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Sustainable behavior: Changing the habit by changing the context

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 10:16am

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

Habits make life easier in a hectic, fast-paced world. It’s hard to fight routine and convenience. There are actions taken everyday that we probably would acknowledge as something we could, to our own benefit, do differently (candy dish, anyone?). We unfortunately aren’t the perfectly rational or consistent decision-makers suggested by traditional economic theory.

However, behavioral economics, a field gaining popularity and credibility, seeks to apply the evidence from behavioral psychology to improve economic models of decision-making. There’s been a recent burst of popular non-fiction titles surrounding behavior and psychology like Predictably Irrational, Nudge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, (all great reads!) and the President officially established a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (a.k.a. “The Nudge Squad”), modeled after the success of the UK government.

This line of research is being applied to the design of public policy related to health, diet, finance, savings, retirement plans and the environment. Environmental behavioral economics sets out to find what influences decisions that have an impact on the environment.  For example, which method might get the most people to bike to work: pro-environmental messaging, pro-health messaging, improving/expanding the bike lanes and routes of a community, offering an individual a tax rebate on the purchase of a bike, or telling people how many of their coworkers bike to work?

Behavioral economics focuses on two channels of change, in addition to the tried-and-true price incentives. First, we can change behaviors and habits directly: “changing minds”. Or, we can change the architecture of the decision-making environment:  “changing context”. We all have the ability to process information, critically weigh the options and change our behavior (for example when I learned that butter was the second largest ingredient of my favorite granola). However, it’s often our subconscious, automatic reflexes that dictate many of our choices.  These choices may be based on emotions and associations rather than objective, rational processes. If this is how people make the majority of their choices, how can we encourage people to make better decisions when it comes to their impact on the environment?

Richard Thaler, one of the behavioral economists who authored Nudge, argues that “the solution is to apply the single most useful bit of psychology one can ever learn: If you want to encourage people to do something, make it easy -- or even better, automatic.”

The following are a few examples that highlight how behavioral economic research and concepts influences (via “nudges”) how we impact the environment. Nudges are ways of changing the context in which we make decisions to potentially reach different outcomes, while not limiting consumer choice.

Let’s start small with plastic bags at the grocery store. Here we invoke a concept called loss aversion (sometimes called framing). Loss aversion is the notion that people will react differently if a decision is framed as a loss than as a gain. Furthermore, people tend to be swayed more by a loss than by a gain of the same amount. In some U.S. grocery stores you can earn a 10-cent rebate for each reusable bag you bring. You get rewarded for doing something ‘good’.  However, in Europe (and perhaps soon in more U.S. cities), you get charged for any plastic bag you need to tote your groceries home. You get punished for something ‘bad’. These are seemingly the same incentive schemes, but result in very different outcomes. Framing the situation as paying for the bag results in far more people bringing their own bags (or not using a bag at all), whereas ‘getting’ money to not use a bag doesn’t actually encourage many to consistently use reusable bags.

One example from the White House is the website, which lets consumers compare the total fuel costs of a car over five years, rather than only by the traditional metric of miles per gallon (MPG). MPG doesn’t easily or quickly convey the true fuel costs of a vehicle. This is an example of the behavioral economics concept called salience. The fuel costs over the lifetime of a vehicle are often not salient to a consumer the way the price tag on the car window is. By doing the math for consumers and make the information easy to find, the overall fuel costs have a better chance of playing a role in a car purchasing decision.

Salience is a concept that similarly applies to household water and energy use. When someone purchases a home, they’re more likely to think about the price of the home rather than the additional monthly cost of living in the home (e.g. energy and water bills) and thus are less likely to consider the efficiency of the home (e.g. insulation, appliances). These additional costs of being a homeowner are less salient than the sticker price of the house.

Defaults, which relates to the physics concept of inertia, are another concept that’s getting a lot of attention in behavioral economics. People tend to go with the flow and often stick to the default option. Policies can be designed to offer the same options to consumers, but changing the default option to the one that is expected to maximize benefits is an easy way to improve well being without restricting choice. For example, having to request a change of sheets or towels at a hotel vs. these automatically getting changed for you each day you stay. This is one example of changing the decision-making environment from “opt-in” to “opt-out” (i.e. organ donation, retirement plans). Another example: some utilities offer the voluntary option for consumers to pay a bit more for their electricity but then amp up the use of renewable energy sources. If you make this an “opt-in” program, few would participate, but setting it up as an “opt-out” program results in more households who stay enrolled.

Continuing with home efficiency, research finds that informational campaigns (think utility bill inserts) improve knowledge, but don’t actually change energy use behavior. However, social norms reports, like what the company OPower provides, show how much energy a household is using compared to similar neighbors. This nudge does have a significant impact on changing household energy use. As a result of this social norms driven program, households reduce energy use in the short run (e.g. changing light blubs or actually program the programmable thermostat), and in the long term (e.g. improving insulation or HVAC systems). Telling people what other people do has a strong impact on what we do. The concept of norms also ties in with the concept commitment where we seek to be consistent with public promises and try to reciprocate other’s actions, as well as the concept of ego where we tend to act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. The Opower report includes a smiley face if you’re doing better than your average neighbor. This simple positive reinforcement is typically enough to keep the most efficient households from increasing their energy use when they learn they’re using less than most of their neighbors. Check out Allcott (2011) to learn more.Behavioral economics seeks to find ways to nudge people in the right direction without limiting choice. Small reminders and small changes to the context of the decision-making environment are often easier, more cost-effective means to improve individual well-being and the environment. The following are some visual examples of behavioral economics in action. E-mail me with examples of nudges you see!


A few visual examples of behavioral economics at work:

Invoking social norms to reduce littering in public spaces


Household reminder of the bigger picture when it comes to flipping a switch


Whole Foods' trash options

Challenges to Biodiversity Conservation: What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador?

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:41am

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

Yasuní National Park

The Yasuní National Park, located in Ecuador on the Northwestern edge of the Amazon basin, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It occupies a unique location that intersects the Andes (located less than 100 km from the Andean foothills), the Amazon, and the Equator. Created in 1979, the Park encompasses an area of 9,820 km2 and was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It has more than 1,300 species of vertebrates, more than 100,000 species of insects, and more than 2,500 species of plants. In just one hectare of forest in Yasuní, 664 species of plants can be found, which is more than all the plant species in North America. Yasuní also encompasses part of the ancestral territory of the Waorani (Huaorani) people.

My first encounter with the Yasuní National Park was more than 10 years ago during a class on biological field techniques in which we were taken to the university’s Yasuní Research Station. I did not have to spend very long in the Park to witness the detrimental footprints of human extraction activities. Although, the access to the Park is designed to be limited, the Yasuní Research Station uses a road built by the multinational oil and gas company REPSOL-YPF. Oil extraction in the Park started in the 1950s, before it was declared a National Park. Currently, oil exploitation is listed as the largest threat to the Yasuní National Park: a substantial part of northwestern Yasuní has either been exploited or is targeted for future exploitation. Besides the impact of the oil extraction process itself, oil access roads have led to deforestation, colonization, and overhunting. One of the most striking impacts of oil companies has occurred on the Waorani people. Since oil extraction started in their territory in the 1950s, it has placed them on a conflictive edge between traditional and modern influences. Convergence of these two worlds has led to several issues, including but not limited to illness, division between clans, and conflict. In fact, while some Waorani communities participate in activities like trade, research and tourism with the outside world, some have shown aggressive behavior toward the oil companies that have tried to drill in their lands.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative

Perhaps the greatest threat that the park faces lies in its easternmost region, the ITT block (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini). Approximately 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves lie in this block (846 millions of barrels of oil, currently estimated to be worth $18 billion) along with the presumed territories of the two voluntarily isolated indigenous groups, the Tagaeri and Taromenane. In 2007, Ecuador proposed to maintain the oil under the ITT field for perpetuity in an attempt to conserve Yasuní’s biodiversity, protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane, and to avoid emission of a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By leaving the oil underground, Ecuador would have avoided the emission of 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which, at the time the Initiative was proposed, represented $7.2 billion on the carbon market. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative proposed an alternative to address global climate change, in which countries collaborate to avoid gas emissions to the atmosphere while protecting biodiverse regions. Ecuador, in a co-responsibility approach, was willing to forego the income obtained by extracting the oil at the ITT field, which was estimated to be $7 billion when the Initiative was first proposed. Ecuador would contribute (forego) half that total income ($3.6 billion) if the world community contributed the other half by 2023, regardless of price changes in the oil market.

But how would a country, with a history of political instability, guarantee that oil would be left underground for perpetuity? And what would happen to the contributions? On August 2010, the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund, administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was officially launched. The funds supporting the Yasuní-ITT Initiative would be collected by the Yasuní- ITT Trust Fund and were going be allocated to development strategies for handling the proposed income solution. One part of the funds would go towards investment in strategic renewable energy projects to change Ecuador’s energy matrix from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, including hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and tidal energy projects. The other part would fund a shift from an extractive economy based on oil extraction to a more sustainable model of development. First, these funds would be used for the conservation of protected areas in Ecuador. Ecuador has one of the highest percentages (20%) of protected areas in the world. Secondly, funds would contribute to reforestation, natural regeneration, and management of watersheds and forests. Additional funds would go towards strengthening social development in the Initiative’s zone of influence by investing in health, education, and training programs along with the encouragement of sustainable activities like ecotourism. Lastly, remaining funds would go towards supporting research, science, technology, and innovation projects in Ecuadorian institutions that enhance sustainability. The government would issue Yasuní Guarantee Certificates to donors of more than $50,000. The Certificates would not expire as long as the ITT field remained unexploited.

The optimistic times

After the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched in 2010, Ecuadorian citizens, organizations, and the government were all proudly bragging about Ecuador’s historical decision to leave oil reserves underground. According to the United Nations Development Group, 78% of Ecuadorians citizens supported the Initiative. Ecuador was already proud of being the first country to concede rights to nature in its constitution in democratic election in 2008, and the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was a clear gesture in respect of those natural rights and a forward-looking step towards environmental protection. The proposal was also in line with the new development paradigm of Ecuador, known as Sumak Kawsay (from Kichwa, meaning Living Well or Fulfilled Life in English), which strives for improving the population’s quality of life while promoting equality and harmonic coexistence among different ethnic groups and with nature.

During those years, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was well covered in documentaries, books, and scientific publications in Ecuador and abroad. Ecuadorian scientists, including myself, named newly described species after Yasuní, and even mention the Initiative in the etymology section of those scientific publications. National and international organizations were created, like “Viva Yasuní” created by a group of people in France to support the Initiative and convince governments of western countries to contribute. The National Geographic Magazine, in its special 125-year anniversary issue dedicated to the age of exploration, included an article about Yasuní, the threat of oil exploitation, and the Initiative. The Yasuní National Park and Yasuní-ITT Initiative were continuously mentioned in social, local, and international media. The campaign “Yasunízate” (Yasunize yourself) was launched in Ecuador, and more and more people became “Yasunized”. Ecuador wanted the world to Yasunize.

The end of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

On August 15th, 2013, President Rafael Correa announced that after six years of its existence, only $336 million had been pledged and only $13.3 million had been delivered to the Initiative. Due to the indifferent international response, he cancelled the Trust Fund, thus ending the Yasuní-ITT Initiative.

After this announcement, the supporters of the Initiative protested around the globe. Ecuadorian citizens and the international community actively manifested their disagreement. One very significant manifestation of the unrest occurred in Ecuador just a few weeks ago. Women leaders from Amazonian groups walked for days to Quito to debate with government officials about the oil extraction in their territories. In the meantime, the Ecuadorian government initiated a persuasive campaign stating that only 0.001% of the Park will be affected, that the best technology will be used, and that Ecuadorians will greatly benefit from the revenues obtained by the extraction. Unfortunately, even with the public outrage and protests, oil drilling in the ITT block was approved a few weeks ago. Currently, Ecuadorian people against the exploitation of the ITT block are putting pressure on the government, asking for a referendum on the subject.

What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative is a very complex subject with ecological, social, economical, and political implications. However, as an Ecuadorian conservation and evolutionary biologist, I want to address issues that the Initiative brings up from my perspective. I will first focus on the value of biodiversity. Then, since almost all conservation strategies must incorporate the human dimension, I will add some thoughts on this subject from my perspective as a citizen of this megadiverse, and multicultural country.

The value of diversity

First of all, as a biologist, especially one interested in conservation, the intrinsic value of biodiversity is a given. However, for most people, the value of biodiversity is not so obvious. Biodiversity seems to lose value as urbanization increases, and people connect less and less with nature. The disconnection from the natural world happens not only on emotional and intellectual levels, but also in the losing the realization that natural resources sustain our life and that our actions truly impact nature. Urbanization prevents us from witnessing and experiencing our interactions with nature, and this disconnection has an influence on our daily choices. When decision-makers adopt that attitude, they might overlook the importance of conserving nature simply because they do not have the opportunity to experience it. For example, it is not uncommon to hear the false dilemma of development versus conservation. Certainly, a central component of conservation is public education, particularly in urban areas. Conservation education programs, especially when coupled with outdoor activities and field trips, would be one way to enhance experiencing nature.

Biodiversity also has a utilitarian value, providing humans with goods, services, and information. Estimating the utilitarian value of biodiversity has increased in interest as a less controversial and more pragmatic approach than focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. Following this justification, ecology and economics have been brought together to help make conservation decisions. There are several techniques that can be used to estimate both the intrinsic and the utilitarian value of diversity in monetary terms, for example, a cost-benefit analysis. This approach has proven to be useful in many instances, though there is debate over a strict focus on the utilitarian and economic value of diversity.

A major flaw of this utilitarian approach is that economic appraisals will always underestimate the real monetary value of biodiversity. For example, most analyses on the economic value of an extractive activity such as oil drilling ignore the costs of the social impact (e.g. health issues related to activity, displacement of people where the activity will be carried out) or the environmental impact (e.g. remediation costs, loss of biodiversity). In most places, including Latin America, the cost-benefit analysis is far from complete. Eduardo Gudynas, an expert on development, economics, and ecology from Uruguay, maintains that if the assessment of the environmental impacts of extractive activities were more extensive and considered all of the repercussions of drilling, most projects would not be approved. Moreover, by monetizing the value of biodiversity, we are ignoring indigenous groups, particularly the ones who rely on the land, not money, to sustain their lives.

In addition, recognizing the intrinsic value of biodiversity “has a dramatic effect upon the framework of environmental debate and decision-making” (Fox, 1993). If biodiversity is considered to have an intrinsic value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to put biodiverse areas at risk. Whereas, if biodiversity is only considered to have utilitarian value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to conserve it. If we focus only on the utilitarian value, biodiversity will always lose. Therefore, it is essential that we bring not only the economic but also the cultural, traditional, anthropological, and ecological values of biodiversity to the environmental debate and decision-making. Increasing focus on the utilitarian value and economic assessment of biodiversity could potentially be shifting the attention of conservation biologists away from other strategies that focus on the intrinsic value of nature. As cautioned by Soulé (2013), known as the father of conservation biology, conservationism based only on utilitarian values is drifting away from true conservationism.

Human dimensions

An important step in the task of conserving biodiversity is recognizing that, in order to implement adequate conservation strategies, we need to add a human dimension. It is one of the biggest challenges and requires substantial collaboration between ecological and social disciplines. We desperately need to consider indigenous groups, to develop strategies together that are actually applicable and in line with their culture. In these cases, it is even more pressing to expand our utilitarian logic as mentioned earlier and incorporate the cultural, social and ecological values of these people. Ignoring this in the past, has led to conflicts within indigenous groups and with extractive activities in every South American country (except Uruguay, which is the only country in the region that does not have indigenous groups).

Furthermore, the importance of local and indigenous knowledge in conservation decisions has been overlooked in the past. If we want to find sustainable alternatives for the use of our natural resources, indigenous knowledge is an invaluable resource that has to be taken into account. Examples of indigenous agricultural systems in Bolivia, Mexico, and New Guinea, among other places, show that they are highly sophisticated and productive; however, these systems have been at risk of disappearing in the face of modern management. Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been trying to come up with methodology that puts indigenous knowledge at the same level of importance as scientific knowledge when making land management decisions.

In countries like Ecuador, the economy has mainly based on the extraction of minerals, oil and gas that are destined for international markets, which is commonly referred as extractivism. The pressure to develop threatens natural resources and biodiversity, but new paradigms of development could alleviate that pressure. The National Plan based on the Sumak Kawsay, which acknowledges the importance of a harmonic coexistence between different ethnic groups and nature, is a first step. However, that acknowledgement has to be translated into actions. The Yasuní-ITT might have been a first attempt, and even if the Initiative fails and the ITT is exploited, the debate is open now. It is the perfect time to collaborate and propose new initiatives that would translate into a truly progressive, post-extractivism economy.

Recognizing the value of biodiversity, expanding the human dimension in conservation by incorporating indigenous knowledge, and proposing alternative paradigms of development are some actions that would enable biodiversity conservation while allowing people to attain what they consider fulfillment. That fulfillment could mean the Sumak Kawsay for the Ecuadorian people, or remaining in isolation to the Tagaeri and Taromenane in the heart of perhaps the most biodiverse place on Earth.

Potential Effects of Modern Agricultural Biotechnology on Biodiversity in Malaysia

Wed, 11/06/2013 - 1:50pm

Written by Chubashini Suntharalingam, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Malaysia is moving from a manufacturing-based economy to one that is service-oriented, with a vision of becoming a developed knowledge economy by 2020. In doing so, biotechnology has been positioned as a new key engine of growth by policymakers (MOSTI, 2005). There are a couple of strategic reasons for this. Malaysia is rich in biodiversity and has been identified as one of the twelve mega-diversity countries in the world, which together comprise 70% of the world’s species diversity, (Polski, 2005; Krishnapillay et al., 2003) a source of natural capital which can be utilized in developing many biotechnology products of the future.

Second, the Malaysian agriculture sector is important both for contribution to GDP and for food production. In terms of GDP, the agriculture sector contributed approximately USD 17 billion, which is 7.6% of total GDP in 2011 (EPU, 2011).

Yet, in terms of food production, Malaysia does not have self-sufficiency for major food commodities such as rice (72%), vegetables (44%), fruits (66%), beef (29%), mutton (11%) and milk (5%) (MOA, 2012). There are concerns that in recent years, growth in agricultural productivity has been slowing in several key commodities globally (Hossain, 2007). In coming years, climate change, limited fertile lands and, emerging pests and diseases are expected to pose additional challenges to Malaysian agriculture (Jaganath and Bakar, 2012). While Malaysia is not currently facing any food security crisis, researchers from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) have identified transgenic crops to play a significant role in helping to solve some of these problems, increase food output by using fewer resources as well as to enhance nutritional and therapeutic content, taste and quality of some of these crops in Malaysia (Jaganath and Bakar, 2012; The Sun Daily, 2012).

Endowed with such a wealth of natural biodiversity and an agricultural sector with much unrealized potential, the development of agricultural applications of biotechnology, in particular have been proposed as a way to transform and enhance value creation of the agricultural sector.

However, while biotechnology is anticipated to drive innovation, and thus economic development, in Malaysia, the policy framework is not in place to achieve this agenda. One of the biggest impediments being voiced to the development of transgenic varieties in Malaysia are environmental concerns over the potential impact of transgenic crops on Malaysia’s wealth of natural biodiversity. These concerns, and the resulting policy stalemate, have resulted in no commercial release of transgenic crops in Malaysia to date. The national policy regime, it seems, is not fully in line with stated economic development goals.

Hence, I am planning on identifying potential environmental effects that transgenic crops might have on natural biodiversity, in order to assist policy makers make science based decisions on regulations concerning the interaction between transgenic crops and Malaysia’s biodiversity.

EPU (Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia). 2012. The Malaysian Economy in Figures 2012. Prime Minister’s Department, Putrajaya.

Hossain, M. 2007. “Technological Progress for Sustaining Food-Population Balance: Achievement and Challenges.” Agricultural Economics 37: 161-172

Jaganath, I. B., and U. K. A. Bakar. 2012. “GM Technology to Address Food Security and Climate Change.” Paper presented at Workshop by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute and Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre on GM Technology for Ensuring Food Security, Health and

Environmental Sustainability, Serdang, Malaysia, 24 September.
Krishnapillay, B., M. I. Adenan, A.R. M. Ali, and S. Nimura. 2003.”Tropical Rainforest: A Cradle for Biological Resources and the Malaysian Policies on CBD.” Actinomycetologica 17(2): 50-53.

MOA (Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry, Malaysia). 2012. Agrofood Statistics 2011. Strategic Planning and International Division. Putrajaya, Malaysia.

MOSTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia). 2005. National Biotechnology Policy. Putrajaya, Malaysia.

Polski, M. 2005. “The Institutional Economics of Biodiversity, Biological Materials, and Bioprospecting.” Ecological Economics 53: 543-557.

The Sun Daily. 2012. GM crops to boost Malaysia’s food security. Accessed on October 31, 2012.


Rafflesia flower. The flower may be over 100 centimetres
(39 in) in diameter, and weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 lb).

Orangutan – Native species to Malaysia


Trees on the move

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 12:00pm

Written by Katie Renwick, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Throughout the past decade, an unusually severe outbreak of the mountain pine beetle has affected millions of acres of forest across western North America. The mountain pine beetle is a native insect that affects several species of pine. Beetles burrow into trees to lay their eggs just beneath the bark, and trees are ultimately killed by a fungus that the beetles carry.

To a forester, the mountain pine beetle may be seen as a pest that destroys valuable timber resources. To tourist visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the millions of dead trees may be seen as an eye sore. As a scientist, I view the mountain pine beetle outbreak as an opportunity to learn more about the impacts of forest disturbances.  

Disturbances can create a sort of natural experiment when different parts of the landscape are affected to different degrees, and can help us answer questions that cannot be addressed experimentally. My research focuses on understanding how beetle outbreaks may interact with climate change to alter the composition and structure of forests. Drought stress can make trees more susceptible to insect attacks, and rising temperatures allow more beetles to survive the winter. As a result, mountain pine beetle outbreaks are expected to become more frequent and severe as the climate warms. Understanding the implications of this interaction between climate change and forest disturbances will become increasingly important for land managers tasked with maintaining diverse and productive forest ecosystems in the future.

By studying how forests located at different elevations respond to this current outbreak, I can learn how the impact of insect outbreaks may differ in relation to temperature. One question that I am particularly interested in is whether or not the beetle outbreak will facilitate tree migrations. Many species are expected to migrate towards higher (cooler) elevations as a result of climate change. Trees are immobile, and so in forests this process occurs through the death of old trees at lower elevations and an increase in the number of seedlings at higher elevations. As a result, tree “migrations” are slow and can lag behind the rate of climate change. Insect outbreaks can accelerate the migration process by killing old trees that might have persisted for many decades and reducing competition so that new seedlings can become established. The mountain pine beetle outbreak may consequently allow trees to “migrate” faster than would otherwise be expected.






Visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park are confronted by vast hillsides of gray, needless trees killed by the mountain pine beetle.






Mountains create sharp climatic gradients that allow us to study how temperature may affect forest recovery following the mountain pine beetle outbreak.






New seedlings at the upper elevation limit of lodgepole pine indicate that the species is already starting to migrate in response to climate change.

Dissecting Dispersal

Wed, 10/09/2013 - 8:57am

Written by Tabitha Graves, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology; David H. Smith Post-Doctoral Conservation Research Fellow

Have you ever wondered whether animals face the same tough choices as a teenager leaving home for the first time? I do! I study grizzly bears and I am very interested in dispersal, the process of moving away from the place of birth to a new place. I wonder about how bears will wind their way through snow-capped mountains, cross roads, and wander along steams, and whether they will make their home surrounded by wilderness or next to a subdivision. Learning the answer to this will help us plan where we should put our homes and roads.


This two-year old bear, has to answer three key questions:

  1. Should I leave home?
  2. Where should I go?
  3. What route should I take?

It turns out to be pretty difficult to catch and track young bears. So, I thought, ‘Maybe, just maybe, we can learn about dispersal if we only know where bears are born and where they end up.’ My collaborator, Kate Kendall, collected hair from bears for 13 years in northwestern Montana. The hair has DNA, which I used to make a grizzly bear family tree. I know, cool, right? I love my job!

Here are a few boughs of the family tree I created (parents at the top, great- grandcubs at the bottom).  A few exciting details:  Bear 1 (female) has at least 3 daughters, 1 grandson, and 2 great-grandcubs.  Bear 4 (male) has at least 5 offspring, 1 grandcub, and 2 great-grandcubs. This gets even more fun when we look at where we caught the hair. For example, we caught the hair from bear 2 along with bear 35 and 38 at the same location. Do you think these two bears had not yet dispersed?

Now, by using the mom’s location as the origin and the young’s location as the end of the dispersal, along with a statistical model I developed, I can answer questions about the way people and habitat influence where these young bears will go! For instance: 1) Do bears move further when they come from places with a big family? 2) Are young bears likely to find a new home amidst lots of wet meadow vegetation? and 3)  Will grizzly bears cross a huge highway while they are leaving home?    

The answers I find can be used to manage land and people in ways that will keep bear populations big and connected. The methods I am developing are useful for understanding movement and dispersal for other species, like kinkajou, too. Now! I can’t wait to find out what bears do when they leave home.

*The grizzly bear data I am using was collected by U.S. Geological Survey researcher Kate Kendall between 1999 and 2012, in collaboration with 5 national forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Blackfeet Nation, and the Salish and Kootenai tribes, and many more.   I greatly appreciate everyone’s assistance with collection of this rich data.

The photo above shows a young grizzly bear in a spring rainstorm in Glacier National Park who is walking away from her mom who was clearly pre-occupied with mating. Perhaps this may be the very moment it began to disperse.

Not-so-clean Hydropower is Damming Us All

Wed, 09/25/2013 - 12:00pm

Written by Natalie Anderson, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geosciences

Image: Kayakers enjoy the rapids at on of the proposed locations for the Slave River Hydropower project. This is truly one of my favorite spots in the world. Along with a nesting colony of white pelicans I migrate North to visit it year after year. (photo by Leif Anderson)

While I was in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (NT), Canada this summer observing and measuring wood floating down the Slave River for my dissertation work on Mackenzie River driftwood, I attended a local town hall meeting facilitated by Alberta member of Parliament Linda Duncan about what the town of Fort Smith can do to ensure that they will have their voices heard at a national level regarding future hydro development of the Slave River corridor in the face of the river’s de-listing as a navigable waterway in 2012 (Northern Journal, Aug 6 2013, CBCnews, Oct 18, 2012). The Canadian navigable waterway act is one of the country’s oldest pieces of legislation, dating back to 1882, and provides federal oversight to any proposed project in a river, lake, or ocean that could float a canoe. Prior to 2012, more than 2 million waterways were listed. Now, fewer than 200 are. Most proponents of the de-listing feel that it will eliminate redundant provincial-federal red tape, streamlining projects on small ditches and streams. They maintain that large waterways are still protected. The Slave River is big (~0.5 km wide with summer flows ~4,000 cms), has a rich history as a shipping/trading corridor, but is no longer protected even though waterways upstream and downstream are.

Most townspeople (NT residents) are making connections between this seemingly cherry-picked delisting of the Slave River and a large-scale >800 megawatt hydropower project (and 500 kw/500 km North-South transmission line) proposed by TransCanada and ATCO Power to be built in their backyard just a few kilometers upstream in Alberta (Calgary Herald, March 20, 2008).  If the Slave is not re-listed federally, the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) would have little say in a project that, built by Alberta, would provide power primarily for southerners and mining industries while the environmental impacts would be shouldered by northern communities (Northern Journal, Aug 13 2013).

In speaking to me about the hydropower project, François Paulette, elder and environmental leader for the Smith’s Landing First Nations Band - whose land would be flooded - said: “Why do they call it clean energy, where do they come up with this word, ‘clean’? It is not clean.” This strong stance by Smith’s Landing is right now the main impediment to the project going forward (Northern News Services, Feb 18, 2013).

As a geologist who studies rivers (a fluvial geomorphologist), I couldn’t agree more with François and his intuitive understanding of the land. This year, the World Bank, after two decades of refusing to fund large hydropower projects, is back in with big hydro in order to combat world poverty due to climate change (Hydro World, May 30, 2013). Dam building for hydropower, especially in developing countries is occurring at alarming rates (The Atlantic, May 20, 2013). As a scientist and concerned global citizen, I will use the proposed Slave River project to help me make my case against big hydropower as a source of clean, renewable energy. People deserve better reasons to oppose this than, “it will degrade the environment”, “it will flood a pretty place” or “we will lose such and such animal or plant”. How about this: large dams are societal hazards, pollutants, non-renewable, and economically unsound.


Large Dams are Societal Hazards

When large dams are built they often require relocation of people from lands that are to be flooded. The number of people displaced by upstream flooding can be relatively small, as in the case of the Slave River project, or can be huge, as in the case of the 1.2 million people displaced from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China (Biello, 2009).  In either case, the strife encountered by displaced people is very real and long-lasting, no matter the compensation offered.  It is estimated that globally between 40-80 million people (mostly the poor and indigenous) have been displaced, usually involuntarily (Namy, 2007).  The displaced suffer economic and cultural declines as well as high rates of mental and physical illness (see Namy, 2007 for further explanation).  Political conflict can also occur because dams are built upstream by one group of people or nation, depriving the downstream group or nation of its water.

Many reservoirs themselves are recognized health hazards; they can be breeding grounds for waterborne illnesses spreading infectious disease , they promote the growth of toxic algal blooms impacting drinking water, and they accumulate contaminants delivered from up basin in the reservoir sediment (Wildi et al., 2004). Heavy metals (often mercury) and other toxins cascade up from the benthic zone through the food web becoming concentrated in fish, birds, mammals and humans. For people in Fort Smith, this should be of special concern since the Athabasca oil sands are upstream (Northern Journal, July 8 2013). Their sister community of Fort Chipewyan has already noticed the negative impact the oil sands have had on the environment and their health (Vancouver Observer, June 30, 2013). A long-anticipated cancer study is about to begin (Fort McMurray Today, Feb 20, 2013).

After large dams are built large populations come to depend on them and thus they become and weak point weak point in water, energy, flood and food security. A recent example is the threat that the Rim Fire has had on the quality of drinking water and supply of electricity from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to 2.5 million people in San Francisco (CBS, Aug 28, 2013). Communities which would not exist without the presence of the dam, such as Las Vegas, are especially at risk should the dam lose capacity or cease to operate. While dams do provide flood control for average flooding events, they give people an erroneous sense of security resulting in extensive development on floodplains.  During big infrequent events, these communities are flooded and loss of property and life is the consequence (Prairie Fire, May 2009). The detrimental effect that dams have on downstream riverside ecosystems leads to decreases in food security by reduction of game, fish, and fertile farmlands - impacting 472 million river dependent people worldwide (Richter et al., 2010). Due to the USA’s dependence on dams for water and electricity and the threat to civilian lives if one should fail, it is no surprise that after Sept 11th security was heightened at most large dams in the US to protect citizens against organized or individual terrorist acts (CSO, Oct 26, 2009).

Large dams are ‘natural’ disasters waiting to happen. If a dam should fail for any reason (poor construction/maintenance, earthquake, attack, etc.), the catastrophic flooding is sure devastation for communities living downstream. In addition, reservoirs can reactivate faults and trigger earthquakes because their weight places stress on major fault lines and lubricates existing fractures with water. Research indicates that this may be what caused the Sichuan disaster in May 2009, leaving 80,000 dead (The Telegraph, Feb 2, 2009). Although the proposed Slave River dam will not have a large reservoir behind it, it is likely that it would increase groundwater, probably exacerbating an already recognized problem with landslides. In 1968 a large landslide that delivered a large portion of the town into the river is still vividly remembered by residents (Northern Journal, Aug 26, 2013).

Dams can be a hazard affecting people globally, not just those downstream. For example, dams slightly change the tilt of the earth’s axis and gravitational field (NY Times, March 3, 1996) and can impact extreme precipitation patterns (Hossain and Jeyachandran, 2009) and global circulation patterns (Maser, Aug 23 2012). Dams also increase coastal erosion by depriving deltas of sediment. This, coupled with sea level rise, is a severe concern for shoreline communities since it increases their risk during large storm events (Stewart, 2005).


Large Dams are Polluters

It is estimated that global hydropower currently produces energy equivalent of several thousand coal fired power plants (Biello, 2009), and thus is viewed as an appealing clean alternative. However, large hydroelectric plants are very dirty polluters themselves. Often hydopower projects are financially feasible because they have customers from high carbon emitting industry partners. ATCO Power has made it clear that they consider the presence of the Athabasca oil sands as a plus because the oil sands would be guaranteed long-term purchasers of their energy. Financing the high cost for construction will be a safe bet for Alberta since ATCO won’t likely default on their loans (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013). It is ironic then that a ‘clean’ energy source will mostly provide energy for the rapid growth and expansion of not-so-clean energy extraction.

One of the most pressing global pollution issues today is nitrogen pollution from extensive use of fertilizers to the world’s oceans, causing the spread of dead zones and the collapse of world fisheries (NPR, Aug 18, 2008). Dams play a large role in the export of this nitrogen to the ocean by decreasing the frequency of inundation of water onto floodplains, thus decreasing a river’s ability to denitrify its waters before it gets to the ocean (Gargel et al, 2005). After the completion of large dams on the Slave and Athabasca, it is likely that residents of the Great Slave Lake will start seeing algal blooms to the detriment of their fisheries, especially as the climate continues to warm.

Scientists have shown that hydropower contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect through the release of substantial amounts of methane gas to the atmosphere. For example, it is estimated that in 1990 the Tucuruí Dam in Brazil released more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere then Sao Paulo (Scitizen, Jan 9, 2007). In large bodies of water, methane gas is found in the colder waters near the lake bed. In natural waters this methane gas is released as bubbles slowly rise to the surface (Bastviken et al, 2005).  However, hydropower facilities substantially increase methane release to the atmosphere by using the cold water, high in methane, from the bottom of the reservoir to run through their turbines.


Large Dams are Unsustainable

Hydropower is often touted as a renewable, sustainable form of energy because water is commonly seen as a renewable resource. While small hydropower in the form of instream turbines probably are, any hydro project which puts a dam across a river isn’t. All dams have a useful working lifetime and for many dams this is shorter than you may think. The Hoover Dam has reduced power production by 23% since it came into operation, and in 2010 was at the lowest levels it has been since the 1930’s when it was filled (Circle of Blue, Sept 20, 2010). Water levels in the lake will conceivably be low enough by 2025 to require operators to shut off power production that 29 million people depend on. There are several reasons for the loss of power generating capacity: infilling of reservoirs with sediment, evaporation, and less water availability from melting snowpack due to climate change. ATCO Power has stated that it wants to build a ‘run of the river’ dam with minimal reservoir storage. If there is a small reservoir then it also has the capacity to fill with sediment faster, especially since the Slave River has very high levels of suspended sediment ranging from 3-5600 mg/L (AANDC, 2013). After the dam is built, ATCO will probably have to build another dam upstream in order to capture the sediment to keep the hydro facility functioning at full capacity.

A river carries many things besides water, however. A dam cannot be ‘run of the river’ because it serves as an impoundment by which, not just water, but sediment, nutrients, and organisms cannot pass. This blockage of the natural flux of materials up and downriver has devastating environmental effects; effectively contributing to species loss, decimating fisheries, and starving floodplain lands of much needed nutrients and water (Richter et al., 2010). The environmental impact that the W.A.C Bennett dam has had on the Athabasca delta upstream of the Slave River is well documented (Environment Canada, 2013) and strongly felt by residents of Fort Chipewyan (Northern Journal, Jan 22, 2013).


Large Dams are Economically Unsound

Although hydroelectricity is cheap to produce, dams are not cheap to build and costs to the average citizen are very high. The Slave River project is estimated to cost ~$5-7 billion, taking at least ten years to get a return on the investment (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013). Most large projects are backed by the government (you - the taxpayer) or, for developing countries, by the World Bank (Washington Post, May 8, 2013). Most hydropower projects have overly optimistic benefit projections, since dams do not operate at full capacity due to declining availability of water, evaporation, environmental flow releases, sediment infilling, climate change and/or political situations. Once you add in the cost of mitigating effects of the dam such as food scarcity, flooding, pollution, relocation, ecosystem rehabilitation, countering risks of natural disaster, and cleaning up disasters that do occur (paid for in suffering by those affected and monetarily by the taxpayers) the cost-benefit for the average citizen just doesn’t pan out. China is now recognizing the real unplanned costs of building the $23 billion Three Gorges Dam lies in mitigating permanent social, ecological and geological damage (Global Research, Feb 8, 2013).


The Future

I firmly believe that the way of the future and the solution to our energy woes lies in the next big thing in energy: decentralization (Roberts, Feb 26, 2013, Dolezal, Feb 6, 2012). Decentralized, localized, diverse sourcing of energy avoids the waste of long transmission lines, is robust to failures of any one system, doesn’t damage the environment in irreparable ways and will provide wider access to more people. Large hydropower projects requiring big dams do not fit into this picture, but perhaps in-river turbines that don’t require a dam do (Eaton, Dec 23, 2008). The argument doesn’t have to be about hydropower or no hydropower; it should rather be about what kind of hydropower. The Slave River may be a perfect location to install a series of in river turbines as a part of the renewable and clean energy plan for Canada.

In response to Chief Cheyeanne Paulette citing environmental reasons for not allowing feasibility studies to continue in 2010, one supporter of the Slave River Hydropower dam wrote [you] “live in the stone age, paulette [sic], you hypocrite!” (CBCnews, Oct 18, 2010). Big dams were originally built in ignorance of their widespread consequences. They are a vestige of Industrial Age. It is time that we moved forward and start considering solutions to our problems fitting of the Information Age. We have the information, now let’s act responsibly. If you clogged most of your arteries in your body, you would no longer be able to live. Likewise, if we keep clogging the rivers of the earth, don’t be so sure that this planet will be able to support life as we know it.  The current spurt of damming of large rivers in the name of obtaining renewable clean energy is a global crisis. I plead for the sake of humanity: let’s stop staunching the flow of our rivers and choose to live.

Image: Map of all large dams in the World from the GRanD database.

Natalie Anderson has received support for her work on Mackenzie River driftwood from the National Geographic Society. You can view this blog cross-posted at National Geographic here.

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.