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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.,, 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.


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  Available at

Figure 2 (National Park): available online at

Figures 3-6 (environmental impact):  From the video “Weathering Change”, produced by Population Action International (PAI). Available at

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:

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.





[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.


[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

[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


[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.

It takes a village: Local solutions to global disease

Wed, 01/20/2016 - 2:23pm

Written by Nathan Grubaugh, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, & Pathology.

My first impression of Liberia was of paradise – tropical weather and lush green forests that merge with sandy beaches and a vast blue ocean. Walking the streets of Monrovia, this beautiful façade was lifted to reveal an ugly reality - 85% of the population lives in poverty. One in 100 women die during pregnancy, while 20% of children are malnourished and 7% do not make it to the age of five. I saw countless children in orphanages and buildings still riddled with bullet holes serving as stark reminders of the civil wars that ravished this nation in the 80’s and 90’s.


A year later, in 2013, I returned to Liberia. This time I travelled to Lofa County, near the intersection of Sierra Leone and Guinea. The scene was different there. The forests were dotted with dozens of small villages comprised of mud-brick houses. The villagers worked hard and made proud but meager livings by farming and taking whatever the forests offered. The faces of poverty were masked by the always present flocks of loveable and hopeful children. Unlike in Monrovia, I felt welcomed by the villagers. I felt safe. 

But again, this pleasant life had a sad truth. The medical chart on the wall at a local clinic revealed that this area is holoendemic for malaria, meaning that essentially every person is infected. In fact, a local man told me that he often gets malaria five times a year. Poor housing makes it easy for bloodthirsty mosquitoes to enter, and malnutrition weakens their immune systems. In addition, the intimate relationship the villagers share with the forest puts them in close contact with several animal pathogens. What is worse is that the civil wars destroyed 95% of the healthcare facilities and chased away most trained professionals. The only thing that appeared to be in abundance was disease.

It’s not surprising that Lofa County was an epicenter of one of the most horrifying disease outbreaks of the modern era: the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic. An already deadly disease was exacerbated by a deep-rooted mistrust in the government, a widespread belief that the virus was a hoax, and the terribly inadequate infrastructure. The lack of paved roads, electricity, and equipped hospitals made it difficult to treat patients. As the outbreak intensified, so did the panic of nations around the world, as the realization that this was not just an African problem took hold.

Globalization – especially trade and travel – makes it possible for unwanted “hitchhikers” to quickly reach lands far away. Therefore, the fear of the Ebola virus epidemic becoming a pandemic was not unfounded. Pathogens such as HIV, West Nile virus, and chikungunya virus have already made the journey from similar African villages to big cities around the world. As we continue to neglect diseases of Africa, they will continue to show up in our back yard. The next to emerge is almost certainly afflicting some impoverished village right now.

With so much disease in Africa, how do we begin to control it? How do we prevent the next pandemic? The answer is both obvious and complex: break the cycle of poverty and infectious disease. Help lift the villagers out of poverty, and they can combat disease in their own communities; or alleviate the burden of disease, and they can live more prosperous lives. They are capable of solving their own long-term problems if the global community can just give them a boost now.

What are we doing to help? The Arthropod-borne and Infectious Disease Laboratories at Colorado State University are collaborating with the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research to address disease in Lofa County. For one, the team is enhancing disease surveillance activities in an effort to know thy enemy. They are also using the Nobel Prize winning drug, ivermectin, to kill malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. These efforts, while very important, are not nearly enough. New and effective drugs and vaccines are urgently needed to fight neglected tropical diseases. Investment is needed to build new facilities and train healthcare professionals. Scientists and medical professionals are not the only ones who can help. Non-profit organizations such as Camp for Peace Liberia and FACE Africa are working towards educating, empowering, and providing clean water to Liberians in efforts to create self-sustained communities. More people need to get involved, if not for the villagers, than for oneself. Because what is good for the village is good for the world.

When it comes to soil microbes, everything is NOT everywhere, but does this matter?

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 2:39pm

Written by Charlotte Alster, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of biology

In the plant and animal realms of conservation biology, substantial biodiversity losses generally result in negative consequences for processes within an ecosystem, which can sometimes impact ecosystem services, or the benefits humans receive from an ecosystem (important things like food, fresh water, and air!). Only in the last decade has this concept really been examined for the plethora of microorganisms (microbes) residing in soil. In 1934, Dutch microbiologist Lourens Baas Becking coined the notion on microbial distribution, “everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.” What he meant is that all microbes should be all over the world because they can be transported so easily by wind, water, animals, etc., but that they are not necessarily found everywhere because of geographic and physiological constraints, which is known as environmental selection. Environmental selection is still a valid cornerstone of evolutionary biology, but the first part of the statement, which assumes microbes can be transported anywhere with no restrictions, is controversial. Despite this provocative statement, the Baas Becking hypothesis has endured as a reigning dogma in microbial ecology until about a decade ago. There is now increasing evidence that just like animals and plants, distributions of microbes reflect both historical and contemporary environmental conditions. Thus variation in microbial communities certainly exists, but do these differences necessarily mirror changes in microbial processes in ecosystems?

Understanding how variation in microbial community composition impacts ecosystem processes has potentially significant implications, especially in light of global climate and environmental change. Soil microbes perform scores of vital ecosystem processes such as making nutrients available for plants, for example, by converting organic nitrogen to inorganic nitrogen. Losing microbial diversity with ecosystem processes that influence plant productivity could have serious consequences for human nutrition and wellbeing. An often less considered point is that since there are so many microbes that live in the soil (the common number I hear quoted is that there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on earth), they respire immense amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Small variations in microbial community composition and how they respond to environmental change may have enormous impacts for carbon budgets and subsequently global warming.

As microbial ecologists examine the variability of microbial communities in space and time, a follow-up question remains: how will this variability impact us as humans? Because there are so many different types of microbes residing in soils, coupled with the fact that most microbes can remain in a dormant state for up to thousands of years (yes, this really happens!) and can transfer genes to unrelated microbes (think of artificial genetic engineering except not artificial!), it is speculated that microbial communities exhibit a large degree of functional redundancy. Functional redundancy is an ecological concept whereby many different organisms, in our case microbes, perform the same function or process. As such, differences in microbial community composition may not necessarily result in changes in microbial community function. Under similar environmental conditions microbial function could remain the same. Consequently, the critical problem emerges in teasing out the relative influence that differences in microbial diversity has on changes in ecosystem processes.

Tackling this problem is actually pretty difficult to do, although new studies have recently come out providing evidence for both scenarios. There are two main hurdles: 1) it is difficult to isolate the effect of the microbial community from the soil environment, and 2) while methods are improving, there are still some major gaps that need to be breached in terms of connecting individual microbes to actual ecosystem processes. My own research is trying to get at these problems by isolating microbial communities from different soil types to see if it is the microbial community or the environment in which they live that determines rates of CO2 production and if that changes with increases in temperature. So at the very least, there is evidence finding that different microbial communities produce different amounts of CO2 regardless of soil type as well as many known fungal species that are fundamental to certain types of plant growth. While we are learning more about this dynamic, yet hugely important area of research, in my opinion it pays to be conservative in managing species diversity belowground, mainly preventing degradation of our valuable soils, while we’re still figuring it out.

Social Bonds and Sage Moms: Elephants in an Age of Poaching

Wed, 12/09/2015 - 9:23am

Written by Shifra Goldenberg, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology

The rest of the family moved away from the river with the fading afternoon light, but Noor stayed on the bank near her mother’s carcass. Noor’s mother, Victoria, died naturally at the ripe old age of 55 in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, while her family drank from the Ewaso Ngiro River and rested under its nest-dressed acacia trees. After some time alone, Noor left Victoria to join her group in their journey north.


Living into old age has become a rare privilege for Africa’s elephants. Ivory poaching has increased over recent years to meet the rising demand of international markets, often targeting old elephants with more impressive tusks. In our study population in northern Kenya, this was compounded by a severe drought that killed many old elephants. The result is younger populations. Despite the deaths, many young adult females in their reproductive peak have survived the extended poaching bout in Samburu, with the reproductive potential to grow the population. So then does it actually matter that the grandmothers and great-grandmothers are gone?

Female elephants—and probably male elephants, too—have strong social bonds. Researchers think social bonding has evolved in many species as a way to increase survival and reproduction. One of the benefits of being social may be the potential to exchange information about the environment, shown in hooded crows, great tits, and whooping cranes, to name a few examples. When you provide good information to your relatives, it may help them survive and successfully reproduce, increasing their chances of passing on shared genes.

Enter elephant grandmothers. Elephants range widely, sometimes traveling vast distances to avoid danger and locate the best available resources. Old females may be especially adept in these efforts; they are thought to act as stores of information related to space use, predation avoidance, and social acuity. A matriarchs’ decisions—where to forage, which water sources to visit and when, which families with whom to associate and for how long—usually benefit her close relatives: sisters, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews. This is because elephants usually live in tight-knit groups with their closest maternal relatives.

When Noor gives birth to her first calf, she will join a generation of elephants learning to parent without their mothers. But unlike many, Noor belongs to a family that survived the poaching relatively unscathed. She is never far from Cleopatra or Anastasia, the now de facto matriarchs of the Royals family who themselves are pushing 50. Noor and her future calves will benefit from their matriarchs’ memory and maternal experience. Such is the advantage of strong family ties.

We’ve seen a range of family disruption in the Samburu population, probably related to some families using riskier areas than others. Most elephants in Noor’s age cohort have experienced some degree of family death in the last few years. So what happens to elephants without a familial network like Noor’s to fall back on?

Social bonds seem to be so important in elephant society that bonds with nonrelatives may suffice if relatives are unavailable. Genetic analyses from before the increase in poaching showed us that in Samburu, family groups are not always comprised of relatives. In fact for some groups that have been integrated for years, there is little behavioral evidence to distinguish related from unrelated groups. This is very different from other elephant populations that have had less human pressure, in which bond strengths closely match relatedness.

As we’ve seen poaching intensify in recent years, we’ve watched fragmented groups navigate their new social realities. The finding that families need not be genetically related has born itself out anew as females in Samburu attempt to compensate for the deaths of relatives with new bonds. Some elephants we’ve watched have disappeared. Others have clung to older siblings. Still others have aligned themselves with entirely different families than those they were born into. In Samburu we are trying to understand how successful these different strategies are. The importance of old females to elephant society may become apparent in their absence over the coming years.


Drugs in the water: Detecting endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment

Tue, 12/08/2015 - 9:20am

Written by Ellen Daugherty, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Chemistry

In 1891, when organic chemistry was only a nascent discipline, Russian chemist Alexander Dianin discovered bisphenol A (BPA). Though now a household name, the compound remained commercially anonymous until the 1930s, when British biochemist Edward Charles Dodds tried to use it as a synthetic estrogen to treat menopause, but found it too weak to be effective. BPA resurfaced in the 1950s as the key building block for epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics. Since then, these materials have become ubiquitous as protective coatings on food cans, adhesives, and plastic components in electronics, automobiles, furniture, food equipment and containers.

BPA’s use in food products necessitated safety testing, but in the 1950s, toxicologists presumed that at the very small doses present in food containers, the chemical was essentially non-toxic and effects would be minimal. However, BPA challenged the “dose makes the poison” dogma when in 1997 researchers observed adverse chronic responses to low doses of the substance in laboratory mammals. Doses in the parts per billion range increased the size of prostrates in adult male mice who were exposed as fetuses.

These results are consistent with the activity of endocrine disruptors, a class of chemicals that, according to the National Institutes of Health “interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans and wildlife.” BPA is one of many compounds in this category, which also includes other plasticizers, dioxins, pesticides, steroid hormones and some pharmaceuticals. While the worst of these compounds have been banned, and some are regulated, new chemicals used in materials are not required to undergo rigorous testing before they go into regular use. If these chemicals leach into the environment, they can have unforeseen, harmful effects. Endocrine disruptors are unique in that they can alter normal cell functioning in the parts per billion to parts per trillion ranges. To trace these chemicals, we must be able to identify and quantify them. But these very low concentrations are difficult to measure, especially in messy environmental samples.

Unlike laboratory samples, environmental samples are a complex mixture of known and unknown components—salts, minerals, microbes, natural organic material, and sometimes toxic pollutants. Oftentimes, scientists don’t even know what the pollutants might be. Known chemicals can react with light, organic material, minerals, or microbes to form new compounds, some of which can be even more harmful than the original contaminants. Advances in analytical technology and methods are finally making the identification and measurement of these compounds possible. Improvements in analytical laboratory equipment, instrument capabilities, and computing and data management have allowed scientists to more accurately detect compounds at lower concentrations and to analyze and compare results more efficiently and effectively than ever before. This enables us to do a better job monitoring our watersheds, agricultural soils, and drinking water to keep people and wildlife healthy.

While advanced analytical techniques have worldwide application for measuring contaminants, there are prime examples of their relevance here in Colorado. In 2006, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found antibiotics and antimicrobial agents downstream from a wastewater treatment plant and even in pristine reaches in the Boulder Creek watershed. Endocrine disrupting compounds were detected in the parts per billion range, and fish populations in waters downstream of a wastewater treatment plant exhibited symptoms of endocrine disruption like low male-to-female sex ratios and hermaphroditic fish. These effects are not isolated to Colorado; researchers have discovered endocrine disruption in fish populations across the globe, and long-term exposure can result in severe consequences such as the collapse of fish populations.

New technologies can also introduce harmful chemicals into the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, a nationally burgeoning industry, employs and extracts numerous chemicals that can have endocrine disrupting effects. Surface and belowground spills, as well as wastewater that has been inadequately treated at local plants (due to a lack of regulations on many compounds produced in oil and gas operations), can contaminate local rivers, drinking water sources, and agricultural soils. With over one million gallons of water spilled, and nearly 8 billion gallons of water produced in hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado this year, it is imperative that we are capable of detecting hazardous compounds like endocrine disruptors and using that information to implement appropriate regulatory standards and remediation technologies.

Our health and the health of our environment depend on our ability to detect hazardous compounds at biologically relevant concentrations. Environmental analytical chemists and toxicologists at the USGS, the EPA, and other agencies and universities continue to use and develop sensitive techniques to identify and measure these chemicals and their byproducts, whether they come from plastics, wastewater, or hydraulic fracturing fluids. Modern products and processes can taint life-sustaining water with drugs and other potentially harmful chemicals. It is important that the public continues to support efforts to investigate environmental contamination so we can create effective policies that promote clean, safe drinking water, rivers, and soils.

It's Hard for Plants to Sprout in Drought

Wed, 11/18/2015 - 10:51am

Written by Renee Curry, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Student in the Graduate Degree Program of Ecology

Drought impacts all of us, even those who have not even stepped foot on a farm or a ranch. All over the media, there have been stories about the four-year crippling drought in California. There have been widespread wildfires, decreased food production and severe water restrictions in the state of California. Severe droughts such as this California drought, as well as the drought that occurred in the U.S. Great Plains from 2010-2012, are predicted to occur more frequently due to global climate change.


Droughts that occur in the U.S. Great Plains are of great interest to me due to my family history. My mother’s family homesteaded in Oklahoma and farms winter wheat, while my father’s family grows seed corn and soybeans in southeastern South Dakota.  I am the 6th generation of my father’s family to work on the farm that my ancestors homesteaded near the Missouri River in 1861. Given my family background,  my dissertation research focuses on the evaluating the impacts of drought on numerous grassland and crop sites in the U.S. Great Plains.  It is my hope that my research will further our understanding of drought to help farmers and ranchers with the tough decisions when it comes to drought mitigation and drought response. The life of a farmer is already unpredictable due to the weather. It does make you wonder how much farmers will be impacted when certain extreme weather events such as droughts will be more commonplace with the changing climate.

What is Drought?

According to the leading institution of drought research, the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center, drought originates from the lack of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or longer), which results in water shortages for a variety of users such as humans, wildlife and crops.  There are a variety of significant economic, social and environmental stresses that can worsen or improve drought.  This flow chart focuses on the drought impacts to agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and the negative impacts on end-users, such as farmers, ranchers, tourists and municipal water utilities [1].

Impacts of 2012 Drought

The 2012 severe drought in the Great Plains and Midwest cost the nation approximately $35 billion dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, which made this drought more extensive than any other drought since the 1950s. The 2012 drought rapidly increased in severity from June to July and continued into August. The timing of the increased drought severity in early July coincided with the most important time for crop development, especially for corn.  Severe or greater drought in 2012 impacted 67 percent of cattle production and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production. The 2012 drought resulted in decreased amounts of corn and soybean, higher prices for corn and soybeans, and higher prices and reduced amount of hay and pasture for cattle in 2013.

I recently had a conversation with my father about the 2012 drought and its impact on our family farm in southeastern South Dakota. He mentioned that it was the first time in the last 35 years that ZERO seed corn grew on the non-irrigated land and that they had to pump a significant amount of water from the Missouri River (which costs money) to irrigate the remaining corn and soybean fields. However, in other areas where the climate is much drier (less rainfall) such as the western regions of the Great Plains, there is no such water source available. As a result, irrigation is NOT a viable option.

Drought Mitigation Techniques

The United States Natural Resource Conservation Service details specific techniques that farmers and ranchers can utilize to mitigate drought impacts. This report suggests that farmers can mitigate drought impacts by minimizing tillage, altering planting dates, keeping soil covered, killing off the cover crops before planting the primary production crop, and injecting fertilizer so that it does come into contact with more soil moisture. Ranchers can mitigate drought impacts by having a drought plan in place before it occurs, not overgrazing, having alternative feeds and forages, improving water resources and culling herds.

I recently had a conversation with a family friend who is a farmer and rancher in central South Dakota. I asked, “What are you already doing to prepare for drought?” He responded that given that they do live in a fairly dry climate and do not have access to irrigation water, drought is just a way of life for them.  In a non-drought year, he feeds wheat to the cattle but if a drought does occur (for example, the 2012 drought) the cattle feed on natural growing grass instead of wheat. He went on to further explain that they always have a three-year supply of grass for the cattle to eat if a drought does occur.  While I found this rather fascinating, I then wondered what will happen if the droughts become so extreme that there isn’t enough grass to feed their cattle?

After this conversation, I then attended the American’s Grassland Conference. This conference brought together scientists, farmers, ranchers and policy experts to discuss issues related to the North American grasslands. I had an opportunity to tour the Pawnee Grasslands in Northeast Colorado with the local US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and was able to interact with local ranchers. This particular region receives so little precipitation that grazing cattle is more economically feasible than growing crops. As we learned on this tour, utilizing the correct cattle grazing techniques is essential when attempting to mitigate future drought risk. These particular ranchers that work with the USDA-ARS herd their cattle into different pastures over time to ensure that the grass can grow back at a healthy rate. It has been proven that grass that only has light or moderate grazing often show less mortality due to drought than grass that has been heavily grazed prior to drought [2].

Learning about cattle grazing techniques with scientists from the US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and local ranchers in the Pawnee Grassland in Northeast Colorado.


Drought is just the way of life for many farmers and ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains. Increasing our understanding of how different plants respond to drought is necessary in order to better inform farmers (when and what to plant) and ranchers (when and how much to graze). Certain questions still exist given that we are expecting more frequent, severe droughts to occur with the changing climate.  Are the current techniques utilized by farmers and ranchers enough to mitigate future, more severe droughts? In the example of the farmer/rancher in central South Dakota, what will they feed their cattle if drought causes both the wheat and grass production to fail? Drought is an important topic for me given that both sides of my family farm. We have to remain optimistic that our way of life on the farm will be sustainable in the future to carry on the dreams of our ancestors. As my grandfather was quoted in a South Dakota magazine, “South Dakota is a land of infinite opportunities.”


[1]  Kellner O and Niyogi D. 2014. Assessing drought vulnerability ofagricultural production systems in context of the 2012 drought. J Anim Sci 92:2811–22.   Link:

[2]  D.D. Briske, J.D. Derner, D.G. Milchunas, K.W. Tate, 2011. An evidence-based assessment of prescribed grazing practices. Conservation Benefits of Rangeland Practices: Assessment, Recommendations, and Knowledge Gaps, United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, DC, pp. 21–74. Link:

Have We Already Moved On to Climate Plan B?

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 10:37am

Written by John Field, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering, CSU.

After two decades of failed efforts to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the worst of climate change may now depend on carbon-negative biofuels and other uncertain technological fixes.

It has been more than a century since a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenious predicted that increases in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would warm the surface of the Earth through the greenhouse effect. Such an increase in atmospheric CO2 due to the cumulative effects of humans burning fossil fuels and clearing land was first observed in 1960, and over the next several decades climate science emerged as an important research discipline. By the 1980s consensus was building within the scientific community that climate change was a threat, and the issue came to broader public awareness thanks to the efforts of civic-minded scientists like James Hansen and Stephen Schneider. Recognizing the global nature of the issue and the need for international cooperation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations in 1988 to advise the world’s governments on the state of scientific knowledge around climate change.

Since then the IPCC has periodically released reports compiling the best science on quantifying the greenhouse effect, understanding its implications for human societies and natural ecosystems, and exploring how we might respond to the issue. These reports typically contain stern warnings about the dangers of climate change coupled with upbeat assessments of our ability to reduce our emissions and mitigate the problem. Assessment Report 2 (AR2), published in 1995, warned that “entire unique cultures might be obliterated” due to “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, but noted that “a carefully selected portfolio of national and international responses of actions aimed at mitigation, adaptation and improvement of knowledge can reduce the risks.”  That optimistic tone continued in subsequent reports: AR4 in 2007 reported that the cost of reducing emissions “corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points” and most recently, a follow-up conference to AR5 noted that “the additional investment required to transition to clean energy can be a small fraction” of our overall investments in the energy sector.

However, anyone familiar with the data knows that we have largely failed to heed these warnings, and total emissions of CO2 and other greenhouses gases have been consistent with worst-case scenarios. So how then does the IPCC continue to deliver optimistic projections after decades of accelerating—rather than falling—emissions? In part, it now assumes that the world economy can shift to renewable energy sources much more quickly than was previously though possible. The optimistic projections also rely heavily on this machine, and others like it:

That photo is from a corn ethanol facility in Illinois where the CO2 gas by-product of ethanol fermentation is being compressed to extremely high pressures and injected into geological formations deep underground for permanent storage.  Compressing and storing CO2 underground is known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a technology widely pursued by the coal industry as a way to stay alive in an age of GHG regulations and carbon taxes. When applied to CO2 derived from the production of biofuels or power from plant matter, you get Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS. The idea is that plants sucked up CO2 from the atmosphere during their growth, and that storing the CO2 resulting from fermenting or burning those plants is a form of “negative emissions”, a net transfer of carbon out of the atmosphere into underground storage (with a whole bunch of caveats around how those plants were grown and how much energy was used in the process). 

The graphic below highlights just how pervasive BECCS is becoming in IPCC’s future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Those scenarios (left) that avoid the worst effects of climate change and limit surface temperature increase to <2°C (i.e., those in blue and green) are usually associated with scaling up BECCS over the next century to the point that it provides 10-30% of all human energy demands (right), in the same ballpark as natural gas currently does.  In effect, the latest IPCC projections continue to get to an optimistic result through assumptions that we will be able to transition to a carbon-free energy system much more quickly than previously assumed, and that BECCS and other negative emissions technologies will be widely deployed and correct for any overshoot.  That’s a tall order for technologies that have never before been deployed at large scale!

Now if reading this makes you a bit uncomfortable, you’re not the only one. Two scientists have recently cried foul on the IPCC process through editorial letters in the world’s most prominent scientific journals. In May of this year Oliver Geden, a German climate scientist and civil servant, took the group to task for giving in to political ‘pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science’ and peddling ‘false optimism’ based on ‘dubious concepts’ such as negative emissions technologies. He writes in the journal Nature:

Climate researchers who advise policy-makers feel that they have two options: be pragmatic or be ignored… The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2 °C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense. Advisers who shy away from say­ing so squander their scientific reputations and public trust in climate research.

Similarly, just last month English climate scientist Kevin Anderson wrote in Nature Geoscience (nice summary here) to point out that the IPCC projections are full of errors and overly optimistic assumptions resulting in ‘incremental escapism’ and ‘deus ex machina’ solutions, declaring:

As scientists, we must… combat the almost global-scale cognitive dissonance in acknowledging [our work’s] quantitative implications. Yet, so far, we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis…

Those are powerful critiques, with language much more forceful and direct than we often hear from the scientific community. 

Now is a conflicted time for many of the scientists doing work on these topics. My own research focuses on the caveats around how to sustainably produce plant material at large scale from various sources that would be required for a scale-up of BECCS. It’s exciting to think that someday this work might have relevance in the fight against climate change, and I hope that continued funding allows us to develop practical, sustainable solutions in this area. But at the same time, I hope that if these technological fixes ever become a reality it’s because we collectively make a conscious choice to do so, not because false optimism backed us into a corner. 

Interested in learning more about BECCS and how they might play into future emissions scenarios? Check out these excellent pieces by Brad Plumer at Vox or Chris Mooney at the Washington Post. 

Can the Courts Speak for the Bees?

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 9:35am

Written by Mike Angstadt, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD candidate, Department of Political Science, CSU.
While federal courts often seem insulated from the outside world and cloaked in strict rules, some tiny outsiders are beginning to enter the rarefied buildings. In recent years, honeybees have found their way into federal courts and captured the attention of federal judges. Rather than appearing as actual swarms of bees, they have arrived through a flurry of papers and arguments. However, these honeybee-related lawsuits are fascinating; in particular, a 2015 case illustrates the important role that courts can play in setting environmental policy.

Currently, species are being lost at a rate estimated to exceed the historical extinction rate by 1,000-10,000 times. Many threatened and endangered species perform functions that are valuable to our modern society, and among them, pollinators are paramount. Wild pollinators, as well as their domesticated counterparts (including honeybees), support agricultural production by pollinating crops that farmers and industries depend upon. In particular, honeybees facilitate pollination and crop production for many valuable crops; some, including almonds, depend entirely upon honeybees. Accordingly, economists estimate that honeybees contribute as much as $14 billion dollars per year of value to US crop production.

So, what's all the buzz about? Well, habitat loss and other factors have caused populations of native pollinators to decline, and have heightened the importance of honeybees in crop pollination. However, honeybees are also struggling. In recent winters, as many as one-third of honeybee colonies have collapsed. A combination of multiple factors, including stress, parasites, and pesticides is likely responsible for these collapses, and so a complex approach will be needed to maintain honeybee populations. As one step in this effort, conservation groups and environmental lawyers have begun swarming the courts.

Of the many tools available to conservation groups, courts may be among the least familiar to most of us. However, even though court cases are often highly technical and filled with legalese (who says "heretofore," anyway?), their power as conservation tools can't be overstated. For decades, environmental lawyers have used courts to advance their interests and address pressing conservation issues. To provide just a few examples, environmental lawsuits have: blocked construction of a power plant in a scenic stretch of New York's Hudson River, temporarily halted construction of an entire dam to protect an endangered fish species, and required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. All those "heretofores" have some heft! Recognizing the power of the courts and the plight of the bees, groups representing the honeybee industry filed a lawsuit in 2013 that sought to protect honeybees from another pesticide that they viewed as harmful.

In Pollinator Stewardship Council v. EPA, the groups drew upon a law known as FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), which requires new pesticides to be approved and registered by the EPA before they can be sold, as a way to evaluate their safety. The groups argued that the EPA had registered a new pesticide, known as sulfoxaflor, even though they felt that insufficient data had demonstrated its safety for bees. After some very technical analysis (here's the full opinion), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with the pollinator groups. Last month, the court ordered the EPA to rescind its registration of sulfoxaflor until additional information can be gathered regarding its safety.

In one sense, the case illustrates just how specific the legal questions are that federal courts often consider. At the same time, it shows how these very specific considerations can have huge impacts for environmental issues and environmental health. By considering whether specific registration procedures were followed for a single pesticide, the court blocked that pesticide from entering the market, and also brought considerable media attention to the issue of honeybee decline. Finally, it seems that the judges hearing the case were aware of these broader implications. For instance, when justifying its decision, the court emphasized "the precariousness of bee populations." It also emphasized the need to consider how pesticides affect the health of the overall hive, not just individual bees.

Currently, we are facing numerous, complicated environmental challenges in addition to pollinator decline. To address these, we will need informed, thoughtful participation from all corners of government, science, and industry. In demonstrating its ability to digest the broad issue of honeybee decline and apply it to their specific legal question, the 9th Circuit highlights the potential for courts to make important contributions to 21st-century conservation. For those of us who research courts and environmental law, this prospect helps to take some of the sting out of reading all that legalese!

Finding the Lost World: ruminations on the past and (bleak) future of a fascinating ecosystem

Wed, 10/14/2015 - 3:58pm

Written by Patricia Salerno, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, CSU.

I kept staring down, impatiently waiting for the clouds to clear and the wondrous Auyan to appear. Well, it did. And there we were, flying right on top of billions-year-old erosive ruins, staring down on this gigantic King of the Great Savannah. Now, under the full moon, it stares down on me to remind me who is the ruler of these lands.”*

Towering over the vast lowlands, flattop mountains such as Auyan rise taller than the highest skyscrapers in the world. Dozens of these mountains dot the expansive shrublands and tropical forests of northeastern South America, yet the looming threats forecast a bleak and uncertain future for their conservation. These mountains known as tepuis, or "houses of the gods" in the local Pemon language, are hard to describe in words or portray in pictures, but their magnificent presence leaves no doubt as to why they are sacred lands to the indigenous. This majestic world full of cliff-dwelling gods and truly unique ecosystems – and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites – runs the risk of being lost for good if we don’t change the way these lands are being managed.

Though you may not be aware, you have probably been exposed to the grandeur of this region before; perhaps by learning about the tallest waterfall on earth, Angel Falls, or by watching Disney’s movie Up, or from reading or watching remakes of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Lost World is a perfect description of the tepui ecosystem; not because of the existence of dinosaurs lost in time as the novel portrays, but because these islands are lost in our collective knowledge, frozen in time in the advancement of research and science, forgotten and ignored by policy and conservation management, and highly threatened because of illegal mining and global climate change. But before I touch on these issues, let me describe to you what makes this Lost World so fascinating.

Unlike a mountain chain uplift – such as the Rockies and the Alps – caused by the collision of tectonic plates, tepuis were formed by hundreds of millions of years of erosive cycles that slowly yet persistently broke apart a once enormous high-altitude plateau known as the Guiana Shield. Located in Northern South America, the summits are one of the most ancient exposed surfaces on earth and harbor hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. Most unique species are often found on a single summit…. and in some cases, these summits can be as small as 2 square miles!

Many interesting ecological and evolutionary phenomena are directly related to distinctive summit climate and ecology. For example, although rains are very frequent, water never accumulates because it quickly escapes to the lowlands through billion-year-old erosive canals. Thus, permanent bodies of water like rivers and ponds are scarce if not absent. This affects animals such as amphibians, which are in constant need of water to avoid desiccation through their permeable skins. As a consequence, most summit frog species have adapted to seek shelter in pitcher plants, which keep standing water for much longer than the rockface.

Another unique evolutionary phenomenon on these flattop summits is the occurrence of carnivory in many different plant groups. Because soils are constantly eroding, and no new soil depositions occur – other than the slow decomposition of organic material – nitrogen, an essential compound for life, is in short supply. Normally, plants obtain nitrogen from the soil through their root systems. However, on the soil-scarce tepuis, many plants have independently evolved the ability to digest insects and other small animals in order to obtain enough nitrogen to survive. This adaptation appears to be a common evolutionary solution to nutrient-poor soils on the summits, and has resulted in an accumulation of unique species in these ecosystems.

Animals and plants unique to the tepuis are highly threatened by rising global temperatures and climate change. One overall trend that scientists have observed so far is that temperatures are increasing faster than most organisms can adapt, thus resulting in either shifts of distributions or extinction of species rather than adaptation to new climates. As an example, butterflies in the Alps have been shown to move upwards in altitude, maintaining their preferred climatic tolerances as temperatures rise. Moreover, as temperate regions become warmer, tropical species expand their ranges, which for example has resulted in an increase in tropical diseases in North America.

The species that are adapted to the summits of the flattop mountains are faced with a very bleak future. They, unlike lowland species, cannot move to higher elevations, so changing climate will force them to adapt to warmer and drier conditions at an implausibly fast rate. Futhermore, they will also face competition from historically lowland-dwellers that will now seek cooler temperatures as the lowlands also become too warm and too dry for their taste. In short, all these unique summit species have one of two choices: adapt or die, though most likely the latter.

The uniqueness of this ecosystem is not restricted to the summits. The lowlands and foothills also have plant and animal species, as well as human cultures found nowhere else on earth. The Pemon people, who inhabit these lands, currently represent some of the most isolated and pristine indigenous cultures left on earth. Most tribes still retain ancient traditions, languages, and religious beliefs. They believe the mountains are the houses of gods, and the keepers of the souls of the dead, the mawari. They believe people that mistreat dogs cannot enter heaven, and that jaguars are the dogs of the mawari, making them sacred and never a hunting target, unless you wish the spirits of the dead to be against you.

The respectful practices and beliefs of the Pemon people towards their natural environment have allowed this populated yet isolated area to remain largely pristine and untouched. In fact, the Pemon people never ascended to the mountain summits until tourism breached the area. They never hunted except as a means of survival, and they never killed any top predators such as large cats. However, in recent years, excessive and uncontrolled tourism to summits of the most accessible mountains, and more importantly an exponential increase in illegal gold mining in their territories, have generated an imbalance and a delicate situation for the tribes and the ecosystem alike. The Pemon are now being exploited by the miners, and the ecosystem is rapidly and permanently being destroyed by highly destructive mining practices, destroying both the Pemon’s possibilities for subsisting in this now contaminated and depleted environment, as well as threatening all the unique species found there.

Even though these areas are all “protected” by national park or reserve status, negligence of local authorities as well as almost complete lack of funding for parks have resulted in extreme mismanagement and exploitation of both the environment and the communities. The lost world has rarely been a prominent component of collective or scientific knowledge, or a priority for conservation. But unless we make this effort now, it will be too late to save the ecosystem from rising temperatures, hunting, and uncontrolled tourism, or to protect the people and their culture from the abuse associated with illegal mining. The cultural and environmental uniqueness of this region is rapidly disappearing before we actually know what’s there, and before we can rightly appreciate it. Unless efficient conservation policies, climate change research, and indigenous tribe protection is immediately and effectively implemented for the preservation of biodiversity and culture, Conan Doyle’s Lost World will be truly lost for future generations.

*Excerpt from one of my journal entries from my first expedition to this region, 2009.

Photo captions:

1. Angel Falls, Venezuela.

2. Example of a barren summit landscape, Auyan, Venezuela.

3. Summit frog, Tepuihyla edelcae, inside a pitcher plant, Brocchinia.

4. Alexander, local guide and native Pemon, Venezuela.

5. "Great Savannah" mountains and lowlands, Venezuela.