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Breathing Fire: Tackling wildfires and health under a changing climate

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 2:04pm

Written by Emily Fischer, Sheryl Magzamen, Jeff Pierce, Monique Rocca, and John Volckens; Principal Investigators of Wildfires, Air Quality, Climate and Health a 2014-2015 SoGES Global Challenges Research Team.

Those of us living in the western US are familiar with wildfire smoke.  Several months ago, a member of our SoGES Global Challenge Research Team (GCRT) was telling his mother that our team was researching the health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke.  Her response was, “let me guess, it’s bad for you!”  Of course, she is right (mom is always right), but it turns out this issue is complicated.  There are are many open questions related to wildfire smoke, health and climate: Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion?  How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of smoke exposure?  How might wildfires change in the future?  Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure?  In this post, we discuss why we need to answer these questions.

Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion?

The World Health Organization has determined that air pollution is currently the world’s largest single environmental health risk, estimated to result in 7 million deaths annually. Specifically, fine particulate air pollution (particulate matter, PM) has been identified as contributing to lung disease, heart attacks and strokes.  Wildfires are a very large source of summertime fine PM to the western US. On an annual basis, wildfire emissions account for about 10 - 40% of total fine PM emissions to the atmosphere. But are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from pollution from cars or power plants? 

Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gases (e.g. carbon monoxide and thousands of organic species) and PM. Particulate matter is a major concern because it tends to be more strongly correlated with health effects than other species.  The peer-reviewed literature on public health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure (citations: ~80) is much smaller compared  to research on general health effects of PM (citations: ~17,000) and human-generated (also called anthropogenic) PM such as diesel exhaust (citations: ~3,100). Consistent with health effects of human-generated pollution exposure, wildfire smoke exposure is associated with respiratory symptoms in vulnerable populations, such as children with asthma and patients with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Though studies on health effects of wildfire PM are methodologically comparable to those conducted on anthropogenic PM, several key findings indicate important key differences between the two types of exposure.                  

First, recent research on health effects of ambient PM has demonstrated that PM toxicity is a result of a complex interaction of particle size range, geography, source, and season. As health effects of human-generated PM (e.g. fossil-fuel combustion) have been studied primarily, it is unclear whether wildfire PM would have the same levels of toxicity.  Second, it is unclear if anthropogenic PM and wildfire PM affect the same systems of the human body. Currently, PM-health research tends to focus on the cardiovascular effects of PM. However, several epidemiological studies have suggested that PM exposure from wildfire smoke is associated with respiratory, but not cardiovascular, morbidity. Animal models have demonstrated that wildfire PM is more toxic compared to equal doses of non-wildfire PM, and specifically target the lungs. In contrast, post-plume periods are associated with increased cardiovascular hospital admissions. Finally, a fundamental question in environmental epidemiology is understanding health effects of acute, high-doses of exposure (from a wildfire, for instance) compared to chronic, lower levels of exposure (from domestic wood burning).

How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of exposure?

State and local agencies in charge of advising residents of poor air quality require accurate predictions of wildfire smoke concentrations (as far in advance as possible).  Smoke forecasts are challenging for several reasons.  (1) At best, smoke forecasts can only be as good as the underlying wind forecasts predicted by weather models.  As weather predictions deteriorate forward in time, smoke forecasts will as well.  (2) Fires in the western US often occur in mountainous regions where wind predictions are challenging due to channeling through valleys.  (3) The spread and intensity of the fire must be predicted, especially for longer smoke forecasts.  Spread and intensity forecasts require accurate information on the weather, the vegetation, and firefighting, and each includes uncertainties.  (4) Smoke plume rise due to the heat of the fire must be accurately predicted.  Hot fires may loft plumes away from the surface, and details of the atmosphere affect this rise as well.  Thus, any uncertainties in the weather and fire spread/intensity will manifest itself as uncertainties in plume rise.

In light of these uncertainties, many agencies are developing and using smoke forecast tools.  A popular tool among many decision-making agencies is the BlueSky smoke prediction tool developed by the US Forest Service. You can look at the current smoke forecasts from BlueSky for various regions of the US here.  One of the goals of our SoGES GCRT is to evaluate and improve BlueSky and other wildfire prediction tools.

How might wildfires change in the future?

The area burned by wildfires in the western US has increased in recent decades, and modeling efforts consistently suggest that fire activity will continue to increase dramatically over the next century.  However, these predictions have uncertainties. Many factors determine how wildfire occurrence has and will change, including the onset of snow melt, precipitation throughout the year, temperature, winds, humidity, vegetation, and human intervention (more details on this in the next question).  All but this last factor depend on climate models for future predictions, and different models and different greenhouse-gas scenarios lead to different forecasts of these variables.  Thus, the variability in future wildfire predictions is substantial.  One of the objectives of our SoGES GCRT is to use a suite of climate models to determine what trends in wildfires seem to be robust across the various climate predictions.

Photo caption: From NRC 2011: Projected change in area burned for 1°C increase in global average temperature.

Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure?

Beyond influencing climate change, there are two major ways in which humans can directly affect wildfires and smoke exposure .  The first is involves how we develop our built environment along the urban-wildland interface.  By building homes in and near forests at risk for wildfires, the folks who will live in these homes are not only at risk for wildfire smoke exposure, but may risk property loss!

The second way humans directly influence wildfires and smoke is through land management practices such as prescribed burning, forest thinning, and underbrush clearing.  Such activities have the potential to reduce the spread rate, severity and, sometimes the occurrence of wildfires. As a consequence, these treatments may help to reduce smoke emissions and human health impacts during wildfires.  On the other hand, the ecological appropriateness of such treatments varies greatly by ecosystem type.  Further, while mechanical forest treatments have negligible air quality impacts, prescribed fire substitutes limited and somewhat controllable air quality impacts over many burn periods for potentially severe and unplanned air quality events.  The health tradeoffs of wildfires versus prescribed fires have not been extensively evaluated. Our GCRT is investigating how these various wildfire-mitigation approaches may impact wildfires and air quality.

Photo caption from first image: Wildfire smoke from the High Park Fire (June, 2012) obscuring the sun over Fort Collins, CO.

 

Infectious diseases in polar bears and their impact on population health

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 3:59pm

Written by Anna Fagre, 2014-2015 Sustainabiltiy Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Professional Veterinary Medicine Program.

As a poster child of the Arctic, polar bears have been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the media due to documented loss of the sea ice habitat. What does this mean for polar bears? Loss of sea ice limits the ability of the bears to access marine mammal prey and range over long distances. Other implications for sea ice loss include increased frequency of long-distance swims (Durner et al. 2012), reduced body condition, lower survival rates, and declines in abundance (Regehr et al. 2007; Rode et al. 2010; Bromaghin et al. 2015) which may lead to immunosuppression.  Another potential threat that is less easily examined but being more frequently studied as of late is the effect of environmental contaminants on the polar bears’ immune systems. These factors have led to projections by some scientists that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears may be gone by the year 2100 (Amstrup et al. 2008).

Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a multidisciplinary and trans-institutional team whose main goal is examining the health of polar bear subpopulations and factors influencing it. My primary role in this process has been conducting a systematic literature review examining all available studies on the presence of infectious disease in polar bear subpopulations worldwide. This information was synthesized to determine whether or not infectious diseases are a true threat to polar bear subpopulations given their changing physical environment, increased interactions with novel species, and factors potentially contributing to immunosuppression.

In a nutshell, our literature review determined that most reports of infectious agents causing pathologic changes or mortality in polar bears occur in captivity, largely in geographic regions where polar bears do not historically thrive (e.g. equatorial zoos). The majority of information on infectious agents in free-ranging polar bears documents evidence of exposure to numerous viruses, parasites, and bacteria but very few studies correlate signs of illness or health impacts with these findings. Despite the paucity of information on infectious agents adversely affecting the health of polar bears, an even greater lack of knowledge exists surrounding the synergistic effects of infectious agents and environmental contaminants. Lie et al. (2004) have determined the presence of organochlorines in this species, and as such, the possibility of comorbidity effects is a very real one.

There are many challenges associated with collecting information on polar bears in the wild. First and foremost, they often travel alone and may range across areas of sea ice as large as 125,100 km2 (Ferguson et al. 1999). Procuring fresh and systematic samples requires intensive manpower and financial resources, as it is nearly uniformly performed aerially.  Otherwise, samples are often collected opportunistically from hunter-harvested carcasses rather than live animals and may be unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Infectious agents discovered associated with these carcasses are primarily incidental findings.

Approximately 57% of articles that fit our inclusion criteria were on parasitic findings in polar bears, many of these being enteric and nonpathologic. A more well-known event among researchers focusing on Arctic megafauna was that of a rabid polar bear shot by hunters when it was seen dragging its hindlegs (Taylor et al. 1991). However, this is relatively isolated information, in that not many other reports describe infectious agents causing pathology in free-ranging bears. Worth noting is that many of the infectious agents reviewed are zoonotic, meaning they possess the capability to be passed between man and animal. The significance of these agents to polar bear health was unclear, but it may put those at risk that ingest polar bear meat, such as indigenous natives. Already familiar to many of you ecologists and conservationists, funding in these fields is increasingly more difficult to obtain, though often more readily available when diseases of interest have impacts on human health or may pose an economic burden. The work of this team is solely focused on polar bear conservation, rather than taking into account zoonotic infections contracted from the consumption of polar bears.

In a broader scope, the individuals that I have been collaborating with on this project have taught me a lot and I feel incredibly lucky to have learned from them. I have gotten to work with wildlife biologists, epidemiologists, pathologists, and veterinarians from federal agencies and universities both here in Colorado and in Alaska. In Alaska, they have been routinely sampling the polar bear population since 1985, looking at specific health parameters in bloodwork and for evidence of exposure to infectious diseases.

Another study published by this team at the same time our literature review was submitted was on the concept of defining wildlife health (Patyk et al. 2015). Utilizing the Delphi approach, multiple expert opinions were taken into consideration in determining the most important threats to the species and also in defining specific metrics for determining the health of polar bear subpopulations. In turn, changes in these parameters may be more easily monitored. Not surprisingly, the largest threat to polar bears as determined by this Delphi model is climate change.

Efforts to quantify health metrics and specific threats on which to focus on as we move forward will hopefully allow for more streamlined collaboration and study design. Many different groups study polar bears, as nineteen subpopulations exist in five countries: US (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. Recent research identified a pattern of recent directional gene flow north towards the Canadian archipelago, which is likely to be one of the last regions in the Arctic to be affected by global warming and thus function as a long-term refugium for polar bears (Peacock et al., 2015). Clearly, the future of this species heavily relies on interdisciplinary and international collaboration as well as increased funding for their research efforts.

While the circumpolar population projection for these animals may appear grim, the climate-induced loss of sea ice habitat can be stopped, and possibly reversed, by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Knowledge and awareness surrounding climate change and species losses gives us the power to educate others on its very real and devastating effects. More information on polar bear conservation may be found below:

 

References

Amstrup, S. C., Marcot, B.G., and Douglas, D.C. 2008. A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears. Pages 213-268 in E. T. DeWeaver, C. M. Bitz, and L.-B. Tremblay, editors. Arctic sea ice decline: Observations, projections, mechanisms, and Implications. Geophysical Monograph Series 180. American Geophysical Union, Washington, D. C.

Bromaghin, J., McDonald, T., Stirling, I., Derocher, A., Richardson, E., Regehr, E., Douglas, D.,  Durner, G., Atwood, T., and Amstrup, S. 2015. Polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: population decline and stabilization in the 2000’s. Ecological Applications 25:634-651.

Durner, G., J. Whiteman, H. Harlow, Amstrup, S.P., Regehr, E., and Ben-David, M. 2011. Consequences of long-distance swimming and travel over deep-water pack ice for a female polar bear during a year of extreme sea ice retreat. Polar Biology 34:975-984.

Ferguson, S.H., Taylor, M.K., Born, E.W., Rosing-Asvid, A., and Messier, F. 1999. Determinants of home range size for polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Ecology Letters 2:311-318.

Lie, E., Larsen, H.J., Larsen, S., Johansen, G.M., Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., et al. 2004. Does high organochlorine (OC) exposure impair the resistance to infection in polar bears (Ursus maritimus)? Part I: Effect of OCs on the humoral immunity. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 67:555-582.  

Patyk, K.A., Duncan, C., Nol, P., Sonne, C., Laidre, K., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Establishing a definition of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) health: a guide to research and management activities. Science of the Total Environment 514:371-378.

Peacock, E., Sonsthagen, S.A., Obbard, M.E., Boltunov, A., Regehr, E.V., Ovsyanikov, N., et al. 2015. Implications of the circumpolar genetic structure of polar bears for their conservation in a rapidly warming climate. PloS one 10:e112021.

Regehr, E. V., Lunn, N. J., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2007. Effects of earlier sea ice breakup on survival and population size of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:2673-2683.

Rode, K. D., Amstrup, S.C., and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Reduced body size and cub recruitment in polar bears associated with sea ice decline. Ecological Applications 20:768-782.

Taylor, M., Elkin, B., Maier, N., and Bradley, M. 1991. Observation of a polar bear with rabies. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 27: 337-339.

Photo credit: United State Geological Survey

Scientific Expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Amazon, the Río Marañón

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 4:39pm

Written by Natelie Kramer Anderson, 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow.

This summer I will take part in a scientific expedition to the Río Marañón in Peru to collect baseline data on a river that although currently free-flowing has 20 proposed mega dam sites for hydroelectric dams, two of which have already been approved.

The Río Marañón begins in the Andes Mountains, is the mainstem source of the Amazon River and cuts through a canyon twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Mega dam projects on this river will greatly impact the ecological and societal health of the Amazon Basin, both in the Andean headwaters, and in fertile Amazonian floodplains. These mega dam projects are primarily being built to power Peruvian coal mines and for energy export.

The mission is to collect a baseline pre-development data set of critical river health parameters potentially impacted by hydropower development, while video documenting our 30-day raft voyage. We are doing so that we can evaluate the impacts that large mega dam projects have on the natural environment and under-represented communities who depend on the river. Understanding these impacts is necessary in order to make informed decisions about whether or not to build large dams. Do the benefits of the hydropower outweigh its impacts?  Is it wise to build a society that depends on these large dams? Is the economical cost from the degradation of ocean and Amazonian fisheries worth it?

To learn more about the expedition go to: http://www.maranonproject.org/
To learn about the dams and controversy on the Río Marañón: http://lab.org.uk/peru-el-maranon-the-environment-communities-and-rivers-be-damned
To learn more about Pink River Dolphins in the Amazon: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/weirdest-dolphin-talk?source=relatedvideo
Proposed dams on the Rio Maranon. Currently there are none.

Is there a science to decision making?

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 4:07pm

Written by David M. Martin, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

Tell me how you got to work today. Did you drive, walk, bike, or commute on public transit?  What route did you take? Were you running late or on-time? What was the weather like outside? Did you take the scenic route? On the way, were you in a peaceful or agitated mood?

If you answer my questions, then I can predict all the different ways you may travel from home to work on any given day! The beauty of getting to this result stems from a 50-year old mathematical science known as decision analysis

The quest to understand what it is that makes us take one course of action (in other words, “decision”) over another is the foundation of decision analysis. We presume that many alternative decisions can be organized and ranked if we can extract adequate information to mathematically evaluate its components and assign values to them. So, if you answered my questions about your possible work routes today, then I could give you a reasonably good route to take to work. If weather conditions change, then that would change how each route would rank and I may recommend another route as the better option for the day. Sounds simple, right?  In reality, it’s complicated.

Simple methods for decision making are credited to Plato (later Aristotle) and Ben Franklin. Today, the methods are highly technical. Major scholarly contributions and terminology (see word cloud) to decision analysis came out of the post-World War II era of business and military analytics. These techniques are currently being used and re-envisioned in integrated applications to technology, sustainability, and natural resource management. 

A paper recently published in the Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis explains how to effectively locate aesthetically “undesirable” facilities like landfills in urban cities. Methods that informed this problem included simulating alternative facility locations and predicting how they performed with traffic, flood, population, aesthetics, air pollution, and biodiversity issues. From an original list of 14 facility locations, the decision analysis found two preferred sites for decision makers to base decisions from.1

A classic but less recent example is from a landscape planning study in the Peaks Branch watershed in Dallas, Texas. In the 1980s, suburban sprawl encroached the Peaks Branch waterway and questions arose about how to manage for potential floods. Previous designs only accounted for five year flood events and new flood prevention alternatives were proposed to address this problem (see map). Alternative management actions for new waterway designs required estimating project costs, aesthetic values, understanding neighborhood acceptance to the decisions, identifying where people or structures could be relocated, evaluating legal obstacles for the decisions, and a slew of other criteria. Like the facility location example, many criteria are subjective and very difficult to estimate. Decision analysis helped to organize and evaluate all the information that was needed to make an informed decision on which waterway design was a better compromise for both flood prevention and societal needs.2

You see, there is a science to decision making and we should embrace its benefits and weaknesses. I like to think of it as a way of providing more information to decision makers than what they had before the analysis. In this way, better informed decision can be made.

References:

1Francesca Abastante and others (2014) Addressing the location of undesirable facilities through the dominance-based rough set approach. Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis, Vol 21, pp. 3-23.

2Ambrose Goicoechea and others (1982) Multiobjective analysis with engineering and business applications. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Further Reading:

Ralph L. Keeney  (1982) Decision analysis: an overview.  Operations Research, Vol. 30, No. 5, pp. 803-838.

Daniel Kahneman and others (2013) Thinking: the new science of decision-making, problem-solving, and prediction. Harper Perennial.

Learn more about David and his quest to better inform decisions via his website

Sustainability for All: Including Children and Youth in Disaster Risk Reduction Activities

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 4:30pm

Writen by Jennifer Tobin-Gurley, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, Director of Research and Engagement at the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis and PhD Candidate from the Department of Sociology.

On March 14-18, 2015, I watched, along with millions of other observers globally, as world leaders and key stakeholders gathered in Sendai, Japan for the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (UN-WCDRR). During this event representatives from 186 UN Member States collectively agreed on a new global disaster plan titled the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The plan, which builds on and extends the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action, reflects on progress made over the past decade and outlines priorities and partnerships for addressing disaster risk over the next fifteen years.1 This framework represents one of three major UN environmental policy developments occurring in 2015; the other two include long-term agreements on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals.2 These collaborative advancements have brought together many interdisciplinary panels of academics, practitioners, and government representatives to create solutions to some of our most pressing global problems. But why do these initiatives – and the interconnection between them – matter so much? Some scholars3 argue that it is imperative that disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainability not be seen as three separate processes, but rather as intimately related social issues that should be addressed together to create common goals to “improve society and build a better future.”

In the past decade, the lives of over 700,000 people have been lost, more than 1.4 million injured, 144 million displaced, and over 23 million have been made homeless as a result of a disaster.4 The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that of the approximately 1.8 billion people who have been affected by disaster, nearly half of them are children.5 It should be quite alarming to know that in the coming decades, experts estimate that climate related disasters could impact nearly 200 million children per year.6 Therefore, as we continue to make progress on plans for reducing disaster risk, it is imperative that we identify the challenges that young people face around the globe.

Children and youth are certainly among the most vulnerable to disasters given their lack of authority, age, physical limitations, and dependency on adults. Yet, they also have a tremendous capacity to create change and increase resilience in their communities. In recent years, there have been more and louder calls for the inclusion of young people in disaster risk reduction policy negotiations; this goal was reached at the Children & Youth Forum at the 2015 UN-WCDRR. In fact, the new Sendai Framework has formally established that “Children and youth are agents of change and should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction.”7

So how does this translate to practice locally? Here at Colorado State University (CSU), our research team at the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA) has partnered with academics and practitioners to explore the needs of children and youth in disasters. We have established numerous research projects and interventions explicitly designed to create spaces for youth engagement and capacity building.8

One of these projects is Youth Creating Disaster Recovery and Resilience (YCDR2). Over the past three years, I have acted as the Research Coordinator for the project. Professor Lori Peek and our team at CSU have joined Professor Robin Cox and her team at Royal Roads University to lead creative workshops with youth in disaster affected communities across Canada and the United States. The goals of YCDR2 are to:

  1. learn from youth about their disaster experiences;
  2. build upon existing theories of disaster recovery and resilience to include the needs and contributions of youth;
  3. to provide opportunities for youth to contribute their own ideas and experiences through peer-to-peer networking, creative workshops, and an online repository for creative story telling; and
  4. to encourage youth-led community engagement.

It is our hope that academics, practitioners, and youth will build on this project and that policy makers will use the information gleaned to develop disaster risk reduction plans that are for youth, with youth, and about youth.

So, as I contemplate the outcomes of the 2015 UN-WCDRR, I am reminded how important it is to understand the inequitable differences in ways that human populations prepare for, endure, and recover from extreme events around the globe. When we think about increasing sustainability, adaptation to climate change, and disaster risk reduction, are we doing enough to acknowledge that it is those with the smallest footprints who suffer the most? When we talk about sustainability, are we asking “sustainability for whom?” Are we overlooking the root problems of poverty and global inequality that disproportionately place children and youth in harms way? UNICEF, Plan International, and Save the Children have long been focusing on the needs of children around the globe, but isn’t time for the rest of us to follow suit? Because, as the old saying goes–We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, but borrowed it from our children.9

 

 

[1] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[2] Kelman, Ilan, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer. 2015. “Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. DOI 10.1007/s13753-015-0038-5

[3] Kelman, Ilan, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer. 2015. “Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. DOI 10.1007/s13753-015-0038-5, Pg 1.

[4] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[5] UNICEF. 2015.

[6] http://blogs.unicef.org/2015/03/10/disaster-risk-reduction-whats-at-stak...

[7] Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Pg. 20. Available at: http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reductio...

[8] For more information about CDRA’s ongoing work with youth, please visit: http://disaster.colostate.edu/projects.aspx

[9] Unknown Author

 

Crop-based biofuels as a sustainable energy solution: The importance of life cycle assessment

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 1:23pm

Written by Nell Campbell, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

News flash: at a global scale we still are not doing a very good job reining in greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the increasingly well-established linkage between rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and climate changes that can be harmful to human societies and the environment. This is also despite expanding policy to mitigate climate change through greenhouse gas reductions. The most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working report released this past year underscores the lack of success reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with its greater emphasis on risk, vulnerability, and adaptation to impending climate change than previous reports.

Energy use is one of the ugly monsters at the base of this challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Non-renewable fuel use for energy—e.g. fossil fuels—has been long understood as a main contributor of the greenhouse gas CO2 to the atmosphere. However non-renewable energy use is so vital to economic growth and modern human societies that any changes in its use must confront an overwhelming array of other issues and topics: culture, policy, resource availability, societal development, environmental impacts, ethics—the list can go on.  Can energy use change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without stifling economic growth? This is a key question driving exploration and development of alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

I could hardly hope to tackle such a question in a single blog post! Instead I would like to take a ‘systems thinking’ tour through the small piece of this domain where I spend most of my time: biofuels. Specifically, biofuels created from agricultural crops, and their sustainability in terms of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions released to the atmosphere when fuel is burned for energy.

I am an ecologist. My research sits somewhere between ecosystem ecology, which studies living organisms in the context of their non-living environment, and biogeochemistry, which—as suggested by breaking down the word—is focused on how biology, geology, and chemistry interact to determine global cycles of material such as carbon, nitrogen, and water. I am also a ‘modeler’, which means my efforts to understand how plants and soils—specifically in areas where bioenergy crops are grown—interact with the global carbon cycle are based almost entirely on running computer simulations. Think- experimenting on virtual ecosystems.

Given my background, it is perhaps not surprising that I see ‘sustainability’ as a concept that demands systems thinking. This comes from its basis on some tough questions. What does it mean to sustain? What is the purpose of sustainability as a goal? At the very least these questions are only given meaning when they are also given dimensions: sustaining what? where? how much? how long? for whom? 

To go just a bit further into systems thinking (bear with me), as an ecosystem ecologist and a modeler I further think that a logical goal of sustainability is to be an ‘emergent property’ of how human and natural systems interact. An emergent property is just a fancy way of saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, or that the system is doing something that cannot be predicted from looking at its individual pieces. For example, pumping blood is an emergent property of a heart that cannot be recreated by its individual cells, but only happens when cells are coordinated into a functioning whole. Emergent properties are important to people working with complex systems—from the engineer to the ecosystem ecologist to the social scientist—as they can come as a surprise and cause problems if they are either unaccounted or not noticed. A person might think a forest is healthy if they happen to be looking at the one tree unaffected by disease!

From this perspective, the question of whether or not an item or action is sustainable can only be answered by understanding what is happening with the system as a whole. More specifically on the topic of this post, the question of whether energy use can be sustainable in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions requires understanding the greenhouse gas emission impacts of fuel production systems in its entirety.

Agriculture is an area where systems thinking is natural. Agricultural producers have to consider all components of a productive system (e.g. climate, soils, crop nutrient and water demands) to sustain yields and soil fertility through time. What gets trickier is accounting for less direct drivers of agricultural production—the effect of policy incentives, for example, or the economic impact of changes in global demand for a crop due to widespread crop failure elsewhere. Also of concern is the sustainability of other ecosystem features, such as biodiversity, soil carbon storage, runoff water quality, etc. For crop-based biofuels these types of considerations are made even more important by the fact that agricultural lands also provide food and fiber for growing global populations. Productive lands are themselves a limited natural resource. In this context, can crop-based biofuels be a sustainable, renewable energy source that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use? As an added challenge, the answer might differ if you are asking society as a whole, versus an individual farmer looking to remain profitable.

A.B.

Figure 1. The theoretical basis of biofuels as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Plants extract carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, fixing that carbon into plant biomass that can then be used for energy (B). Ideally this results in less carbon emitted to the atmosphere than through the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (A), a carbon source that otherwise would have remained stored for geologically long periods of time. Adapted from a video submission to the 2012 IGERT video and poster competition.

In theory, at least, the answer to this question is ‘yes’ (Figure 1). There is widespread experimentation with crop types, varieties, and production methods supported by collaborations between academics, industry, and government agencies. Researchers are, for example, targeting biofuel crops on ‘marginal lands’ that aren’t as valuable for food production, and producers are learning how to grow new crops like switchgrass and Miscanthus—both highly productive grasses—aiming to grow these crops at large enough scales to support viable bioenergy industry. The question that still remains is whether the theory can be realized in practice when these crops are grown at industrial scales. Unfortunately, at the moment there the answer is much weaker (‘maybe’, and ‘it depends’, see the video linked above).

Given the push for solutions to the unsustainable use of non-renewable fuels, the need for greater certainty in these answers is strong and immediate from both governments and industry. Therefore my final piece of the ‘systems thinking’ tour to crop-based bioenergy is to introduce the one set of research methods specifically geared in this direction: life cycle assessment.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) methods are devoted to putting numbers to entire production systems. When I say ‘production system’, I mean everything involved in creating, transporting, and using a product like the fuel that runs a vehicle. LCAs are sometimes more figuratively referred to as an analysis from ‘cradle-to-grave’ (general), from ‘well-to-wheel’ (oil-based fuels), or from ‘field-to-wheel’ (crop-based biofuels). Figure 1 is a good visualization of the bread and butter of fuel LCAs, showing a simplified version of the supply chain that connects raw material (crude oil in A, crop harvest in B) to the final product (the same in both cases: vehicle fuel). LCA methods can put a single number on a gallon of fuel from different sources—say, oil, sunflower seed, and sugarcane—that expresses all greenhouse gas emissions released during the entire process of creating that gallon. Of course LCAs are always open to critique—many assumptions have to be made to put a number on something so complex, depending on data availability, and current understanding of direct and indirect impacts of the production system. This is the basis of standardization in LCA frameworks and approaches. However LCA results are powerful in their simplicity, particularly for evaluating, comparing, and especially communicating the full system impacts of different products and processes. In the case of biofuels, LCAs are a key component of evaluating the sustainability of different production practices, ultimately helping identify ones with the greatest potential to serve as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

It is unclear, as yet, whether crop-based bioenergy can lead to large-scale reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use. However there is clearly potential for crop-based bioenergy systems to offer part of a sustainable energy solution. Doing so just requires keeping a systems perspective…and having a few good life cycle assessment researchers on the team.

 

"Nature in the City" - a unique partnership to sustain urban open space in the City of Fort Collins

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 10:24am

Written by Liba Pejchar and Sarah Reed, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and principal investigators for Conservation Development Global Challenges Research Team.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Preserving open space in these expanding urban areas is critical for ensuring that both people and wildlife enjoy the benefits of nature. Fort Collins, Colorado is a microcosm of global urbanization trends; the number of city residents is projected to grow from 155,000 today to 240,000 by 2045. Single family homes and informal green spaces are being replaced by multi-family and mixed-use dwellings. As development densities increase, habitats for plants and animals and the ability for all residents to access open space close to where they live and work will be threatened unless citizens take action to ensure these areas are protected and restored. To address this concern and plan for the growing population, the City of Fort Collins launched the Nature in the City initiative in January 2014. The purpose of this initiative is to develop a 100-year vision to provide “a connected open space network accessible to the entire community that provides a variety of experiences and functional habitat for people, plants and wildlife.

To support this vision, our SoGES Global Challenges Research Team on Conservation Development has formed a unique collaboration with Fort Collins to conduct the first citywide assessment of biodiversity across public and private open space. We selected birds and butterflies as focal groups for this assessment because they are groups of species with which citizens interact on a daily basis, they provide important services (e.g., pollination), and they are likely to be responsive to interventions by the City and citizen groups to enhance their habitats. We identified 166 points throughout the City, stratified among diverse land uses ranging from formal City Parks and Natural Areas to informal neighborhood open spaces, urban farms, and community gardens. Two trained field technicians completed the baseline surveys from May to August 2014, documenting a remarkable 88 species of birds and 33 species of butterflies.

We found that land use had the greatest influence on birds and butterflies. The greatest diversity of bird species and the highest proportion of urban-avoiders (birds that are sensitive to human disturbance) were observed in public and private lands managed specifically for their conservation values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas), whereas the greatest numbers of butterfly species and proportions of native species were detected in City parks and urban farms. Some bird guilds (e.g., grassland specialists, ground nesters, urban avoiders) were also observed more frequently in larger patches of open space. From these findings, we selected a group of 10 birds and butterflies as indicator species. For the purposes of this project, we define an indicator species as a species that is relatively common in Fort Collins and whose presence or relative abundance is correlated with the richness or composition of the overall community; in other words, sites where indicator species are abundant are also sites that support a diversity of sensitive birds or native butterflies.

The results of this biodiversity survey, together with social and economic studies led by the City, are being used to guide implementation of a Strategic Plan, which includes policies and actions to ensure that high-quality natural spaces are preserved in our rapidly growing urban environment. One example of a policy outcome is to analyze the connectivity of open space in Fort Collins from a wildlife perspective, identifying core habitat areas, existing linkages, and places where connectivity could be protected or restored. City Council will consider adoption of the Nature in the City Strategic Plan at their March 17th meeting.

A second example of a policy outcome is the development of science-based design guidelines. These guidelines, which will serve as a reference for developers, private land owners and the city for decades to come, will include design options as varied as green roofs and living walls, community gardens, backyard habitat, courtyards and wetlands. Lindsay Ex, Senior Environmental Planner for the City of Fort Collins and Liba Pejchar, CSU assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology are co-leading a graduate seminar to evaluate these options using a triple bottom line approach – how do these options score according to ecological, social and economic values? – and how could we improve each design option to achieve greater sustainability? Eleven graduate students from diverse departments are enrolled in the course and are leading lively discussions, using the best available science, to answer these questions. The City and CSU’s institute for the Built Environment will use the students’ findings to craft the final handbook.

Our GCRT is thrilled to announce the next phase of our partnership with the City of Fort Collins and its residents. In summer 2015, we will launch a new citizen-science monitoring project that will broaden the representation of residents involved in Nature in the City and will assess the effects of alternative development patterns on wildlife over time. First, we will engage local scientific experts to conduct training sessions on birds and butterflies for citizen volunteers. Second, we will implement volunteer surveys at a subset of points surveyed in 2014. Finally, we will solicit proposals and offer small grants to citizen groups interested in enhancing bird and butterfly habitats in their neighborhoods or nearby public spaces. Together with our partners at the City and Wildlife Conservation Society, we seek to increase citizen engagement in Nature in the City and inspire collaborative stewardship to preserve and enhance natural areas. If you are interested in participating in this effort or would like more information, please contact our Research Coordinator, Cooper Farr (cooper.farr@rams.colostate.edu), for more information.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Western Meadowlark.

Image captions in order of appearance: Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 2. As our community transitions from a suburban to urban city and densities of housing and businesses increase, the goal of the Nature in the City initiative is to ensure that all residents have access to high-quality natural spaces close to where they live and work.

Figure 3. Distribution of natural open space within Fort Collins’ Growth Management Area (GMA) and monitoring survey locations (n=166) for the baseline ecological assessment of the Nature in the City initiative. The locations were stratified by land use, site area, and habitat type. Nine land uses were represented in the assessment, including City Parks, Natural Areas, Certified Natural Areas, residential open space, institutional open space, urban agriculture and community gardens, schools, trails, and ditches. Birds and butterflies were surveyed between May-August 2014, and vegetation cover and human activity were also recorded.

Figure 4. Land use had the greatest influence on the diversity and composition of bird and butterfly communities in Fort Collins.

Figure 5. Sensitive bird species were observed most often on public and private lands managed specifically for their natural resource values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas).

Keystone XL: Why the American debate over a Canadian pipeline hurts so good

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 4:07pm

Written by Megan Ruxton SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science.

Canada is getting awfully fed up with the U.S, and if the most polite people in the world are starting to get steamed, you know something big is going on.

The issue causing indigestion for our maple-endowed neighbors to the north is the glacier-like pace of any sort of resolution regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project of the Canadian energy company TransCanada, which would connect the oil sands of Alberta to refineries in the United States through a 1,179 mile pipeline. This pipeline would move an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil per day to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would then be routed through several other existing pipelines, carrying the Canadian crude to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast region.

Because the project would cross the Canada-U.S. border, TransCanada was required to apply for a Presidential Permit, which they initially did in 2008. As part of the permit process, the president delegates his or her authority to the Department of State, which is then responsible for making a decision based on a number of factors. One of the most pertinent of these is the need for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Protection Act in order to – as the name suggests – assess what, if any, impact a proposed project will have on the environment. In addition to this, the Department of State must also establish whether the project is part of the “national interest” – a term giving the connotation that the national interest is a well-known monolithic concept, rather than a vague and undefined term that can take into account everything from economic concerns to relationships between the U.S. and foreign nations to larger issues such as climate change.

Such divergent considerations set the scene for a political debate that is as American as Paleo-friendly apple pie. Unlike the more closed nature of environmental policymaking in Canada, the permeability of the American political system not only allows groups and individuals to express their views on an environmental policy, but as part of the EIS process, the agency in charge is required by law to respond to each and every comment that comes in. In this case, pipeline proponents argue for the inflow of more than just Canadian crude – also thousands of jobs and around $3.4 billion to bolster our sluggish economy; the pipeline also offers energy security by strengthening our energy relationship with Canada, our primary source of imported oil. Opponents of the pipeline question the legitimacy of yet another project that nurtures our dependence on fossil fuels, exacerbates the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in particular they question the rosy facts and figures coming from proponents regarding the purported boost to the national GDP, and the number of jobs created. President Obama has said he will only approve the pipeline if it does not “significantly exacerbate” climate change. The delays coming from the increasingly heated debate, now seven years running since the first permit request, have prompted the newly Republican-led Congress to pass bills in both the House and the Senate approving the pipeline, an attempt to bypass the Obama administration’s perceived attempts to stall the Presidential Permit process, bills which Obama has already said he will veto. What we have is a stand-off that could be considered monumental – if it wasn’t already a frequent occurrence in Washington.

The often unspoken irony of the current debate is the existence of the Alberta Clipper pipeline. Construction of the Alberta Clipper began in 2008 and became active in 2010, running from the oil sands of Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, transporting approximately 450,000 barrels per day. Being an international pipeline, the Alberta Clipper received the required Presidential Permit without ever being debated in Congress, and receiving barely any attention by the U.S. public. Several other pipelines crisscross the country (what Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has referred to as a “Mario Brother level of pipey-ness”), a mode of transportation oil companies find efficient and prefer over the increasingly expensive, dangerous and sometimes deadly method of truck and rail transportation.

The question then follows: Why has the Keystone XL become such a political kerfuffle? Following the entrance of environmentalists into the fray circa 2011, the Keystone XL pipeline became more than a question of governmental action, regardless of whether that action was considered an economic boon or an environmental hazard. It became a symbol of a much larger issue, a proxy debate over questions of oil sand extraction, climate change, and the impact of human activity on the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This technological issue, supported on both sides by scientific information, has become a political debate larger than the issue itself. The rhetoric on both sides continues to take hyperbole to its extreme, with the political Right claiming that if the US does not build Keystone XL, the terrorists win, and the political Left claiming that by building the pipeline, we will be contaminating our children.

Do these arguments seem a bit extreme for a pipeline less than 1,200 miles long connecting oil extraction sites to a system of other pipelines already moving Canadian crude across the country? Absolutely. Do they address the legitimate concerns held on both sides regarding the analysis and interpretation of the impacts this pipeline will have on the areas it goes through, as well as the United States as a whole? Not even close. Have environmentalists turned this into a battle against fossil fuels, even going so far as to join with the strangest of bedfellows, conservative ranchers in Nebraska? You’re darn tootin’. This is the political system in America, one that proves frustrating enough to fluster even the most patient Canuck, particularly those whose financial interests are at stake. A spokesman from TransCanada expressed his frustrations, saying, “The need for Keystone XL hasn’t changed. Our customers continue to remain behind it. We need a decision and we need the politics behind it to stop.” However, this is the form environmental and sustainability issues often take in the United States, thanks to the system that has been created, where individuals and groups can protest, litigate, and weigh in on the governmental actions that impact the environment. In his segment on the Keystone XL pipeline, Jon Stewart summed it up well: “This is what victory sometimes looks like in a democratic system.” A final decision on Keystone XL could be a long time coming, but such is its fate in an open, democratic process for environmental policymaking in the United States. Sometimes no progress means victory, not just for environmentalists, but for American democracy as well.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline (Source: TransCanada, at http://keystone-xl.com/keystone-xl-pipeline-overall-route-map/)

Figure 2. Canadian and U.S. Oil Pipelines (Source: Keystone XL Assessment)

Figure 3. Artistic rendering of a contaminated child.

Veering from the Recipe: Exploring the many flavors of Colorado’s place-based conservation initiatives

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 4:34pm

Written by Ch'aska Huayhuaca SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and the Center for Collaborative Conservation

In an interview last year, Carol Ekarius, director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, pointed out “most of our ecological problems, at this point in history, need collaboration to be solved.” Since the 1980s, we’ve been experiencing an era of increased collaboration and participation from new and diverse players. This collaborative ascension signaled growing discontent with the solutions and outcomes generated by both expensive lawsuits and remote bureaucracies. More recently, collaboration has become a strategic way to leverage scarce funds and resources, given a rapidly shifting political landscape and subsequent budget problems at the federal level.

In Colorado alone, we’ve documented almost 150 environmental collaboratives so far, and that’s a conservative estimate when considering that many have emerged and receded over the years.  These are not advocacy or activist groups, but coalitions of “strange bedfellows,” people who may have major ideological differences and who are representing diverse perspectives, acting collectively because it is in their common interest to do so.  They involve different combinations of citizens, government officials, resource managers, private sector interests, and non-profits. They’re tackling different kinds of resource issues, like forest and river health, wildlife migration and declining habitat, weeds and invasive species, water quality and quantity, cultural and natural heritage, and large landscape conservation.

They’re particularly interesting now because they buck national trends indicating a widening polarization of political ideologies on environmental issues. They appear as localized patches of purple on a landscape of starkly contrasting reds and blues when viewed at a larger political scale.

In digging around the literature on collaboration, there’s no shortage of prescriptive information out there on what works, lessons learned, and how to build successful collaboration. These often start out with the caveat: “…there are no recipes for collaboration,” or “what works in one place may not work in another,” but then they usually launch into a recipe for collaboration.  

If we acknowledged that there’s no boiler plate prescription for collaboration, then why aren’t we giving more attention to the diversity of collaborative initiatives out there? For example, what gives rise to the differences and idiosyncrasies between collaborative initiatives? More importantly, what are the implications of these differences for their outcomes?  My interest in this was piqued while conducting an inventory of groups in Colorado for the Center for Collaborative Conservation. Several questions about diversity leapt off the spreadsheet as I catalogued these groups. How do different resource issues drive different types of collaborative arrangements?  How does the way that a group structures and organizes itself affect its outcomes? And how does geography affect the assets that a collaborative has to work with?

For example, I noticed early on that there are relatively few examples of consensus-based collaboration coming from the oil and gas sector; however, there’s no shortage of community coalitions that have emerged responding to its impacts (for a discussion of these groups and the kind of work they do, see Boone, 2014). But there are only a handful of groups consisting of diverse interests trying to negotiate solutions and bridge divides. Meanwhile, there are upwards of 70 watershed groups and counting. Why do some resource issues invite more collective action than others?

Figure 1. A back-of-the-napkin assessment of how different natural
resource sectors are represneted by Colorado's collaborative initiatives.
Stay tuned for a more 'front-of-the-napkin' assessment!

Equally intriguing, when comparing Colorado’s collaboratives, is the wide range of organizational structures and arrangements across different kinds of collaboratives. Formality and rules figure highly as distinguishing characteristics—some groups can maintain themselves effectively for years as loose networks with no formal bylaws, thriving on trust and handshakes; others start off with enough rules to make your head spin. Of course, there’s no single right way to do it, it’s all about context. In talking to different groups, I’ve heard that some groups feel they couldn’t function without the consistency and structure that come with a sturdy set of bylaws; others argue that their ad hoc status keeps them together, that they would lose participants if they formalized.

Accomplishing conservation goals across physical, jurisdictional, and cultural boundaries is no small feat, and place-based, collaborative conservation efforts have been lauded as a more inclusive and adaptive way to meet trans-boundary challenges. Research has revealed key elements that make it work: trust and social capital, authority and legitimacy, engagement and empowerment, and so forth. But the resources that foster these elements are not evenly distributed across the landscape, which presents an interesting puzzle for place-based collaboratives. How do you leverage the unique assets you have within your borders to negotiate competing and sometimes conflicting demands on land, water, and wildlife?

Over the next several months I’ll be attempting to answer some of these questions as I tease out the nuances of Colorado’s collaborative initiatives, collecting local ‘recipes’ and lessons learned for making collaboration work in different places. The goal of the project is not to create a more inclusive recipe, or even a cookbook, but to shed more light on why ‘what works in one place may not work in another.’

Learn more about the Atlas of Collaborative Conservation project on our website: http://www.collaborativeconservation.org/atlas-collaborative-conservatio...

Boone, K. (2014). Where are we now: Socio-ecological risks and community responses to oil and gas development in Colorado (p. 44). Colorado Water Institute, Fort Collins, CO.

Sabatier, P. A., Focht, W., Lubell, M., Trachtenberg, Z., Vedlitz, A., & Matlock, M. (2005). Swimming upstream: Collaborative approaches to watershed management (p. 327). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

1 The history of resource management is the U.S. reflects big changes in how Americans perceive the relationship between people and nature. We have moved through several resource management eras, including the Era of Manifest Destiny (growth without much planning); the Progressive Era (the emergence of protected areas and ascension of bureaucratic authority over resource decisions); the New Deal Era (think big engineering projects and the emerging concept of multiple use); and the Environmental Era (a mix of rising environmental values, distrust of federal bureaucracies, and a whole lotta lawsuits). 

 

The Hunt for the Mysterious Carbon Sink

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 4:37pm

Written by Hannakaisa Lindqvist SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science

Good news: the Earth is becoming greener! This fact still strikes me and requires digesting every time. Globally, plants are growing more than they are dying. This is called the ‘carbon sink’ over land, because the growing plants are taking up increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it through photosynthesis. This leads to more biomass, i.e., plant material, on Earth. The truly intriguing thing is that we are still lacking a scientific consensus about the location and nature of this global carbon sink, and therefore cannot predict its behavior in the future: will the plants keep growing at this increasing rate, or not?

How do we even know that the mysterious sink exists? Forests are certainly not popping up in our backyards! The answer lies in carbon cycle math. Anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide are well-known carbon sources to the atmosphere: burning of fossil fuel and cement production led to 9.9±0.5 PgC (petagrams of carbon = 1015 g) emissions in 2013, and the emissions due to deforestation and other land use change were 0.9±0.5 PgC. Luckily for us, not all of this carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere. In 2013, oceans absorbed 27% of the emissions while 50% stayed in the atmosphere. Simple math leaves us with a residual sink of 23% – this is the work of the land sink, and means that on a global basis plants used this extra 2.5±0.9 PgC in photosynthesis for growing! However, the sources and sinks vary from year to year. Fig. 1 demonstrates how the land sink is paired with atmospheric increase of CO2: in some years, the plants absorb close to nothing, while in other years, plant uptake surpasses what is left in the atmosphere.

Figure 1. Temporal evolution of CO2 emissions and sinks. The land sink (green) is a residual of the sum of all sources minus the sum of the atmosphere and ocean sinks.

But where are we seeing this explosion in vegetation? This has been the hot potato, a true gold rush (or, more accurately, grant rush) of carbon cycle research for over a decade. The problem is not that the existence of the sink has eluded researchers but that the sink has been ‘discovered’ and relocated multiple times. For example, the sink has been located in North America, the Amazon, and in Europe. For a long time, the discussion was bouncing between two alternative major carbon sinks – boreal forests at high latitudes or rainforests in the tropics – until surprisingly, semi-arid regions in the Southern hemisphere were recently suggested as another potential carbon sink.

Perhaps a more important question than pinpointing the exact location of the sink is understanding the mechanism: why is there a net increase in plant biomass? At the moment, the plants are doing something we can’t: they suck in the carbon dioxide that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere and speed up the current rates of global warming with a contribution that might turn out unbearable. Wherever the sink is, we want to keep it! Moreover, we want to know if the sink is going to change in a changing climate, and how. For example, a sink in the tropics would likely be fueled by CO2 fertilization from the atmosphere, while a sink in the northern latitudes would likely be caused by forest regrowth or a northern expansion of the boreal forests. The significant difference is that some sinks are likely to become saturated while others won’t.

The challenge in locating the sink originates from the properties of the carbon dioxide gas itself. As this mesmerizing simulation shows, it is so well mixed and long-lived that local differences in its concentration are small, and do not necessarily tell anything about a local source or a sink because the gas may have been transported elsewhere. The search for sources and sinks is therefore a beautiful duet of carbon cycle models and measurements, where the model uses the measurements, prior assumptions, and atmospheric winds to backtrack the sources and sinks. The network of measurements has previously been too sparse for this pairing to work well enough but it is now expected to be revolutionized by the global CO2 measurements made by NASA satellite OCO-2, launched in July 2014. The mystery is about to be unveiled – it is only a matter of time.

Additional reading:

I have found the Global Carbon Budget extremely useful for up-to-date information on the different aspects of carbon cycle and a very good collection of data sources (figures, PowerPoints, videos, etc.): http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/

More about the OCO-2 satellite mission: https://oco.jpl.nasa.gov/

Art and Environment: An Innovative Field Course for Artists

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:37am

Written by Erika Osborne, SoGES 2014-2015 Resident Fellow and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History

Artists are creators of culture. They are sponges of the world around them, regurgitating what they see and experience into forms that act as communication tools for the larger public. For professional artists, contemporary issues like climate change, land use and ecology are prominent playing fields for creation. The work produced by these artists is getting recognized in and outside of the field. It can be found on the covers of leading art magazines such as Art Forum and Art in America, and simultaneously in publications such as National Geographic and Sierra Magazine. Collectives have formed and the line between disciplines has dissolved to generate projects and endeavors that are hybrids of artistic practice, design, science and activism. The field is rich.

So, how does this filter into art education at the university level? It often doesn’t. The model of discipline-specific studio courses, coupled with the notion that the individual student is the sole originator of ideas, still rules the field. Only in the past 15 years have select art educators in a few institutions around the world began to teach environmentally minded studio courses that break this model. With a mind to more fully align my life practice with my teaching practice, I became one of those educators nearly 10 years ago. Through positions I held before accepting a job at Colorado State University in 2013, I taught courses with titles like Land Arts of the American West, Wilderness Studio, Place: Appalachia and Art and Environment. Some of these courses fell snugly into the traditional three credit hour, semester-long studio course and others required anywhere from 3 – 12 weeks working out in the field on a 24/7 basis.

This fall was my first attempt at running such a course at Colorado State University. With support from my department, I set forth planning an interdisciplinary, upper-division undergraduate and graduate level course designed to increase awareness for the interactivity of studio artists and the environment. The course was intended to be part studio and part seminar with the student objectives being: to better understand the field of environmental art and the practitioners working within that field, to develop constructive and aesthetic methods of interacting with the environment in their studio practice, to apply information gleaned from guest experts in various fields to their own work and methodology, to expand their formal vocabulary by engaging interdisciplinary practices while working side by side with peers from differing artistic backgrounds and levels of experience, and of course, to begin to engage the world as a stage for art making. 

Once the course went online, it was clear that it was highly desired. Very soon after registration began, there was an enrollment of 21 students (with a wait list of five) for what I titled, Art and Environment. These numbers are considered exceptionally high for any upper-level art course, not to mention an experimental course running for the first time. I had expected ten at most. Students from all areas of the art department enrolled – with participants from graphic design, sculpture, metals, ceramics, printmaking, painting and drawing.

The three course topics – Earth and Sky: The Micro and the Macro, Contemporary Environmental Issues: People and Place, and Sustainability: A Holistic Approach to Art Making provided the context for participants to gain knowledge from experts in various fields and apply that to their art making practices. Over the course of the semester, students participated in six field trips led by experts from other fields. We stargazed with Astronomer, Dr. Roger Culver and studied soils with SoGES director and soil scientist, Dr. Diana Wall . We explored the intersection of art and activism with the Fractivist, Shane Davis, and we studied fire and climate change in the High Park area with Dr. Monique Rocca. For the sustainability section of the course, we took a full-day field trip to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colorado to tour the most mature food forest in the United States with its founder and director Jerome Osentowski. Afterwards we visited the new Basalt Food Garden – a local park turned into a public permaculture site – with Stephanie Syson. Our time in Basalt was compared and contrasted with a tour, led by Patricia Conine, of the very different food-system preservation model found at the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation. In addition to the hands-on experience these field trips provided, students in the course read and discussed a comprehensive list of texts and gained exposure to artists working within the genre through a series of artist presentations - all of this giving them a broad range of knowledge to create work for the studio portion of the course.

The students consumed all that they encountered. For some, it sparked ways of working that questioned their use of materials. For example, a graduate student in metalworking started to question the mining practices associated with the metals he had been using. This led to deep research and product outcomes that began to address a more sustainable working practice, and one that examined its own use of raw material. For others, the course provided rich conceptual ground for the future development of their work. Undergraduate students in graphic design took issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing to heart and created a billboard design, stickers and various posters to express their concerns about the extraction method. This led to exploring the idea further through projects outside of Art and Environment.     

For all the students, the course deeply effected they way that they viewed their place in the world as artists. After expressing on many occasions that Art and Environment was “the best class we have ever taken”, or that “there needs to be more classes like this”, students would often describe how the ideas presented in the class had given them hope that art did in fact have a place in the larger environmental dialog. They began to see how their art making could work in tandem with science and policy to produce and promote solutions to problems affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. It gave them hope that art, indeed, has the potential to create lasting change.

Photo captions:

Photo #1: Graduate Student, Ben Isaiah creates a fanny pack for guerilla style mining reclaimation.

Photo #2: Tour of Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.

Photo #3: Tour of the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation.

Photo #4: Undergraduate Audrey Ancell explores the complexities of the intersection between nature and technology.

 

The Role of Compassion and Empathy in Science and Communication

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:36pm

Written by Grace Lloyd Miner SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

At a recent science communication training workshop, I noted in an informal discussion with colleagues my frustration with the frequently ‘political’ nature of my scientific discipline – agricultural science. I described how I could not go to a dinner party without being bombarded with questions (accusations?) regarding my opinions on topics such as conventional vs organic agriculture or genetically modified crops (GMOs). “Seemingly everyone is an expert on food and agriculture,” I complained. “There is no acknowledgement of any sort of specialized knowledge– if they disagree with you, they posit to have equal authority and understanding of the issues. It would be rare for someone to portend to be an expert in medical science if they had never studied medicine. Yet, everyone is an expert when it comes to plant breeding and crop production.”  Oftentimes, I admitted to them, my discussions with non-scientists are unproductive and strained. At best, they are carefully measured and civil. Only rarely is there significant and meaningful exchange.

I was startled by how strongly my colleagues resonated with my experience, and surprised to hear that this was a familiar situation for them as well. Of the three scientists present, all of them worked in fields where public sentiments and opinions run high (and are often polarized). One is an atmospheric scientist, working on topics related to climate change. Another works on questions surrounding fracking, while the third individual studies water and water policy. All of these friends shared my sentiments – science communication is not always as simple as excluding jargon and having a strong ‘elevator speech’ and it is clearly not always exclusively about our research or the data.  Our research disciplines cross into social, economic, and political realms that ‘animate’ individuals (and rightly so).

This conversation sparked a personal reflection on my methods of science communication, particularly, on how frequently I lack empathy and compassion towards viewpoints that are not my own. Cognitive empathy helps immensely in communication, as it seeks to understand how another individual thinks about particular issues.  Compassion, a synonym of empathy, is often equated with ‘pity.’ However, I am inspired by Krista Tippet’s recent call for a “linguistic resurrection” of this word [5]. In her linguistic exegesis of the word, she ascribes to it a multi-dimensional nature that includes kindness, curiosity without assumptions, empathy, generosity, and hospitality. She describes how our societal encounter with diversity in the 1960s resulted in the adoption of ‘tolerance’ as a core civic virtue. Tolerance connotes “allowing,” “indulging” and “enduring.” Tolerance has been my typical stance towards some of the opinions expressed in dinner party conversations. Tippet dubs compassion a ‘worthy successor’ of tolerance. Compassion, Tippet posits, is “so important when we are communicating big ideas,” to root our ideas in “space and time and flesh and blood – the color and complexity of life.”

In the past few months, I have attempted to incorporate empathy and compassion into my discussions, specifically those related to agricultural production, policy, and the research that I do. Instead of immediately referring individuals with contrasting opinions to read peer-reviewed literature like Peggy Lemaux’s “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues” (albeit a well-written and thorough paper), I have allowed myself to mull on the color and complexity of agriculture. What other issues, beyond the inherent safety of food, concern for personal health, and/or ecological sustainability, might be lingering behind the concerns frequently vocalized towards agricultural research and production?

Here are a few of the insights I have gained. Clearly, food is central in our lives. Agricultural systems are, in a poetic and literal sense, a reflection of how we choose to organize our society. Debates surrounding topics such as the method and scale of production systems and GMOs often have a more subtle and deep root - perhaps they are debates about to whom we choose to allot control of production, knowledge, and power. Biotechnology in agriculture has an impact on how we live. Biotechnology and economic patents bring questions of membership, power, freedom, and justice to the forefront of the conversation. Technology actively shapes the ecological, biological, and social landscape - the role of biotechnology in shaping our food system is substantial, and it should be a conversation that all individuals can be involved in.

Incorporating empathy into previously frustrating dinner party conversations has proved highly effective not only in improving communication, but also in identifying potential research questions and citizen concerns. For example, a recent conversation with one individual revealed that their concerns were rooted in a sense of ‘separation’ from knowledge of how their food is produced and processed. They felt that the production processes are obscured, and that this obscuration prevented them from acting responsibly in their food purchasing choices. This is useful information that I would not have gleaned if I merely inundated the individual with facts and data.

Yes, I believe agronomists and plant geneticists should contribute heavily to the discussion over the scales and technologies used to produce our food. I will continue to communicate the science I do, and my best understanding of key issues. For example, while I ardently support organic and local agriculture, I do not believe that labeling GMOs makes scientific sense [2, 6] or that there is anything inherently ‘better’ about the local scale, as “local-food systems are equally likely to be just or unjust, sustainable or unsustainable, secure or insecure... the outcomes produced by a food system are contextual…” [1].

However, I do not think scientists can ultimately be the only ones to make the decisions regarding our food production systems, because making one decision involves choosing against other values. For example, even as consensus rises in the scientific debate surrounding the environmental safety of GMOs, [2 - 4] the arguments surrounding the social and cultural sustainability of industrial production systems are a growing part of the current ideological conflict. I must let my research inform the discussion, but I must also listen attentively to discern other issues and concerns that my research cannot inform.

Effective science communication and dialogue often involve more than the ability to verbalize ideas succinctly and simply. An extension of empathy and compassion towards issues and sentiments that our research may or may not inform can greatly enhance the productivity of our science communication and reveal surprising research questions still needing to be pursued.  

References:

[1] Born, Branden, and Mark Purcell. "Avoiding the local trap scale and food systems in planning research." Journal of Planning Education and Research 26.2 (2006): 195-207.

[2] Byrne, P. D. Pendell, and G. Graff (2014). “Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” Colorado State University Extension Fact Sheet no 9.371. Retrieved from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09371.html

[3] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part I)." Plant Biology 59.1 (2008): 771.

[4] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part II)." Plant Biology 60.1 (2009): 511.

[5] Tippet, Krista. (2010, November). Krista Tippet: Reconnecting with Compassion [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/krista_tippett_reconnecting_with_compassion?language=en

[6] Specter, Michael. (2014, August). The Problem with G.M.O. Labels. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/problem-g-m-o-labels

Environmental History, Ecology, and Sustainability in Public Lands

Tue, 01/20/2015 - 9:59am

Written by Jill Baron Professor from Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Ruth Alexander Professor from the Department of History, and Will Wright Graduate student from the Department of History.

How can we learn from the past to improve current and future resource management decisions related to public lands? That is the topic of our Global Challenges Research Team, “Environmental History, Ecology, and Sustainability in Public Lands.” We deliberately stress “how” more than “what” because learning, whether through historical or scientific methods, is very much a process. “What” has happened is important, of course, but factual evidence about humans and nature in the historical past is not transparent in meaning or relevance. Nor are the methods of environmental historians and scientists self-evident. Rather, our group has found that creating synergies between environmental history and ecology requires that we carefully explain “how our different disciplines think and what they have the capacity to do.” Similarly, we have found it necessary to evaluate carefully historical and scientific evidence about the past, looking for the lessons it might offer for present and future decision-making. It will not simply tell us what to do.

Our group of environmental historians, resource managers, and scientists meets monthly to discuss readings related to the past, present, and future of natural resource management. We are especially concerned with the western United States, though our group also considers questions of broad geographic scale. “Priming systems”  such as global capitalism and its related technologies have produced powerful and broad patterns  of change in human societies and the natural environment, evident at  the local, regional, national, and international level. Seeking sustainable systems of natural resource stewardship in the Anthropocene thus requires that we consider the western United States in a global context. Often, in choosing readings on a particular topic (for example, public lands restoration), we pair a selection by environmental historians with a paper written by one or more ecologists.   

We have now met four times. While our early discussions were stimulating, they did not appear to advance us notably toward our goal. In hindsight, and with the feeling that we are now hitting our stride, we realize that what felt like chaos was actually learning each other’s vocabularies and, especially, patterns of thinking. What we’ve learned has the potential to frame a more nuanced approach to resource management during these times of rapid global change. We still have a long way to go but offer the following as a summary of our emerging insights.

Professionals often suffer from the arrogance of thinking that their particular discipline offers unique and complex windows onto the “truth,” dismissing other fields of study with simple assumptions. As a scientist, Jill viewed history as a dry set of facts to be suffered through. As an historian, Ruth assumed the natural sciences to be insufficiently curious about human values and practices, past and present.  We have learned that both history and science are vibrant modes of inquiry, each having the capacity to examine both natural and human conditions. Moreover, the methods applied by historians and scientists are very similar. Both involve asking questions, posing hypotheses and piecing together a narrative based on observations, experiments, and meta-analyses that lead to a conclusion that confirms or refutes the initial ideas.  Both history and science produce knowledge and understanding about causation and impact. They illuminate the present and can help us make choices for the future.

And that leads to another revelation: the questions raised by scientists about the natural world, or by historians about the past are very much shaped by culture. Science and history are tools for learning, but the questions that scientists and historians pursue are a product of the time in which they are raised, the issues of the day, and the prevailing thoughts of disciplinary peers. Humans are social animals, after all.  This is not meant to diminish the value of the topics studied, or the knowledge produced, but scientists and historians should be very aware that they cannot escape context and culture as they go about their craft. Culture and disciplinary training might make it difficult, for example, for an historian in the United States in 2015 to frame questions about land or water use among 17th-century Mohegan Indians that adequately acknowledge their material, social, and spiritual frames of reference. Similarly, professional norms may make it difficult for ecologists in the United States in 2015 to ask questions about humans and their interaction with natural resources in public lands that look as closely at why humans act in certain ways as at their harmful impacts.

While culture may constrain our questions it may also provoke dramatically new quests for knowledge. We are living in such a moment.  Global climate change and other effects of the Anthropocene are pushing historians, ecologists, and resource managers to look more closely at the “coupled natural-human systems” that shape both human existence and conditions in our public lands. Certainly, we see this in the practical world of natural resource management, where goals have changed markedly with time. Management goals today are strongly shaped by a scientific understanding of ecological principles; they are also firmly grounded in, and trying to be cognizant of, cultural trends and values. Confronted with unprecedented climate, land use, and technological change we hope our interdisciplinary coalition of historians, scientists, and resource managers can put this broader perspective to further use in protecting the processes, species, and resources of our public lands.

Photo #1: Courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo #2: E. Lucy Braun and George Damon Fuller (others unidentified) on a University of Chicago field trip to Loch Vale watershed in Rocky Mountain National Park 1912. Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago archives.

The Shale Energy Boom and Biodiversity

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 3:14pm

Written by Joseph Northrup SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology

The global shale energy boom has transformed the energy economy in North America, but the impacts to one of our most important resources are only beginning to be understood. Shale energy refers to oil and natural gas resources trapped in small pockets that usually require the use of special methods including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract.  Over the last decade plus, oil and natural gas development from these sources has exploded in North America, solidifying the US and Canada as global energy powers. This shale energy boom has transformed the global energy market with the US expected to become a net exporter of natural gas before 2020. Caption for Figure MT-44: United States shale gas production is projected to continue to increase over the next 3 decades. Source: United States Energy Information Administration (www.eia.gov). This development has been suggested as a solution to a wide variety of social and political issues, with promises of job growth, energy independence and decreased greenhouse gas emissions due to swapping energy from coal with that from natural gas.

While shale energy has been touted as a game-changing energy source, development brings worry over the potential environmental impacts. Concerns about fracking fluids contaminating ground water have inspired countless op-eds, news articles and even films. Perhaps more concerning, the air quality issues related to methane emissions from wells are starting to make national headlines. The impacts of shale energy are not solely environmental in nature, with the consequences of the boom and bust cycle of oil and gas development on local communities being heard from the oil sands in Alberta, to North Dakota and Pennsylvania. These issues make understanding the costs and benefits of shale energy incredibly difficult.

Added to the complicated issues surrounding shale energy is the impact to biodiversity, which we are only now beginning to understand.  Biodiversity is important for almost every aspect of our lives, providing benefits ranging from air and water purification, to pollination and pest control for our agricultural crops. Thus, protecting our biodiversity resources is one of the most important things we can do. While the impacts of fracking to water and air, as well as our societal values are hotly debated, it is unquestionable that this boom has led to major land-use changes across large expanses of North America. Many of these areas contain important populations of animals ranging from caribou and grizzly bears, to elk, mule deer, and sage grouse. Because the shale energy boom was so rapid, our knowledge of the impacts to these species has lagged far behind the development itself, but what we do know indicates major impacts to some species. In Canada, oil and natural development has been linked to population declines of endangered caribou. In the US, sage grouse appear to be extremely sensitive to this development, which has been linked to declines in population numbers. An array of other species, including songbirds, elk and mule deer change their behavior in response to development. These species can be displaced entirely from some areas, while in others they switch to using developed areas only during the night when human activity can be lower.

More worrisome than what we know about oil and natural gas development impacts to biodiversity is our lack of knowledge. There is almost no information about the impacts of development to species on private lands, which hold important habitat for endangered species, as well as major oil and gas reserves. Likewise, comparatively little research has occurred in the eastern US, where some of the greatest increases in activity have been seen over the Marcellus shale. This area is home to a huge amount of biodiversity, including species that exist only in the broader region. Furthermore, while most of the development has occurred in North America, major reserves of shale oil and natural gas exist throughout the globe, many in areas of high biodiversity, including in the Amazon basin. Caption for Figure 1: Shale energy resources exist throughout the globe, often in areas of high biodiversity. If and when these areas become developed, the resulting impacts to species could be long-lasting.

The protection of biodiversity resources does not need to be at odds with the development of shale energy resources, but we need to do a better job at developing in a way that accounts for biodiversity. Compared to activities such as coal mining, the impacts of oil and natural gas development might be more readily mitigated. Noise barriers that block the sounds of compressor stations and drilling activity seem to be showing great promise for reducing impacts to birds. Restrictions on drilling activity to times when sensitive species are either absent (i.e. have migrated away for the season), or least vulnerable are currently in place in some regions and provide obvious benefits to these species. Mitigation can easily work for shale energy development, but more effort needs to be put behind developing and testing effective measures. Compared to the immense amount of money to be made in the shale energy boom, a few simple and relatively inexpensive measures might be all that are needed to protect valuable biodiversity resources.

 

Further information on shale oil and natural gas development

US Energy Information Administration (www.eia.gov)

 

 

Reduce wildlife extinction: Get to know the function of other species

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 11:51am

We live in a time of mass extinction. Vigorous debates exist regarding the extent of current extinctions, regionally and globally, for a variety of taxa and for biodiversity as a whole. Conservation biologists dispute how many species might be extinguished over various time frames under various different scenarios, but few doubt that current extinction rates are orders of magnitude greater than natural background rates, or that the consequences of this include extensive ongoing losses of natural species.

How should conservationists think about this? What can and should we do about it? What is the meaning of the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, the first to be caused by a single species: us? Recently I reviewed seven new books that explore these questions: five by conservation scientists, one by a leading science journalist, and one by a philosopher. All of them were well worth reading, but one, Thom Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction struck me as particularly acute and hopeful.  

“Why do the last expressions of so many species leave the world unnoticed,” Van Dooren asks, “except perhaps by the few conservationists on whose watch, and sometimes in whose hands, they pass away?” He explains this silence as a function of people’s “inability to really get—to comprehend at any meaningful level—the multiple connections and dependencies between ourselves and these disappearing others: a failure to appreciate all the ways in which we share a world.” We do not know their stories, nor do we see their stories as integral to our own. As humanity encases itself ever more fully within “built environments” and “virtual realities” of its own making, opportunities to appreciate these other stories recede.

Van Dooren believes that the key to better human relationships with other species—and ultimately to creating societies that don’t rampantly extinguish them—is to appreciate their stories. To do that, we need to try to tell them as fully and as honestly as we can. “As I researched each chapter,” he writes: “I got to know these species in new ways. In each case I was surprised by the way in which knowing more draws us into new kinds of relationships and, as a result, new accountabilities to others.”

To take one example, long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus) have long thrived in India by scavenging large animal carcasses, including those of cattle and people, in the process providing important sanitation “ecosystem services” to human communities. Soaring overhead, they are a living embodiment of the important truths that death is a part of life, and that people can coexist in mutually beneficial ways with the nonhuman world. Now the vultures are in drastic decline, primarily due to an overuse of diclofenac and other antibiotics in cattle, which poisons them when they feed on carcasses. Yet the vultures hang on, in places, and as long as they do they preserve an alternative to the life-denying practices that threaten them.

“The extinction of vultures points to the necessity of a concept and a practice of community that draws in the dead, in which what happens to the dead is deeply consequential for the health and continuity” of the living. A flourishing community will take wider and truer views of life. It will not be so greedy to increase agricultural production that it poisons itself, or so heedless of natural beauty and diversity that it destroys such an elegant recycling system. Preserving this story on the landscape would not just be a nod to India’s past traditions, or to a potentially more ecologically just future. It would continue the realization, the incarnation, of a wise approach to death: an approach that long-billed vultures brought to the subcontinent long before the first hominids made our appearance there.

Like Flight Ways, all the books I reviewed seek to tell the stories of threatened or extinct wildlife in ways that capture its beauty and importance. From passenger pigeons (Joel Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky) to baiji dolphins (Samuel Turvey, Witness to Extinction), from black-footed ferrets (David Jachowski, Wild Again) to eastern hemlock trees (David Foster, Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge) to the great apes (Craig Stanford, Planet Without Apes), their authors explain how we are extinguishing the world’s biodiversity, why we should care about those losses, and what we can do to prevent them. They deserve our thanks and our support for their ongoing work to prevent further extinctions.

To read the full review in Biological Conservation click HERE.

Reflections on the Lima Climate Change Negotiations and the Road to Paris

Mon, 12/22/2014 - 10:04am

by Michele M. Betsill, SoGES Executive Council, SoGES Scholar, Department of Political Science and Environmental Governance Working Group

After many sleepless nights, delegates at the latest round of UN climate change negotiations in Peru agreed upon the “Lima Accord” which lays out a framework for a new international climate treaty. While many of the details will need to be negotiated over the next year, the broad outline represents a significant advance in the evolution of multilateral climate change politics. For the first time since the early 1990s, all countries have agreed to participate in a process to set emissions reductions limits. In the past, the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has served as a firewall between industrialized and developing countries. This principle, enshrined in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, required that industrialized countries take the lead in cutting emissions given their historical responsibility and economic capacity. Today, the reality is that large developing countries like China, India and Brazil are among the largest greenhouse gas emitters (the US is #2 behind China) and that while emissions are generally flattening out in industrialized countries, they are growing rapidly throughout the developing world (although most developing countries continue to account for a small share of global emissions). Most observers agree this outcome was made possible by the recent US-China bilateral announcement, representing the first time in nearly two decades that the US has been recognized as a global leader on the climate issue.

Questions abound about whether countries will commit to emissions reductions sufficient to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change (probably not), whether they will follow through on the pledges they make (especially in the US given the domestic political context), and the amount of funding that will be available for developing countries to adapt to climate change. Critics note that the new treaty will not be legally binding but rather will rely on a “naming-and-shaming” strategy to compel countries to comply with their commitments. Next December, all eyes will be on the next UN meeting in Paris in hopes that the international community at long last can find the political will to meet this pressing global challenge. A Paris treaty with new emissions reduction commitments would enhance the global response to climate change by institutionalizing a common set of norms, principles and goals to guide national action.

Fortunately, the future of the planet does not rise and fall on the specific content of national pledges; measures for monitoring, reporting and verifying compliance with those pledges; or the legal status of the Paris treaty. Given recent history (remember Copenhange 2009?), it is entirely possible that countries will fail to reach agreement on new emissions reduction commitments by next December and many will declare this “last-ditch effort” to address climate change a failure. But this ignores the significant amount of climate-related activity being carried out in cities, corporate boardrooms, faith communities, college campuses, and individual homes around the world. In a recent study of 60 such initiatives, my colleagues and I argue that these initiatives should not be understood as an alternative to the multilateral treaty process, but rather provide new instruments and building blocks for a truly “global” response to climate change that engages many different types of actors across multiple levels of political jurisdiction in a range of economic sectors. Facilitating cooperation on technology development, recognizing the contributions of local governments, and generally enhancing coordination between the UN treaty framework and these “international cooperative initiatives” could do more to strengthen the global response to climate change than reaching agreement on sub-optimal national commitments, which may or may not be reached. The good news is that these issues are also part of the UN discussion in the lead-up to Paris and the debates are much less politically contentious. There is a very good chance that Paris will deliver a set of strategies to connect the UN with the multiple forms of climate change governance already in existence. With or without new national commitments, this will be a successful outcome for the planet.

The lesser of two evils: Fracking as a temporary means of moving towards sustainable energy

Wed, 12/10/2014 - 9:57am

Written by Brian Gill SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

*The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability

People in the United States have experienced relatively few wars on our own soil. Yet currently, we are affronted by the equivalent of environmental war right here at home. Hydraulic fracturing is in full swing in Colorado.

Fracking involves the drilling of deep wells and injection of fluid to break deposits of shale rock (plays) and release natural gas. 

The oil and gas industry has a long history in the west. So if Colorado has this history of exploitation, what’s the big deal at this point?

Drilling is becoming more visible. It also seems to be happening closer to where people live. Driving on I-25 between Fort Collins and Denver at night you can see well pads illuminated like little space shuttles busily readying themselves for blast off. I do this drive frequently and have noticed 1 site, then 2, then 6 appear over the last year.

Increased visibility and awareness has resulted in several Front Range cities placing moratoriums on or banning drilling altogether out of concern about health and environmental risks. These efforts have not been well received by the oil and gas industry and have been overturned in court allowing continued exploitation.

As an ecologist and environmentally conscious person, I acknowledge the benefits of natural gas relative to coal. Natural gas burns cleaner. Also having dabbled in studying sustainable development, I recognize that economics play an important role in the decisions people make. Gas prices are going down.

Fracking is the lesser of two evils, coal or natural gas. Unfortunately, we’re still talking about two non-renewable fossil fuels. Moreover, our use of natural gas in the United States isn’t helping decrease global greenhouse gas emissions, because the coal that we used to burn is being sold abroad.

There are ample additional concerns about fracking including:

1) The process uses quite a bit of water (a resource that is extremely limited in the west)

2) There are lots of potentially harmful chemicals (carcinogens and toxins) in fracking fluid with the potential to cause infertility, birth defects, and cancer. There seems to be a lack of transparency by industry about the use of these chemicals, which have leached into drinking water.

3) Volatile organic compounds and methane are released into the air during fracking which can contribute to smog and global warming

4) Fracking may compromise the geologic integrity of the area where it is performed causing increases in seismic activity

5) Conversion of natural lands to well sites could result in loss of habitat and biodiversity

So what’s the long-term solution?

In my opinion, we should only be using natural gas obtained in the most environmentally conscious and regulated way possible until we can utilize other sources of sustainable energy such as solar and wind.

One organization working locally on these issues is Community for Sustainable Energy (http://www.cforse.org/) which …“researches and advocates for long term, sustainable energy policy that promotes economic growth, social prosperity, and environmental protection”.

I encourage you to check out their website which provides some great information on improving energy efficiency of buildings, increasing use of renewable energy such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower, and decreasing use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas along the Front Range.

Photo Credits:

#1) Well pad at night, © 2011 redorbit.com

#2) Oil and gas worker with mountains, © 2013 The Associated Press, AP Photo

 

Uncommon partnership for conservation: how rock climbers are leading the way for bat conservation

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 2:26pm

Written by Robert Schorr, SoGES 2014-2015 Global Challenges Research Team Climbers and Bat Conservation; Research Associate/Animal Ecologist for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, CSU

In North America, bats are declining at unprecedented rates. Yet, the term “decline” does not do it justice.  For some reason, migratory tree bats have an affinity for wind turbine facilities, and dead migratory tree bats are being found at wind turbine sites throughout the US. This unexplained attraction has led to an estimated 600,000 bat deaths annually in the US1. This figure forces one to pause and contemplate a loss of this magnitude.  Unfortunately, this is not the most alarming figure from bat conservation over the last decade. Since 2006 when a new disease, called White Nose Syndrome, made its way into North America hibernating bat populations have been decimated. This disease is caused by a cold-loving fungus that infects tissues of hibernating bats, disrupting cellular function when the bats are unable to mount an immune response.  It is estimated that nearly 6 million bats have succumbed to the disease since its arrival in North America. White Nose Syndrome can impact populations so dramatically as to kill 90-100% of the individuals once hibernating at a site2. For decades there has been mounting concern for bat populations as roosting locations are lost or disturbed, increased pesticide use alters their food resources, and native habitats are converted to other uses, but nothing prepared conservation biologists for this level of demise.

Fortunately for Colorado, mass mortalities at wind turbine facilities have not been seen, and, as far as we know, White Nose Syndrome has not made its way this far west. Few biologists feel this is reason to let our guard down. In fact, Colorado is faced with some challenges that would make diagnosing and abating mass die-offs harder than in eastern North America where White Nose Syndrome has been so impactful.  Colorado biologists have been unable to find hibernacula that house the number of bats seen in the East. Eastern colonies can be in the millions or thousands, whereas Colorado colonies are substantially smaller and, possibly, more dispersed. The question left for many conservation biologists is, “how will we know if Colorado bat populations undergo a decline?” 

Bat biologists in Colorado have a long history of systematically identifying and evaluating caves and mines as potential bat roosts. Through ventures like the Bats-in-Inactive-Mines Project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and numerous cave inventories much data have been collected on what underground structures provide bat habitat. Yet, even with these survey efforts, few large hibernacula were uncovered. So where are bats hibernating? 

Based on research in Colorado, there is growing evidence that bats may be roosting in cracks and crevices. Given the abundance of geological features in Colorado the number of potential roosts for bats is unfathomable, and there is little likelihood of biologists ever being able to systematically survey such a resource. However, there is a recreational user group in Colorado that can help bat biologists with this problem. Rock climbers in Colorado have shared numerous accounts of bats emerging from cracks and crevices during their climbing excursions. 

On November 24th, bat biologists and rock climbers met to talk about how to develop a unique collaboration that might shed light on bat ecology and conservation in Colorado. The brainchild of Rob Schorr and Bernadette Kuhn of Colorado Natural Heritage Program and Dr. Shawn Davis formerly of the Human Dimensions Department at Warner College of Natural Resources (now at Northern Michigan University), this project is bringing the two groups together to conserve bat populations. During their inaugural meeting, hosted as a World Café, the groups discussed how they could develop a mutually beneficial partnership that allow biologists to gain new information about bats’ use of crevices. There was an overwhelming response that this collaboration could be fruitful and valuable for understanding bat resource use and, hopefully, bat conservation in advance of looming threats from White Nose Syndrome.

1Hayes, M. A. 2013. Bats killed in large numbers at United States wind energy facilitites. BioScience 63:975979.

2Frick, W. W., et al. 2010. An emerging disease causes regional population collapse of a common North American bat species. Science 329:679-682.

 

SoGES GCRT Principle Investigators: Rob Schorr, Bernadette Kuhn, and Shawn Davis.

 

Shawn Davis leads bat biologists and rock climbers in a discussion of the potential challenges and solutions to their partnership.

 

Karina Mullen Branson of ConverSketch documenting the discussions and ideas in a mural.

 

Biologist holding a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) captured in north-central Colorado.

 

The final mural of the bat and climber cafe meeting.

But it's just grass...

Mon, 12/01/2014 - 11:20am

Written by Kevin Wilcox SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology

I used to be a forest person… that is, until I moved to Colorado State University, started my PhD in grassland ecology, and spent an entire summer exploring some of our wonderfully diverse grasslands here in the US; now I’m a grassland person. I love these systems purely for their aesthetic qualities – I like to watch the prairie move with the wind like waves on the sea; I like to watch them through the growing season to discover new types of flowers blooming every few days; I like the way the hills turn from deep black to emerald green after a burn – but plenty of other people appreciate grasslands for more practical reasons.

Over 25% of the land in the US is composed of grasslands used for cattle forage1making them responsible for a huge proportion of our food supply at an annual production of around 26 billion pounds of beef2. For this reason, conditions in these landscapes controlling how much plant growth occurs (i.e., rain) will affect most of us directly as beef costs are largely controlled by how many cattle can be stocked on a piece of land. Another less intuitive but equally important service grasslands provide us is their ability to take up carbon dioxide (i.e., the molecule mainly responsible for the warming of global temperatures) from the atmosphere, disassemble it, and store it safely belowground or in plant biomass where it can’t act as an insulator for the planet. Currently, photosynthesis done by organisms in the oceans and on land buffer quite a bit of our carbon emissions to the atmosphere, and changes in plant growth across landscapes have the potential to alter this buffering ability. For example, in the 1980s, regrowth of forests where farmland used to exist in the northeastern US took up about 20% of the carbon we emitted to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels3. And while grasslands do not store as much carbon in wood as forests do, the facts that (1) the aboveground grass parts die every winter and much of these are incorporated into soil carbon stocks and (2) most of grass biomass is actually composed of roots, make grasslands really important areas to consider when thinking about how much carbon is being taken from the atmosphere.

Alright, let’s talk very briefly about climate change. Honestly, whether it’s human-facilitated or it’s just happening doesn’t really matter in the context of assessing how landscapes will change under these new conditions. Regardless of the cause, the climate is changing: we’ve documented it clearly in rising sea levels, increases in average global temperatures, and wetter wet and dryer dry years. Also, rainfall is coming in bigger storms in the Midwest (where many grasslands of the US are located) than it used to. According to some research done by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization using rainfall data from 218 weather stations across the central and mid-western United States, the frequency of 3” or larger storms doubled from 1960 to 20114. However, even if we have a good idea about how climate patterns will change in the future, various lands will respond differently to these alterations depending on what kind of soil is there, how many nutrients are in the soil, and the type of vegetation that is present.

OK… so… how will these changes affect things we care about? Will our prairie hiking trails be devoid of our favorite wild flowers? Will ranchers face higher unemployment in the future? Will our grocery bills start to eat up more and more of our paychecks? Will the carbon dioxide buffering capability of these systems change?

In 2011 and 2012, we conducted an experiment to try and figure out how and why three different types of grassland would respond to changes in the amount of rainfall and the pattern in which it comes in the future5. We added water in different patterns (either in a bunch of small events spaced throughout the summer or added on top of naturally occurring storms) to areas within shortgrass prairie here in northern Colorado, in northern mixed grass prairie up in eastern Montana, and in tallgrass prairie in eastern Kansas. We then looked at two types of plant growth – aboveground (stems and leaves), and belowground (roots) – which impact different aspects of services these systems provide to us; for grazing purposes, aboveground growth is very important, while the sum of above and belowground growth is most important when considering how much carbon a system is taking up from the atmosphere. Our first interesting finding was that northern grasslands responded much, much less than their more southern counterparts… that is to say, added rainfall in southern grasslands made the plants grow more (duh?), but growth wasn’t affected at all in northern prairie despite increasing rainfall by over 50% throughout the summer over two years. We think this has to do with the types of grasses that dominate the landscape in northern grasslands. These are cool-season grasses that do the majority of their growing, you guessed it, during colder temperatures in the spring when soil moisture in the soil is very high from snowmelt. So, adding water doesn’t do a whole lot.

Our second big finding had to do with the Colorado and Kansas grasslands. Researchers in the past have found that when rainfall comes in really big events, aboveground plant growth in dry grasslands is higher, and people have speculated that this is due to coarser soils in these areas so that storm rainfall can filter deeper in the soil where it is protected from evaporation and thus saved for plant use later during drought periods. Alternately, small events in these systems evaporate off very quickly because there is very little shade from grass canopies. The opposite is true for wetter grasslands like the tallgrass prairie in eastern Kansas: more growth has been found to occur with small rainfall events that came often and soil water evaporation was less of an issue due to fuller grass covers. However, all this research was based on studies that only looked at aboveground plant growth. When we incorporated root growth, we found that the pattern in which rainfall came had no effect on total plant growth despite the differences we saw in aboveground growth. And, while this doesn’t change what we know about the effects of precipitation pattern on forage production, it does affect our predictions about how much carbon these systems are likely to store in the future.

So to go back to our original questions and to refer to the title of this post, it’s not just grass: the state of these amazing areas and the amount of grass available for cattle grazing in the future will be dependent on where you are and what types of grasses currently grow there. As far as predicting the amount of carbon that will be stored in grasslands in the future, this is a little trickier as most of what we know is based on aboveground growth (which is much easier to measure than root growth), but we need to incorporate belowground growth if we are to accurately predict the amount of carbon going into and coming out of grasslands. So to keep these systems around – whether it be for their aesthetic qualities or for the stuff they do for us – we need to keep working on understanding how and why grasslands will respond in the future.

 

1United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/land-and-natural-resources.aspx.

2American Meat Institute, http://www.meatami.com/ht/d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465.

3Houghton, R. A., J. L. Hackler, and K. T. Lawrence. 1999. The US carbon budget: contributions from land-use change. Science 285.5427: 574-578.

4Saunders, Stephen, et al. 2012. Doubled trouble: more Midwestern extreme storms. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

5Wilcox, Kevin R., et al. 2014. Contrasting above‐and belowground sensitivity of three Great Plains grasslands to altered rainfall regimes. Global change biology

The Changing Power Landscape

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 11:07am

Written by Tim Hansen SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering named electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century [1]. During the 100 years, power stretched across the country (and world) and drastically changed the world we live in. Although power became more widespread, and technologies became more advanced, the basic power system has remained relatively static over the past century.  Power is conventionally generated in rural areas by large power plants and transferred vast distances to where it is consumed, occurring losses along the way (see Fig. 1). As climate change has become a pressing issue, we have become more conscious of where our power comes from, how it is generated, and what impact it has on global environmental sustainability. This change in thinking of how power is generated was put into policy as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) during the second Bush administration, ushering in the new era of the “Smart Grid” under Title XIII of the aforementioned act. The Smart Grid challenges the centralized, one-way flow of power that prevailed in the 20th century, ushering in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, closer to where power is consumed [2].

Figure 1. Classic electric power grid model with bulk generators transferring power long distances to reach the consumer.  Image courtesy of NetGain Energy Advisors.

Why should this change in thinking with respect to power matter to you, the power consumer? My current research, and the research of many others, is attempting to address this. The bottom-line, is that with Smart Grid there are increased opportunities for saving money and reducing the environmental impact of power. To understand how the Smart Grid will change the way power is consumed, we must first understand how the power market works today. In a normal market, such as with bananas, there are multiple suppliers offering the same product to the consumer. Based upon the demand for the bananas, there is a market price.  If, for some reason, one producer raises the price for their bananas, the consumer can purchase the same product elsewhere. If the producer makes too many bananas, they can store the excess in a warehouse until a later date when they are needed. The electric power market, however, is different.  First, there is generally only one supplier of electricity for your area (the local utility). Additionally, we currently cannot efficiently store (warehouse) electricity to be consumed at a later time, like we can with bananas. This means that when electricity is produced, it must be immediately consumed. In the traditional power grid with bulk centralized generation, this was not a problem.  However, with increased renewables, such as solar and wind, the production of this renewable energy often does not occur when it is needed during peak times. This often leads to inefficiencies in the generation of electricity. The Smart Grid is attempting to eliminate, or reduce, these inefficiencies by making the power market work more like a traditional market. 

In places like Germany, the electricity market has been deregulated. What this means is that instead of there being one incumbent local utility, the consumer has their choice of electricity provider.  Like in the banana analogy, this means if your current utility makes a change that is undesired, it is possible to switch providers. As far as “warehousing” electricity, Elon Musk (of Tesla and Space X) has recently announced plans to make a battery factory with the end goal of having batteries large enough to store power on the scale necessary for the power grid [3,4]. These two changes in electricity markets will usher in profound changes to the existing grid, benefitting all participants.

My research is trying to leverage these market changes by creating a home energy management system (HEMS).  A HEMS is a way to manage the electricity in your house (see Fig. 2), such as from your electric water heater and your HVAC system [5].  By smartly using your electricity you can save money. One example is with electric heating and air conditioning.  When no one is home, it does not matter as much what the temperature inside your house is.  However, when you arrive home from work, the temperature is immediately important. If everyone waits until they arrive home to start cooling their house, a large spike in electricity usage is seen on the electric power system (leading to more power generators being turned on, leading to increased carbon emissions and a higher cost of electricity). If, however, you had a HEMS installed to your HVAC system you could pre-cool (or pre-heat in the Winter) your house before you arrive home when electricity is cheap and save money (with the additional benefit of the house being comfortable as you walk in the door). If we can make small changes at the household level, they will add up across an entire city, from cities to states, and from states to the entire nation. From the sum of these individual changes, we are able to greatly reduce the peak power demand, which will in turn reduce the number of dirty generators required to meet this demand and lead to increased economic and environmental sustainability.

Figure 2. A smart home with a home energy management system for managing electricity usage.  Image courtesy of Digi-Key Corporation.

What can we as consumers, with respect to electricity usage, do now? The answer, unfortunately, is that it depends.  Some areas have been more proactive than others.  In Texas, it is possible to choose your electricity provider. In Chicago, it is possible to opt into a real-time pricing program that charges you different prices depending on the time-of-day. Other areas have been slower moving and may still be years away from adapting. No matter what area you live in, however, as new technologies and markets are adopted, there is increased chance to participate as a consumer and leverage your demand for your economic benefit and the benefit of the environment. It will pay, literally, to be aware of these exciting changes in the electric power system.

Additional Reading

[1] National Academy of Engineering, “Greatest achievements of the 20th century,” 2003. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014. [Available]: http://www.greatachievements.org/.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, “The Smart Grid: An introduction,” 2009. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014. [Available]: http://energy.gov/oe/downloads/smart-grid-introduction-0.

[3] Dana Hull, “Tesla CEO Elon Musk: Gigafactory will take battery production to another level,” May 14, 2014. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014.[Available]: http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_25761219/tesla-ceo-elon-musk-gigafactory-will-take-battery.

[4] Tom Randall, “Why Musk is building batteries in the desert when no one is buying,” Sep. 11, 2014. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014.[Available]: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-09-11/why-musk-is-building-batteries-in-a-desert-when-no-one-is-buying.html.

[5] Steven Castle, “New energy management/monitoring systems make savings easy.” [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014. [Available]: http://www.electronichouse.com/lutron/article/new_energy_management_monitoring_systems_making_saving_easy

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