THE WASATCH FRONT: A LIVING LAB

Originally posted on @theU on September 17, 2018

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University of Utah Communications

University of Utah scientists know how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Repeatedly, researchers at the U have developed innovative research solutions to some of the Salt Lake Valley’s most serious environmental issues. Light rail trains sample the air as they dart around the valley. Camera traps keep their eyes on the wildlife in mountain canyons. Climate and hydrological observations track rain, snow, plant stress, groundwater and streamflow from the mountain crest to the valley floor.

All of these environmental factors—earth, air, water and life—are interconnected, though. A change in one has the potential to impact any or all of the others. So how do U researchers respond to this extraordinary complexity? By banding together. This fall, the U launches a new university-wide collaboration called the Wasatch Environmental Observatory.

“We’ve talked about campus as a living lab, and faculty have gotten grants to develop research infrastructure throughout the Wasatch Front,” says Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC). “We have all this infrastructure and we thought: ‘How can we pull this together in a new way to not just study campus as a living lab, but our home, the whole Wasatch Front?’”

This observatory isn’t a single facility like, say, an astronomical observatory. It’s a network of sensors and instruments, stretched all across the Wasatch Front, that collectively monitor multiple environmental metrics. “We’re pulling together all of the systems that were initially funded by individual researchers or large multi-researcher grants to make it into something more than the sum of its parts,” Bowen says.

Part of the observatory is relatively stationary, providing consistent, long-term data. But part is portable and deployable, Bowen says. “As events occur, we can deploy infrastructure into a certain area by pulling together hydrologic, atmospheric and ecological research facilities into a distributed observatory or field station.”

Paul Brooks, professor of geology and geophysics, says that the observatory is a framework for future projects and infrastructure to be added in. State, federal and local agencies, he says, have already expressed interest in tying their instrumentation into the WEO network. The measurements and results from WEO can then be used by those stakeholder agencies. “That’s one of the exciting areas of WEO,” Brooks says. “It takes the new knowledge generated by students and faculty and ports it through as quickly as possible to people on the ground who use that knowledge to make better decisions.”

For Bowen and the GCSC, which brings together faculty from across campus to study environmental issues, WEO is a fulfillment of the center’s mission. “It’s realizing what GCSC strives to be,” Bowen says. “WEO will help integrate everything we’re doing to advance sustainability in our own backyard.” 

WEO will be led by a committee of six faculty members (including Bowen and Brooks) hailing from the departments of Geology & Geophysics, Atmospheric Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the School of Biological Sciences. Beyond that, nearly 40 researchers from 13 different departments and eight colleges already have research or outreach projects associated with WEO.

According to a project summary from GCSC, current facilities to be linked together through WEO include:

  • Distributed hydroclimate, meteorological, biological and hydrological observations in seven catchments spanning the Wasatch Crest through the Great Salt Lake including six closely spaced stations spanning an elevation gradient from the top of Red Butte Creek down through campus and on to the Jordan River
  • Experimental stormwater, landscape, transportation, and architectural design infrastructure on campus
  • Long-term ecological, geological, and snow study sites
  • Seven atmospheric trace gas and climate stations from Hidden Peak (Snowbird) to the Salt Lake Valley floor
  • Light rail-based atmospheric observations distributed across land use and elevational gradients in the Salt Lake Valley (TRAX)
  • Deployable and relocatable high-precision atmospheric and hydrologic observation equipment
  • Co-Located, long-term, and spatially extensive databases from multiple disciplines

All of that equipment requires service, repair and maintenance. So WEO provides for two full-time research technical specialists, Dave Eiriksson and Ryan Bares, to keep the sensors running.

Brooks says the interconnectedness of the WEO sensor systems allows researchers to study the impacts on one environmental system, say, urban development, on others, such as the quality of water in urban streams.

“The idea is that each individual solution we have exists in a broader context,” Brooks says. “We want to be as comprehensive as possible so that the solution to one issue doesn’t then create a new problem down the line that perhaps we didn’t think of.”

Brooks adds that the U is uniquely positioned, with researchers and facilities, to study environmental issues common throughout the West.

“WEO brings those researchers and resources together,” he says, “so instead of addressing these issues piecemeal we have the ability to address them in concert.”

Want to join in?

If you’re considering or conducting environmental research along the Wasatch Front, come to a think tank mixer presented by GCSC on Sept. 26, from 5-7 p.m. at the College of Law, sixth floor, Flynn Faculty Workshop.

Learn more and register here.

 

The Intersection of Greenhouse Gases and Air Quality

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

As Utah residents know well, air quality can have a serious effect on our daily lives. Wildfires, inversions, dust, and pollution colliding with the complex geography of the Salt Lake region all contribute to the thick haze that can settle over the valley. However, the exact conditions and effects of these issues are not yet completely understood.

John Lin, professor of atmospheric sciences here at the University of Utah, will shine some light on these regional air quality problems in his lecture on Tuesday, September 11 in 210 ASB as part of the Global Change & Sustainability Center’s annual seminar series. Lin will lay out some of the complex conditions that affect air quality, and show just how interconnected they are to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change across the West.

He’ll explain how air quality can be indicative of many diverse conditions converging.

Of major concern in Lin’s research on Salt Lake City is dust blown off the Great Salt Lake. As the climate warms and water levels lower more frequently, dust is increasingly exposed to the air and carried into the atmosphere. Salt Lake City’s proximity to the lake leaves it particularly susceptible to the ill effects. This lake dust also effects snow, as it settles on the snowpack and causes it to melt faster.

Wildfires also play a big part in introducing particles to the atmosphere. Smoke from across the West can move hundreds of miles in the atmosphere to Utah. As climate change makes fires more frequent and intense, the relationship between global processes and regional air quality becomes more evident.

This relationship is visible in our daily lives.

“When we drive, the stuff that comes out of our tailpipes includes greenhouse gases but also NOx [Nitrogen Oxide] and PM2.5 which cause air quality problems,.” Lin said.

Often the source of local pollution is the source of emissions that drive climate change. Each contributes to a feedback loop that exacerbates their combined effect.

Lin’s research at the U has begun to uncover and understand the sources of these problems. Through two research groups, LAIR and U-ATAQ, Lin has used extensive data from a complex network of air quality monitoring systems throughout the region. The TRAX Air Quality monitoring system installed four years ago has been a major player in this network. The system has allowed Lin and his colleagues to closely monitor the valley’s air in its most densely-populated areas. Working together with city government, this research is directly informing new air quality initiatives in Salt Lake City. Collaborative work with the University of Utah Medical School is also applying this data to public health research.

The possibilities emerging from an understanding of how air quality and climate change intersect may have positive consequences outside of Utah.

“There’s a fair bit of interest from cities around the West who want to reduce emissions,” said Lin. “The cities are at the forefront, and hopefully the scientists can help in some way. What we hope to do is use our research to help assess if, with new measures in place, the reduction in emissions are actually happening.”

Come to Lin’s seminar, ” “The greenhouse gas-air quality nexus: experiences from the Western U.S.” at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB on Tuesday, September 11 to learn more about this cutting-edge research of the intersection of air quality and climate change, and how it affects us here in Salt Lake City and the West.  

U takes Top Spot

Thank You for Your Commitment

The University of Utah team led throughout the Clear the Air Challenge, and thanks to your dedication, we took the top spot. The University of Utah team logged 12,785 non-single-occupant vehicle trips—we beat the runner-up by more than 4,000 trips. We also bested the results of last year’s February challenge, increasing trips saved by 20 percent and participation by 36 percent. Thank you, and keep walking, biking, riding transit, and carpooling! 

Top 5 teams from the U by trips saved

  1. Sustainability Office
  2. Facilities Management
  3. Eccles Library
  4. College of Law
  5. Huntsman Cancer Institute

Top 5 individuals from the U by trips saved

  1. Rob Kent de Grey
  2. Billi Tsuya
  3. Jasmine McQuerry
  4. Sara Lotemplio
  5. Elias Flores
A special thanks to our prize sponsors:

USING NATURE AS OUR GUIDE: FIVE PLANTS THAT IMPROVE INDOOR AIR QUALITY

Katie Stevens, Sustainable Utah Blog Writing Intern.

Living in Salt Lake City, we are no strangers to air pollution and its harmful effects.  Breathing in toxic air can cause a range of health concerns including increased asthmatic symptoms, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and more.

It is no surprise that we often retreat into our homes to catch a breath of fresh air; however, sometimes our indoor air quality could be improved. Common indoor air pollutants include benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia. There are certain plants that can combat these indoor air pollutants, according to a study done by NASA.

Here are five plants that can improve your indoor air quality: 

  1. FLORIST’S CHRYSANTHEMUM (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
  • Helps to rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Keep the plant in cooler temperatures and keep the soil moist at all times. Requires bright light.
  • Toxic? Chrysanthemum leaves are toxic so keep this in a safe spot away from any furry friends and youngsters.
  1. PEACE LILY (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Average room temperature is good for this plant. Keep the soil evenly moist and be sure to have a pot with a drainage hole. Bright light is recommended, but not direct sunlight.
  • Toxic? Yes
  1. ENGLISH IVY (Hedera helix)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, xylene, and benzene.
  • Care: Keep under bright light, preferably fluorescent. Soil should be kept moist spring through fall and a bit drier in winter. Ivy likes cool to average room temperatures.
  • Toxic? English Ivy leaves are toxic if eaten and can irritate the skin; it is always a good idea to wear gloves while handling this plant.
  1. BARBERTON DAISY (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, and xylene.
  • Care: This plant requires bright light to full sun and thorough watering. Prefers cool to average temperatures.
  • Toxic? Non-toxic.
  1. BROADLEAF LADY PALM (Rhapis excelsa)
  • Helps rid the air of: Formaldehyde, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Keep this plant in bright, but indirect light. Soil should be kept evenly moist in the spring and summer and should be dried out between watering in the winter.
  • Toxic? Non-toxic.

I invite you to create your indoor air sanctuary with these plants and test out your green thumb this winter!

 

Cover Photo Via Pixabay CC0

 

CERTIFY YOUR GREEN OFFICE

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

14 departments across the University of Utah are currently participating in the Sustainability Office’s Green Office Certification, with six already certified.

Green Office Certification helps the University achieve its sustainability goals through inviting broad participation. The program is managed by Karren Nichols, Administrative Officer in the Sustainability Office.

Karren Nichols reviewing office initiatives.

“Green Office Certification helps colleges and departments foster and adopt more sustainable practices within the workplace,” Nichols explained.

Any college or department on campus can participate in Green Office Certification. The process begins with a certification form. After completing the form, it is submitted to Nichols, at karren.nichols@utah.edu. Upon receipt of the form, Nichols coordinates a green-office specialist to walk through the space.

The benefit of having a specialist walk through your space is that they might notice something you overlooked on your form. The specialist can identify further cost or resource saving changes that can be made, as well as noticing what eco-friendly behavior may already be in place for the office.

“Sustainability has been growing over the last eight years on campus,” Nichols explained. “A lot of people are already engaging in eco-friendly behavior, and they just don’t realize that is what it is.”

Depending on the score, offices are awarded a bronze, silver, or gold certification. The green-office specialists works with each office to make sure they meet at least the bronze level. After initial certification, the specialists will continue to help offices until obtain gold.

Myron Willson, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer, and Karren Nichols presenting the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center their Gold certification.

The College of Humanities Dean’s Office and the Second Language Teaching & Research Center are certified bronze. City & Metropolitan Planning is certified silver. Gold certifications include the College of Architecture + Planning Dean’s Office, the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, and the Office of Sponsored Projects.

By helping offices meet specific minimum requirements around, and related to, recycling, green purchasing practices, transportation, energy, and other common office activities, the program is also helping the University of Utah meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

“By shifting daily behaviors, we can work together to make a big impact on campus as well as in the community,” Nichols said.

By collectively leveraging our individual office habits, together we can become more sustainable.

Certify your office today.

CLEAN AIR FOR YOU

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt and Nate Bramhall, Sustainability Office. Originally posted on Jan. 23 2017.

Drive less to help clean the air. Mobile sources, including personal vehicles, are responsible for nearly half of the emissions that cause elevated PM 2.5 levels — emissions so small that they easily embed in our bodies, creating lung and heart issues. Walk, bike, take TRAX, carpool, ride buses and shuttles — do whatever you can to not drive alone to improve the quality of the air we breathe here in Salt Lake City.

Collectively, we can make a difference, so sign up for February’s 2nd Annual Clean Air for U: A TravelWise Challenge and log your non-single-occupant-vehicle trips. Consider this: Up to 65,000 people travel to the University of Utah during a given week when counting students, faculty and full- and part-time staff. By not driving alone, we can make a huge difference in our air quality. Plus, Clean Air for U participants are eligible for prizes, including memberships for GREENbike and Enterprise CarShare and day-use state park passes. Additionally, the top five individuals will dine with Chief Sustainability Officer Amy Wildermuth and Senior Vice President Ruth Watkins. Learn more about the Clean Air for U Challenge and other air quality solutions at the U Clean Air Expo on Tuesday, Jan. 24 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. in the Union Lobby near the services desk.

While we at the Sustainability Office think air quality is the most important reason to get out of your car, here are five more benefits:

  1. Skip the Slip ‘N Slide. Living among the mountains is breathtaking (when you can see the mountains), but it also means we occupy a hilly and potentially icy community. Why risk your own personal property? Hop on a UTA bus or TRAX, which you can ride for free with your UCard.
  2. Avoid road rage. Anyone who’s done the morning commute to the University of Utah knows that there’s nothing more infuriating than shuffling through stop-and-go traffic. We know road congestion causes elevated stress, but research also suggests it is negatively impacting your heart health. Spare yourself the drama: Ride UTA and enjoy your coffee.
  3. Save time by not digging out your car. Here’s something you never hear: “Hey, would you mind using this flimsy piece of plastic to clear all the ice and snow off this bus?” That’s because UTA takes care of its fleet, so even on snowy days, the buses are ice-free and warm when we board. UTA’s got your back when the icy mornings don’t.
  4. Make a bus or train buddy. It’s a familiar scene: You hop on the train, find an open seat, steal a glance upwards to find that everyone else is staring intently at their smartphone. Contrary to expectations, conversing with strangers on public transit actually affects your mood positively. So, curb the stuffy silence and strike up a friendly conversation with your neighbor.
  5. Keep your money. Because your UCard doubles as a UTA pass, it doesn’t cost you anything extra to take public transportation. Plus, athletics tickets also serve as fare when traveling to and from games, so use UTA to travel to sporting events with your family and friends.