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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 ( 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

#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,

2American Meat Institute,

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]:

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, “The Smart Grid: An introduction,” 2009. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014. [Available]:

[3] Dana Hull, “Tesla CEO Elon Musk: Gigafactory will take battery production to another level,” May 14, 2014. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014.[Available]:

[4] Tom Randall, “Why Musk is building batteries in the desert when no one is buying,” Sep. 11, 2014. [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014.[Available]:

[5] Steven Castle, “New energy management/monitoring systems make savings easy.” [Accessed]: Oct. 23, 2014. [Available]:

Why Sediment Matters

Thu, 10/30/2014 - 2:01pm

Written by Joel Sholtes SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a river? If you are from the mountains, you most likely envision clear water tumbling by and maybe some trout swimming around. But if you live down along a large, flatland river like the Missouri, Ohio, or lower Colorado it is muddy water and bottom feeders that come to mind. These two types of rivers, though wildly different in appearance, have one big thing in common: day and night they are all moving sediment downstream.

As water makes is Sisyphean journey from the oceans, into the atmosphere, and down over the land, what runs off into rivers brings sediment with it: from cobbles and boulders in mountain streams to sand, silt, and clay in large rivers. Over time this continuous conveyor belt delivers, as one pioneer in sediment studies, G. K. Gilbert, calls it, the “debris” of the continental interiors to the oceans and shapes landscapes everywhere.

A river’s ability to shape landscapes is most evident during floods where orders of magnitude more sediment is moved over hours and days compared to how much is moved during low flow periods. This was evident during the wide spread floods that ravaged the Colorado Front Range in September, 2013. Just over a year ago, massive amounts of rain fell on steep mountain slopes carrying sediment from the hills into streams and eventually rivers. In steeper areas, like the narrow canyons that spill out into the Front Range, the energy in the flow was so great it moved car-sized boulders! Smaller-sized sediment lining river channels did not stand a chance and was carried downstream until the canyon rivers became prairie rivers where the slope dramatically reduces. Here, physics took over and with less energy to carry the tons and tons of sediment moving downstream most of it stopped moving and came to rest in places like Lyons (pictured below) where three to four feet deposited in some places!

Besides resulting in a major cleaning bill, what did all of this sediment do?  It changed the course of the river. Instead of flowing left in some places, the river moved right, bringing flood waters to areas not originally considered part of the floodplain. Rivers change, which can be surprising to someone living near one that has not moved appreciably in a while.

River change is not as uncommon as you might think. It does not take a biblical flood (or even a 100 year flood, with a 1% chance of occurring in a given year) to move a river. A geologic study the Mississippi River drawn out in beautiful color below (active channel in white) shows a spaghetti bowl of meander scrolls denoting historic locations of the river over the years. This change is evident even over the relatively short (from a geologic standpoint) history of our country. Look anywhere at the state lines drawn along the Mississippi River and you will see meandering borders drawn down the middle of dry land formerly known as the Mississippi, which left polyps of land belonging to one state marooned on the other side of the river.



Moving downriver, we arrive at one of the great deltas of North America: the Mississippi River delta, the final resting place for so much of the sediment that bumps, rolls, and glides downstream from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the cornfields of the Midwest. Or at least is used to be. Locks, dams, and river engineering has essentially turned the Missouri river, a major tributary to the Mississippi and a major source of sediment from the arid west, into a string of reservoirs. Just like when the rivers left the canyon and found the prairie in Colorado, when a river flows into a reservoir, the majority of the sediment comes to rest there. Not only does this mean reservoirs have a limited life span as they fill up with sediment naturally carried by a river, it also means that the sediment never arrives to its original destination.

Two river scientists who work extensively on large rivers estimated the original, pre-dam sediment loads that reach the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi river and compared that to modern measurements of sediment loads (Moode and Meade, 2010), see river graphic below). They estimate that sediment loads to the Gulf from the Mississippi River have decreased by over 75% because of human influence. They attribute about half of the decrease in sediment loads to the trapping ability of the dams we have built in the Mississippi basin and the other half to river engineering practices that attempt to keep the river from moving around and make it more suitable for barge traffic. The Mississippi River of today is a far cry from the wild and unpredictable beast that Mark Twain navigated as a young man. All of this means that the Mississippi delta, America’s Wetland, receives a lot less sediment than it used to. Add that to 1,000’s of miles of canals dug for oil exploration and extraction which bring saltwater into freshwater marshes, slowly killing off the plants that hold the sediment in place, rising sea levels, and naturally subsiding land (Törnqvist et al., 2008), and you get a delta that is rapidly disappearing. As the delta subsides, so too do the highly productive wetland ecosystems, fisheries, and protection from storm surges during hurricanes. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Nathanial Rich chronicles the human impacts on this vast and vanishing area and a fight to pay for its reclamation.

We’ve come a long way from clear headwater streams down to the turbid and brackish waters of the delta. I have touched on only a couple examples of the role sediment plays in rivers and why it matters to us and the environment. But there are many more issues and stories about sediment, and the rivers that move it. Please feel free to contact me with any sediment or river related questions or comments.



Meade, R. H., & Moody, J. A. (2010). Causes for the decline of suspended‐sediment discharge in the Mississippi River system, 1940–2007. Hydrological Processes24(1), 35-49.

Törnqvist, T. E., Wallace, D. J., Storms, J. E., Wallinga, J., Van Dam, R. L., Blaauw, M., ... & Snijders, E. M. (2008). Mississippi Delta subsidence primarily caused by compaction of Holocene strata. Nature Geoscience1(3), 173-176.

Photo Credits:

Boulder cascade: Fall Creek, Colorado, © Joel Sholtes 2012

Sandy River: Yampa River at Deerlodge Park, Colorado, © Joel Sholtes 2012

Canyon Flood: Andy Cross, Denver Post © 2013

Lyons Flood: R.J. Sangosti, Denver Post © 2013

Meandering Mississippi Map: Plate 22. Fisk, H. N. (1944) Geological Investigation of the alluvial valley of the Lower Mississippi River. Army Corps of Engineers Geology and Geophysics Branch. Lower and Middle Mississippi Valley Engineering Geology Mapping Program.

River Sediment Diagram: R.H. Meade and J.A. Moody (2010). © Hydrologic Sciences

Mississippi River Delta: USGS Landsat Image, 2011:

Mongolian Rangeland and Resilience project

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 11:09am

Written by Tungalag Ulambayar, SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship

My research, as part of Mongolian Rangeland and Resilience project at CSU, is aimed to assess social outcomes of Community-based Rangeland Management (CBRM) efforts to help pastoral communities to manage their resources in a more sustainable manner while maintaining their livelihoods. Any positive results in herders’ livelihood, social relationships, and conditions of natural resources they depend on are considered as social outcomes. In addition, my results may help inform policy formulation for emerging herder organizations as well as more effective support strategies for the development of social institutions for rangeland management.

The major research questions I am asking are:  (1) do social outcomes of formally organized CBRM groups differ from those informal groups? and (2) if they differ, what causes such differences? I am examining 142 community groups from 36 districts in 10 provinces of Mongolia, of which 77 are formal groups and 65 are informal or traditional groups. I am also looking at their members’ grazing practices, and social norms related to grazing management at household level using data from 706 families.

Picture 1. Study sites.

The study is focused on Mongolia, the country at the heart of Northern Asia, which is famous for two facts. First, it is the homeland of Ghengis Khan, who created the largest empire in the world. Second, the country possesses one of the largest remaining rangelands on the planet. The latter poses great responsibility and policy challenges to Mongols to maintain and steward these precious resources of global importance under competing needs for economic development and improvement of social and environmental well-being.

Picture 2. Photo courtesy of Ch.Batzaya

My research is deeply embedded in social and political context of Mongolia. The country has undergone dramatic social and political changes in the last century, to a socialist centrally planned system and the more recent transition to a free market economy and democracy. Mongolian nomads, the key users and guardians of rangelands have demonstrated remarkable resilience. Nationalization of their livestock and forced membership in state cooperatives has been replaced by livestock privatization dismantling state institutions for grazing management, combined with loss of access to health, education, and market services. Together with natural hazards pastoralists frequently face, these socio-economic reforms have increased pressure on the natural resources they depend on.

At the end of 20th century, 80% of the rural poor were herders, whose traditional practices and customary norms for rangeland management have been reported to be dramatically neglected, and leading to negative impacts on rangeland condition. In response, community-based rangeland management (CBRM) has been seen by international donors as an alternative solution to increasingly ineffective state management to address rural poverty and land degradation. The CBRM approach to community development resulted in the creation of over 2000 formal groups supported by 14 different donor projects by 2007.

On the other hand, mixed CBRM outcomes globally have challenged researchers interested in sustainable management of communally used resources such as rangelands. Specifically, the effectiveness of CBRM programs and the factors influencing CBRM success in pastoralist contexts have been rarely investigated. Hence, my results of the study contribute to the efforts of rangeland management both in Mongolia and globally. 

So far my results show that formal CBRMs had more information sources, stronger leadership, greater knowledge exchange, rules and cooperation, and used more sustainable practices than traditional neighborhoods but had the same levels of social capital and livelihood. Results signify positive social effect of the co-management approach but calls for consideration of how to reach livelihood outcomes, a key incentive for community-based management.  

As my research progresses further, I will keep sharing my results on my blog. Everybody interested in this study are welcome to comment and share your views on my posts!

Links to hyperlinked/highlighted words:

Mongolian Rangeland and Resilience project


News from Afar

Wed, 05/21/2014 - 9:36am

Written by Matt Luizza, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

I was able to conduct in-depth focus groups at seven villages with pastoralists about changes they are seeing on the landscape, invasive species and water resources. Afar is by far the harshest environment I have ever witnessed. 100+ degrees Fahrenheit and seemingly limited water or other resources. The pastoralists here have been really welcoming and the participatory mapping and focus group interviews have been very enlightening. My colleague Tewodros and I had a great local guide named Seid. He speaks fluent Afar and Amharic and a little English (and is hilarious). He navigates us to these extremely remote villages and negotiates with the village chairmen to pay them respect before we conduct our work. Everything revolves around local norms and tradition. We had to reschedule one interview because a village member died merely hours before we arrived. Everyone in the village must attend the funeral.

The pictures are of the participatory mapping activities, where the villagers used a satellite image and located water resources and invasive species. Once people get wind that something is going on tons of people (and goats) gather around to watch and participate. It's really awesome. The villagers have also identified two other invasive species locally called "Wola Howla" (Parthenium hysterophorous) and "Hanlemero" (Cryptostegia grandiflora) which we are taking GPS points of so we can map their suitable habitat when we return. The main invasive species we have been cataloguing in Afar is Prosopis juliflora (known as "wayani" locally.) We also met with a representative of the international organization CARE and they are planning to integrate our findings into their program planning, as well as connect us with the regional government as they will also be very interested in what we are discovering. This will be really helpful for the next trip in the fall.

Description of the photos below from left to right:

1. Soemmering Gazelle at the Hailadegi National Wildlife Preserve; 2. Local Afar villager taking a break from collecting water to investigate the forengi (foreigner); 3. Besia Oryx in the Awash National Park; 4. Day old lion track outside of our camp site; 5. Invasive Prosopis juliflora in Afar

Is Mixing Better than Matching?

Wed, 05/14/2014 - 3:38pm

Written by Tessa Conroy, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Economics

Diversity and Performance of U.S. Businesses

Environmental science research stresses the importance of diversity in sustaining a successful ecosystem. Yet, even outside of the natural sciences, the evidence that diversity is good for performance is mounting. Recently, a Harvard economist and his coauthor found that scientific papers written by a more diverse group of authors make greater contributions to science as measured by the quality of the journal and citations.1 Even outside of academia, diversity seems to be good for performance.2 A 2012 study, by the Credit Suisse Research Institute shows that businesses with women on their boards outperformed their peers with all male boards by 26% in share price performance. Similarly, a 2011 study by Catalyst shows that Fortune 500 companies that had a more diverse board of directors, specifically a relatively large share of women members, out-performed their peers by 16% in return on sales.3

It seems that diversity can be good for the environment, good for science, and good for business, but is it good for the economy?

There’s at least some evidence that it is. The basic argument linking diversity to economic performance is focused on how we share knowledge and how we innovate. Knowledge shared between experts from different industries, rather than among experts within the same industry, is more likely to lead to valuable information spillovers that stimulate innovation.4 That is to say that inter-industry knowledge sharing, rather than intra-industry knowledge sharing, is most conducive to new insights and advancing ideas. The classic example uses the brassiere industry, which actually came about not from the lingerie industry, but from dressmakers’ innovations in the garment industry.5 The first major empirical test linking diversity to economic performance found that local industrial diversity leads to higher employment growth in cities.6 There is also evidence that compared to a concentration of specialized activity, bringing together diverse and complementary economic activities better promotes innovation.7

To the extent that the variety in a market and niche of each business in an industry is connected to the culture, expertise, and traditions of the business owner, the U.S. economy may be lacking valuable diversity. It’s striking that female and minority entrepreneurs are severely outnumbered most everywhere in the country. Economically speaking, the low rates of business ownership among women and minorities suggest that the U.S. economy may be underutilizing a valuable resource. Non-traditional entrepreneurs are likely to perceive otherwise unrecognized opportunities and bring unique products and services to market, in addition to generating jobs and income.

Nationally, 51% of businesses are owned exclusively by males, whereas only 29% are women-owned, which is disproportionately low given that men and women comprise nearly equal shares of the labor force.8 The gender disparity in sales is even more dramatic with male-owned businesses earning $7.10 in sales for every $1 earned by female-owned business. Minorities own just 21% of businesses and again there is a dramatic disparity in sales.9  Nonminority-owned businesses earn $9.60 in sales for every $1 earned by minority-owned businesses.10

These numbers demonstrate that women and minorities have only a limited presence in the market. However, national averages don’t capture the important variation across regions within the U.S. The maps show the density of female-owned firms and male-owned firms by county.11 It seems that the success of female entrepreneurs may be linked to specific factors associated with particular locations such as the West Coast and the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Male entrepreneurship too, it seems, is associated with specific factors but not necessarily the same factors as women. Unfortunately, we know fairly little about the gender- and minority-specific drivers of entrepreneurship across the U.S and there is an opportunity for research in this field.

If it is the case that talented women and minorities who are considering entrepreneurship face barriers that discourage them from starting their business, then there may be significant costs to the economy in terms of jobs and income. With a better understanding of why non-traditional entrepreneurs do better in some regions than in others, it may be possible to consider policy alternatives that would minimize barriers to entry or adjust incentives in such a way that would lead to greater rates of entrepreneurship nationally.

A sustainable economy will enable its most talented innovators, and in doing so, facilitate diversity and growth. With better knowledge of the barriers and opportunities for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, there is greater potential for a new and more diverse class of entrepreneurs in the future. As the class of entrepreneurs evolves, businesses may well also evolve. In addition to new products and services, the practices and operations could also change. New businesses have the advantage of implementing socially responsible and environmentally conscience methods from the beginning. By enhancing environmental awareness and increasing green business practices, there is an opportunity for a generation of businesses that start-up with a focus on sustainability that is good for both business owners and their customers.


1 Freeman , Richard, and Huang Wei. "Collaborating With People Like Me: Ethnic co-authorship within the US." NBER Working Paper No. 19905. (2014).

2Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance. Rep. Zurich: Credit Suisse Research Institute. (2012).

3The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Representation on Boards (2004-2008). Rep. New York: Catalyst. (2011)

4 Jacobs, Jane. The Economy of Cities. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.

5 Glaeser, Edward L. "Growth in Cities." Journal of Political Economy 100.6, Centennial Issue (1992): 1126-152. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

6 Ibid.

7 Feldman, Maryann P., and David B. Audretch. "Innovation in Cities: Science-based Diversity, Specialization and Localized Competition." European Economic Review 43 (1999): 409-29. Web.

8 Percentages discussed above do not sum to 100% as there are four ownership categories as classified by the 2007 Survey of Business Owners including “Male-owned,” Female-Owned,” “Equally male-/female-owned”, and “Publicly Held.”

9 "USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau." USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

10 Nonminority-owned refers to firms where Non-Hispanic Whites own 51 percent or more of the interest or stock of the business. Minority-owned refers to firms where Blacks or African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders, and/or Hispanics own 51 percent or more of the interest or stock of the business.

11 The density of male- and female-owned firms is calculated as the ratio of the number of male-owned (female-owned) firms to the male (female) labor force. Estimates of the number of firms come from the 2007 Survey of Business Owners. Labor force estimates come from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey.

Women's Access to Leadership Positions

Thu, 05/01/2014 - 10:33am

Written by Suzan Aldoubi, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the School of Education

For those of us who live in the 21st century, modernization, civilization, globalization, and concomitant legislation for human rights and equity make the world look simpler, easier, and more democratic for the various domestic and international groups. Still, it is not a perfect world for all groups. Within this context, despite all the progress of professional women in gaining access to leadership positions, there is more to be done in acquiring equal access to that which men enjoy.

For example, in higher education in the United States, the typical college president is a 60-year-old white male that moved up the ladder from one position to the other until he reached the presidency. The proportion of women who have served as presidents of American colleges and universities has increased from 23% in 2006 to 26% 2011. In addition, other countries reflect similar small numbers of female leaders, such as in the United Kingdom and Australia, where 9% of college presidents were female, and 27% of vice-chancellors were female, respectively.

These numbers reflect the barrier of glass ceiling that helps us understanding the gender gap between men and women in accessing leadership positions. The term glass ceiling refers to “artificial barriers in the workplace which have served to block the advancement of qualified women.” Glass ceilings exist as a result of societal barriers, organizational barriers, and governmental barriers. The extent to which glass ceilings bar access for women to leadership positions frequently depends on the gender distribution among industries. Women are more likely to access top management and leadership positions in predominately female disciplines than in predominately male ones. Many professional women believe that the root of the glass ceiling is that most institutions and organizations were created by and for men, and are based on males’ experiences.

So, let me ask you a question: What would you do if you were deprived equal access to leadership positions just because of your gender, being a woman, even when you are qualified and skilled enough to play that role?  So, as a woman, I am so passionate about studying the barriers and support professional women encounter when accessing leadership positions, especially in higher education. I believe at this modern age, there should be equal access to top leading positions since women’s participation has termendously increased in the workplace. I also believe that it is our responsibiltiy to promote for social change through the application of affirmative actions, and more importantly, through educating the new generation. I totally understand that the road is still long, but I believe that we as a global community can make it a reality in creating more inclusive and just workplace for women and other various groups where we can sustain a better, brighter future for coming generations.


American Council on Education. (2012). Leading demographic portrait of college presidents reveals ongoing challenges in diversity, aging Retrieved from:

Jolls, C. (2002). Is there a glass ceiling? Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 25(1), 1‒18.

Kloot, L. (2004). Women and leadership in universities: A case study of women academic managers. The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 17(6), 470‒485.

Munoz, M. (2010). In their own words and by the numbers: A mixed-methods study of Latina community college presidents. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 34, 153‒174.

Pompper, D. (2011). Fifty years later: Mid-career women of color against the glass ceiling in communications organizations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(4), 464‒486.

Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2007). The glass cliff: Exploring the dynamics surrounding the appointment of women to precarious leadership positions. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 549‒572.

Still, L. V. (2006). Where are the women in leadership in Australia? Women in Management Review, 21(3), 180‒194.

U. S. Department of Labor. (1995). Good for business: Making full use of the nation’s human capital.  Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Drought Happens

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 11:54am

Written by David Hoover, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Droughts are one of the most expensive extreme weather events, second only to hurricanes. In 2012, the US experienced its most extensive drought since the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Over half the country experienced moderate to extreme drought, costing an estimated $30 billion. The central plains were hit the hardest, causing widespread failure of crops and leading to the lowest cattle heard size since 1951, which has recently driven beef costs to the highest level since 1987.

The newest IPCC report on climate change predicts that extreme events, such as drought, will be more frequent and intense in the future as result of manmade climate change. 

This leads to the question: Was the 2012 US drought caused by climate change?

Well, most climate scientists would argue that currently we cannot attribute individual weather events to climate change. However, it is very likely that today’s droughts are influenced by climate change. For example, warmer air temperatures can increase the evaporative demand of the atmosphere and thus intensify the effects of drought. Warmer temperatures can also alter hydrologic cycles, changing rainfall patterns and amounts. Combined, these two factors – greater evaporation and altered precipitation – can affect drought severity.  

But as bad as the 2012 US drought was, natural climate variability over the past millennia have spawned droughts worse than anything we have witnessed or are prepared to deal with as a society.

We can categorize drought severity on three different time scales – yearlong (think 2012 US drought), multiyear (think 1930’s Dust Bowl) and multidecade (think “megadrought”). A recent study by Cook et al. (2014), examined tree ring data in North America for the past 1000 years, to investigate drought variability over time scales longer than our instrumental record. It turns out that the 2012 US drought was not an uncommon event – short-term pancontinental droughts occurred about 12% of the time or about once every decade. On the other hand, there were only four megadroughts during this period, all occurring during the Medieval Warming Period (between 1900-1400 AD), and each lasting for decades.

So perhaps a better question is: What if the 2012 drought had developed into a megadrought?

The truth is we have no idea what the consequences of such an event would be. We can look back at the 1930’s Dust Bowl, but that was just under a decade long (not a megadrought) and the ecological and agricultural impacts were exacerbated by poor agricultural practices. Basically the Dust Bowl looks pretty tame when we zoom our timescale out to the millennial level.

Our current thinking about drought is small, or more accurately, short. Our agricultural systems struggle with single year droughts and few ecological studies examine drought effects beyond a single grant funding cycle (about four years). Although environmentally and economically disruptive, most ecosystems and our highly industrialized agricultural system have the resilience to bounce back from such short-term droughts. However the impacts of megadroughts are uncertain at best and apocalyptic at worst (ask the Mayans). Therefore it is important that we begin to consider how to improve societal resilience and investigate the potential ecological consequences of megadroughts.

A paradox of agriculture and greenhouse gases

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 4:27pm

Written by Paul Brewer, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

I never thought I would be doing research on soil - though I was wildly curious in high school and college it did not even cross my mind to read about it, soil science sounded like the dullest discipline imaginable. But after learning about biotic soil crusts during a spring in the Mojave desert I realized soils are not just inert matter we walk around on but are alive, and I started to get curious. I wanted to work on solutions to major environmental problems and the more I read the more I saw that soils and the living organisms within them have immense impacts on the world around us. One of these impacts is the role soils play in carbon cycling – carbon resides in soils in a vast array of forms and is slowly eaten and turned into CO2 by microorganisms and bugs. Because of how slowly soil carbon can decompose, soils are an excellent place to store carbon to reduce the severity of climate change. We often think of planting a tree to reduce CO2 concentrations, but, surprisingly, the amount of carbon currently in soils is four times greater than the carbon in all the trees and plants put together and three times greater than all the CO2 in the atmosphere (Ontl & Schulte, 2012).

(Caption for the above photo: Slow decomposition in soil: Plant material in the center of this soil core still looked like fresh wheat straw even though the surrounding material has decomposed and darkened in the 14 week study.)

Soils each have a different capacity for the amount of carbon they can hold and most cropland soils can store much more. These soils are also very accessible to us – already farmers make massive alterations to cropland soils every year through specific plowing, cultivation, and harvest techniques. In the United States alone this affects over 430 million tons of soil (or 300 million acres). There is enormous opportunity for changes in farming techniques to cause rapid, large increases in carbon stored in these agricultural soils. Ending the plowing of a field, that is moving to no-tillage techniques, is the most common approach used to store more carbon. When a field is no longer plowed dead roots and other pieces of the plant are left in the soil, slowly decomposing and storing that year’s plant carbon in the meantime.

Caption for this image: 100-year global warming potential of the three primary greenhouse gases, bars not to scale (IPCC 2013).

However, even though the dead plant material helps prevent that carbon from becoming CO2 quickly it also allows stronger greenhouse gases, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), to be produced (Johnson et al.,  2007). This paradoxical effect, that avoiding CO2 emissions can lead to greater emission of other greenhouse gases, could mean that farmers and governments won’t try to increase soil carbon if there is not a good understanding of how or why this can happen. Over the past two years I have found that buried plant material can create significant quantities of CH4 and N2O, but that the amount of those strong greenhouse gases produced depends on soil moisture, available nutrients, and the size of plant pieces. This means that when farmers stop plowing and plant material is left in the ground production of the strong greenhouse gases could be avoided by choosing a particular timing of fertilizer application and irrigation. The specific situations that create greenhouse gases vary by soil and crop type, so continued studies will give us the knowledge necessary to minimize climate change by nudging cropping practices one way or another. This topic is a good example of how more abstract ecological research can be combined with applied agricultural work to help solve a global problem.


Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. 2012. Soil Carbon Storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35

Johnson, J. M.-F., A. J. Franzluebbers, S. L. Weyers, and D. C. Reicosky. 2007. Agricultural opportunities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental Pollution 150:107–124

Climate, air quality, and particles

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 8:00am

Written by Shunsuke Nakao, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science.

Particulates in the atmosphere (aerosol) are everywhere, although they are too small to be seen with the naked eye (from nano-meter to micron scale). If you take one mL of air from outside, the chances are that there are thousands of liquid or solid suspended particles. Some are emitted from sources as is (e.g., soil dust); some are produced in the atmosphere through chemical reactions; some are alive or once alive (bioaerosol).

Do aerosol help us or harm us? – It’s complicated. They are air pollutant (e.g., PM2.5); however, without aerosol, there will be no clouds (water needs something to condense onto). They act as a sunshade by reflecting some sunlight back into space, as well as seeding clouds. The "cooling effect" by aerosol is estimated to mask approximately half of the warming effect by green house gases (with a large uncertainty) (IPCC 2007, 2014). The important role of the scientific community is to improve the understanding of the link between emissions and their impacts (air quality and climate change). My research focus has been on the fundamental interaction between gas, particle, and cloud.

One of the research topics I am interested in is the role of water in the atmosphere. Importance of cloud chemistry has been recognized for decades (e.g., sulfate formation); some gaseous compounds dissolve into water and react within water, leaving behind aerosols after evaporation of clouds. Similar processes may also occur in wet aerosols. Recently, another potentially important process emerged. To explain this, let me ask you a simple question - What happens if you dilute peanut butter with water? It gets soft. Something like this may be occurring in the atmosphere. Historically, aerosol particles are treated either as liquid or solid. However, recent studies suggest something in between may be important (Virtanen et al., Nature, 2010). Water may be helping softening the peanut-butter-like material in the atmosphere, impacting their physics (e.g., diffusion within gooey particles) and chemistry.

Next time you see clouds, I hope you can imagine tiny particles that formed each cloud droplet. Are they really like peanut butter? We will figure it out.

Fun videos:

Fun reads:

Link to my website:

Weird Dramas and Peace Studies

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 12:15pm

Written by William Timpson, SoGES 2013-2014 Global Challenges Research Team member for Biodiversity Case Studies, and Fullbright Senior Specialist, Peace and Reconciliation Studies, School of Education, CSU

Just 31 miles north of Seoul is the site for high stakes dramas that periodically crescendo. This week had one such moment. As reported in The Korea Herald (Tue. Mar. 4, 2014): “North Korea on Monday (March 3) fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea in its latest saber-rattling apparently to protest the South Korean-U.S. military drills, Seoul’s Military Defense Minister said. Seoul called the move a ‘provocative action’ that further raised military tensions on the peninsula and violated a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting any launch using ballistic missile technologies. The North fired four ballistic missiles last Thursday and four ‘KN-09” rockets into the East Sea about a week earlier (1).”

High drama indeed. I am serving this semester as a Fulbright Scholar at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate Institute of Peace Studies (GIP) and teaching a class on peacemaking. GIP has its own campus in north Seoul with a dormitory, cafeteria, gym, library, and administration building with a separate mediation hall, all on meticulously manicured grounds. Every morning we gather for a brief student-lead talk, meditation, walk and/or exercises.

Despite this “saber rattling” from the north, most here do not seem that worried. They do not believe the North Koreans have the capacity to defeat the South and their American allies although they admit that, if it came to war, Seoul would be vulnerable. These threats from North Korea have been repeated so often that they have lost much of their ability to frighten anyone here.

One of my students is new to GIP. He has been in the army for ten years and has achieved the rank of captain. Like others, he is not that worried about the North but is very appreciative of American sacrifices in fighting the Korean War and then providing troops—now at nearly 30,000—ever since to help secure the peace.

A question I have is this: To what extent do North Korean “hawks” use the presence of these U.S. troops in South Korea to reinforce the iron grip they maintain on their politics, budgets and people? This is the kind of issue they explore at GIP.

Another of my students has completed his required military service and sees a real “weirdness” here. He remembers visiting China and being at the Beijing airport, waiting in line to board a flight to another city in China, when he noticed another line nearby for North Koreans on that same flight. Here in China they could stand next to each other but never back home.

Given that, another question I have is this: What will normalization, reconciliation or reunification require, especially in the absence of ongoing communication at every level? Again, this is the kind of issue they study at GIP.

I feel very fortunate to have landed at GIP. Because my students here come from so many different countries and discussions are very rich. For its contributions, the GIP was honored with the 1993 UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. Provost Gi Bung Kwon says that he welcomes any student who has the ambition to make the world a better place and he can offer a full scholarship for the two years of required study.

Final question: How do we get this kind of investment in peace studies in the U.S.?

Bill Timpson is a professor at Colorado State University.

Bringing indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 11:52am

Written by Matt Luizza, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Since my early childhood I have been fascinated with rural indigenous cultures from across the globe. The romantic notion of seemingly forgotten places, inhabited by people existing in primal harmony with the natural world was the most exciting thing I could imagine. My mind ran wild as I envisioned living with each and every group I learned about, from the feared Comanche horse culture of the historical U.S. Great Plains, to newly discovered tribes hidden in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. Out of all of my childhood friends, I was the only kid, that if the culturally insensitive game of “Cowboys and Indians” were to arise, would gladly and emphatically choose to be in the latter group of wild west combatants. Now, well into my mid-to-late childhood, my naïve understanding of local indigenous communities has advanced beyond a narrow view of simple cultures frozen in time, but this formative curiosity and reverence has stuck with me and turned into the underlying passion fueling my doctoral research.

My PhD work is driven by a conviction which I, and a number of other scholars and practitioners share. It is a belief that indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are predominately tied to their local landscapes, harbor a vast wealth of important intergenerational knowledge, including empirical observations, cultural values and spiritual practices; and this knowledge is critical to conservation planning. I believe that acknowledgement and inclusion of such knowledge, values and perceptions, and meaningful consultation and collaboration throughout all stages of research and planning with indigenous communities, is necessary for local empowerment and effective conservation.

At a recent lunch meeting with renowned ecosystem ecologist and social-ecological systems scholar F. Stuart Chapin III (see Chapin III et al. 2000 and 2010), Dr. Chapin poignantly voiced a supporting sentiment when discussing the idea of “ecological integrity”. Ecological integrity can be defined broadly as a given ecosystem's structure and function, operating in a manner that fits a natural/historic range of variation. Noting first that most systems are so heavily influenced by humans that pristine places with intact ecological integrity are rare, he went on to point out the importance of knowing a system very well, as this “sense of place” affords a better intuition about the processes related to ecosystem structure and function, facilitating the ability to pick up on even the most subtle changes. This observation nicely encapsulates one of the many important contributions of indigenous knowledge, which is comprised of the same in-depth understanding of place, and further affords a better view of the intimately linked nature of social and ecological systems. An understanding that is needed to ensure the longevity of both through conservation practices which protect ecological integrity but also human livelihoods.

Indigenous knowledge is an increasingly popular topic in both the scientific and philanthropic worlds, with two key terms, “traditional ecological knowledge” and “local ecological knowledge” alone producing over 17,000 results in Google Scholar and 657 peer-reviewed manuscripts in Web of Science. Despite this, in the rapidly growing fields of risk assessment studies (see Buckley 2008 and Lindgren 2012) and ecological modeling (see Elith et al. 2010 and Evangelista et al. 2012), indigenous knowledge has yet to be adequately acknowledged. This is troubling as such powerful risk management and vulnerability assessment approaches are often the driving force behind conservation planning and resource management decision making. Many land managers and local communities have limited resources (especially geospatial) for assessing the risk posed by linked disturbance drivers like invasive species and climate change. Working in Alaska and Ethiopia provides an opportunity to employ novel approaches and engage very distinct ecologies and cultures, facing similar acute environmental changes.

My research specifically seeks collaboration with rural indigenous communities in Alaska and Ethiopia, to integrate their knowledge with geospatial applications, and better understand the vulnerability of ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits that humans receive from the environment) (see MA 2005), which they rely on for their livelihoods, to problematic invasive species and changing climate at the local and landscape scale. This spatial understanding can then hopefully promote dialogue about conservation strategies linked with local community needs and values. Alaska is one the fastest warming places on the planet (Rupp & Springsteen, 2009). Disruption of environmental processes are known to negatively affect biodiversity and overall ecosystem resilience, in addition to impacting local Alaskan communities whose livelihoods are dependent on the landscape (McNeeley & Shulski 2011). Located in eastern interior Alaska is one of my research sites, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is the third largest conservation area in the national wildlife refuge system. It is comprised of a mosaic of critical subarctic habitat and one of the greatest waterfowl breeding areas in North America. Additionally, seven Gwich'in Athabascan indigenous communities live within or adjacent to the Refuge and are heavily reliant on the local landscape. The ecological, cultural and economic importance of this site cannot be overstated, and currently a number of highly aggressive invasive species are noted to be present, and of growing concern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the villages, including aquatic species like western waterweed (Elodea nuttallii and Elodea canadensis), and terrestrial species including Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), White sweet clover (Melilotus albus), and Bird vetch (Vicia cracca). Both the tribes and USFWS have an especially vested interest in understanding and managing aquatic invasive Elodea, as it negatively impacts Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) spawning habitat, becoming an impenetrable mass of tangled plant matter that clogs lakes and slow-moving creek and stream tributaries, thus holding major implications for a region that houses the longest Pacific salmon run in the world. As noted by a Native Alaskan Chief at a recent inter-tribal summit in the Yukon Territory, “water is our life. It sustains us...We define ourselves as being part of the land [and] King salmon was and is the life line on the Yukon”.

Over 7,000 miles away, across the Pacific Ocean, is my other research site, Ethiopia. Like Alaska, the wonders of Ethiopia cannot be overstated. As the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia provides the majority of water for both tributaries of the longest and most recognizable river in the world. The lush, forested southern reaches of the country are captivating and home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity in the world. The Bale Mountains National Park, located adjacent to one of my project sites, is noted to be among the world's most irreplaceable Protected Areas for conservation of amphibian, bird and mammal species (LeSaout et al. 2013). The flora is equally impressive with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) noting that “...the conditions and the isolation of these areas have led to the evolution of unique plant communities that are found nowhere else” (UNEP 2008). Preliminary results of my current work in Ethiopia reveal important gender distinctions of plant knowledge and valuation of plant-derived ecosystem services (Luizza et al. 2013). For more on this project, please visit my blog post on NREL's EcoPress site, and see  what other projects are occurring in Ethiopia through the recently announced strategic alliance between the Warner College of Natural Resources and Ethiopia.

In both Alaska and Ethiopia there is a need to include indigenous communities in conservation planning, through novel, interdisciplinary approaches, which are above all community-driven. Indigenous communities in both places (and around the globe) are facing an array of challenges fueled by a number of environmental and anthropogenic disturbances. As I prepare for the next round of field work in Ethiopia in April 2014 and Alaska in August 2014, I am aware of the vast amount of work that lies ahead, but excited to see the growing number of scholars, land managers and local practitioners seeking collectively to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning.


Buckley, Y.M. 2008. The role of research for integrated management of invasive species, invaded landscapes and communities. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 397-402.

Chapin III., F.S., Zavaleta, E.S., Eviner, V.T., Naylor, R.L., Vitousek, P.M., Reynolds, H.L., Hooper, D.U., Lavorel, S., Sala, O.E., Hobbie, S.E., Mack, M.C., and Díaz, S. 2000. Consequences of changing   biodiversity. Nature 405: 234-242.

Chapin III., F.S., Carpenter, S.R., Kofinas, G.P., Folke, C., Abel, N., Clark, W.C., Olsson, P., Stafford Smith, D.M., Walker, B., Young, O.R., Berkes, F., Biggs, R., Grove, J.M., Naylor, R.L., Pinkerton, E., Steffen, W., and Swanson, F.J. 2010. Ecosystem stewardship: Sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(4): 241-249.

Elith, J., Kearney, M., and Phillips, S. 2010. The art of modelling range-shifting species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 1: 330-342.

Evangelista, P., Norman III, J., Swartzinki, P., and Young, N. 2012. Assessing habitat quality of the mountain nyala Tragelaphus buxtoni in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Current Zoology 58(4): 525-535.

Le Saout, S., Hoffman, M., Shi, Y., Hughes, A., Bernard, C., Brooks, T.M., Bertzky, B., Butchart, S.H.M., Stuart, S.N., Badman, T., & Rodrigues, A.S.L. 2013. Protected areas and effective biodiversity conservation. Science, 342(15): 803-805.    

Lindgren, C.J. 2012. Biosecurity policy and the use of geospatial predictive tools to address invasive plants: Updating the risk analysis toolbox. Risk Analysis 32(1): 9-15.

Luizza, M.W., Young, H., Kuroiwa, C., Evangelista, P., Worede, A., Bussmann, R.W., and Weimer, A. 2013. Local knowledge of plants and their uses among women in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 11: 315-339.

McNeeley, S.M., and Shulski, M.D. 2011. Anatomy of a closing window: Vulnerability to changing seasonality in Interior Alaska. Global Environmental Change 21: 464-473.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being: a framework for assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rupp, T.S., and Springsteen, A. 2009. Projected Climate Change Scenarios for the Bureau of Land Management Eastern Interior Management Area, Alaska, 2001-2099. University of Alaska Fairbanks Report. Prepared for U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. 10pp.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2008. Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). Nairobi: Kenya.

Knowing what fish eat can help us make smarter choices about the fish we eat

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:31am

Written by Clint Leach, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

It is sometimes startling for me to think how many fish interiors I have seen. Summing over three tours on the annual Gulf of Alaska/Aleutian Islands survey run by NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC), the number is surely in the thousands. For someone with no fewer than three blood-induced fainting incidents on his resume, there has to be a pretty compelling reason to willfully look at the insides of that many fish. Fortunately, there is – to find out what they eat. Though I was only a small cog in a much larger data-collecting machine, I was out there because I am fascinated by food webs – networks that map who eats whom in an ecosystem. Assembling these food webs means identifying what all the species are eating, and in the case of marine fish, this means identifying what's in their stomachs. Collecting these data requires a great deal of effort – AFSC scientists have peered into hundreds of thousands of stomachs over the last thirty years – but offers powerful insights in return.

Despite the visual tangle of an assembled food web (network diagrams like the one shown here are sometimes unaffectionately referred to as hairballs), there are patterns – nonrandom structures – that can be extracted. For instance, many food webs, like the Chesapeake Bay marine food web, can be broken into a few tightly knit groups that only loosely interact with one-another (Krause et al. 2003)⁠. In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, this means that the food web separates into two groups: a benthic group (bottom-dwelling species), and a pelagic group (water-column species), with a few key species connecting the two. 

Identifying such structures in the tangle of a food web can tell us a great deal about how energy moves through an ecosystem (flowing from plants on up) and how it might respond if one or more species are lost. When a species is removed, or its abundance substantially reduced, the effects can cascade through the food web, affecting many other species.  Knowing the structure of the food web allows us to predict what other species will be affected and how severely. In the case of the Chesapeake Bay food web, the effects of the loss of a benthic species are more likely to be contained within the benthic group, without affecting the pelagic species.  Knowing how species break into groups allows us to identify the major avenues through which energy flows and how the loss of different species will disrupt that flow.

Such tools are especially useful in fisheries management (hence the interest from AFSC) as they allow us to explore how the harvest of a particular species of fish will affect all of the others in a community.  For instance, the collapse of the Atlantic cod population on the Scotian Shelf in the early 1990's created a cascade that affected the whole community (Frank et al., 2011)⁠. Without the cod there to eat them, the fish that had previously been the cod's prey – herring, capelin, and sandlance – exploded in population. Because of this boom, they in turn drove down the populations of their prey, and so on through the food chain.  Understanding such chains of events, and how they are governed by the layout of the food web, can help us to better manage how we harvest fish so that we can keep the whole community stable.

Acknowledging and studying such interconnections highlights the fact that we participate in, and exert a large influence over, these marine food webs. Before it made it to your plate, that fish was part of a community, part of a food web, where it acquired its own dinners and might have provided dinner for something else had it not made it to you first. The energy that reaches our plate must first pass through the complex interactions between myriad organisms, and understanding how and where exactly that energy flows is of critical importance if we are to continue to safely and sustainably enjoy the products of the sea. 


Frank, K. T., Petrie, B., Fisher, J. a D., & Leggett, W. C. (2011). Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem. Nature, 477(7362), 86–9.

Krause, A. E., Frank, K. a, Mason, D. M., Ulanowicz, R. E., & Taylor, W. W. (2003). Compartments revealed in food-web structure. Nature, 426(6964), 282–5.

Species extinction is a great moral wrong

Fri, 02/14/2014 - 11:16am

By Philip Cafaro, PhD and Professor of Philosophy and affiliated faculty member with the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, United States, and Richard B. Primack, PhD and Professor of Biology, Boston University, United States

Posted on 12 February 2014

Nearly three decades ago, Michael Soulé published an article titled ‘‘What is Conservation Biology?’’ (1985). Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé’s success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this rapidly developing field. At its heart was the belief that the anthropogenic extinction of species is a great moral wrong. ‘‘The diversity of organisms is good,’’ Soulé wrote, and ‘‘the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad.’’ Other species have ‘‘value in themselves,’’ he asserted: an ‘‘intrinsic value,’’ which should motivate appreciation, respect, and restraint in our dealings with them.

In ‘‘What is Conservation Science?’’ (2012), a recent attempt to update Soulé, Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier lose sight of this moral commitment. Specifying the practical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give prominent place to increasing human wealth (‘‘economic development’’) and ‘‘working with corporations,’’ while recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the article’s rhetoric serves to normalize anthropogenic extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the extirpation of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as ‘‘nostalgia’’ for ‘‘the world as it once was,’’ and states that ‘‘some realism is in order’’ regarding whether or not people should be required to keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.

Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration of this one article, but an essential part of Karieva and Marvier’s brief for conservationists to accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch. An earlier piece that they published with Robert Lalasz, ‘‘Conservation in the Anthropocene’’ (2011), also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity, in part, apparently, because such extinctions will not necessarily inconvenience human beings.

‘‘Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature,’’ they argue there. ‘‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’’

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question, and perhaps too for other species that preyed on or parasitized them, or depended on them in other ways. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors—they are not real catastrophes—as long as the ‘‘ecosystem functions’’ that benefit people remain intact. (Regarding the near-extinction of the American chestnut and the demise of the passenger pigeon, among the most abundant tree and bird species in temperate eastern North American forests five hundred years ago, if they had no ‘‘measurable effects,’’ we may assume that was because no one bothered to measure them at the time.)

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next several centuries, if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-monopolizing path (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010). In one sign of the times, in 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to current and potential future effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet about the polar bear Kareiva et al. (2011) have this to say:

‘‘Even that classic symbol of fragility—the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block—may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth’s history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends—the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.’’ 

Note the way this account equates past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused climate change. That’s just ‘‘the history of life,’’ adapting or failing to adapt to changing conditions. Note the disappearance of any sense of human agency for the threat to the polar bear: Ursus maritimus’ fate depends on ‘‘two opposing trends’’ as ‘‘the environment changes’’—not on whether or not humanity ratchets back greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, note the glibness with which the authors talk about the extinction of this magnificent beast (‘‘seemingly stranded on a melting ice block’’).

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to Kareiva, Marvier and some other Anthropocene proponents (e.g. Bradbury, 2012), as long as this destruction does not rebound and harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human numbers and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our numbers and economic demands (Cincotta and Gorenflo, 2011; Noss et al., 2013). Exactly how to curb human demands or reform dysfunctional economic institutions that endanger wild nature may be open questions, but they are not optional questions for conservationists, nor can we ignore moral issues in answering them (Rolston, 1994).

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses for their displacement, or making light of their extinction. It is particularly inappropriate for Peter Kareiva to do so, given his position as chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving biodiversity. TNC’s fundraising rests in part on appeals to a strong and widely shared moral sense that other species have a right to continued existence. Much of the conservation value of TNC’s easements and land purchases depends on societywide moral and legal commitments to preserve threatened and endangered species. Kareiva and Marvier (2012) state that they ‘‘do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action,’’ or presumably, conservation law. Yet their articles do precisely that, with potentially disastrous implications for practical conservation efforts, particularly in the long-term.

To be clear: we do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important component of conservation, as conservation biologists have long recognized (Greenwald et al., 2013). Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right, too, that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours (see Primack, 2010, chapter 6, for a fuller treatment of these ethical claims).

However, it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to a selfconcerned prudence, or to anthropocentrically assume that it is acceptable to extinguish those species that do not provide us with important ecosystem services. As with marriage, education, or any other important human institution or activity, an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, and that is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is most importantly a matter of justice, not economic convenience (Staples and Cafaro, 2012).

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature’s order, creativity, and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational, and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When people take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much, and brought a valuable and meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Colin Tudge puts it well, writing in The Variety of Life (2000):

‘‘The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.’’ 

From this perspective, even one anthropogenic extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species, as on how well we do so with other people.

Michael Soulé (1985, 2013) is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence free from anthropogenic extinction, whether or not we find them beautiful, useful, profitable, or interesting, and whether or not preserving them is convenient or economically beneficial for people.


Bradbury, R., 2012. A World Without Corals. New York Times, op-ed pages, July 13, 2012. 

Cincotta, R.P., Gorenflo, L.J., 2011. Human Population: Its Influences on Biological Diversity. Springer. 

Greenwald, N., Dellasala, D., Terborgh, J., 2013. Nothing new in Kareiva and Marvier. BioScience 63, 241. 

Kareiva, P., Marvier, M., 2012. What is conservation science? BioScience 62, 962– 969. 

Kareiva, P., Lalasz, R., Marvier, M., 2011. Conservation in the Anthropocene: beyond solitude and fragility. Breakthrough J., 29–37 (Fall). 

Noss, R., Nash, R., Paquet, P., Soulé, M., 2013. Humanity’s domination of nature is part of the problem: a response to Kareiva and Marvier. BioScience 63, 241–242. 

Primack, R., 2010. Essentials of Conservation Biology, fifth ed. Sinauer Associates. 

Rolston, H., 1994. Conserving Natural Value. Columbia University Press. 

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010. Global Biodiversity Outlook 3. Montréal. 

Soulé, M.E., 1985. What is conservation biology? BioScience 35, 727–734. 

Soulé, M.E., 2013. The ‘‘New Conservation’’. Conservation Biol. 27, 897–899. 

Staples, W., Cafaro, P., 2012. For a species right to exist. In: Cafaro, P., Crist, E. (Eds.), Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation. University of Georgia Press, pp. 283–300. 

Tudge, C., 2000. The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of all the Creatures that Have Ever Lived. Oxford University Press.

To comment on this blog post, visit the ElsevierConnect website with the original article HERE.


Climate Change and Tropical Rainfall

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 9:31am

Written by Matthew R. Igel, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Atmospheric Science

One of the most incredible aspects of life in the tropics is the shear force with which raindrops seem to fall. As if shot out of a cannon with the specific aim of teaching a painful lesson that won’t soon be forgotten to silly humans attempting to feebly take shelter under a palm tree, raindrops from tropical thunderstorms are quite impressive already. But what will happen to these raindrops, or more precisely their number, with a warming climate?

This question is one that has been on the minds of atmospheric scientists in the last decade. I am just now sitting down to write this blog entry after attending a colloquium during which the idea that tropical rainfall might be responsible for events occurring in the Arctic was discussed, and, as so often occurs, the subsequent discussion became one on trends in tropical rainfall. And the reason this question is so common a refrain is that understanding how and why precipitation might change under climate change scenarios is crucial to the lives and livelihoods of populations living in the tropics. Local populations in the tropics have developed a dependence on frequent, but not too frequent, heavy, but not too heavy, rainfall. There are two ways in which this balance could be broken. Either the frequency or intensity of rainfall could change.  And, unfortunately, climate change is expected to change both.

As the climate warms, a myriad of changes will probably occur to the tropical atmosphere. The warmer atmosphere will be able to “hold” higher amounts of water vapor than it can today. So, the same storm in a warmer climate would rain more than it would in a cooler one. Also where it rains is expected to change. Today, much of the rain in the tropics is confined to narrow bands around the equator. Due to a variety of influences, these bands are expected to shrink in a warmer climate. Since the atmosphere has to rain a certain amount each day to maintain a constant water cycle, and because this rain will be confined to a smaller area, that effect too will create stronger rain rates.  Combined, these predicted changes portend bad news for many vulnerable populations in the tropics. “Extreme” rainfall will get heavier and “normal” rainfall will become less frequent. The situation is often referred to as the “Rich-get-Richer” response.  This name reflects the nature of regions receiving an abundance of precipitation being predicted to get more.

Traditional global circulation models (GCMs) that climate scientists use to make predictions about climate change have been predicting a “Rich-get-Richer” response to global climate change for some time.  However, these models lack the ability to simulate individual thunderstorms. Recently, work with special, high-resolution models has been conducted to understand how individual thunderstorms will respond to climate change. These simulations have revealed an even grimmer picture of changes to rainfall.  What they have shown is that groups of thunderstorm conspire to exacerbate the problem. It seems that clouds will group together in new ways to pour down rain on rainy areas at the expense of the drier ones. The strongest thunderstorms appear to get even stronger. Together with the results of the large-scale weather well simulated by the GCMs, there is reason for concern.

The “Rich-get-Richer” and thunderstorm difference mechanisms only account for the daily variations in rainfall. Tropical rainfall is also influenced by longer time scale phenomena. Both monthly and yearly time scales see broad changes in rainfall. On monthly scales the so-called Madden-Julian Oscillation (the MJO), a broad region of storminess that slowly moves eastward along the equator, can enhance or deter rainfall. Very recent work has suggested that MJOs may become harder to predict with greater time between rain events.  The events that do occur might result in heavier rainfall. On yearly timescales, hurricanes come and go. But with climate warming, the hurricanes that come will likely be less frequent and more intense than those we see today.

Anecdotally, some of these changes have already been seen. Regions like Australia and the Indian subcontinent have seen changes in the frequency and intensity of their rainfall. The Indian monsoon, a seasonal rain pattern, used to be amazingly consistent year-to-year, and therefore, predictable. Now monsoon onset occurs at a more variable time and monsoon rains are often heavy enough to flood. Australia too has seen drought and flooding with unfamiliar regularity.

Climate warming will likely require adaptation to new weather. While those in the tropics are generally spared the worst effects, they will have to adapt to rising sea levels and, unfortunately, it seems, changes in the rainfall that is so vital to their everyday life.

Of molecules and mosquitoes: molecular biology techniques underlie our efforts to sustainably eradicate mosquito-borne viruses

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:55pm

Written by Stephanie Moon, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

Not so very long ago, the prevailing belief was that mosquitoes were not capable of transmitting such devastating agents of disease as malaria, Yellow fever virus (YFV) and West Nile virus (WNV). It was believed that YFV was transmitted through mysterious fogs or general filth, and it wasn’t until early in the twentieth century that scientific investigation by the U.S. Army in Cuba uncovered the role of mosquitoes in virus transmission (1). Despite the prevailing public sentiment that it was ridiculous to consider that mosquitoes carried human pathogens, experiments by the U.S. Army led by Dr. Walter Reed in Cuba in the early 1900’s revealed that humans can transmit YFV to mosquitoes and mosquitoes can in turn consistently pass the virus back to humans. Shockingly, these experiments would not have been possible without the help of human volunteers willing to be infected with YFV, and some died as a result of their participation (1). However, the eventual eradication of YFV from Central and North America during the twentieth century would not have taken place without these key experiments defining the transmission cycle and a rigorous multi-pronged approach that aimed to destroy mosquito populations, discover a vaccine, and prevent mosquito-human contact through quarantine efforts, screens and mosquito nets (1).

Laboratory-based research efforts were successful in eradicating YFV from the U.S., but surveillance efforts to detect YFV or research into finding a cure for the disease are still important goals. Aside from contributing to sickness and death in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America, there is still a risk of YFV and other mosquito-borne viruses once again gaining a foothold in the U.S. It was also recently reported that the main vector for YFV and the related Dengue virus, Aedes aegypti, has been found in California, and 22 patients have been identified so far as having acquired Dengue virus in Key West, Florida (2).

Today in the U.S., West Nile virus is rapidly becoming a major concern as human and animal cases have burgeoned since the virus was introduced in New York in 1999. Yellow fever virus and its mosquito vector Aedes aegypti were also imported to the New World (thought to derive from West Africa and spread to the Americas as a consequence of the African slave trade) and we know now that the way we changed the landscape during the European expansion into the Americas contributed to the expanding region in which YFV was found (1). For example, razing the forest to create sugar cane plantations in the islands of the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century promoted the formation of new favorable habitats for Aedes aegypti, facilitating the spread of YFV (1). Similarly, the incidence of WNV in the northeastern U.S. has been shown to be higher in urban areas, and our agricultural practices have also contributed to WNV disease incidence in the western U.S. (3, 4).

Because West Nile virus normally exists in a transmission cycle between birds and mosquitoes (with humans and horses acquiring WNV incidentally), the ecology of this virus-host-vector system is in some ways more complex than that of YFV, which is maintained in humans and tree-dwelling monkeys (in the Americas). Eradicating WNV therefore presents a particularly complex challenge, especially as WNV, unlike YFV, has no vaccine. It follows that mitigation efforts will focus on mosquito control rather than disease prevention, which can negatively affect ecosystems by harming other insects and the animals that depend on insects as a food source (5). Coming up with new ways to treat patients infected with WNV and other mosquito-borne pathogens or prevent infection in the first place through vaccinations will permit a more sustainable approach to eradicating these diseases. Therefore, molecular biology research into the underlying molecular mechanisms of virus infection and transmission will be essential for our future efforts if we want a more environmentally friendly, sustainable solution to the problem of mosquito-transmitted viruses.

How do we manage the risk of WNV transmission locally? The city of Fort Collins provides a wealth of information to the public about this process. Data you can access online includes how many patients have been diagnosed with WNV, the severity of their disease symptoms, and fatalities in Larimer County. You can also easily find how many mosquitoes were trapped in certain areas in Larimer County and whether or not they tested positive for WNV online (6). These data are used to determine what actions the city should take to prevent a WNV outbreak. Part of the city’s response to a predicted outbreak is the use of insecticides that kill larval or adult mosquitoes, but they are applied in small areas and only used when the risk of WNV transmission is high. Despite the efforts of the city of Fort Collins to make data and information available to the public about WNV transmission risk and insecticide application, there is controversy surrounding the use of insecticides. A fairly recent article in the Coloradoan ( discusses some the pitfalls of the current system the city uses to decide when and where to spray insecticides (7). One major problem with our current system is the way that we decide when to spray (7). Because the city won’t spray insecticides until several human cases are reported, there is a delay of almost a month between when people are getting infected with WNV and when they come down with symptoms and therefore when the city may take action (7). We could potentially stop this delay by relying more on mosquito surveillance efforts (7) and by developing improved diagnostics that will detect infection in people who are at risk of infection before the onset of symptoms.

The way that we currently evaluate and abrogate the risk of WNV transmission locally is rooted in molecular biology techniques, as both surveillance and (some) diagnostic tests rely on a method called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect viral genetic material. Unfortunately, our current repertoire of diagnostic tests are not useful until the patient has symptoms of the disease, so there is a need for more rapid, reliable diagnostic tests to detect WNV before the onset of illness. Surprisingly, there are no specific treatments or human vaccines for many important mosquito-borne viral diseases, including WNV. Research aimed at developing new vaccines, diagnostic tests and exposing new viral (or host) drug targets to mitigate the onset of disease symptoms will be a crucial component of a sustainable strategy for disease control. Laboratory-based research efforts can potentially also pinpoint why certain viruses cause disease or spread across the globe.

My research is focused on how a large group of arthropod-borne viruses including Dengue virus and WNV cause disease at the cellular and molecular level. If we can determine what factors are required for viruses to replicate in human cells, then we can potentially develop novel treatments to reduce the symptoms of the disease. Furthermore, by studying the common mechanisms that many different viruses use to cause disease, we could ultimately derive a common treatment. Many viruses that aren’t transmitted by mosquitoes (including Hepatitis C virus and Bovine viral diarrhea virus- a common ailment of cattle) are close relatives of YFV, Dengue virus, and WNV. Our work has uncovered some exciting mechanisms that these related viruses share to potentially cause disease in humans and animals that you can read about here: (8). Ultimately, research efforts should contribute to the production of treatments, vaccines, and sustainable methods of implementing both to supplement or replace our current approaches that rely heavily on mosquito control to mitigate disease risk in humans and animals.

Works cited and suggested reading:

(1) McNeill, JR. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Press.

(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Dengue Homepage. 27 Sept. 2012. Accessed 8 Jan 2014.

(3) Brown HE, Childs JE, Diuk-Wasser MA, Fish D. Ecologic factors associated with West Nile virus transmission, northeastern USA. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2008 Oct [8 Jan. 2014]. Available from

(4) Kilpatrick AM. “Globalization, land use, and the invasion of West Nile virus” Science. 2011 Oct 21; 334(6054):323-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1201010.

(5) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, Appendix K4, Environmental Effects of Mosquito Control 2004. Accessed 1 Jan. 2014.

(6) Colorado Mosquito Control, Inc. 2010. Accessed 8 Jan. 2014.

(7) Duggan, Kevin. “Fort Collins’ West Nile spraying could fly in new directions” The Coloradoan, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2013.        

(8) Moon, SL and Wilusz, J. Rage against the (cellular RNA decay) machine. PloS Pathog. 2013 Dec 9 (12):e1003762. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003762.


Will 9 billion humans put us in Mordor or the Shire?

Wed, 01/08/2014 - 9:54am

Written by Jillian Lang, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and lab manager of The Jan E. Leach Lab

Plenty of scientists, economists and think tankers are talking about the 9 billion people question, or the ‘9BPQ’. Our population is predicted to plateau in 2050 with 9 billion humans. That is a lot of bodies to provide water, food, shelter and clean air for. Is it possible? I’m not sure.

Dr. H.C.J. Godfray, University of Oxford professor, and his coauthors (2010) say it is possible, with a multifaceted and linked global strategy that can ensure sustainable and equitable food security. My favorite component of their optimism is reducing waste. Dr. John Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, another prolific writer on food security, agrees. In this blog post, he talks not only of changing diets to increase our food supply by 28%, but also about reducing food wasted. Think about it, if you collected all the mashed potatoes people didn’t finish on Thanksgiving, you could feed several villages in Africa the mountains of nutritious mash. After working in agriculture and studying plant pathology for many years, I’ve become fascinated by the disparity we humans have about understanding the sources of what sustain us and the dire threats to these sources we face and will leave for our children to tackle in the years to come.

Dr. Foley spoke about sustainability at an event hosted by the School of Global and Environmental Sustainability here at Colorado State University last month. While sitting in the audience too shy to ask my question, I began to consider local versus global food movements and how that relates to food security. It’s an intricate balance. What can we do today? How? If I don’t order a steak at this restaurant am I really making a difference? If I choose to buy this locally grown lettuce over that shipped from Mexico, am I contributing to global sustainability and securing our food supply? It feels like the answer is no, but really it is yes. If we consider all the small decisions made worldwide, the collective impact is ultimately a comprehensive change.

My research group works with Oryza sativa, known commonly as rice. This is a power house staple crop that feeds half of our world and an ancient, global food religion. Rice is intensively grown with several cropping cycles per year and it produces a significant amount of agricultural waste. A giant focus in our research is sustainably managing the pests and pathogens that threaten this simple, yet life sustaining plant. Tapping into the inherent tolerance to disease available in diverse wild varieties for introduction into those that are grown year after year is a sustainable approach to combating evolving microbes, and it will lessen the need for chemical applications for management, but more importantly, yield losses. Essentially, breeders can take advantage of what these plants already have to offer.

Growers are and will continually be faced with decisions to change their cropping systems, their seeds, their management strategies and their resource allocations. Our research involves molecular diagnostics, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, genetics, genomics and transcriptomics to help understand from the smallest to the largest level how these different kingdoms interact in a rice system. Opportunities for sustainable production also exist in making use of crop residue that is otherwise wasted in a very pollutant-heavy way, most commonly by burning directly in the field. A viable option to dealing with this waste is to use gasification. Gasification is a closed system that would bring a value added commodity in the form of energy to fuel downstream processes, like milling. The question is, will growers be willing to transport their leftover stems and leaves down the road to support this operation? Would it be cost effective for them? This scenario could be applied to many annual cropping systems, especially those where several crops are consecutively produced in one year. Another beauty in working with rice is that it is a simple grass. It is heavily studied so many research tools are available, such as a complete genome sequence and a multitude of invested researchers worldwide. Due to the nature of evolution, many of the traits people are interested in for bioenergy, such as cell wall structure, are highly conserved among plants. By taking advantage of rice as a model, research can quickly advance to optimize systems for not only sustainable food production, but reducing wasted crop residue and using it for bioenergy. So much like reducing that amount of consumed food wasted, creative approaches to reducing waste in all steps of agricultural productions should be explored.

It’s easy to feel far removed from the people and environments we’re working to help, since no one grows rice for hundreds of miles from my lab bench or our tropics-simulating greenhouses. However, much like the lettuce dilemma, we know our work locally does affect the global movement towards sustainable crop production and that our results can be readily translated to other food crops. This solution sounds straight forward when simply written in a blog. But what is perhaps most frightening in the sustainable food security challenge is climate change. Weather extremes and natural resource abuse trigger complications in microbial and agricultural ecology. The phytobiome (a new ‘ome’, meaning the microbes that hang out, for better or for worse, on plants above ground) is a diverse and complex environment that is sensitive to even single degree changes in temperature. Rice isn’t going anywhere; it has been around as a staple crop for centuries. So when I ponder my career and my own decisions around food security, I think there is a balance. We can make choices locally to support our growers up the street and tend our own little plots of land, but research and decisions we make around our food supply can influence our neighbors across the world.

Dr. Foley so accurately describes the absolute power agriculture has over our environment, our society, our diet, our governance and our day to day lives. Agriculture is like the economic ‘Sauron’ of plants and animals followed by reliant humans. It has to be a priority for sustainability studies. If our population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050 AND people are going to live longer, food security is not an option, it is a necessity otherwise, our planet may shift from looking like the Shire to Mordor.

Literature Cited:

Godfray, H.C.J., Beddington, J.R., Crute, I.R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J.F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S.M. and Toulmin, C. 2010. Food Security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science. 327:812-818.







If a tree falls in the forest, does it affect the water from our faucets?

Tue, 12/17/2013 - 12:28pm

Written by Heidi Huber-Stearns, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

From the Pacific Coast, to the forests of Northwest, and over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the western United States contains a checkerboard of geographic, ecological, and social diversity. These westernmost 11 states (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) are home to over 73.5 million people (which is 23% of US population), and contain the highest concentration of federal land ownership in the US. This region is also home to historic water rights (western water law principle of ‘use it or lose it’), suffers from arid and unpredictable precipitation, and drought-induced risks such as wildfire, and a contains critically important headwaters of major river systems (the Colorado Rockies alone contain headwaters for seven major US river systems).

Over the past couple decades the western US region has grown faster than the entire country. This growth has been accompanied by complex, expensive, and often poorly defined conflicts, which are fueled by rapid land use pattern changes, such as exurban development, and public land use transitions, and changes in climate, demographics, socio-economic conditions, and decreased funding for land stewards. Particularly on public (federally-managed) lands, significant funding limitations and gaps in forest and watershed maintenance have increased, as budgets are reprioritized to address immediate environmental and social concerns such as wildfire. States and their respective watersheds are not uniformly exposed to all these factors, nor are they only factors pertinent to this region, yet these factors are all cited as playing a role in driving the development of new approaches to addressing watershed stewardship challenges.

There is a clear need for new and creative ways to address these increasing concerns, especially since the majority of drinking water in the region comes from surface water supplies primarily protected by forests on public lands (Barnes, et al, 2009). So what occurs in the forested watersheds upstream is indeed linked to the water most of us in the region receive at our faucet. These new approaches to watershed stewardship have developed hand-in-hand with a shift from historically federally-managed conservation actions to decentralized collaborative efforts aimed at the local and regional scale (Nie, 2008).

One such approach, broadly called “Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) has increased in the region. We can think of PWS as a set of mechanisms that attempt to address these complex conflicts facing the region, designed in different ways to fit a variety of preexisting institutional and ecological conditions. This kind of expansion in PWS approaches is not specific to just the western US, in fact, PWS expansion is occurring across the globe. Ecosystem Marketplace  (a Forests Trends Initiative) has tracked the development of PWS globally, culminating in the State of Watershed Payments 2012 report, and an interactive map.

Zooming back in to the western US, our recent research included collaboration with Ecosystem Marketplace to inventory existing PWS programs in the region (data used in our work is part of the State of Watershed Payments data set). Our program inventory found 55 programs in operation or in design in the region in 2012; a number that more than doubled from the 20 programs in the region in 2003. These programs and their status (active, in design) are listed on the map to the right. Point map of Payments for Watershed Services in the Western United States (Huber-Stearns et al., 2013-unpublished). Our research resulted in information about the programmatic components of all 55 programs, which is more comprehensively covered in our full manuscript (email me for more information). In keeping with the theme of this blog, we will focus in on one specific subgroup of programs that emerged in our data analysis: Watershed Restoration and Protection programs.

We identified nine Watershed Restoration and protection programs in our 2012 inventory, and this number has increased since, with more programs under design and beginning full operation. Watershed Restoration and Protection programs focus primarily on targeting water quality ecosystem services, including general water quality, as well as some specific concerns, primarily, temperature, sediment and nitrogen. The programs focus on these ecological concerns through management actions, mainly: land restoration (forest thinning, prescribed burning, riparian restoration, and other actions to improve watershed health); and protection actions (outreach and increased patrols to educate public about appropriate activities in key watersheds, purchasing of conservation easements). These management actions are aimed at the protection and restoration of upper watershed lands that directly affect water municipalities’ source water, and in some cases, lands affecting wastewater and storm water discharge.

In all cases, water municipalities and utilities fund these programs. These programs include cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Tualatin. Due to the inherent checkerboard of land ownership in the region, those conducting stewardship practices on the land for these programs are varied. In the Pacific Northwest, these programs contain mainly private landowners who conduct a variety of restoration and protection practices on their land to enhance and improve water quality. In more arid states, the key land steward in the US Forest Service, who partners with utilities to cost-share restoration and protection actions on public lands.

It may seem unusual that water providers and federal agencies are teaming up to address water quality concerns. However, the Forest Service is increasingly focused on strategies to improve upstream water health, with a specific focus on engaging large water users who are willing to pay for protection, risk aversion and/or restoration practices. Both utilities and public agencies see these partnerships as opportunities to leverage their limited staff and funding towards improved watershed management. The utilities are motivated by source water protection, and other water quality and quantity concerns, while the public agencies and private individuals are motivated by the opportunity to improve overall health of both public and private lands. PWS can serve as a mechanism to work across land ownership boundaries in order to address larger social and ecological concerns.

These watershed restoration actions are often seen as investments in natural infrastructure: as a complement, or in lieu of municipalities increasing technology and treatment within drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. (Click here to read a recent report: Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the United States) As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As one example, investment in natural infrastructure can be worth avoidance of severe wildfire costs (loss of lives and property, forest health effects, costs of fire suppression) and subsequent damage (increased nutrients and sediment in water, increased water treatment costs, negative impact on water security, biodiversity). This approach can address such watershed health issues at their root cause, conducting restoration work along waterways and in headwaters.

Programs such as these PWS show that major urban water users are focusing on proactive thinking beyond their own intake and discharge pipes; investments in such programs are starting to solidify the economic value of upstream forests to downstream water users. PWS provides a mechanism that can facilitate: new partnerships and work across boundaries, leveraging of resources (making a dollar go further), and co-benefits such as habitat restoration, and landscape beauty. The relative newness and increasing popularity of PWS means that the next few years will be key for studying new programs coming online, and existing programs reporting outcomes and program effectives. In conclusion, the answer is yes; the clean, cold drinking water gushing forth from your open faucet can indeed be connected to falling trees in your watershed.

Heidi’s research is supported by the Agricultural Experiment Station. Heidi is also the Coordinator for the Colorado Conservation Exchange, a program of the Center for Collaborative Conservation.

Maps were produced by the Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University.


Barnes, M., Todd, A., Lilja, R, and Barten, P. (2009). Forests, Water and people: Drinking water supply and forest lands in the Northeast and Midwest United States. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service report.

Bennett, G., Nathaniel .C and Hamilton, K. (2012). Charting New Waters: State of Watershed Payments 2012. Washington, DC: Forest Trends. Available online at

Carpe Diem West. (2011). Watershed investment programs in the American West: An updated look: Linking upstream watershed health and downstream security. A Carpe Diem West Report. California.

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Gorte, R., Hardy Vincent, C., Hanson, L., Rosenblum, M. (2012). Federal land ownership: Overvew and data. Congressional research Service 7-5700, R42346.

Majanen, T., Friedman, R., Milder, J. (2011). Innovations in market-based watershed conservation in the United States: Payments for watershed services for agricultural and forest landowners. Ecoagriculture partners. June 2011.

Nie, M. (2008). The governance of Western public lands: Mapping its present and future. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas. 

Robbins, Meehann, Gosnell, & Gilbertz. (2009). Writing the new west: A critical review. Rural Sociology 74(3); 356.

Theobald, D. M., Travis,W. R., Drummond, M. A., and Gordon, E. S. (2013). “The Changing Southwest.” In Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment, edited by Garfin,G., Jardine, A., Merideth,R., Black, M., and LeRoy, S. 37–55. A report by the Southwest Climate Alliance. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Travis, W., Theobald, D., Mixon, G., and Dickinson, T. (2005). Western Futures: A look into the patterns of land use and future development in the American West. Report from The Center #6, Center of the American West, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Weidner, E. and A. Todd. 2011. From the forest to the faucet: Drinking water and forests in the US, Methods Paper. Ecosystem Services and Markets Program Area, State and Private Forestry, United States Forest Service.