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As the mosquito bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six ways soil biodiversity sustains us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears and people and garbage, oh my!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect storm

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

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

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

How you can help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Raccoon Rabies Virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html

https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/programs/nrmp

Creating a Sustainable Future for the Ogallala Aquifer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about the Ogallala interdisciplinary research project visit OgallalaWater.org.

 

Here's to the Villains: Studying Invasive Plants in a Nativist World

Mon, 11/14/2016 - 10:49am

Written by Stacy Endriss is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

A beautiful landscape:

It’s a morning in late June and I close my eyes, tilting my head into the warmth of the sun just as it peaks over the neighboring foothills. Then I listen.

In less than a minute I hear the beginning crescendo of an apian symphony. First, a persistent high-pitched whine fills my ears, sustained by hundreds of foraging honey bees. I can hear each individual female, not by her sound, but by its absence: her buzzing becomes more staccato, punctuated by brief seconds of silence as she stops briefly to scrounge for food within the newly blooming flowers. Next, a deeper more intermittent hum quickly darts in and out of my hearing. Bumblebees, it seems, are more fickle in how they flit from plant to plant.

My ears tell me this is a thriving, healthy habitat. However, when I open my eyes I am met with a different story. Common mullein overwhelms the landscape, pale green stalks covered in tiny yellow flowers blocking the view of the neighboring creek. Interspersed among these plants are ugly, brown stalks, bleak tombstones of the now-dead plants of last year. Looming above everything else are brief splotches of purple, clumps of musk thistle that haphazardly dot the landscape. Even my feet, I find, are enfolded by waves of gently nodding cheatgrass, the still-green seeds already stuck in the creases of my snakeguards and the eyelets of my boots. I am surrounded by invasive weeds.

Perhaps I should feel disgust for this less than ‘pristine’ habitat. Yet, to me, this is beauty. We often vilify invasive species. But like any good villain they have depth, a complexity that allows for both good and bad.

A story of survival:

If allowed to tell their story, invasive species would undoubtedly be the epic heroes, the unwitting protagonists in a tale of a small population overcoming innumerable barriers to survive and flourish in a foreign land.

Their journey is one of hardship and perseverance. Being brought to a new place is rare, and surviving long enough to reproduce rarer still. As newcomers to their neighborhoods, these plants often have difficulty finding mates, and are more vulnerable to being wiped out by chance events such as floods, lightning strikes, or even the hoof of a passing deer. To make matters worse, thanks to natural selection they are especially equipped to survive in their native habitat, not this drastically different land they now inhabit.

So what is it about these plants that allowed them to overcome the odds? To outcompete the native plants that had successfully survived in these environments for thousands of years?

The key to success:

Invaders often rapidly adapt, quickly changing their looks and personality to better match the unique challenges of their new home. What’s more, these changes are often consistent, predictable regardless of the plant in question. Most invaders grow bigger, produce more but smaller seeds, and reproduce faster than their compatriots back home. Why is it that they often change in the same way?

Similar changes may mean plant invaders face similar challenges. For example, the type of plant-eating insects they must defend against often differs between their old and their new homes. Within a plant’s native habitat they are often eaten by many different insects, but mostly by specialists. Specialists are like the toddlers of the insect world, extremely picky in what they eat, but likely to gorge on what they find good. On the other hand, when plants are brought to a new habitat they lose the specialists that have fed upon them for thousands of years, and are attacked mostly by generalists. If specialists are the toddlers, generalists are the teenagers, game to eat most anything.

Understanding how plants shift their defense in response to specialists and generalists is surprisingly difficult within native populations, as we must first tease apart the separate effect of specialists and generalists, but both are feeding on the same plants at the same time.

However, invasions have offered much needed insight into how plants change when they consistently experience these differences for hundreds of years. Invasions provide two sets plants from the same species that have experienced two very different types of attack: one mostly by specialists and one mostly by generalists. By studying how plants differ between their native and introduced habitats, we can begin to pick out the traits that play an important role in defending against insects, and how flexible they are at adapting to sudden shifts in insect communities.

In addition, plant invaders often must adapt to more than just differences in the insect community. In their new home they often experience new climate, new plant competitors, new pathogens, new pollinators, and many more factors we are only just beginning to understand. In this way, plant invasions are one of nature’s greatest experiments, their differences allowing us to finally understand how plants adapt in response to many, very specific, types of environmental change.

Villains to the rescue

Successful invaders are, for us, often a great source of dismay. They destroy native habitats and overtake farmers’ fields. They increase wildfires, devastate recreational areas, and cost billions of dollars each year in management and lost revenue.

Yet some good may come from better understanding their story. Like invasive species, native plants are engaged in their own epic battle against natural selection. In today’s world of rapid global change, their habitat is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Climate is shifting. Globalization is increasing. And with these changes come cascading consequences. Changes in climate may alter wildfire or flood regimes. With increasing globalization comes greater development and disturbance of native habitat. As transportation improves, plants and animals often hitch a ride, meaning that native plants must interact with an increasingly novel suite of plants and animals.

All of these new challenges may seem overwhelming. Yet these challenges are the very same barriers already successfully overcome by many invaders. Where many native plants fail, invasions not only succeed, they flourish.

In this way, understanding how plants adapt to their new habitats doesn’t just help manage for future invasions, it can also help protect the native plants we care about. By understanding which traits allow invaders to succeed when they experience a new habitat, we can potentially identify which plants may be flexible enough to adapt in the face of rapid change, and focus on protecting those that are not. Environmental change is inevitable, but least we can be prepared to help our native plants survive and persist.

Standing in the midst of a floral oasis, listening to the cacophony of thousands of beating wings, it is hard for me to feel hate for these invaders. Instead I see survivors, and stand full of admiration. The irony is that we often worry that invaders may be the downfall of native species, but they just may hold the key to their success. Perhaps it is invaders’ more villainous qualities that may actually be their most redeemable. And that if we listen carefully enough to their story, we may just be able to use these qualities to fight for a better, more sustainable future.

Intro photos caption: On the left a honey bee forages for food at a mullein flower, her legs already coated in mullein's orange pollen. On the right is a honey bee look-alike, a two-wing hoverfly stealing some sugary nectar.

Love in the Time of Chytrid

Thu, 11/03/2016 - 3:48pm

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

It’s a tale as old as time. A gal shows up at a local watering hole, feeling hopeful and excited. She’s kissed a lot of toads in her day, which hasn’t been all that bad, but she is still looking for her prince. As the minutes slowly turn to hours, the exhilaration turns to dread. “This can’t be happening”, she thinks to herself. But the longer she waits, the more certain she is that it is happening. This time, like the last, she has been stood up.

In this day and age, toad love is tough love. At a stunning wetland at 11,000 feet in elevation a lovely female boreal toad named Anura has been stood up. And she hasn’t been jilted by just one particular toad with commitment issues. No, she has been abandoned by every male toad.

In late May in the high country of Colorado the snow is just starting to melt. Two days ago Anura made her way out from under the cozy log where she spent the last seven months, and began the kilometers-long trek across the frozen ground to the same wetland where she was born. She’ll wait several days for a mate, but just like last year, she is the only member of her species at the pond. The only visitors she has are human researchers who study declining boreal toad populations.

We, as researchers, are just as confused as Anura is. Boreal toads in Colorado are in trouble, in large part due to an invasive chytrid fungus. Chytrid is responsible for toads vanishing at this wetland and at many others in Colorado. We didn’t expect to find any toads at the pond during this visit. Several years ago, we placed an electronic tag in Anura’s body so that we could identify her, the same way that a veterinarian embeds a microchip in a beloved pet. This year when we scan Anura—like a box of cereal at the supermarket—her unique code pops up. We are shocked to find that this is the same lone female we found here last year.

Why are we so surprised? Last year, Anura’s skin tested positive for chytrid. In toads like Anura, chytrid often carries a death sentence, and we did not expect to see her again. The fact that she made it through the long winter without succumbing to disease makes us wonder if she may carry a form of genetic resistance. It’s heartbreaking that she may not have a chance to mate again, because her genes could be crucial for the survival of this species.

 

A tiny terror

Chytrid spores swim in water and burrow into the skin of amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) that they encounter. Amphibian skin is like a dish sponge – porous enough that oxygen and moisture can be absorbed. The skin also teems with bacteria that helps amphibians stay healthy. An amphibian whose skin is taken over by chytrid often becomes lethargic, stressed, and can die of a heart attack. So far, chytrid has been related to population crashes of over 200 amphibian species all over the world, including the boreal toad.

 

With many amphibian species in decline in Colorado and around the globe, captive breeding programs, reintroductions, and translocations have become necessary management actions. Researchers at Colorado State University are teaming up with agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the National Park Service to learn more about boreal toads and to use research to help make decisions about how to conserve these increasingly rare species that are an important part of healthy ecosystems.

Generally, we find chytrid by capturing toads at wetlands and swabbing their bodies with cotton swabs. Back in the laboratory, we search for chytrid spores on the swabs. If we find the spores, we know that chytrid is present at the wetland and that boreal toads are likely to be in danger. Sampling for chytrid has gotten more difficult as toads have become rarer. Many of the beautiful places once brimming with amorous, chirping toads in the early summer are now silent, with few or no representatives of the species.

Conservation in action

One strategy to restore toad populations is to reintroduce boreal toads raised in captivity to these depleted wetlands where toads no longer roam. But what if chytrid is still living in the water, waiting for its next opportunity to attack? I study how to sample chytrid in pond water before reintroduction events, without needing to catch toads or other amphibians. By pumping pond water through very small filters, chytrid spores that get “caught” can be identified. These filters can help our collaborators find wetlands without chytrid where boreal toad reintroductions might be successful. The data can also give information about how much chytrid is in the water at different sites so that conservation biologists everywhere can learn what kinds of ponds are least hospitable to chytrid. When I was a youngster in upstate New York, far from the toads of Colorado, my father and I would sit on the porch in the early spring and wait to hear the sound of frogs calling. For me, that melody was the first indication that the land was thawing and that summer would come, bringing along with it all of the good things that children look forward to. I didn’t know that I’d someday spend several years of my life trying to understand what was happening at the now silent ponds of Colorado.

A plan for recovery

While this chapter in the book of boreal toads is a sad one, the story isn’t over yet. A group of state, federal, and non-profit wildlife agencies in Colorado (known as The Boreal Toad Recovery Team) is pooling resources and sharing data to make decisions about how best to manage existing boreal toad populations and to create new ones. In California, a frog that was in decline in part due to chytrid has started to recover. And in Colorado, several reintroductions have been attempted and our first success story has emerged: a brand new toad population at a pond without chytrid. With a little help from conservation biologists, these mountain residents may once again find love at our mountain ponds.

Get in touch with Brittany A. Mosher to talk toads! @BAMdoesscience http://brittany-a-mosher.strikingly.com/

Science Advocacy: My Day on the Hill

Fri, 04/22/2016 - 2:26pm

Written by Charlotte Alster, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology

This March I was one of several students invited to participate in the annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD) for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. This was an exceptional opportunity to learn about our nation’s congressional system, network with other scientists and science advocates from around the country, and lobby for a cause I am passionate about.

Going into the visit, I really had no idea what to expect, so the societies had an orientation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters in D.C. before the actual CVD. We met our teammates (grouped by geographic region) and got the run-down on what we were asking for from our representatives that we were meeting with the next day. I learned that in the 2008 Farm Bill $700 million was authorized for the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the premier competitive grants program for food, agriculture, and natural sciences, but only half of that amount was granted last year. Our mission was to ask our senators and representatives to support the full-authorized amount this year, or at least support more than last year! To me this seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward task since the arguments for supporting federal funding of science, or at least funding of agriculture and the rural sector, is bipartisan and important to the states I would be taking with—Colorado and New Mexico. I also have a personal interest in seeing this program grow as I build my career as a soils researcher and funding is limited, so I figured that my enthusiasm and youth would make talking about funding of agricultural research relatively painless.

The evening before the visits we got a schedule of which congressional offices, both from the senate and house sides, we were meeting with and more specifically, which legislative assistants and fellows would be conducting those meetings. We got an early start heading over to our first meeting at the Senate building since the metro was partly down and we heard the line to get through security to enter the building could be long in the morning. Although imposing, the senate building was inspiring—walking down the halls of our nation’s capital and seeing the different state flags in front of each office definitely made me feel a surge of patriotism. I was pretty nervous for the first meeting, but luckily my partner (Dr. Richard Pratt, pictured above) had much experience doing these types of visits and guided me through the visit. Our first meeting was very successful. The legislative fellow was an ecologist and we did not need to convince her of the merits of funding the AFRI research grants and she told us that their office would support the full-authorized amount.

The remainder of the visits had more mixed responses, but they all had a positive tone. In our meetings we particularly tried to focus on issues that were relatable to our states, mainly water resources, which seemed to help in the offices that weren’t necessarily keen on funding scientific research per say, but were interested in sustaining the natural resources in their state. While I became more use to what to expect as the day went on and was less nervous, I would say that my confidence did not necessarily improve. Walking around and listening to the other groups in the offices I realized that everyone there was asking for something they also thought was extremely important, and so standing out was probably difficult. Meandering down the halls of the House I saw men and women of all ages in fancy suits, outdoorsmen with giant beards representing the fish and game, and kids in wheelchairs lobbying for funding of their disease. It was pretty exciting witnessing all of the hustle and bustle associated with congress, but my confidence to impress the offices about the importance of supporting agricultural and natural resource research started to wane as I realized that we weren’t from a group that donated funds to the official’s campaign, nor were we kids in wheelchairs. How do you deny the request of a child in a wheelchair? Despite this realization, I tried to stay as enthusiastic and confident, knowing that our request was something that I believed in, even with varying levels of interest from the staffers in our representatives’ offices.

Overall, I found this experience extremely rewarding as a graduate student and I would highly recommend it to others. Being involved in a situation where you have the power to influence change in an area you consider important is certainly an empowering feeling.

What's GOOD for your GUT is also GOOD for the GLOBE

Wed, 04/20/2016 - 3:44pm

The environmental benefits of eating less animal-sourced foods have been touted so frequently that this advice is “old news”. Suggesting that choosing plant-based diets could Save The World generates little excitement, despite attractive benefits that include less agricultural land use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and improved health. However, recent research suggests that the effects of climate change make the advice more important than ever before. Beyond being good for the planet, we now have new reasons for why plant-based diets are important for our health. Human gut microbiota cooperate to transform animal-sourced foods into cancer-promoting toxins, while byproducts of plant foods energize and sooth our digestive tract.

Our digestive tract is populated by trillions of nearly invisible microorganisms, which help us digest food, obtain nutrients, and maintain immunity. These microbes primarily function by fermenting foods we eat to generate energy, creating byproducts that can either promote or detract from intestinal health in the process. A healthy gut community is well balanced in type and number of species, and generates byproducts that energize human colon cells and prevent disease-causing pathogens from entering the system.

Perhaps the most important trait of a healthy gut is an intact protective lining, made up of slimy mucins separating the intestinal cells from harmful organisms or toxins travelling through the digestive tract. Microbial grazing, or selective feeding by microbes on gut surface mucins, can damage underlying cells and degrade this protective lining.  Exposed intestinal cells then initiate an inflammatory immune response that can contribute to the development and progression of chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

The processes by which gut microbial activities affect gut health is being investigated in the Weir Lab at Colorado State University, where I am currently a PhD candidate. Recently, we examined data from a dietary intervention in colorectal cancer survivors, which supplemented one of two high-fiber plant foods, rice bran or navy beans. We wanted to see if these foods have the potential to alter gut microbes and their metabolites and reduce intestinal diseases. The data showed that rice bran consumption might indeed do just that.

Study participants who consumed rice bran had higher populations of the friendly gut microbe Bacteroides ovatus, an organism that competes with and excludes other harmful microbes that target gut mucins as a “favorite food”. B. ovatus prefers fiber components found in rice bran called xylans, which it transforms into beneficial byproducts that control appetite, reduce inflammation, and prevent cancerous tumors. Xylans structurally resemble gut mucins and are only found in plant-based foods. Research by other teams suggests that a diet devoid of xylans and other fiber starves gut microbes, forcing them to resort to feeding on the intestinal lining. Preventing breakdown of intestinal lining and resulting inflammation and immune activity could explain the importance of plant-based foods in human health, but gut microbes don’t transform all foods into beneficial byproducts. In fact, red meat and high fat diets become a source of cancer-causing toxins during microbial digestion.

Research from Oxford University by the Scarborough lab suggests that the benefits of plant-based diets extend far beyond intestinal health. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 29-70% (depending on whether food processing is included) and water usage is also minimized. Given that 70% of water is used for food production and that producing plant foods uses less water, choosing plant-based over animal-based products can become an important part of water conservation. Money can also be saved. The Scarborough team estimates that a global dietary shift toward a plant-based diet could save $1 trillion in health care costs and $30 trillion in lost productivity. They also suggest that climate change will decrease both the global food supply and dietary quality enough to directly cause 500,000 deaths by 2050. As crop yields dwindle due to climate change, the ability of plant foods to maximize production while using less energy will provide a valuable strategy for providing the world with enough food.

In considering an individual’s contribution to global sustainability, few decisions make as much impact as the one we make several times a day when we decide what to eat. Some suggest that in the coming decades up to 740 million lives, or 10% of the world population, could be spared from death due to under-nutrition by reducing or eliminating human consumption of animal-sourced foods. The potential benefits are so profound and widespread that TIME magazine recently published an article titled ‘How a Vegetarian Diet Could Help Save the Planet’. Of course, these benefits aren’t limited to strict vegetarianism; replacing some or most animal foods with plant foods also improves sustainability. Emphasizing plant foods in your diet is a simple yet powerful way to promote personal health, reduce carbon footprints, save water, and feed a growing population in an era of climate change.

 

Uncertainty, complexity and adaptation: The importance of ecological monitoring for sustainable natural resource management

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 3:59pm

Written by Zachary Wurtzebach, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship

Even under ideal circumstances, natural resource management is bedeviled by uncertainty. In addition to societal uncertainties—such as market volatility, political pendulum swings, and shifting values— natural resource managers must also wrestle with the inherent complexity of natural systems. It isn’t rocket science—it’s often trickier than that. When NASA astronauts press the launch button, they can be fairly confident it will start a chain reaction that leads to blast off. The properties of each component part and the relationships between them are well understood. They are designed that way. But the ecological systems that support the goods and services we depend on (such as timber, water, and aesthetic values)? Those are more complex. Each is composed of a complex of web of different component parts, many of which we are still struggling to understand. We put a man on the moon in 1969, for instance, but we are just now learning about the specific mechanisms that result in tree death.

The uncertainty inherent in natural systems is also multiplied exponentially by our planet’s changing climate. We know that the average global temperature is rising—and fast. However, we don’t know specifically how the climate will change in a particular place. Will it get hotter, warmer, or maybe even colder? Will it be wetter, or drier? It’s not just averages that matter: the timing and duration of extreme events like heat waves or droughts implications for devastating disturbances such as insect outbreaks or wildfires. And even if we are fairly certain that disturbances and extreme events may increase, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how we can foster adaptation and increase resilience (i.e. make sure natural systems can bounce back after they occur).

One important strategy for reducing uncertainty and fostering adaptation is environmental monitoring. Monitoring involves tracking the status and trend of resource conditions over time. There are two kinds of monitoring that are critical for natural resource management. Long term condition monitoring involves collecting data on important ecological attributes over a long time period in order to establish baseline trends. For example, despite a lot of year to year variability, long term monitoring of precipitation trends can let us know if it’s getting wetter or drier in a specific location, or if there are significant changes in water quality over time. It’s like your vital signs. Every time you go in for a check-up, your doctor checks your pulse and blood pressure. Changes in your vitals over time can signal that something is wrong, and action needs to be taken. If your doctor prescribes medication, he will see you more frequently to make sure you don’t have any side effects. This latter type of check-up is analogous to the other important type of monitoring: effectiveness monitoring. Effectiveness monitoring is essential for understanding the effects of specific management actions, allowing managers to learn about what works (or what doesn’t) over shorter time periods. For example, effectiveness monitoring can help us understand what forest management strategies promote resilience to drought, insects, and disease.

But there are challenges associated with implementing both types of monitoring. In general, monitoring is expensive. Rigorous monitoring often involves intensive on the ground data collection by highly trained field crews, or it requires the installation of expensive measurement devices. Scientists don’t often have incentives to conduct long term condition monitoring, because it may be years before they can publish the results (and they need to publish often). Natural resource managers, such as National Park Superintendents, are also often reluctant to commit to long term monitoring that may not create actionable information until after they leave (especially when funds are tight). Managers are also often wary of funding and implementing effectiveness monitoring. Besides the expertise and cost needed to do it right, there is the danger that monitoring may show that management actions did not have the intended effect. This can turn a management success story (one that got accomplished) to a liability—a particular concern within the often litigious and politically charge context of public land management.

Despite these challenges, there are a lot of promising new tools and approaches that may promote better ecological monitoring and management. For one, there are new institutional strategies for implementing effective monitoring programs. Natural resource management agencies, such as the National Park Service, have institutionalized autonomous and well-funded monitoring programs that support rigorous long term monitoring across multiple units. There are also new technologies, such as remote sensing applications, that utilize satellites to track numerous indicators of change from outer space. Unmanned drones are also another new promising and cost effective tool for monitoring that are just now beginning to be utilized.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the promise of citizen science. Armed with smart phones, interested individuals can help identify and track the spread of invasive species, or chart bird migrations as they occur, in real time. In addition to the data, citizen engagement is a great way to generate awareness of natural resource management issues, and it may help to build political support for conservation—and monitoring—in an era of increasing change and uncertainty.

Regardless of the method by which data is collected, there is still a critical need for thoughtful people to analyze and effectively communicate the resulting information. Often this requires strategies for delivering the information to multiple audiences, from decision-makers, to the general public. For natural resource management agencies, this will require reaching out to experts in other professions, such as marketing and communication. A few forward-thinking agencies like the National Park Service are already trying to do so, experimenting with different “scorecards” for ecological health and integrity. It is a critical endeavor, and one that may be the most important strategy we have for improving natural resource management in an era of climate change and uncertainty.

The Importance of Trust Between Food-Producers and Food-Consumers

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:44pm

Written by Noelle Noyes, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Clincial Sciences

Against the breathtaking backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, I am practicing how to kill cattle.  Unfortunately, I’m a terrible shot.  This much is evident from my target practice sheets, with their undeniable lack of bullet holes.

When I posted this same picture to Facebook, I got an immediate and incredulous response, particularly from friends who had known me in high school and college.  Why was I shooting cattle?  Why was I upset about missing?  How could I – former vegetarian and European history major – be shooting a gun?

To me, the entire exchange was a perfect microcosm of a much larger cultural schism between those who understand the realities of livestock production, and those who don’t.  These realities can be jarring for people whose only contact with livestock comes in the form of a plastic-wrapped hamburger patty.  For such consumers, the blood, death, feces and carcasses that fill media images capture the attention and prompt the imagination to run wild in dark places.  If this is your only window into livestock production, then I understand how you may come to feel negatively towards the meat industry.

These dynamics, however, place the meat industry in a very difficult position.  At the same time that consumers are clamoring for increased transparency about the source of their food, they themselves are becoming increasingly disconnected from the reality that their meat was once a living, breathing animal that was raised and killed to provide that same meat.  The industry is thus in the unenviable position of explaining a sometimes distasteful and brutal process to a largely naïve consumer public.

There is so much room for misinterpretation within this endeavor.  Which brings me back to target practice, and shooting a rifle in the Canadian Rockies.  Did you know that scientists have used MRI machines and cadaver heads to identify the most humane way to euthanize cattle?  The goal is to create sufficient concussive force such that the bullet hitting the forehead renders the animal unconscious before the bullet pierces the skull and continues its destructive path to the brainstem, where death occurs.  It is a humane death, and one that I was attempting to execute in the Canadian Rockies.  As a future veterinarian, I want to be able to euthanize an animal in the best way possible.  If this necessitates use of a gun, then I will get over my distaste of guns and learn how to shoot humanely -- with the proper bullets, the proper angle and the proper distance from the animal.  My greatest fear is not the gun, but failing to properly use the gun on a suffering animal.

And do you know what my second greatest fear is? It is the fear of being misunderstood by my vegan friends on the East Coast because of a picture that I post on Facebook.  It is the fear of being dismissed out-of-hand by my food-producing Colorado friends because I did not grow up on a farm and therefore don’t have “street cred” (maybe more appropriately “cowboy cred”)!  And at a fundamental level, it is the fear that the cultural divide in which I find myself will prevent us, as a society, from having any meaningful discussion about the future direction of livestock production.  If this happens, everyone loses – consumers, producers, animals and the environment. 

Because without well-intentioned dialogue between producers and consumers, we lose the immense value that comes from the constant back-and-forth of a system of checks and balances maintained by multiple parties with diverse motivations and concerns.  Producers and consumers both play important roles within such a system.  For instance, livestock producers have legitimate concerns about the animal welfare and food safety implications of consumer trends such as completely antibiotic-free meat. On the other hand, consumers play an important watchdog role, keeping the industry on its toes and helping to weed out bad actors and less-than-optimal production practices such as use of antibiotics purely for growth promotion.  To lose this delicate interplay would be to lose an important driver of continuous optimization of the livestock production system.  In the case of antibiotics, I fear that a lack of dialogue could move us to a place where I, as a veterinarian, will be unable to treat a sick animal with life-saving antibiotics.  Or, alternatively, that producers will walk away from the table and stop funding voluntary, yet critical research on alternative management strategies to antibiotic use – an area that they are currently pursuing with the help of researchers at CSU.  Without dialogue and trust between the food-consumers and food-producers, I fear that the pendulum will swing way too far towards one side or the other.

So let’s work together to prevent that from happening – as some people already are.  For instance, outreach programs are cropping up across the US to engage urban youth in farming and agriculture.  But understanding is a 2-way street, and it would be great to see “reverse outreach” programs as well, in which kids from rural backgrounds spend a summer in the city, or learn what it’s like to rely solely on public transportation or buy their weekly groceries from a corner store.  As columnist Charles Blow wrote in a recent opinion piece, “It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see…[and] nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.”  What are some ideas that you have for bridging the divide between rural and urban communities? 

As agriculture becomes increasingly segregated from most of society, it is my belief that we all have a responsibility to engage in the delicate and important dialogue between the food-producers and the food-consumers.  I would challenge you to self-reflect on your relationship with agriculture. What kind of consumer are you?  Do you want to know the story behind your steak, or do you prefer to eat it in “blissful ignorance”?  Maybe you are a vegan and can contribute your unique experience to the conversation.  Whatever your dietary choices, can you identify any preconceived ideas that you hold about “the other side”?  What are some questions that you would like to ask someone who may have a very different viewpoint on agriculture? Do you think there are ways that we can get over our mutual mistrust?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Livestock Grazing in the Western United States: Challenges and Opportunities

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:30am

Written by Adrian Monroe, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Research Scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory

Livestock grazing—a widespread land use across the Western United States—can have important consequences for ecosystems and their animal inhabitants.  Among such sensitive ecosystems are sagebrush-dominated (Artemisia spp.) communities, whose plant species did not co-evolve with the heavy grazing pressure that can exist today.  This has led to conflicts between some scientists and environmentalists who have called for the removal of livestock from these ecosystems, and ranchers whose families have managed livestock on these lands for generations [1].  Although studies have documented the effects of heavy grazing on these plant communities in individual study sites, little is known about the broad scale implications of grazing across this vast landscape.

In sagebrush ecosystems, populations of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) have declined substantially over the previous half-century [2, 3].  Grazing may affect sage-grouse populations because herbaceous cover provides concealment for nests and food for broods [4, 5]. Recommendations typically call for reductions or delays in grazing to avoid impacting vegetation for nesting sage-grouse, but much of what we know about how grazing affects sage-grouse come indirectly from fine-scale habitat studies [6]. Studies attempting to directly test effects of grazing on sage-grouse are extremely challenging because sage-grouse, a “landscape” species, require an enormous area during their life cycle.  But, there could be conditions where livestock grazing is compatible with species such as sage-grouse, and studies are needed to identify these conditions to better inform management and policy.

How could grazing be compatible with sage-grouse, you may ask? After all, herbaceous cover can increase the likelihood of sage-grouse successfully hatching and raising chicks, and livestock remove herbaceous cover through grazing, so it intuitively makes sense that removing livestock should benefit sage-grouse. However, there is reason to suspect this may be overly simplistic and does not consider the complexity of these systems. For example, sage-grouse need forbs to raise their broods [4] and forb cover can increase brood survival [7]. At moderate rates, grazing can increase the variability in structure and composition of rangelands [8], and therefore reductions in grazing could have a negative effect on sage-grouse if this reduces forb cover.  Furthermore, recent studies have shown that using heavy grazing to characterize impacts may actually be a false comparison, and that well-managed grazing regimes can have equivalent or better outcomes compared to ungrazed pastures [e.g., 9].

After the previous summary, one would be forgiven for thinking this is all too uncertain for making decisions that could affect the fate of species and the livelihood of ranchers.  But there is reason for hope that more answers will be available in the coming years.  For one, our lab is developing the use of public grazing records to characterize livestock grazing at large spatial scales.  Much of the land in the Western U.S. is publicly-owned, and agencies such as the Department of the Interior-Bureau of Land Management maintain records on the timing and intensity of grazing on the grazing allotments that they administer.  When we pair this with long-term monitoring of sage-grouse through annual counts of males at breeding display sites (leks), we have the opportunity to investigate for responses of sage-grouse to grazing at an unprecedented scale.  At the same time, studies are being conducted to experimentally test the effects of grazing on sage-grouse (e.g., https://idahogrousegrazing.wordpress.com/current-project-status/), which should directly relate the response of vegetation to grazing at multiple scales, and subsequent sage-grouse responses.  Results from these and other studies will help agencies and land managers consider potential impacts to sage-grouse when prescribing grazing amounts and timing, and hopefully ensure the continued coexistence of this species with modern ranching operations across the West.

Climate change is not on the horizon, it's here: How can scientists help communicate risks to populations vulnerable to weather/climate-change disasters?

Wed, 03/30/2016 - 3:41pm

Written by Aaron Piña, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

This article was written as an opinion of the author. Topics discussed are solely from anecdotal experiences growing up in rural Texas and may not reflect what has been documented in the social-science literature.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has funded a coastal Native American community in Louisiana to relocate. This marks the first official government recognition of climate refugees in the U.S.

On February 12th, I was asked to go speak with high school and college students about the science and politicization of climate change in rural, southern Louisiana—ground zero of sea-level rise impacts in the United States—as part of their annual Wetlands Youth Summit.

Less than a month went by before I was on a plane en route to Houma, Louisiana. On one hand, I was elated to have the opportunity to go speak about my passion (science) in a place I am deeply connected to (the Gulf Coast); on the other hand, I wished the discussion of loss of life and property wasn’t the reason behind my invitation to southern Louisiana.

The main purpose of my visit was to present scientific facts to students and have them devise future adaptation paths in light of a changing landscape. For decades, leaders in southern Louisiana have touted global warming as a hoax. Try telling that to the people of the Isle of Jean Charles who have no choice but to battle rising seawaters or move.

The purpose of me writing my thoughts about my life-impacting weekend is to discuss the importance of communicating science, especially to those vulnerable to weather/climate-related changes. Communicating science requires knowledge of the science, empathy for those involved, and a positive outlook for the future. Rogers (1957) suggested empathetic communication as necessary and sufficient for a constructive dialogue between a therapist and a client, and I couldn’t agree more. Not only am I young, but my hometown in Texas is not much different than the town the attendees were from.

The importance of communicating science

The majority of the audience at the Wetlands Youth Summit was high school students, followed by community members, middle-school students, and two college students. As I talked with the students and community-goers of southern Louisiana—none were related to Isle of Jean Charles, to my knowledge—it reinforced my deeply held conviction that clearly communicating the science, risks, and potential solutions to a vulnerable audience was a task that deserved forethought and due deliberation. When talking about the science, participants understood sea-level rise was occurring but did not seem aware of the nuances leading to enhanced sea-level rise around the Louisiana coast. Tensions ran high the entire morning. The line between “this is a severe, life-threatening problem” with “let’s work towards a bright future” was very thin. Some of the kids were even outraged at the thought of anyone calling what was happening to their land  a “hoax”.

Communicating science can take many forms, whether it is giving a public lecture or doing a hands-on activity with elementary students. The manner in which a scientist delivers their message(s) can have a lasting effect on peoples’ interest in science issues. The public becomes engaged in science by doing small research projects (e.g. volunteering for local non-profit organizations) or by taking part in a large-scale operation (e.g. citizen science observations with the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network). In southern Louisiana, kids are involved with research projects through the auspices of the Southern Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center. One of the awe-inspiring happenings that took place at the summit was the interaction between students who are heavily involved in research projects, their parents who support and help with the projects, and older community members who have witnessed the environmental changes through the decades. 

The importance of diversity in science

I believe it is important for people from diverse backgrounds to communicate science. It should be noted, diversity encompasses more than gender and ethnic minorities. While these populations are vital for bringing different voices to the discussion table, there are additional (and much needed) dimensions of diversity. A white male from a poor, rural farming town should have a place at the table, too.  A real-life example: Katharine Hayhoe is arguably a religious minority among natural scientists (Ecklund and Scheitle, 2007) by self-identifying as an Evangelical Christian. Hayhoe, in this regard, is able to reach audiences a non-religious scientist may not be able to gain trust with.  

By simply connecting with others through cultural values, I felt my early-life experiences helped deliver my message to coastal Louisianans. This cultural identity and connection is vital for scientists discussing and helping to create a sustainable/resilient future where major changes to peoples’ lives are likely inevitable. This raises an important point for scientists who engage with public audiences: it is vital to understand the values of the audience and tailor a talk/engagement accordingly.

The importance for a diverse economy

The ease and passion with which I found myself explaining the dire situation in southern Louisiana came from my upraising just a few hundred miles along the coast—in Port Lavaca, Texas.  With the exception of much faster sea-level rise in Louisiana, both of our economies rely heavily on oil-and-gas as well as fisheries. With a reliance on money from the oil industry, climate-change discussions are difficult to talk about. So it is extremely important to not vilify oil/gas companies. Students at the summit entertained the idea of engaging local oil companies on ways to co-design future projects so that they better fulfill both community and corporate needs. Future projects could include students partnering with energy companies, such as Shell Global, to advance their efforts towards clean energy.

Many people in the town of Houma, much like people in towns in southern TX, are losing their jobs with no foreseeable career prospects in the near future. If we consider local economies as natural ecosystems, we can draw parallels between job-sector diversity with ecosystem services. The more ecosystem services an area has, the less prone the ecosystem is to succumbing to a shock. In the case of a single-sector based economy, a surprise (e.g. natural or economic disaster) can easily perturb an entire community, potentially leading to a regime shift for the town and even its surrounding region. This regime shift could mean changing the single-sector economy to a different sector (e.g. energy to manufacturing) or even uprooting the entire community.  For obvious reasons, a diversified economy is desired to maintain stability within an ecosystem, or in the case of Houma, Louisiana, a town.

A hopeful future

While it is important to consider how communities, cities, states, and countries are to remain resilient during rapid environmental changes, we must start with an understanding that a sustainable future begins with an educated public. The public should be involved in discussing solutions instead of disputing if changes are going to occur. Our reputation as scientists has been tarnished by the politicization of climate change.  We have to regain the trust of the public. This can be facilitated by effectively communicating the importance of science and encouraging people of all backgrounds to get involved in local science projects.

Lastly, when identifying and solving problems at the interface of humans and the environment, scientists and engineers must incorporate the dynamic world around them, leaving behind the study of systems in isolation. If we are to solve community-wide environmental challenges, we as scientists must acknowledge that there are very little “one-size-fits-all” solutions. In other words, solutions for combatting sea level rise in Louisiana will be different than those in Miami or the north slope of Alaska.  This, on one hand, reflects the reality of the complex earth system.  On the other hand, it is also an implicit acknowledgment of the “power of place” that connects communities to local ecosystems.  “Power of place”, an important aspect of the beliefs of indigenous peoples, is a potent tool for engaging local communities in essential dialog about social-ecological systems.

REFERENCES

Ecklund, E.H. and Scheitle, C.P., 2007. Religion among academic scientists: Distinctions, disciplines, and demographics. Social Problems54(2), pp.289-307.

Rogers, C.R., 1957. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of consulting psychology21(2), p.95.

Who Cares about Climate Change?

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 3:37pm

Written by Brittany Bloodhart, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science.

The answer to this question is really both encouraging and frustrating.  Public opinion research shows that somewhere around 70% of the American public does believe that climate change is happening, and that we should be doing something about it.  The numbers in most other countries are even higher.   So, yes, on some level, we care.  But those same polls show that only 11% of Americans are very worried and only 6% think it’s an extremely important issue.  If we accept the best science in the world – led by people with advanced degrees in climate and atmospheric sciences, physics, chemistry, geology – people who really have nothing to gain from this venture other than saving the planet – then the current level of public concern about climate change is not enough. We need to act. NOW.

My research doesn’t attempt to understand climate dynamics or even communicate them more clearly.  Instead, I am interested in why Thanksgiving dinner turned into the most recent family nightmare when you mentioned the words “climate change”– because, let’s face it, it’s not really about understanding the science in the first place.  Doubt and denial about climate change are deeply rooted in psychology, while skepticism about science and theories about geeky scientists trying to destroy the world are just there to cover up the roots.  Our lack of concern about climate change comes from our strong ties to the social system in which we live, and our inability to see beyond it.

In the late 1970’s, a psychology graduate student at Arizona State University, who was interested in and concerned about environmental issues, visited the Petrified Forest National Park.  After years of thefts, the park rangers had posted signs saying “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”  In other words, “people keep stealing the wood, please don’t do it.” How does this environmentally-conscious student react?  “Oh no, I better steal some too, before it’s all gone!”

Of course she didn’t, and this experience led her to investigate how what other people are doing influences our own behavior. Specifically, even when it goes against our initial values, we tend to follow the crowd (in fact, the researchers found that the sign actually increased the amount of wood that was stolen!).  Dozens of studies have followed up on this theme of normative influence in environmentally-related behavior – and found that we are less likely to recycle if we don’t see our neighbors recycle, more likely to waste resources like water and electricity when we see others doing it, but that we are also more likely to take action when we see our friends and family taking action. Ultimately, this means that we are more likely to reduce our environmental impact when we believe others are doing it, too.

As a graduate student trying to understand why people deny or lack concern about climate change, a common sentiment I heard was something along the lines of “they are going to take away my ____.”   In other words, some people are afraid that to vote for pro-environmental policies, or even to admit that climate change is a problem, might result in resources they believe they deserve or need being taken away.  This might range from anticipating that I am no longer allowed to use 100 gallons of water a week to keep my lawn looking green, or that the prices of gas might get so high that I cannot afford to drive my car as much.  And yet, there are also plenty of people who don’t see cutting back on their use of resources as a deprivation, and instead willfully endorse policies that would encourage less consumption or require fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

So, why the difference? The answer is that our feelings of deprivation (and their link to pro-environmental behavior) are relative. The original research on this topic is quite interesting – psychologists were wanting to study job satisfaction in two different military groups: the Air Force and the Military Police. In the Air Force, which was better funded, people were getting raises and promotions on a fairly regular basis; in the Military Police, they were not. The researchers assumed those in the Air Force would have more job satisfaction, but what they found was the opposite. People in the Air Force, particularly those who hadn’t gotten a raise or promotion for a while, felt very deprived, because the people they compared themselves to were doing better than they were. In the Military Police, people were fairly content, since they tended to be doing just as well as most of their peers. In other words, people didn’t feel deprived based on whether or not they were getting promotions. They felt deprived based on whether other people were getting them.

Applying this logic to environmental issues, if everyone on the block is driving a Hummer, then we are probably more likely to believe we need a Hummer, and would be deprived without one. However, if we compare ourselves to those with less resources, we will be more likely to see ourselves as having more than enough, and to not anticipate feeling deprived when we consider being more sustainable. Therefore, my research began to examine how anticipated feelings of deprivation influence our environmental choices. If deprivation is relative, and a fear of being deprived is causing some to deny or downplay the serious issues of climate change, then perhaps changing who we consider to be relative (i.e., who we compare ourselves to) can change our beliefs about deprivation and ultimately our willingness to address environmental issues.

The field of Social Psychology has actually been doing this for years – in an attempt to understand and address other social issues, such as racism. We are often wary of people who are different – who don’t look, talk, act, or think like us.  We don’t relate to them.  We see them as abnormal.  So we come up with ways to separate ourselves, often with social explanations and justifications for WHY they are different, and WHY they deserve this and we deserve that. However, the more time we spend around people who are “other”, the more we break down those walls of difference, and recognize that we actually do have similar interests and values, and that we can both contribute to accomplishing similar goals and making the world a better place.

Thus, I started to apply this idea – essentially using tools that help to reduce prejudice and discrimination – to the issue of climate change. In several studies across more than one thousand American adults, those who participated in activities to reduce prejudice and increase their sense of relatability with others around the globe who are currently suffering from the effects of climate change were less likely to feel deprived when thinking about acting in more pro-environmental ways. Further, the less deprived individuals felt, the more willing they were to give up extra resources and engage in more environmentally-sustainable behaviors. Although this was true of individuals who identified as politically liberal and moderate, it was particularly true of those who identified as conservative, which is even more important given the strong politicization of climate change in the United States.

There are a number of reasons human beings deny climate change or are resistant to taking action to address it, but a significant factor lies in our fear of living differently, and of losing a way of life that we have come to feel entitled to. But importantly, this reliance on doing things or living a certain way is highly reflective of the way we see others living life, and our own perception of what we need, and what we do not need, is largely based on who we chose to observe and compare ourselves to. Despite what the latest commercials are telling you, you can probably live a fulfilling and happy life without that new iphone 10.3.  Oh, wait, you currently exist without an iphone 10.3?  It might do us good to remember that.

Photo Credits:

Figure 1 (climate change protestor): from grist.com.  Available at http://grist.org/article/2010-10-21-only-one-out-of-seven-tea-partiers-s....

Figure 2 (National Park): available online at https://outindewoods.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/petrified-forest-painted-d....

Figures 3-6 (environmental impact):  From the video “Weathering Change”, produced by Population Action International (PAI). Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPy3pLBZvuE.

Around the world: Exploring soils and the root of all life

Fri, 03/04/2016 - 1:09pm

Written by Tandra Fraser, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoc at the School of Agriculture, University of Reading, London.

What do the Great Plains of North America, the tropical hillsides of Honduras and the valleys of Antarctica all have in common? The answer is soil, of course!

Soil is the foundation of terrestrial life on earth wherever you may travel. Located at the interface between the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere, it is the naturally occurring surface layer formed by complex processes and interactions. Being raised on a farm in the Great Plains of Canada, I was connected to soil from a very young age as I went from making mud pies to growing food. Nowadays, as a soil scientist, I get to explore soil, its many uses, and its inhabitants.

Soil is the basis for much more than just agriculture. For example, in rural Honduras, the same soil that is used for growing staple crops such like maize, beans and coffee, is also used for building adobe houses, creating functional pottery, and even building stoves to cook the food they grow.

These same soils provide a home to countless soil organisms, including everything from large burrowing creatures such as badgers to microscopic worms, bacteria and fungi. Although we cannot see many of these species with the naked eye, they play an important role in all of our lives.

In many regions of the world, mineral fertilizers are not an option for crop growth and producers must depend on soil organisms for nutrient cycling to provide nutrients for plant growth. Organisms in the soil have evolved mechanisms to obtain nutrients.  For example, many bacteria excrete enzymes into the environment when they do not have enough phosphorus to function and/or grow.  These phosphatase enzymes can break down an unusable form of phosphorus that occurs naturally in the soil, into orthophosphate that can provide nutrition to the organism and will eventually be released into the environment and can be taken up by plants. 

The critters that live in the soil, and their activities, involve many complex interactions between chemical, physical and biological components.  These organisms aren’t just interesting to look at, they also provide essential ecosystem services upon which all plants, animals and humans depend.  Although soils are extremely heterogeneous, organisms are contributing to decomposition of organic matter and nutrient cycling, regardless of the ecosystem.

Even in Antarctica, one of the windiest, driest and coldest places on earth, the soil is alive.  Although the soil food web is less complex than it may be in a tropical forest, soil animals and the microbial communities play an essential role in the functioning of this pristine ecosystem. It is common to find nematodes, tardigrades and rotifers living in these soils. But even this region is not immune to global change as demonstrated by research as part of the McMurdo Dry Valley Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. This site has been essential in demonstrating how the ecology in the soils of the region has been changing over the past 25 years. It also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the glaciers, lakes, streams, soils and air and the far reaching effects of human activities.

At all corners of the globe, soil and its life are constantly being threatened by human activities and global change.  Land is being degraded at astonishing rates and this ultimately has an effect on food production, water quality, and pest and pathogen control, to name a few.  The economic cost of land degradation is US$40 billion each year, as estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. As cities continue to expand, soils are paved over and organisms are unable to function, and humans, literally, become disconnected from the land, separated by a layer of concrete.

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.” - Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

Despite the fundamental importance of soil for all plant, animal and human life, it is often taken for granted.  Scientists, policy makers and land managers must all work together to identify and implement solutions for conserving soil and all that live there.  The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative has been working to raise the profile of soil biodiversity and all its wonder around the world.

Rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: a millennial tradition endangered

Thu, 02/25/2016 - 3:12pm

Written by Ana Bossa-Castro, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.

Rice is a staple food essential for 3.5 billion people worldwide, providing more than 20% of their daily calories. Asian rice was domesticated 8,200–13,500 years ago in the Pearl River valley region of China. Since then, farmers and breeders, and more recently scientists, have modified and improved practices to optimize the production and obtain better yields.  Not only have they identified better techniques, but also controlled pests, diseases and abiotic factors, such as drought, heat, cold, salinity, to finally obtain high yielding varieties currently grown worldwide.

However, not all rice growing regions have gone through modernization in the cultivation of this millennial crop. The Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Provinces, in the Philippine Cordilleras, harbor ancient rice terraces that are believed to be over 2,000 years old. These terraced rice fields span a land area of 7,700 square miles and range in altitudes of 2,300 to 5,000 feet above sea-level.  If they are put end to end, their length would encircle half of the globe. They were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

The farming techniques used on the terraces have been mostly unaltered over its existence and have been transferred orally from generation to generation. These lands have been inherited and have no written titles. The knowledge and traditional practices, involved in the rice cultivation, are linked to ritual ceremonies to invoke their ancestors to “guard” their crops, starting from the sowing of the rice seeds up to the postharvest.

Labor is distributed between men and women. The cycle starts with the seed selection, performed by experienced women who harvest rice and choose the best seeds for the next season. One month before planting, land preparation is conducted by men. When the season starts, rice seeds are germinated in water or mud, and exposed to sun light. Transplanting occurs 45-60 days after germination and is carried out by women. One or two months after transplanting, weed management is done by women, who manually remove all weeds that have grown in the paddies. Rice harvest is shared by men and women, as women collect rice bundles in the terraces, men transport them for storage. Post-harvest activities include sun-drying the rice bundles for several days, then performing manual threshing and milling. Finally rice seeds are ready to be stored and/or distributed. The terraces receive water through an ancient irrigation system from streams and springs tapped and channeled into canals that run downhill ensuring a continuous flooding. Composted weeds and rice straws are used as fertilizer treatment, avoiding the use of any chemicals, therefore this farming system is considered to be organic.

Rice cultivated in these terraces are heirloom varieties, the most common ones are called “Tinawon” and “Linawang”. “Tinawon” is planted once a year, it has big grains and it is aromatic. “Linawang” or “Pinidwa” is planted twice a year, it has smaller grains and it is non-aromatic.

Heirloom varieties are “resilient”, which means they contain resistant traits to biotic stress and tolerance to abiotic stress. These varieties also have greater nutritional value than regular white rice, such as higher quantity of antioxidants, phenolics, flavonoids and vitamins. Besides, they have exceptional cooking quality, flavor, aroma, texture and color. Particularly, heirloom black rice contains anthocyanin antioxidants, which show potential for preventing heart attack, cancer, and other diseases.

Despite the potential of heirloom rice as a lucrative livelihood for small-holders, its maintenance is threatened by recent social changes in the population. Younger generations are losing interest in keeping their ancestral traditions because of the hard and intense work responsibilities. Frequent typhoons that affect the region discourage interest in farming as they begin to look for less labor-intensive jobs. Organic farming and the use of unimproved varieties increases costs and limit yields.

Therefore, the Department of Agriculture from the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute established the DA-IRRI Heirloom Rice Project as an initiative to enriching the legacy of the heirloom rice by empowering local communities. This project is aimed at enhancing the productivity and livelihoods of farming communities, conserving heirloom rice varieties and encouraging consumers to eat healthier rice.

They have designed several participatory activities to promote heirloom rice production, improve farm productivity through sustained availability of clean, good quality seeds, enhance local capacity for organizing and developing entrepreneurial skills among farming communities and linking farmers with global markets and international chefs interested in including heirloom rice in their dishes.

The project will also seek the geographical indication (GI) registration of these heirloom rice varieties to local communities, preventing its use by a third party whose product does not follow the appropriate standards.

We hope this effort to value heirloom rice varieties and these farmers and will create conditions so this millennial tradition can be maintained for a long time and benefit the world population.

Related links:

http://books.irri.org/Heirloom_brochure.pdf

http://cure.irri.org/stories-archive/heirloom-rice-recovering-a-vanishin...

Are droughts helping increase the resilience of Colorado water?

Thu, 02/18/2016 - 11:33am

Written by Amber Childress-Runyon, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Student in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

Recent “mega droughts” in the U.S.[1] and globally[2], have given rise to a number of articles and studies (like this from the Guardian[3]) warning that freshwater shortages will cause the next major global crisis.   The cause of the problem is not a mystery and has been connected to two main drivers. The global population is growing exponentially, but global water use has been growing at twice the rate of population growth[4]. Meanwhile, the future availability and distribution of water is likely to change due to increased temperatures and more extreme weather events[5].

 

Severe regional droughts often exacerbate existing water shortage issues. When a water system is already stressed, it takes less to push it beyond what is manageable. The ability of a water system to deal with and recover from a drought is called resilience. Resilience is often used as a buzzword that is synonymous from recovery, but understanding the degree of resilience a system has can help water managers ensure that they are adequately prepared to respond to water shortages.

Colorado serves as a perfect case study to evaluate water shortage issues from a regional water management perspective. Droughts are not uncommon to Colorado, an arid state that typically has at least one region experiencing drought in any given month[6]. Meanwhile, demographers predict that the population will double in the next forty years, resulting in increased water usage – a driver of water shortage.[7]This combination of rapid growth and drought-prone climate means that Colorado has all of the ingredients for a future major water crisis, similar to those discussed above. However, water managers in the state have learned some lessons from recent droughts (2002 and again in 2012) that could make it more resilient to future disasters. 

The drought of 2002 built up from the winter of 1999 and did not completely dissipate until 2006. The combination of below average snow combined with low rainfall in the preceding years and through the spring of 2002 led to extremely low surface flow, causing severe water shortages.[8][9]  Reservoir storage and river runoff were at a record low level, with flows less than 5% of normal in June 2002 when drought was declared.[10] A decade later, severe drought struck the region again. The 2012-2013 drought was similar in magnitude to conditions in 20026 and caused heavy economic, social, and environmental impacts throughout the region. It was rated by some as the worst in the U.S. since the 1930s.[11] Reports of the impacts on both droughts concluded that, because the droughts only (officially) lasted a single year, the impacts were manageable, albeit severe. Had the droughts lasted for multiple years, the results would have been catastrophic (like we have seen in California).

Although it has been a couple of years since the state had a significant drought, it is still learning lessons from recent water shortages. In the wake of these severe droughts, the State of Colorado began taking more proactive measures to manage future water supplies. The quick onset of both droughts demonstrated the need to increase flexibility of water management options and allow for solutions to be developed and implemented locally, a core theme in all of the planning since the 2002 drought. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) developed a Drought & Water Supply Assessment to “developed to plan, develop, and implement an assessment to engage Colorado water users.”[12] Since then, the CWCB, among other state and local agencies, have worked to engage stakeholders through basin roundtables, updated drought response plans, and most recently completed a multi-year, ground-up process to write a statewide Water Plan[13] that outlines the vision for Colorado water.  

Will these efforts help prevent Colorado from experiencing some of the catastrophic damages seen in the multi-year droughts in California and elsewhere? Only time will tell.  However, prevailing resilience theories about how humans and the environment interact and respond to disturbances suggest that systems go through cycles of change. When a system is hit by a disturbance (like a drought), if it does not collapse, it reorganizes itself (like developing more robust drought monitoring and planning, or shifting drought management to become stakeholder-driven). This results in a changed but more resilient system. According to this theory, each disturbance causes the system to be a little more robust. In this way, resilience can be thought of sort of like getting a flu vaccine. Your body builds up a resistance to the type of virus you’ve been vaccinated for, but also has an increased immunity for similar forms of flu, even if they were not the same strand as the vaccine. So with droughts, going through a number of smaller disturbances results in a higher resilience to bigger disturbances.[14]

If this theory holds true, the droughts of the 2000s may have increased the resilience of the water community. A recent study by the CWCB6 surveyed water utilities to compare the perceived impacts of the 2002 and 2013 droughts. The majority of respondents in the South Platte River Basin indicated that “they feel they were less susceptible to drought impacts in 2013 than in 2002, although conditions in 2002 and 2013 were similar,” suggesting that actions taken as a result of 2002 increased the resilience of many water utilities.  

As state and local water managers try and prepare for the next major drought, it will be helpful to know the extent to which water utilities were impacted differently and to investigate what policy changes or other factors led to increased resilience in the 2013 drought.


[1] http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/index.html

[2] http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/06/global-tour-7-recent-droughts

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/08/how-water-shortages-lead-food-crises-conflicts

[4] http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml

[5] IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyers (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. in IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report website.

[6] Colorado Water Conservation Board. (2013). Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

[7] http://cwcb.state.co.us/water-management/water-supply-planning/Pages/TheWaterSupplyGap.aspx

[8] Davitt, A. (2011). Climate Variability and Drought in the South Platte River Basin. City College of the City University of New York.

[9] Doesken, N. J., & Pielke, R. A. (2008). The Drought of 2002 in Colorado. Retrieved from ftp://ft.dphe.state.co.us/wqc/wqcc/31TriennialReviewRMH_2010/Responsive/...

[10] Schuck, E., & Frasier, M. (2004). Coping with Natural and Institutional Drought. Current Agriculture, Food & Resource Issue, 5, 119–130.

[11] Grigg, N. S. (2014). The 2011–2012 drought in the United States: new lessons from a record event. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 30(2), 183–199. doi:10.1080/07900627.2013.847710

[12] Colorado Water Conservation Board. (2004). Colorado Drought and Water Supply Assessment. Retrieved from http://cwcb.state.co.us/technical-resources/colorado-drought-water-suppl...

[13] https://www.colorado.gov/cowaterplan

[14] Pielke, R. A. (2013). Climate Vulnerability: Understanding and Addressing Threats to Essential Resources

What makes a species vulnerable to climate change?

Thu, 02/11/2016 - 2:59pm

Written by Dylan Harrison-Atlas, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

In a complex and dynamic world, how do we identify those things that are most vulnerable to change? Economists, public health experts, and social scientists often think about these issues of vulnerability as they relate to how climate change affects different segments of the population. Increasingly, so do ecologists.

A major burden facing ecologists is understanding how climate change will affect individual species. It is an important question because it has profound implications for the economy, society, and the health of our ecosystems. To answer that question, ecologists consider four unique but integral components of vulnerability (Figure 1).

Note that although climate change is a global issue affecting a diverse array of species and ecosystems, here we focus on fish that occupy rivers and streams of the Southwestern region of the United States as a case study for understanding vulnerability. The first component, Exposure, describes the types and magnitudes of changes that are taking place. For example, average temperatures in the Southwestern United States are projected to increase by up to 8 degrees Celsius by 2100. That number alone may raise eyebrows, but without additional information it is hard to evaluate which species will be vulnerable and where. Fish species may also be exposed to other types of changes to their environment. For example, changes in seasonal precipitation can alter streamflow patterns that are important for maintaining suitable habitat conditions. In addition, the introduction and spread of non-native fish species may push native trout out of preferred habitats and further expose them to climate change. A second piece of information that ecologists must consider in evaluating the vulnerability of a species is Sensitivity, which looks at how susceptible or responsive a species is to a given level of exposure.  Does a species have a narrow or wide range of temperature over which it can exist? Certain species of fish including members of the iconic salmon and trout family cannot survive in warm waters – they are highly sensitive to increases in temperature (Figure 2). In a simple world, knowing exposure and sensitivity would be enough to predict Potential Impact, the third component of vulnerability. Fortunately for fish and other species, their fate also depends on a fourth component of vulnerability termed Adaptive Capacity. Adaptive Capacity, enables species to cope with impacts that might otherwise occur given their exposure and sensitivity. It includes intrinsic factors like genetic diversity that may allow them to cope with changes through time and extrinsic factors like their environment that can provide refugia and opportunities to escape from areas of high exposure.

An important measure of Adaptive Capacity relates to how freely species can move through their environment. If species are able to move without restriction to avoid high temperatures, then chances are they have relatively high Adaptive Capacity. In cases where opportunity for movement is constrained, then local conditions will dictate outcomes. With over 80,000 dams in existence across the country and more likely to be built (Figure 3), many rivers are already highly fragmented ecosystems meaning that they are structurally impaired. In addition, climate change models estimate an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in the Southwestern United States, which may further sever connections among streams.

Understanding the interplay between exposure, sensitivity, potential impact and adaptive capacity is critical to understanding the vulnerability of species and to informing effective management strategies that will allow species to persist in the face of climate change. By focusing on these key components of vulnerability, ecologists are able to gain insight into a complex and dynamic world.

New Zealand Conservation: The Absence and Presence of Terrestrial Mammals

Wed, 02/03/2016 - 3:46pm

Written by Adam Dillon, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.

Arriving in New Zealand for the first time, I was captivated by the beauty and uniqueness of the country. The diversity of landscapes in a country the size of Colorado was stunning, from coastal mangrove forests and secluded white sandy beaches to powerfully active volcanoes and dramatic fiords. Not only were the landscapes spectacular but the plants and animals were incredibly unique, with approximately 70% of its birds, 80% of its plants, and 100% of its reptiles and amphibians being found nowhere else on Earth. Although many people are aware of New Zealand’s iconic kiwi bird, fewer people realize that its home to the heaviest insect in the world (giant weta), the only true alpine parrot (kea), and a reptile that is older than most dinosaurs (tuatara). At one time New Zealand was home to the tallest bird that ever lived, the giant moa, and the largest bird of prey that’s ever existed, the Haast Eagle. But unfortunately they, like many other endemic species, have gone extinct.

 

As for any new traveler to New Zealand’s wilderness, I started to ask myself two ecological questions. What is it about New Zealand that makes it home to such unique species? And why have so many of these species gone extinct in recent time? The answer to both of these questions can be summarized in a single word: mammals. The absence of terrestrial mammals aided the creation of such unique species but the introduction of such mammals is now responsible for their recent extinction.

Approximately 80 million years ago, prior to the Age of Mammals, the land that became New Zealand broke apart from the supercontinent Gondwana. This means the animals that evolved in New Zealand did so in the absence of terrestrial mammals for at least 15 million years, possibly much longer! Their absence allowed birds, reptiles, and insects to evolve into niches often held by mammals (i.e. giant moa functioned much like grazing mammals). But New Zealand’s greatest blessing is also its greatest curse. Because its flora and fauna didn’t evolve alongside mammals, these unlikely creatures have no defense against predators they’ve never seen before.

The first of all terrestrial mammals to arrive in New Zealand was man, Polynesians to be exact. Upon their arrival in the 13th century, 32 bird species went extinct, and another 9 species followed after the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century. Many species were driven to extinction from overharvesting, while others were driven there by predation from introduced predators. New Zealand currently harbors 28 species of said mammals including herbivores like deer and elk, omnivores like rats and possums, and predators like stoats and cats. But there’s a silver lining, of sorts: knowing the problem can lead to possible solutions. New Zealand is a country that comprises 2 main islands and well over 100 smaller offshore islands. Over the past couple of decades, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has made non-native mammal eradication and native restoration on these offshore islands a main priority. The first step is the removal of all non-native mammals usually through trapping and poison. Once an island is free of pests, rare endemics can be reintroduced. This approach has been extremely successful, with currently more than 100 “pest-free” islands and many populations of rare birds returning, including the takahe, saddleback, and kiwi.

Although offshore island restoration has been successful, the number of available islands is becoming smaller and smaller, plus it does nothing for the mainland populations. For these reasons and others, additional conservation measures are being implemented through “mainland islands”. One type of “mainland island” is a plot of native bush surrounded by a predator-proof fence, within which invasive mammals are eradicated. However, these areas are relatively small and extremely expensive to maintain. The second type of “mainland island” is a large area of native bush that’s intensively trapped in order to control nonnative mammals. Rare species can then be released to recover. Although some mainland island trapping programs are conducted by DOC, hundreds more are maintained by passionate local communities with great success.

For the past 6 years I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand once a year, as an instructor with an environmental education program called Wildlands Studies. About a dozen of my students and I volunteer with organizations conducting conservation field work. We have worked on a mainland island project with an organization called Friends of Flora (FoF) in the diverse, low altitude mountains of Kahurangi National Park ever since the class began 6 years ago. Through the years we laid out and maintained trapping lines and also witnessed populations of rare kiwis and blue ducks recovering. This past year we also volunteered in the beautifully lush rainforests of Fiordlands National Park with junior-high and high-school aged kids from the Kids Restore the Kepler program. The Kids Restore the Kepler program is a joint project between the Fiordlands Conservation Trust and DOC that has both conservation and education goals. The project aims to restore native birds to the area and help Fiordland’s next generation of citizens, from pre-school through high-school, develop knowledge, values and skills so they can be confident, connected, and actively involved in caring for their environment.

Despite New Zealand’s native flora and fauna facing a major threat from invasive mammals, and despite the many difficult challenges that lay ahead for New Zealand conservation, it has been inspiring and uplifting to bear witness to passionate community-run conservation organizations tackling the tough challenges of native species decline, and providing solutions and hope for the future of New Zealand’s wildlife.

The Bakken, an Oil Boom, and Bison: Studying Air Quality in our National Parks

Thu, 01/28/2016 - 4:27pm

Written by Ashley Evanoski-Cole, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Atmospheric Science.

North Dakota is known for its plains and rolling hills, agriculture, cold winters and sparse population.  However, the oil boom has transformed western North Dakota from the rural Badlands into a heavily industrialized region bustling with oil and construction workers.  Truck traffic jams are now common in the region’s small towns.  The growing infrastructure and housing construction has struggled to keep up with the rapidly growing population of oil workers.

The development and economic feasibility of new extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing enabled the explosion of oil drilling in the Bakken formation.  Just in the last decade, oil production has increased substantially and North Dakota is producing over 1 million barrels of oil per day.  The Bakken formation produces mainly oil so natural gas is burned off in a process called flaring.  From space, the light pollution from flaring and lights on the well pads has increased so much that the Bakken region looks similar to a major city at night.

North Dakota is also the land explored by Theodore Roosevelt and Lewis and Clark as well as the residence of Sacagawea whose histories are preserved in the national parks and historic sites throughout the state.  The industrialization from the oil and gas development and the impact of the harmful air pollutants generated from these activities on the national and historic parks is not well understood.  To answer this question, our research group conducted a field study to measure the air pollution in the Bakken region.

Our group collected air samples in North Dakota and Montana in the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.  We chose the winter because levels of particulate matter (PM), one pollutant that the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed harmful to humans, can be higher in the winter because it condenses in cold temperatures much like water.  Using our vacuum-like sampling equipment, PM is sucked out of the air and collected onto a filter. Back in the laboratory, the PM is dissolved from the filter in water. This liquid PM can then be analyzed to determine the chemical composition which gives us important information to identify where the PM is coming from.

Collecting air measurements in the Bakken region in the winter is a unique challenge.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park was our home base for our measurements, but we collected air samples in national parks and other protected federal land across the region of oil drilling.  This is an isolated section of the country and we did not have cell phone service at many of our sampling locations.  The frigid winter temperatures also presented challenges to operating our equipment outside, with temperatures reaching as cold as -33°F during our study.  My eyelids temporarily froze shut one extra cold and windy day while changing out our filter samples!  In the national park, we also had to worry about bison creating a road block or getting too curious with our equipment set up outside. 

Our measurements show that PM concentrations are higher now in the Bakken region than before the oil boom when the region was predominantly agricultural.  We also used the knowledge of the wind patterns to determine that the high levels of PM occurred when the wind was calm and slowly traveled within the Bakken region.  This will be described in more detail in a forthcoming publication.  We also used knowledge of unique gases, such as specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we measured, to show that oil drilling activities are impacting the air quality in the national parks and other federal lands in the Bakken region.  

Theodore Roosevelt said "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."  His sentiments still ring true today, particularly in the North Dakota Badlands.  As our country grows, care must be taken to ensure that our greatest natural resources – our national parks – are protected and preserved for generations to come.

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