deep underground (97%) and extracted by steam injection that separates the oil from the sand. The oil is brought up and saline water is pumped down in replacement. On the surface, these facilities are a network of roads and pipes connecting drill pads and refineries6. The surrounding land is continuously evaluated for impacts from disturbance. Routine monitoring tracks and prevents changes to water movement, water chemistry, plant communities, and wildlife habitat.

Mines are different.

Where the reserves are close to the surface, the deposit is open pit mined. The dense mixture of oil, sand, and water is scooped into enormous trucks and separated with hot water in extraction plants7. The oil is upgraded, the water recycled, and the remaining slurry is set out to dry in huge ponds so the sand can be used to rebuild the landscape. The minable surface area is estimated to cover 4,800 km2, about the land area of Rhode Island. As of a few years ago, the area of disturbance is over 750 km2, or 5 times the size of Fort Collins, Colorado. This means there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and this is where I come in as a reclamation scientist.

After days of training, we are certified to enter the facility and we drive up to the secure gate to swipe authorized passes. The drawbridge lowers, and we set course to meet with our coordinating personnel. We obtain a work permit, attend a safety meeting, drive on a pre-approved passage, don safety equipment, prepare for our daily tasks, and set foot onto our reclamation site.

We look across our site and get ready for a day of measurements, essential to assess condition and trajectory. How have we succeeded and what needs fixing?

Restoration is assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed

Reclamation is reconstructing the entire landscape that now lacks original topography, hydrology or biotic composition

At about two football fields in size, we have constructed one of two fen peatlands in the region. It was years in the making and supported by many government, industry, and academic institutions. Some of the strongest proponents where the industry leaders themselves. They coordinated with the government to tackle the huge gap in our understanding of how to rebuild peatlands in the oil sands region. Teams of researchers from Canada and the US worked to tackle problems that had never been assessed, develop methods that had never been tested, and implement a project that moved the bar of reclamation achievements.

Years ago, there was a pit. After hundreds of dump trucks, there was a hill and a basin. After careful placement, there was a peat soil surface ready for experimentation. And after planting and instrumentation by hordes of committed researchers, there has been intense evaluation of the site for the last five years. We experimented with different methods to figure out how to introduce desirable plants. We spread seeds and moss8, planting thousands of seedlings9, pulled weeds, and documented plant growth in wet and dry areas10.

Today, there is an upland forest of aspens, willows and rose thickets that transitions into a saturated fen peatland with a squishy mat of moss and sedges11.

The results are immensely encouraging. We were able to recreate plant communities similar to those found in natural areas of the region. There will always be more to test and aspects to refine, but we can confidently say that we have rebuilt a fen peatland.

We return every year. We reevaluate changes, we ask new questions, we change things that need changing, and we admire the work.

Our overall goal is to develop methods that improve reclamation outcomes and consider post-oil sands mining constraints. I want you to know that scientists are working closely with industry and government to improve the process. Over the last seven years, I have discovered how plants react to reclaimed systems, investigated patterns of change, and identified drivers that influence ecosystem health and function. This research forms that basis for which I can recommend avoiding disturbance to high-value ecosystems, propose strategies that minimize impacts, and develop methods that restore the pre-disturbance state.

This project is funded by oil sands organizations and the Canadian government. It is therefore our responsibility to facilitate their and your understanding of the issues and advances in reclamation ecology. We will continue to advance our ability to mitigate impacts of development and resource extraction on biodiversity in Alberta’s boreal. My hope to always be able to paddle across the water, listen to the birds, and take a closer look at the smaller things around me.

Beyond the narrative: For more information on our project, visit Andrea’s personal website.

Grasslands: The forgotten landscape

Mon, 12/18/2017 - 10:49am

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

At a dinner party, an important person (who shall remain anonymous) asked me, “Why do grasslands matter to people living in New York City?” I felt paralyzed by the question and began to fumble for a response: “Grasslands store carbon, which reduces greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.” The person looked thoroughly unimpressed, and I have made it my mission since that interaction to convey (to anyone who will listen) the importance of grassland ecosystems, and more specifically, the Great Plains of North America.

Grasslands, from North America’s Great Plains to Africa’s savannas comprise 40.5% of the land on Earth1, providing food for wildlife and livestock and rich soils for agricultural production. A recent study also found that strips of native prairie in Iowa help reduce run off into streams from agricultural fertilizers by slowing the flow of water and nutrients through the system3.

Human development, overgrazing from livestock, and deep-soil tilling from agriculture have threatened grasslands across the globe. In the United States and Canada, humans rely on farms located across the Great Plains to grow food, yet people seem to overlook this productive and beautiful landscape. The Great Plains of North America stretch from northern Canada to the tip of Texas and offer majestic, open spaces filled with grasses, flowering plants, shrubs, birds, lizards, prairie dogs, and pronghorn, in addition to domesticated crops and livestock. Amid the diversity of life in the Great Plains, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) stands out as a grassland icon with the potential to increase awareness and support for this forgotten landscape.

Elected as our national mammal4 in 2016, the bison, along with fire, helped shape the Great Plains that we see today. Before the late 1800’s, around 30-60 million bison grazed and wallowed in the Great Plains, which helped prevent trees and shrubs from growing, thus creating grassland habitat for various birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The feces from these numerous bison herds also served as a rich, natural fertilizer for grassland soils5. However, Bison populations rapidly declined after European expansion westward, due to overhunting and the deliberate massacre of bison by the U.S. cavalry in a brutal attempt to destroy an important resource and cultural icon of Native Americans6.

The extirpation of bison, coupled with human development, agriculture, and livestock production, had devastating social and ecological consequences, including the marginalization of Native Americans and the loss of habitat for many wildlife and plant species across the Great Plains. Species such as black-footed ferrets, swift fox, burrowing owl, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs have not yet recovered from this massive habitat loss. In addition, grassland birds have experienced the largest and most rapid population declines of any other bird group over the past 25 years7. In an effort to restore grassland habitat and cultural connections, a wave of bison reintroductions have occurred across the Great Plains in Alberta (Canada), Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Illinois to name a few. These reintroductions can be used as a tool to help reconnect people to grasslands and foster an appreciation for these systems.

So, why ARE grasslands important to people living in a city? To elaborate upon the paltry answer I provided at the dinner party, grasslands provide the ingredients for the food people eat every day, help to clean the water people drink, maintain a cooler climate, and provide critical habitat for various species, including our national mammal (bison). To better understand the benefits grasslands provide and how humans can preserve this disappearing landscape, scientists, such as myself, study interactions between bison, plants, and other grassland animals. Grasslands create a healthier, more biologically diverse planet in which humans, plants, and wildlife can thrive.


Thirsty to preserve: The Role of Women in Water Conservation Science

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 2:57pm

Written by Carolina Gutierrez, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Student in the Graduate Degree program in Ecology and the Department of Biology.

“Everybody says women are like water. I think it's because water is the source of life, and it adapts itself to its environment. Like women, water also gives of itself wherever it goes to nurture life....” ― Xinran, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices[1]

Life is not possible without water, that much is an irrefutable fact. Water is integral to all levels of biological organization. It supports normal cellular function by transporting materials and molecular machinery, it facilitates chemical reactions, it transports nutrients inside all living organisms, and it helps remove toxins and waste. Albert von Szent-Györgyi, Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureate who partly discovered vitamin C, referred to water as “the matrix of life”[2].

It is no wonder then, that in a planet brimming with living organisms, water occupies most of its surface. On Earth, about 71% of the planet’s surface is covered with water. The oceans hold over 96% of all Earth’s water, while the vast majority of freshwater resources is locked up in ice caps, glaciers and underground storage[3]. Only around 1% of total water in our planet is in usable liquid form, mostly in rivers, streams and lakes. Thus, it would be logical to conserve these precious ecosystems, to make sure they are kept healthy and unpolluted, since our lives so heavily depend on them. However, it is estimated that 844 million people are currently living without access to safe, clean water, which means that around 1 in 9 people lack access to safe, drinkable water[4]. We need to design better strategies, that apply scientific knowledge to restore and preserve our freshwater ecosystems.

This is particularly critical in developing countries, where much of the world’s freshwater resources are concentrated and where access to clean water resources is most limited. It has been referred to as the world water crisis, and its impact is disproportionately stronger on women and children[4] (Figure 1). In remote rural areas, particularly in developing countries, women and children are often responsible for collecting water, which takes time away from attending school, working or caring for family. Reducing the time spent in collecting water increases chances of children having access to better education and play time, giving them opportunities for a brighter future.

The lack of access to clean water also has stronger effects on reproductive health for women, since childbearing and rearing becomes that much harder without appropriate water resources
(Figure 2).

In 2006 the United Nations developed a policy brief through their Task Force on Gender and Water (GWTF) recognizing the necessity of involving women on water conservation projects and stressing the fact that sustainable management of water resources requires more involvement from scientists, particularly female scientists, to increase chances of success. Women are in general under-represented in terms of careers and training in water science and management. Projects that address the science behind water conservation and the social and gender equality component of water access have greater chances of making a permanent change to improve quality of life for entire communities.

As a female Stream Ecologist from Colombia, I feel great passion and responsibility for this topic. I believe science has a duty to generate results that make a lasting impact on quality of life for all living organisms, and this resonates in many different contexts. A scientific understanding of the delicate interactions sustaining freshwater ecosystems will serve to conserve water for human consumption. For this, it is critical to work on all possible aspects of water conservation science, involving physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, ecology, statistics, management, policy and social sciences. So, if you have ever wondered: How does research by scientists studying water molecules or water force dynamics, or algae or aquatic insects, or ecosystem restoration affect me? The answer is: Each of these disciplines addresses a piece of the complex puzzle to preserve clean and sustainable water resources for the present and future, which affects every single living organism in this planet.

Several countries and regions have started projects and partnerships geared towards water sanitation and conservation, with special emphasis in training women for leadership roles in water resource management. Good examples of such projects are the Latin American Clean Water Initiative, which seeks to facilitate sustainable water solutions and improve the health and well-being of individuals living in extreme poverty in 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The project seeks to: 1) Provide access to potable water and sanitation systems, 2) Improve sustainable water supplies for productive activities and train individuals to manage the water systems effectively, and 3) Offer educational workshops in water conservation, hygiene and water-related illnesses. The program will be implemented in 13 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela[5].

The Nature Conservancy has created water funds, including 32 initiatives in various stages of development, which provide a steady source of funding for the conservation of more than 7 million acres of watersheds and secure drinking water for nearly 50 million people. Water users pay into the funds in exchange for the product they receive — fresh, clean water. The funds, in turn, pay for forest conservation along rivers, streams and lakes, to ensure safe drinking water for users[6].

These are just a few examples of actions for water conservation at the outreach and management level, however there are also efforts at the cultural level. In 2015 Nocem Collado directed and produced a documentary titled “Women and Water” that draws a parallel between cycles of life and water, analyzing the role women play in water management through the lives of four women. You can watch the full documentary on:

I believe we all must contribute our part in solving the water sustainability crisis in the best way we are able to. For me personally, that means using Stream Ecology Science to understand the interactions of living organisms inhabiting streams and rivers. My research focuses on aquatic insects and their roles and functions in bodies of freshwater, and how those roles change in the context of elevation gradients and more importantly, latitudinal gradients. I come from a tropical country, I have seen the life force that streams and rivers represent for those in and around them, but I also know how much of understanding exactly the balance of diversity and function of life inside these ecosystems we still lack, particularly in the tropics[7].

Although water conservation is an issue that disproportionately impacts women, we cannot reach the goal of preserving water resources on Earth unless we ALL get involved in educating ourselves about threats to water resources and supporting the empowerment of women through education and equality of opportunities, because as Sandra Postel once said:

For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports[8]

If you would like to know more about The Water Crisis and what you can do about it, you can visit:








[8] Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (1997), 184. 

The Perils of Ignoring Bad News: The Science-Policy Divide

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 9:52am

Written by Jake Salcone, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

In Deep Survival, through a series of gripping accounts of those who succeed or fail in life-or-death situations, author Laurence Gonzales concludes that the key to survival lies in admitting the possibility of not surviving.  Survivors acknowledge the reality of the perils they face. They do not waste time thinking about the situation they expected or wished they were in. Survivors address the reality of the situation at hand, no matter how dire.  In the 11th hour, denial is the kiss of death.

The majority of climate models used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the Paris Accord commitments will not keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, the somewhat arbitrary threshold for catastrophic climate change effects. This is true even if the U.S. were to keep its pre-Trump commitments. World leaders continue to congratulate each other on their post-2020 “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), but climate scientists tell us these commitments are not enough. In order to stay below the 2°C goal, we must use carbon markets to incentivize more radical changes to energy production, industry, agriculture, and transportation AND remove hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 already in the atmosphere. 

But the climate change dialogue remains focused mainly upon voluntary marginal reductions to emissions, and debate around who ought to volunteer to bear the burden.  Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the product of business-as-usual economic activity. Generating energy, growing things, moving things, making things – the easiest (i.e. cheapest) ways of doing things tend to emit greenhouse gases.  This pollution comes at a cost to the global public, particularly future generations. Regulating emissions, through voluntary agreements and accords, is the most popular step towards avoiding the most catastrophic changes to the ecosystems and ecosystem services upon which our societies and economies are built. But these voluntary emissions reduction goals are just one leg of a three-legged stool.  If we keep all the 2020 voluntary agreements, the global climate is likely to warm 2.6 – 3.1° C by 2100, pushing our planet into the territory of ecological tipping-points and snowballing deleterious impacts upon the productivity of our oceans and agricultural systems.

Status-quo GHG emitting activities are cheap because dumping carbon in the atmosphere is free.  Full stop.  The atmosphere is currently un-regulated, like a giant landfill where you can dump as much GHG as you want.  Start charging for entrance to that dump, and behavior will change.  People respond quickly to prices.  Businesses respond even faster.  A price, any price, will decrease emissions and speed investment in renewals. The higher the price, the stronger the effect. Tradeable carbon credits reward creative and efficient firms and farmers, and incentivize conservation projects that can sell credits in exchange for proof of carbon storage. Price carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide and achieving the voluntary commitments of the Paris Accord becomes easy. 

The biggest obstacle to GHG prices and markets is that pesky old tenet, national sovereignty. Each country worries that if they agree to pay for their carbon disposal, but other countries do not, the “good” countries will suffer a massive competitive disadvantage.  Big players - China, the US and the EU - will have to take that risk, and bully the smaller players to get on board.  If most everyone joins, the playing field will be level and market prices will not distort capitalist competition. Letting the poorest countries abstain, for a while, will diminish the burden upon the poor and yes, give these chronically disadvantaged countries a competitive advantage in some GHG intensive agriculture and industry.  That’s a good thing.

Putting a price on carbon would give the emissions reductions a strong push, but we still have a two-legged stool.  The writing on the wall from the team of scientists who analyzed the expected impact of the Paris Accord is that reduced emissions alone will not keep warming below 2°C. The “emissions gap”, the gap between GHG levels that are likely with the existing commitments and what is necessary to keep global temperatures from passing the foreboding 2°C goal, will need to be filled by sequestration. We need to reduce emissions AND simultaneously remove billions of tons of GHGs from the atmosphere. Fortunately, this is possible, at least theoretically. Reforestation, improved agricultural practices, and sophisticated carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can reverse the GHG emissions imbalance that began with the industrial revolution.

Electricity generation and agriculture together make up nearly half of all GHG emissions. In addition to potential emissions reductions from these sectors, both sectors offer opportunities for significant carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the process of pulling CO2 out of the air, converting it into carbon and oxygen, and storing the carbon in a stable “sink”, usually underground.

Climate smart agriculture practices can flip agriculture from a net emitter of GHGs to a net absorber of carbon. The Natural Resource and Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at Colorado State is a leader in monitoring agricultural GHG emissions and finding ways to flip ag from an emitter to an absorber.

For example, alternating the wetting and drying of rice paddies can reduce their methane emissions by 30 – 70%. Adding seaweed to livestock feed can drastically reduce cattle methane emissions, which account for almost 40% of agricultural GHG emissions.  Agricultural soils, depleted of natural carbon stores in many intensively farmed areas, offer the potential to store carbon on a massive scale by using carbon-rich amendments such as biochar combined with less plowing, and in doing so improve the health and productivity of the soil. Deforestation, often for agriculture expansion, causes about 10% of global CO2 emissions; reforestation could flip that statistic and contribute substantially to global carbon sequestration instead of emissions.

The energy sector can also contribute to carbon capture and storage using negative-emissions technologies. Futuristic power plants could burn biofuels, which pull carbon out of the air as they grow. Technology already exists to capture CO2 from smokestacks and inject it deep in the earth, effectively reversing the process of fossil fuel energy generation. These technologies are currently prohibitively expensive, but a carbon price will help bring the future closer, faster. Instead of paying to dump carbon, these plants could sell their positive credits to the dirty fossil fuel plants.

Signatories to the Paris Accord are eager to pat themselves on the back, despite warnings that they have not done enough. Like agriculture and energy, it seems politicians offer both the cure and the disease. At the recent Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society in Oaxaca Mexico, resource economist Erik Gomez-Baggenthun called on colleagues to stop arguing over how and why to put a value ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, and look instead at why economic valuation of nature’s benefits has not made substantive changes to the way we use resources. Traditional measures of economic growth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Income (GNI), remain the central barometers of “successful” policies, despite years of acknowledgement that these measures completely neglect sustainability and long-term human well-being.  Instead, policies and politicians need held to natural capital and ecosystem service metrics. Economic valuation of ecosystem services is not “putting a price on nature”, it is revealing the true value of nature, value that has been taken for granted. Nature is the economy, stupid.

The amount of GHG already in the atmosphere has us imperiled. “Business-as-usual” belies our perilous state. The reality is that our ship has capsized, and we are adrift in great-white infested waters. Two scientists begin to argue about how soon a shark might strike or whether they will sooner drown from fatigue. A politician backstrokes coolly towards the center of the bobbing masses, saying there is insufficient evidence for dramatic actions that could threaten economic growth. A survivor, pray there be one amongst us, wastes no hot air, and moves to quickly inflate a raft.

A city runs through it: Growing up on an urban river

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 4:26pm

Written by Rod Lammers, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

A city runs through it: Growing up on an urban river

I grew up on an urban river – the White River that flows through Indianapolis. Indiana isn’t a state known for its natural beauty, and not without reason. We have no mountains or oceans, and just a sliver of a Great Lake. Like many places in the Midwest, we are more defined by our farm fields than our natural features. We do have rivers, but unfortunately, many are neglected, dirty, and often forgotten.

When I was nine, a state biologist came to my street to release fish into the river. I helped, carrying slippery, young catfish, bass, and bluegill from their buckets to the water. These fish had to repopulate the river after four million1 of their relatives were killed months earlier by a chemical spill. Luckily, fish kills are relatively rare but other pollution still plagues the White River. It receives all of our – mostly treated – waste. But, when it rains, the system is overwhelmed and raw sewage spills directly into the river. Oil and salt from roads wash in with every storm. Fertilizer from farms and lawns causes algal blooms; every summer there is a new outbreak of an invasive water weed that roots in the muddy river bed and thrives in the nutrient-rich water2. I’ve spent days pulling the plants to curb the epidemic, only to have them return weeks later. A sick system is hard to heal.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen many changes on the river. When I was younger, we used to skate on the ice when it froze. Lately, winters haven’t been cold enough. The river is also getting shallower. Water is slowed by a downstream dam, causing silt to settle and accumulate on the river bottom. The White River used to be called Wapahani (“White Sands”), a far cry from the muck-bottomed river today. Floods, too, seem more frequent, caused in part by the spread of the suburbs upstream. As more and more houses are built, the spongy ground is paved over and rain washes straight into the river. You don’t have to live within sight of a river to affect it. Rivers are often compared to the veins on a leaf; but rivers are really the whole leaf, because everything that happens on the leaf (the watershed) affects the river3.

After college – instead of looking for a job – I took a three day canoe trip down the White River. I paddled through several cities and drew some strange looks. I also portaged around at least ten dams, most of which had outlived their useful life. Dams have a lot of negative impacts4, but what struck me on this trip was just how boring they made the river. Behind a dam, the water was still and slow, the bottom mucky. Away from the dams, the river was free to move, make sand bars, trap trees, speed through riffles. This was much more fun as a canoer but – more importantly – it was better for the river and the fish, birds, and mammals who live there. I saw a beaver smack the water with his tail, a coyote stop mid-stream to stare me down, a fox dart up the river bank as I rounded a bend, and a snake resting on a partially submerged tree. Despite everything we have done to the river, nature was still hanging on.

Almost every city has a river. And almost every urban river has been neglected, polluted, and forgotten. But that is changing. We are starting to recognize that these are valuable resources – for drinking, for fishing, for swimming, and for enjoying. It has taken time but we are finally turning our attention back to our rivers. The White River fish kill spurred interest in protecting and restoring the river – not unlike the Cuyahoga River fires which galvanized the federal government to pass the Clean Water Act in 1970. Indianapolis is working to reduce the amount of sewage that flows into the river after every rain. Citizen action groups are engaged and working to improve water quality and river access. We are putting more sponges back into cities to slow and filter runoff. Most importantly, people are starting to return to their rivers, and they want to protect what they care about. The tides appear to be turning.

Every time I go home, I swim in the river. It’s partly nostalgia for my childhood but I think it’s mostly an affirmation of the river itself. I want it to know that I don’t think it’s too dirty, too polluted, too overgrown to love. I want to experience how it has moved, changed, shifted, flowed, and recovered since I was last home. And that is the best lesson it’s taught me. That urban rivers – if given the chance – can recover. They can be home to fish and birds and beavers and humans. So why don’t we give them that chance?


[1] Schneider, Justin. 2010. White River fish kill: 10 years of recovery. The Herald Bulletin.

[2] Milz, Mary. 2012. Invasive weed clogging Indiana waterways. WTHR.

[3] Credit to fellow student and SLF fellow Dan Scott for this analogy.

[4] Read more about the impacts of dams by former Sustainability Leadership Fellow, Natalie Anderson:

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