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Imagine Melanie

Wed, 09/11/2013 - 11:58am

Written by Jonathan Fisk, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science

Imagine Melanie - she lives in Colorado at the base of the Rocky Mountains and is greatly concerned about climate change. Yet, she is not quite sure what to believe. Is it a myth – as many people she looks up to and respects have said? Is it real and if so is it really being caused by human activity? And, even if Melanie decides that climate change is indeed real and that fellow humans are to blame – what can she do? A political ‘sciencey’ answer would point out that energy and environmental issues exist in the context of complex labyrinth of geopolitics, formal and informal institutions and a collection of stakeholders from multi-national corporations to individuals. Additionally, within this ‘web’ is the proliferation of new technologies that make it possible to reduce uncertainty, identify nascent and growing challenges and even beginning the process of addressing ecological problems.

To strip away the jargon – what the preceding means is that Melanie faces a bumpy and stressful road strewn with arguments and difficult decisions. And, it is likely that Melanie will be torn because environmental issues are tough, they likely require Melanie to change her behavior and routines, they will tug at her core values, many of which are at stake and considered legitimate. It is also apparent to her that no one governing body (institutions) exists that can completely solve contemporary environmental issues like climate change.

Suppose Melanie decides she wants to address climate change. The institutional landscape she would confront ‘encourages’ conflict because it allows Melanie but also those who may disagree with her, multiple opportunities to debate and shape public policy. In this context – supporters of climate science may convince their city to take action but may struggle in their Statehouse. And, because power is so decentralized - if she loses in the Statehouse, she could try to work with members of Congress or wait until there is a new governor. The flip side is – so can her opponents.  Think of it this way – both she and her opponents can lobby 535 members of Congress, hundreds of bureaucratic agencies, 50 state governments and thousands of local governments.  Because of the structure and design of the U.S. political system, political power cannot be consolidated to the degree necessary for Melanie to just work with her city, state or member of Congress – so she can shop around and find the most receptive audience or institution.

Federal-state-local environmental roles and powers often change, which contributes to ‘fluid' and shifting legal boundaries and understandings of problems – this may lead to additional disputes. Again, consider poor Melanie – while she might believe that climate change can be solved through technology, others would argue that climate change is not real or that her solution does not go far enough – likely leading to additional disagreements. The potential for conflict does not end here. Even after laws are written – the language is often ambiguous, leading reasonable people to disagree on how goals may be achieved, the tools to be used and whether such goals will lead to new and unforeseen consequences.

Melanie may also encounter all sorts of conflicts about climate change because, as an issue, it involves key ideological debates. In short, her support for climate change related policies may depend on whether she is a Republican or Democrat – with Democrats increasingly supporting climate change science and Republicans more likely to believe the opposite.

Core values may also be at stake – concern over electricity costs, renewable power, good jobs and protecting the planet can pull Melanie, her opponents and even governments in multiple and conflicting directions. Bracketing off partisan debates, climate change, like many new environmental challenges, is also more likely to produce conflicts because it is no longer about distributing money. Rather, climate change may mean shifting to renewable (and more expensive) power, living in a walkable neighborhood rather than typical  suburbs, giving up one’s car in favor of public transportation, recycling or not engaging in as much consumption.  In other words, many new environmental policies are regulatory, which means that goods and services may be eliminated or altered, and certain behaviors: required or restricted. To return to political science jargon, conflict is likely because costs are acute (directly placed on the individual, firm or government) and the benefits diffuse i.e. (intergenerational and global).

What does all this mean for Melanie? Environmental conflict is likely inevitable– as the stakes are high., She will likely feel conflicted between protecting the planet, ensuring public health, sustaining biodiversity, heating her home and fueling her car, while also the ensuring that the economy continues to grow.  And, she may also disagree with others as to how to achieve and/or measure those goals.  She, moreover, will have multiple opportunities to interact with political institutions and disagree with stakeholders (who – in terms of numbers is increasing). And, when she loses the argument with one institution and she can go to another to continue to pursue her desired change. What this all means is that conflict is the new normal relative to environmental politics.


Environmental flows offer a win-win strategy to sustain flows in rivers while providing water to us

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 9:51am

Written by Ryan McShane, SoGES 2012-2013 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused more than 2,500 years ago that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” He had been pondering the supreme significance of change in the universe, but I like the quote simply because it might be the first time anybody had conveyed the fundamental nature of rivers. In a nutshell, rivers change – they vary. This natural variability is the essence of rivers. It affects how rivers work, in turn affecting which organisms live in rivers. However, we have altered this natural variability by building dams on rivers to store and divert water for many purposes, including drinking and irrigation water and electric power. Dam construction may have started as far back as 2650 BC, with Sadd el-Kafara in Egypt, but it did not begin in earnest until the mid-1900s, with Hoover Dam in Nevada/Arizona (read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for a thorough account of dam building by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers in the American West), and now we have more than 75,000 dams over 2 meters high in the United States alone. Although dams have many benefits, such as deterring floods that devastate cities and droughts that wither crops, floods and droughts themselves are natural features of river flow regimes, and our suppression of them has produced many costs for rivers.

The natural flow regime of rivers is described as comprising five components that are critical to rivers and the organisms that rely on them. These components include the magnitude, frequency, duration, timing, and rate of change of flows, and many plants and animals have evolved adaptations to them. For example, plains cottonwood is flood dependent along rivers in the western USA, where the natural flow regime is dominated by snow melting during the spring months. The early summer peak flow erodes vegetation from a river’s banks, and deposits sediment in other parts of the river channel, creating new ground for trees to occupy. Adult trees release seeds when the peak flow begins to recede, and the seeds land on this new substrate and germinate. As the peak flow continues to recede, the roots of the new seedlings grow deeper, toward the water-saturated soil beneath the surface. Because the flooding occurs with some predictability, older saplings are recruited into adulthood, and new seedlings can establish on new habitat created with the next flood. However, dams have disrupted this predictable flooding, and plains cottonwood has been disappearing along many rivers downstream from dams while many non-native tree species, such as saltcedar, have been replacing them.

We need water from rivers for many purposes, and dams are our means for fulfilling those demands, but dams are harmful to many organisms that need water in rivers as well. This simple realization led us to consider ways to obtain water from rivers while reducing our impact on organisms that depend on rivers. For instance, an early impact of dams was that rivers could sometimes run dry because we demanded too much water (all of it) during droughts. To prevent this drying of rivers, we decided that rivers should always retain some “minimum flow” that we would be obligated to meet, typically because it benefited some valued game fish. However, as we developed a better appreciation for the natural dynamism of river flow regimes, we began to realize that this initial focus on minimum flows was too simplistic to sustain healthy rivers. We understood that water management needed to maintain some semblance of the natural variability of rivers, initially arising as a question of “how much water does a river need?” Yet, the answer was primarily approached from the perspective of rivers as legitimate users of water, and did not explicitly address the predominating human dimension of water demands on rivers. Toward that end, a more comprehensive strategy for managing river flow regimes has finally emerged with the idea of “environmental flows”.

Environmental flows are defined as “the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems”. As this definition establishes, environmental flows do not entail river flow regimes that sustain just organisms living in rivers but also we who rely on water from rivers. This definition also conveys that at the heart of river sustainability is the balancing of a social-ecological system that governs how we and other organisms benefit from rivers. A way that we may achieve this balance is through the re-operation of dams to restore a more natural flow regime to rivers, mitigating some of the negative effects of flow regulation on organisms while also still delivering water that meets most of our needs. An example that shows the promise of dam re-operation is three experimental high-flow releases from Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which were designed to transport sediment into the Grand Canyon and create habitat for endangered humpback chub while minimizing the impact on our water use. Yet, this balance is not quickly or easily achieved with existing water law in the western USA under “beneficial use” and “prior appropriation” doctrines (read the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law for more information on water law), but we can attempt to provide tools that will support decisions about how water might be distributed toward attaining this balance.

My research is an attempt to develop tools that will support these decisions. I am trying to show how to restore a more natural flow regime to rivers that will aid native species of concern while also inhibiting non-native species. Moreover, I am interested in how climate change will affect future water supplies and what that will mean for balancing our demands for water from rivers and the needs of organisms living in rivers. Lastly, an important impact of reservoirs on rivers is that they change the water temperature downstream from dams, warming the water during the winter months and/or cooling it during the summer months. Because water temperatures are expected to increase with climate change, the release of cooler water from reservoirs may be beneficial to some cold-adapted fishes, like cutthroat trout. The tools I am developing will hopefully inform water managers on how to re-operate dams to positively affect not just river flow regimes but their thermal regimes as well. I am applying these tools to the Colorado River, its tributaries and their dams, and I hope to demonstrate the feasibility for releasing (or not releasing) water at certain times of the year and at certain places in the basin to provide the greatest benefit to native species of concern while producing the least cost to us in lost water use.

Climate change and population growth in the western USA will present many challenges in the years ahead (read the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study for more information on potential scenarios), but I think that we can decide as a society how to attain a balance between our demands for water from rivers and the needs of plants and animals that rely on a more natural flow regime for their livelihood and continued existence. Many of the needs of humans and other species fortunately are not diametrically opposed and can be met through similar river flow regimes. Water use in the western USA is not a zero-sum game, with humans winning only if other species lose. Life is full of trade-offs, and I hope my research will support decisions that reduce harm to rivers while maintaining a reasonable semblance of our way of life in the western USA. It is impossible to have our cake and eat it too, but if we can think strategically about how water is distributed—when and where—it may be possible to have our cake (sustain healthy rivers) and at least lick the icing off (satisfy most of our water demands).

Advancing Sustainable Communities on the CSU Campus: Living and Learning with Housing and Dining Services

Wed, 08/21/2013 - 9:49am

Written by Kaye Holman, SoGES 2012-2013 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Education and Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources; Tim Broderick, Sustainability Coordinator for CSU Housing and Dining Services

As described by Colorado State University’s (CSU) School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES), Sustainable Communities are organized to enable citizens to meet their own needs and enhance their well being while preserving Earth's life support systems and without endangering the living conditions of other people now or in the future. The focus on meeting present needs while taking into account the needs of future generations is a central principle of sustainability (World Commission, 1987). How do we translate such a principle into action?

On our own CSU campus, Housing and Dining Services serves as a living laboratory advancing recognized student affairs practices in sustainability (ACPA Sustainability Task Force, 2008). The unit incorporates a commitment to engaging students, visitors, faculty, and staff in waste reduction, resource conservation, and other practices associated with sustainable living. Housing and Dining Services’ efforts range from waste management, utilities conservation, and recycling to student leadership development and recognition for making sustainable choices.

With some 5,000 students in residence on the campus, conservation and waste reduction efforts can quickly add up. Composting was initiated in February 2012 with 191,000 pounds of campus food waste and bulking materials diverted from landfills over the course of the next 11 months. In early 2013, through collaboration with the City of Fort Collins, an anaerobic digester was brought into assist with diversion efforts. In the spring semester alone, an additional 67,000 pounds of food waste was converted to energy and fertilizer production. For all of 2013, Housing and Dining Services is projecting the collective efforts of staff and students will divert approximately 300,000 pounds of food waste from landfills.

With investment in a variety of energy projects, similar efficiencies have been realized in utilities-based energy and water use. Between July 2008 and June 2013, there was a 9% overall reduction in energy use in residence hall even while increasing the square footage of facilities and adding more student residents. The reductions were accomplished through a combination of physical improvements—i.e., insulation in older buildings, retrofitting of residence hall lighting, and installation of low-flow toilets and shower heads—and direct engagement with students to encourage active participation in energy conservation efforts. 

Students have made other significant impacts. Through the Leave It Behind program, residents have been invited to recycle unwanted items as donations to support campus sustainability initiative and local charities. For the 2012-2013 school year, 17-1/2 tons of items were diverted from landfills.  Student efforts haven’t just ended with recycling. Eco Leaders living in the residence halls have worked to raise awareness about sustainable behaviors, and the Green Warrior Campaign has recognized students who seek to reduce their environmental impact. More and more CSU students have made the commitment to be Green Warriors, too. There was a 28% increase in program participation in 2012 alone.

Living and learning with CSU’s Housing and Dining Services helps students see for themselves how their individual efforts can make big differences in advancing sustainable communities on campus. The coordinated efforts of staff and students put principles into action. Importantly, the knowledge and skills students gain be used in their lives beyond college to help them make wise, sustainable choices for a lifetime as well as for future generations.


ACPA Sustainability Task Force. (2008). Toward a sustainable future: The role of student affairs in creating healthy environments, social justice, and strong economies. Washington, DC: ACPA College Student Educators International.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sustainability from Space

Wed, 08/14/2013 - 9:00am

Written by Tim Assal, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Environmental sustainability requires a balance between economic and social development while ensuring environmental protection. Monitoring of our planets resources is therefore a critical component in the realm of sustainability. We live in a world faced with uncertainty of climate change and rapid population growth, both of which contribute greatly to increasing pressure and competition for natural resources. Over the last 40 years, a growing network of satellites orbiting high above the earth has played an increasingly vital role in global change research. Currently, there are approximately 120 earth observing satellites, each providing a unique birds-eye view of the planet. The images captured by these satellites are more than just pretty pictures. They are records of the Earth’s surface and can reveal what is hidden from our view, enabling us to track changes in the global ecosystem over time. For a thorough treatment of the subject, I would encourage you to check out NOVA’s recent special.

Earlier this summer, one of the newest satellites in orbit, Landsat 8, beamed back its first images after launch in February. The imagery provided by Landsat is not quite as sophisticated as some of the other satellites of the last decade. However, the commencement of Landsat 8 is a significant event because it continues the longest running enterprise of satellite imagery which began during the Nixon administration. Any major event since 1972 that left a mark on the planet larger than a soccer field was likely captured by Landsat. The true value lies in the temporal resolution associated with the data collection (every 16 days). Landsat reached new heights in 2008 when the USGS released the entire archive to the public, free of charge. Given the imagery is readily available and covers large areas where ground access can be difficult, it’s no surprise there has been a sharp increase in multi-temporal remote sensing studies. The journal Remote Sensing of Environment dedicated a special issue to the legacy of Landsat in 2012.

I suspect I was more excited than most about the new satellite because this type of data is central in my work. I research how disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks and drought impact our forests. I use remote sensing to investigate the connection between historical pine beetle damage and wildfire in Glacier National Park, as well as drought stress in semi-arid woodlands in Wyoming. Disturbances have always been a natural occurrence in forests; however, global climate change is expected to increase the extent, frequency and severity of future disturbances. I use remote sensing in part to uncover when, where and why these changes took place. Disturbance alters forest ecosystem structure by both abrupt, conspicuous change and by gradual, slow change over some period of time. Such impacts allow remote sensing to capture the pre and post landscape and detect changes that might not be readily observed, such as drought stress. Through assembling multiple snapshots in time, we can begin to answer more difficult questions regarding the severity of a disturbance and the recovery trajectory for a given area. 

I use many different types of remotely sensed data in my work, but Landsat is always my “go- to.” My work often involves a retrospective analysis of an event and I believe one project epitomizes the utility of Landsat. My advisor and I are working with a colleague at the Universidad Austral de Chile to quantify forest mortality in Tolhuaca National Park. This understudied national park in south-central Chile and an adjacent national forest reserve experienced a devastating wildfire in 2002. We were able to utilize Landsat imagery from before and after the event to calculate the extent and severity of the fire. We are validating our model through field data of canopy mortality and studying the regeneration of key species that will determine what the future forest will look like. The durability of the Landsat program allowed this particular project and so many more to come to fruition. As a write this column millions of pixels are waiting patiently in the archive to help the next scientist tell a story.

Araucaria forest mortality in Tolhuaca National Park from the 2002 wildfire. Photo taken in March 2012.

Unburned Araucaria-Nothofagus forest canopy in Tolhuaca National Park. Photo taken in March 2012.

The extent of the 2002 wildfire derived from Landsat data in relation to the park and reserve boundaries.

Climate Adaptation and Mitigation

Wed, 08/07/2013 - 12:03pm

Written by Theresa Jedd, Ph.D. Candidate, CSU Department of Political Science and 2012-2013 SoGES Sustainability Leadership Fellow

Considering the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to examine the impact humans have on the Earth's climate, it seems that US professional science organizations may have been a bit behind. Nevertheless, the American Geophysical Union (2003), the US National Academy of Sciences (2005), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2007), and the American Meteorological Society (2012), have all issued consensus statements that climate change is anthropogenically driven. We have a clear basis for claiming that we are experiencing change beyond the realm of natural variation. The benefit of having this clear basis for climate science is that we can now shift our concern toward policy recommendations, rather than quibbling over the causes of an altered climate. In interdisciplinary earth science policy research we hear a lot these days about mitigation and adaptation strategies. But what are they? And why do we focus on one versus the other in developing and industrialized countries? Here, looking at the roots of development—largely fueled by industrialization—is helpful. From this understanding, we see patterns of responsibility emerge that require a differentiated response at the global level. This is because the benefits and burdens of development have been unequally distributed. At the international level, this becomes increasingly clear. Notions of equity and environmental justice can help us better understand why strategies for dealing with a changing climate are differentiated between mitigation in industrialized countries and adaptation in developing countries. The US environmental justice literature brings together two of the most significant social movements of the 20th century: environmentalism and civil rights. From these lessons, we can scale up our notion of equity to the international level. In terms of distributive justice, just as individuals—much like economically disadvantaged populations living near petroleum refineries or residents in the neighborhood of Love Canal in upstate New York should be protected from unreasonable risks and harms through mitigation efforts, we also owe it to populations negatively impacted by the effects of climate change to assist with adaptation efforts.

The analogy of an individual on a balcony watering his flower box with a gushing hose while the unit below is flooding can help illustrate the differentiated responsibilities faced by industrialized and developing countries. If the individual on the upper floor has engaged in activities that are directly causing the poor conditions for those living in the unit below, we see that he is uniquely positioned both in terms of the benefits he has received and the responsibility he has to rectify any damage along the way. The flowers have been drenched and the hose is still running. From a moral perspective, mitigation, or taking steps to fix the flooding problem, then, is the responsibility of the top-floor tenant. Clive Ponting, in A New Green History of the World (Penguin Books, 2007), chronicles the periods in human history that have culminated in what we have now come to think of as affluence. The lifestyle we enjoy in the wealthiest countries is a direct result of rapid industrialization that began in the 19th century. Since the rise of factory production and widespread availability of electricity, we have a great number of conveniences at our fingertips—but these do not come without cost. Greenhouse gas emissions have now surged past thresholds that scientists have marked as critical tipping points.

Mitigation, or efforts to lessen our impact on the climate, is largely the responsibility of developed countries—after all, it is the process of industrialization that has been linked to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations (this is the basis for anthropogenic climate change). If we have largely reaped the benefits of industrialization, we should also bear the burdens. Mitigation, then, is about recognizing that even though we may not face immediate risks, we owe it to the world to reduce our impact on the atmosphere. The most obvious type of mitigation can be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By decreasing the levels produced by our energy consumption and land use patterns, we reduce GHG loading, and ultimately lessen the greenhouse gas effect, or radiative forcing, on the planet. This involves using renewable sources of energy or, ultimately, reducing our consumption. One country that has been particularly good at doing this is Germany. As former State Secretary for the Federal Environment Ministry Rainer Baake articulates, the key to an energy transition is to create a stable environment for investment. Germany accomplished this by adopting longer-term policies—at least 10 or 20 years into the future—that are linked to reduction targets for the year 2050. Unlike the constantly shifting rebate structure for wind and solar development under US federal, state, and local tax code, German subsidies are guaranteed for longer terms, adding to a more attractive investing environment for the renewables industry. Coupled with emissions limits (caps) and end-user consumption costs (taxes), this has been a very effective strategy for Germany to stay on track for meeting its reduction targets. (Click here to see a short interview with former Secretary Baake.)

Of course, that is not to say that we don't need to take steps toward adaptation in industrialized countries as well—even if we don't feel the immediate effects of crop loss in bad years because we can import food, we should still adopt policies that reduce emissions. You see, the linkage between climate change and our daily quality of life simply isn't as strong in the industrialized context as it is in the developing world. If crops fail, food shortages ensue much more rapidly without a strong currency and food trade infrastructure; developing states often cannot afford to "buy" their way out of a food shortage by pulling more agricultural products from the global market. If farmers cannot afford to grow food, populations will go hungry now and into the future as agricultural divestment takes place, putting already vulnerable populations in an even more risky position of no longer being able to grow their own food. Without cooperation from industrialized countries, adaptation is really the only choice that developing countries have. In the Philippines, for example, farmers face incredible variation from year to year in terms of precipitation. At some points, adaptation involved early warning systems taking the form of citizen science by empowering community members to monitor changing conditions. For example, a bridge pylon can be outfitted with a simple visual measuring device that allows regular users and passers-by to notice daily fluctuations and alert one another when flooding may be occurring. In times of drought, however, adaptation requires crop insurance so that farmers can continue to grow food. (For a short film on these types of adaptation in the Philippines, see the International Labor Organization's (ILO) YouTube channel.)

Returning to the balcony garden analogy, we can clearly see that climate adaptation activities are most needed on the flooded ground level if the top-floor tenant refuses to turn off the water. If the ground floor residents do not have a good relationship with their upstairs neighbor, it becomes necessary to cobble together a gutter to divert the exorbitant flows in an ex post facto fashion. Climate adaptation policies are somewhat akin to fashioning a gutter after the flooding has already started. Ultimately, though, the most useful strategy would involve mitigation measures on the garden hose that has been left running on soggy, waterlogged flowerbeds. In international climate politics today, we unfortunately need both mitigation as well as adaptation measures at this point, as we’ve already passed critical tipping points*; however, everyone could greatly benefit from enacting mitigation measures in the most industrialized countries, even if we’ve been largely reluctant to do so in past decades. We can still have flowers on the balcony, but we don’t need to flood the basement. After all, it only takes a well-directed strategic watering now and again to keep flowers blooming.

*  Roger Pielke argued, more than a decade ago, that adaptation should figure more prominently in climate policy. See: Pielke, Roger. 1998. “Rethinking the role of adaptation in climate policy.” Global Environmental Change 8(2); 159-170.

Biodiversity Treasures of Trinidad by Sarah Fitzpatrick

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 9:24am

Written by Sarah Fitzpatrick, CSU Department of Biology and 2012-2013 SoGES Sustainability Leadership Fellow

The biologically rich Northern Range Mountains on the island of Trinidad are home to a small species of freshwater fish that has made a big name for itself in science. The Trinidadian guppy is famous for its rapid adaptation to changes in the environment. Studying evolution in the wild is difficult, however these fish that adapt to life with or without predators, depending on where they are found in the streams, provide a rare window into evolutionary processes on a short time frame.

Luckily for me, the time frame fits into the span of a PhD dissertation even. Though a long history of guppy research makes these fish an excellent model system for studying evolution in the wild, my work aims to use guppies as a model system for conservation.

A major question for wildlife managers is, “when is it useful to introduce immigrants to rescue a declining population?” This dilemma stems from a historic debate in evolutionary theory in which it is argued that new genetic material can enhance adaptation and ‘rescue’ a small, inbred population or immigrants could bring in disease or genes that do poorly in the new environment and therefore cause the population to crash. This question that I study has rarely been tested empirically, especially in the wild.

Back to Trinidad, underneath the canopy and surrounded by echoing calls of Bell Birds and Channel Billed Toucans, scientists moved guppies from streams with many predators to streams absent of predators. I study the effects on native guppies, who are already adapted to low predation environments, as they receive immigration from the introduced populations of high predation fish.

For two and a half years I visited my focal sites monthly and gave every single guppy a small colored tattoo to recognize individuals. I also took genetic samples and pictures of every guppy so that I can determine if they are native, immigrant, or a hybrid. Combining information about each individual with ultimate patterns of population growth will allow me to understand how immigration from guppies that are adapted to a different environment affects the local populations. This experiment in natural populations will help inform managers make decisions about when to artificially introduce individuals for the sake of conservation.

Beyond experimentation and data collection, through my experiences in Trinidad I’ve gained more than just a lifetime’s worth of mosquito bites, a Trini street dog that now lives with me on the Poudre River, and a bout with tropical fever. Field research is grueling and sometimes imperfect due to the whim of the elements (flash floods, sprained ankles, treefalls) – yet the connections to place, the careful observations, the awareness of subtle change that happens as you become immersed in a field site all contribute to a more nuanced understanding of natural processes. These are the intimate insights we need more of in order to inspire, educate, and conserve.


Scratching the surface of soil microbial diversity

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 12:37pm

I recently wrote a post for my blogging group Early Career Ecologists. Briefly, I discuss a recent paper out by Dr. Noah Fierer and colleagues in PNAS, where they used metagenomic techniques to explore soil microbial communities of 16 soils from across 5 biome types. I chose to write about this publication because it exemplifies the amazing progress made in sequencing techniques and microbial ecology in such a short period of time. Our understanding of soil communities has grown rapidly, and as researchers work to put the massive amounts of data into context we are learning that soil communities  operate in a very similar way as above ground communities (soil pH, temperature, precipitation and nutrients are, not surprisingly, large drivers of community composition and diversity). We have also clearly established that everything is not everywhere, though we can find organisms with similar life history traits in similar biomes. And we are now starting to discover that community patterns are mirrored in gene patterns, and those patterns are controlled by a complex mix of environmental conditions and community interactions (something else we are just beggining to scratch the surface of).

Read my full post on Soil Equality and be sure to read the paper in PNAS, Cross-biome metagenomic analyses of soil microbial communities and their functional attributes.

This BEE doesn’t sting!

Sat, 01/19/2013 - 9:22am

Diana, Ross, Martijn, Ashley, Ruth, and Sabrina traveled to Taylor Valley to apply scheduled treatments to the Biotic Effects Experiment (BEE) plots. The BEE plots are located at 3 places in Taylor Valley: near Lake Fryxell at F6, near Lake Bonney, and near Lake Hoare. All of the BEE plots were established during the 1999-2000 season, and are sampled every few years. We are not sampling these plots this year, as that sampling was just completed last field season (to read about sampling the BEE plots click here).
There are four different treatments at the BEE plots:
1.            Control (no treatment)
2.            Soil warming with chamber
3.            Water added
4.            Soil warming and water added
This experiment allows us to explore the Antarctic soil ecosystem’s response to environmental change. We expect that soil temperature and moisture will increase in the future due to climate change. With the BEE, we can study the effect of these changes on the soil animals in the dry valleys and our experiment will help predict how the soil animals will respond to warmer and wetter soil in the future. The design of the BEE also shows how each of these climate variables may affect the soil animals alone, without the influence of the other variable. This means we can determine what proportion of the change may be due to the effects of the increased temperature by itself, or the extra water.
For the treatments, the soil warming is continuous (with the use of the soil warming chamber, see photo above) during the austral summer;  however, we need to apply water to the ‘water added’ plots each year to maintain increased soil moisture for those treatments. Adding water is pretty straightforward. We added 5.6 liters of water to each ‘water added’ plot. We did this using jugs (pre-marked for measuring the appropriate amount of water) and watering spouts to help distribute the water softly and evenly. As Diana described to us, it feels much like “watering your garden.”
Coming up next: sampling the new P3 experiment, and working in the lab to extract, identify, and count nematodes!
Check out the full blog post with photos here!

Preparing for a field season in an extreme environment: Snow School

Tue, 01/15/2013 - 8:06am

Once in Antarctica, there are some necessary training procedures to ensure everyone’s safety while working in and studying this extreme continent. Ashley, Sabrina, and Ruth had never been to Antarctica before and were required to attend “Happy Camper”, AKA “Snow School”. This training is essential for everyone new to McMurdo who will go off-station for any reason (field work, collecting samples, tending experiments). Anyone who has already been to McMurdo and participated in Snow School previously also gets a shorter, "Refresher" course upon arrival.
Snow School teaches about cold weather and outdoor skills, hazards, and what to do in case of certain emergencies (such as getting stuck in the field during bad weather). This training lasts for 2 days and covers: how to use high frequency radios, send emergency signals, set up tents, cut snow blocks to build walls for wind protection, dig a snow trench to sleep in if you need shelter, and how to maintain body warmth in frigid temperatures. Our Snow School session had 10 participants, and together, we learned and practiced these techniques, built a camp, cooked meals, and practiced rescue/emergency scenarios. First our group set up tents for the camp. We learned how to set up the Scott tent, which was designed for and used by the R.F. Scott expeditions in Antarctica in the early 1900s. We still use these tents today because the design is perfect for standing up to the tough Antarctic weather (plus, you can cook inside of it!!).
Next, the happy campers built the snow wall to protect the camp from wind and blowing snow. Even though the temperature was just a little below freezing, cutting snow blocks is hard work and warms you right up! Ruth and Sabrina took off their parkas while working to avoid getting too warm and sweating too much.
After the wall was in place, the group learned how to make shelters if the tents were lost (such as in a storm). To do this, they learned how to dig into the snow and then hollow out trenches to sleep in. The trench protects from the wind and harsh weather and provides a cozy place to snuggle into a sleeping bag. Ruth and Ashley slept in the trenches that they dug, while Sabrina opted for one of the tents - all three got a good, solid, and warm night's rest.
We also learned about communications while in the field, we discussed VHF radios, HF radios, Iridium phones, and signal mirrors. We practiced using the VHF radios and HF radio. We set up the HF radio and called South Pole station (they were expecting our call!) to run through the whole radio process.
After 2 days of Snow School, we headed back to McMurdo Station. We are all ready for a safe and productive field season in Antarctica!!
Check out the full blog post with photos here!

Preparing for a field season in an extreme environment: Extreme cold weather gear

Tue, 01/15/2013 - 8:03am


Before flying to Antarctica, the Wormherders had a few days to prepare for our field season in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is the staging place for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). From there, USAP participants deploy to McMurdo and South Pole stations.


While laying over in Christchurch, we went to the USAP’s clothing distribution center (CDC) where we were issued our customary ‘orange bags’ containing the necessary extreme cold weather (ECW) clothing and got prepared to go to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. We were each issued: parkas, windbreakers, snow pants, bunny boots, balaclavas, hats, mittens, gloves, socks, goggles, long underwear, and fleece pants, shirts, and jackets! We had to try everything on to check the fit of our gear (better to find out at the CDC if something does not fit or is not comfortable than in the field in Antarctica!). Then, we were ready to go to Antarctica!

The ECW gear will keep us warm, protecting our bodies from extreme cold and wind while we do our work in Antarctica. We even have to wear our ECW gear for our flight to Antarctica in case of an emergency and we need to stay warm.

With our ECW gear, we will be better able to stay warm and safe while collecting soil samples and performing experiments while in the field in Antarctica! Stay tuned: new blog coming soon about Snow School, which teaches newcomers about safety and survival in the harsh, cold conditions of Antarctica!


Check out the full blog with pictures here!

Wormherders back on the ice for the 2013 field season!

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 11:07am

Happy New Year to you all!
The  McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Soils Team this year consists of Diana Wall, Martijn Vandegehuchte and Ashley Shaw from Colorado State University, John Barrett, Kevin Geyer and Eric Sokol from Virginia Tech and Ross Virginia and Ruth Heindel from Dartmouth College. The season started with a sequence of flights from Denver to Los Angeles to Sydney to Christchurch, where we had to wait a day to get our extra cold weather gear issued and fitted. So we visited the Canterbury Museum and the botanical gardens. The museum had a temporary exhibition about Scott’s last expedition, with great information about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole and some interesting pieces such as handwritten lecture notes by Scott. The next day we boarded a C-130 Hercules airplane for an eight hour flight, which was fitted with skis so that it could land on the ice runway which is in poor shape at the moment because some strong winds deposited sediment onto the runway which causes it to melt. We had just stepped out of the airplane and were greeted by an excited Adélie penguin. Our ride to McMurdo station, Ivan the Terrabus, actually had to drive onto a “magic carpet” that was then pulled by a tractor across the ice. The next day the new team members Ashley, Sabrina and Ruth went to Snow School, which you will read more about in the next post. In the meanwhile the others did a refresher survival course, a course on environmental safety and some other training. We spent the past few days planning the field work, setting up the lab at McMurdo and getting our field gear ready. Right now the snowy weather is keeping us from flying a helicopter to the field sites, but hopefully that will change soon and we can go out to the Dry Valleys!

Central Park, Part II, Success!

Thu, 08/02/2012 - 7:52am

Last week we successfully collected 595 samples from across Central Park in NY City. I described this huge undertaking in my previous post, so you can find out a bit more here about collaborators and sampling scheme.

Briefly, we collected soil samples, from ~15 points across each of the 51 blocks running west to east in Central Park. For those of you not familiar with CP, the park is ½ mile wide and 3 miles long (51 blocks)! The park is not continuous however. There is quite a bit of rugged terrain- rock outcroppings, sports fields with 7 foot tall fences, the Met, ponds, children, fountains, dogs, cars, bikes, yoga stroller classes, Shakespeare in the park, bridges, waterfalls, music stages, merry-go-rounds… you get the idea. Check out our photos page for shots of us sampling in the wild.

We had 10 participants split between 4 groups, each sampling a roughly equivalent section of the park. Beginning on the steps of the Museum, we split up into groups of 2 and 3, double checked the GPS units, measured out 5cm on our corers with sharpies and tape, and gathered cell phone numbers mostly to facilitate friendly competition throughout the day.

The first hour was slow, as each group found a sampling routine and adjusted to the rugged terrain. Then the pace started to pick up and sampling was flurried in the next 4-5 hours. By 1pm the groups across the park were slowing. High humidity accompanied by 90° temperature, will do that. My group was motivated by a stop at an ice cream stand, others were not as lucky to find refreshments and were tempted instead by fountains. Still, we finished the last of the sampling by 6:30pm and had all the samples safely stored in the museum by 7pm! 12 hours of sweating, a few minor scrapes and bruises, a bit of heat exhaustion, but success! Really this is a huge accomplishment for one day- 600 samples... I still am in awe that we actually finished!

Wednesday after the sampling, we met again at the Museum. This time to sieve all the samples! Sieving is a monotonous process at best- take soil out of bag, sieve, separate, repeat. During the craziness of sieving we entered GPS points and a few volunteers collected water samples from all the major bodies of water in the park. Check out this sweet google map. All the samples are now ready to be processed! We will soon begin analyzing soil characteristics- pH, nutrients, moisture and microbial biomass and this fall we will sequence all soils and water samples.

This was really a fantastic sampling effort, and without the cooperation and determination of everyone involved we could not have pulled it off. Thanks again to Susan Perkins, our linchpin at the museum and Liz Johnson.

Stay tuned for more on this project and if you have questions on this project please contact me at

Pivots, Partners, and Research: Building a Successful Social Enterprise

Thu, 07/26/2012 - 2:19am

MayanTerra just returned from 6 weeks of field work with rural farmers in Guatemala tackling food security and poverty reduction through improved farming practices, and this is a brief account highlighting our key lessons from the trip. Besides learning the importance of flexibility and determination in building a successful social enterprise, we also were able to apply several classroom lessons to the real world, including the role of pivoting our business model, pitching our venture to partners, and collecting valuable data.

The Great Pivot: Many people have great ideas on how to solve the most persistent global challenges, but the majority of ideas never come to life because entrepreneurs are too passionate about the original idea to let go of it and pivot when needed. The Business Model Canvas tool we learned in class proved to be invaluable in giving structure to our idea and allowing us to experiment with business models and to see how a change in one area influenced all the other aspects of the business. The BMC outlines nine essential components of an enterprise: key activities, key resources, value proposition, customer segments, customer relationships, channels of distribution, cost structure, and revenue streams. Describing these components together on one page allowed us to see the big picture and not get lost in details.

Pitching to Partners: This attention to detail gave us the confidence to talk to partners, customers, and suppliers and provide clear, concise explanations of what we do. All the presentations in the classroom and friendly fire sessions prepared us for these conversations. Not only were we prepared to answer tough questions, (such as “How will you achieve financial sustainability and growth?” and “How will you measure impacts?”), but what’s equally important is we knew what to ask and look for in the individuals and business we partnered with.

Collecting Valuable Data: In addition to forming partnerships, we needed to gather data from these organizations.  Using field work research techniques we learned from our teachers, workshops, and mentors, we were able to create simple and well-structured surveys that allowed us to collect important data.  We will use this data to prove the feasibility of our venture and develop an in-depth customer profile. Classroom discussions, case studies and readings on doing business in a developing country prepared our team for successful customer interactions in Guatemala. Being able to explain the value of our products and services to consumers who are price sensitive, often illiterate, and very risk averse, is a very valuable skill.

The success of our field work would not have been possible without thorough classroom learning in entrepreneurship, marketing and customer profiling, and we are looking forward to future pivots, partners, and research, culminating in what we hope will be a successful social enterprise.


Guilt vs. Empowerment: the Struggles of An American Consumer

Tue, 07/24/2012 - 11:19am

Last week, National Geographic News published the article  “Americans Least Green—And Feel Least Guilt, Survey Suggests”, which addressed the different perceptions of “green guilt”.  As the title indicates, Americans have a larger environmental footprint, and don’t feel as guilty as other, greener cultures do.  However, the title doesn’t capture another finding from the study which showed that “Americans are the most confident that their individual actions can help the environment.”  This confidence is an important part of the equation, according to Dr. Thomas J Dean, management professor at the College.  Tom was quoted in the article regarding the importance of delivering information consumers can trust regarding the environmental impact of products.

“In the United States we know a food is organic because there’s a certification process in place that is set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to define what organic foods are”, said Dean.

As an American consumer myself, I couldn’t agree more – both with the importance of trusting a certification as well as believing in the impact of my actions.  I encourage you to read this article, and while you may not feel guilty, perhaps you will feel empowered to go make a difference in our world.

An Unexplored Urban Jungle- Part 1

Mon, 07/23/2012 - 3:21pm

Tomorrow morning a group of soil ecologists will meet on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History to begin a day-long effort to sample the soils of Central Park, New York City. Within soil lives an astounding amount of biological diversity, scaling from microbes to insects and worms that is mostly invisible to the naked eye. One question researchers are interested in is how this biodiversity compares to soils in natural systems-  Yellowstone National Park, for example. Do the same controls, such as temperature, rain events, plants and soil nutrients, that determine the composition of organism in a soil community in forests or grasslands hold up in a city park in the middle of Manhattan?

Soil provides a number of ecosystem services that are necessary for human well-being (see this interesting NYTimes article for more on ecosystem services). Urban soils can provide the same ecosystem services as natural soils- food production, water cycling and purification, and carbon cycling (especially important in the context of climate change). Additionally, urban soils provide a habitat for a vast amount of soil biodiversity, though it is still unclear just which organisms thrive under urban conditions and how the services they provide may be affected by urban stresses.

The glamorous job of soil sampling involves metal soil corers, sharpies, collection bags and a love of dirt. For this project we will collect soils, about a handful sized amount for each sample, from over 600 sampling locations throughout Central Park.

(The park is ½ mile wide and we will be sampling from approximately 15 points across the width of the park, for 50 blocks, minus area covered by water = greater than 600 soil samples!)
Just for fun, we have only scheduled one sampling day, so this is going to be a crazy sampling effort!! (And it may be a bit warm.)

For this project we will use molecular sequencing techniques to see where and what types of life (both new and cosmopolitan) lie beneath the surface of Central Park. Then, we will build maps of the microbial and micro-/meso- faunal diversity across the park and compare the biodiversity with the plant cover, nutrient levels and other soil characteristics. Additionally, we will get a pretty good idea of the shear amount of soil biodiversity that lives in Central Park.

This is a collaborative research project organized by the GSBI and researchers from CSU, CU-Boulder, Yale and the AMNH (see this post for more details).

Stay tuned for the post sampling post, glamorous field shots and more information on the project.

The Business of Peace Corps Service: Why it Matters to Coffee Farmers in the Dominican Republic

Thu, 07/05/2012 - 8:53am

This past weekend I attended the National Peace Corps Association Conference in Minneapolis, representing the College of Business.  As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself (Dominican Republic, ‘05 – ‘07), this conference made me feel like I’d come home.  I spent the whole weekend talking with fellow RPCVs about their service and why our Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA program is so relevant to Peace Corps.  I also had the opportunity to listen to Bruce McNamer, RPCV Paraguay and CEO of TechnoServe, deliver the keynote address.  TechnoServe “helps entrepreneurial men and women in the developing world capitalize on business opportunities that create jobs and income for poor people.”  This business-oriented approach to solving poverty is exactly what we believe at GSSE and is exactly why I came to GSSE post-Peace Corps.

During my service, I witnessed aid agencies that spent thousands of dollars on new trucks and office space.  I experienced the frustration of not being able to help my community because of a lack of contacts, resources, and know-how.  And I became aware of the complacency that accompanies a culture of handouts, when people get used to receiving charity.  However, my main function in the Peace Corps was advising a cooperative of coffee farmers struggling to make ends meet.  If they couldn’t make enough money selling their coffee, they would have to clear cut their land to replant with a short-cycle crop in order to survive the season.  The resulting deforestation creates a downward spiral of a stressed and eroded natural environment, which leads to a depressed local economy.  Therefore, the goal of the cooperative was to improve the quality of the coffee, and aggregate the harvest, so that enough could be separated out and sold into the specialty coffee market, thus increasing their earnings, and making this complex crop worth cultivating.

I didn’t realize it until about halfway through my time there, but what my cooperative needed, in addition to the agricultural trainings they were receiving from federal agronomists, was basic business training.  The cooperative was a community-owned business.  It had expenses, revenue, a product, sellers and buyers.  As an official entity, the cooperative had the ability to take out a significant loan based on the membership dues they had collected.  They could apply for grants on their own, without sponsorship by another organization.  With these abilities came a level of responsibility that the leaders of my cooperative felt keenly.  However, they also identified a lack of knowledge as a serious risk to their success.  None of the members of the cooperative had ever even opened a bank account, let alone managed large amounts of money.  This is where an organization like TechnoServe could provide invaluable services.

My farmers had incredible passion and motivation, and they understood what needed to be done in order to improve their coffee and increase their incomes – they simply lacked the skills to make it happen.  By embracing business as a means to improving lives, I believe that communities such as my Peace Corps site in southwestern Dominican Republic can benefit in a more sustainable way than by receiving charity, and I believe that organizations such as TechnoServe and MBA programs that focus on social and environmental impacts such as GSSE have a crucial role to play in development.

Originally published on the College of Business' Make a Difference Blog.