curating global ecology through big data

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Ecologists seek to answer the big questions about how the world is changing, and how species and ecosystems are responding to those changes. To answer these questions, a new network of analysis is needed. Community-curated data sources can provide new insight on how systems are have changed in the past and how they are changing now.

Jack Williams, professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will show how two community curated data sources are bringing reliable, big data to bear on the challenges of a changing world at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Jack Williams, used with permission.

According to Williams, four V’s (volume, variety, velocity, and veracity) characterize ecological big data. Volume refers to the size of data, variety is the heterogeneity – diverse nature – of data types and measurements, velocity is the rate data needs to be generated or analyzed at, and veracity is the potential uncertainties.

Community-curated data sources have been developed to enable global-scale science. These data networks are also changing the way data is analyzed.

“The standard has been to run ecosystem models and analyze data somewhat independently of each other,” Williams said. “But now we have the opportunity to do more simulations where the data doesn’t constrain the simulations and improve the parameterization and forecast.”

Multiple groups have begun building databases that bring the data and paleoecological records from multiple networks to larger scales. These data sets can be applied to testing and improving the predictability of ecosystem models.

Williams will structure his talk around two different data networks—Neotoma and PalEON. Neotoma gathers large amounts of records from around the world and assembles it into one common resource that is publically available. PalEON is an example of one type of research that can be done with this kind of global platform for ecological and paleoecological research.

“Neotoma and PalEON are part of a broader set of efforts to gather many different kinds of ecological data into extended observational networks,” Williams explained. “We can now look at ecological dynamics at long timescales and at large spatial scales.”

Williams studies species’ responses to climate change. By using the last 2,000 years as a model, he can look at how species have migrated or changed in past climate. His work with PalEON is interested in using ecosystem models to forecast and predict species responses to climate change at decadal and centennial time scales.

“An interesting initial finding is that, as a result of climate change and human land use over the last century, the climatic niches of trees have changed,” explained Williams. “A lot of our predictive models use modern climates and modern tree species distribution as the basis of our predictions of forest responses to current and future climate change. Seeing how niches have changed suggests there is perhaps there is some disequilibrium with current climate change.”

To learn more about ecological big data, attend William’s seminar, “Achieving global ecology via dispersed community-curated data resources: Neotoma and PalEON” on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 4-5 pm in 210 ASB.

 

Cover Photo by geralt via pixabay. CC0.

10 YEARS OF SUSTAINABILITY

Originally posted in @theU on Sept. 22, 2017.

By Amy Brunvand, Sustainability Librarian.

The University of Utah Sustainability Office turns 10 years old this year, and it is truly amazing to look around campus and realize how much has changed for the better in the past decade. Nowadays, there are campus vegetable gardens with ripe tomatoes and hives of buzzing bees, solar parking canopies that provide both power and shade, electric vehicles plugged into charging stations, crowds of students arriving on TRAX light-rail trains, tasty vegetarian and vegan options on offer at the cafeteria, water bottle refilling stations in most buildings, and plenty of recycling bins to divert waste from the landfill.

The curriculum has changed, too. Undergraduates can earn a number of sustainability-focused degrees and minors, while graduate students in any field can add an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability to their credentials.

Over the years, students, staff and faculty have all contributed to a vision of making the University of Utah a better place. In September, the Sustainability Office will celebrate these milestones and achievements with a Sustainability Showcase highlighting current programs and resources, and a special presentation by Dr. Vandana Shiva who advocates for traditional agriculture, and environmental and social justice issues worldwide.

Join us at the Sustainability Showcase on Friday, Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on the Marriott Library Plaza for food, live music and fun activities. Later this fall, Dr. Vandana Shiva will present a public lecture at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., as part of UtahPresents 2017-18 season. Tickets are available now.

1991-2006: Early Beginnings of Sustainability

Ten years ago, the transition to campus sustainability had barely begun, although a few major milestones laid the foundation. The first big sustainable change was a side effect of trying to cope with limited parking; in 1991, Commuter Services launched the Ed Pass program to give a UTA transit pass to every student and employee on campus. Not only did this encourage people to leave their cars at home, it helped expand Salt Lake City’s light rail network when enthusiastic transit riders from the U showed up at City Council meetings to press for construction of the Red Line TRAX, which opened in 2001.

In 1996, a biology professor named Fred Montague started an “unofficial” campus vegetable garden to teach students about his ideas for ecological gardening. That unofficial garden became the foundation of today’s Edible Campus Gardens, which teaches volunteers how to grow food, supports organic gardening curriculum and sells produce at the University of Utah Farmers Market. By 2006, the university had also constructed the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, the first LEED-certified building which incorporated efficient use of energy and water, waste reduction and consideration of human health in the building’s design, construction, operations and maintenance.

These efforts were significant, but they weren’t yet part of a unified drive to implement sustainability on campus.

2007-2014: The Sustainability Office Forms

Divergent efforts began to coalesce in 2007, with the formation of the Sustainability Office (then called the Sustainability Resource Center), underneath Facilities Management.

Something like the Sustainability Office doesn’t happen without visionaries. The idea was originally proposed by students, but it was City & Metropolitan Planning faculty member Craig B. Forster who led the effort to make the idea work. Forster, who became the first director, was a natural fit with sustainability. He was interested in facilitating interdisciplinary research and bridging the gaps between science and public policy. He also had a talent for bringing people together and was deeply involved with the local community. In the summertime, he was often seen at the Pioneer Park farmers’ market playing cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer) with his Hungarian Táncház band.

With only one full-time staff member and some volunteers, the Sustainability Office got to work organizing recycling at football games, installing the first solar panels on campus, setting up a campus farmers’ market, making sure that sustainability was included in the Campus Master Plan and developing a student fee to support student-led sustainability projects through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund. On Earth Day 2008, University of Utah President Michael K. Young signed the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment, dedicating the university to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The year ended in tragedy, though, when Forster died in a hiking accident.

Despite the loss of Forster, the university persevered with a vision for making sustainability integral to its operations. In 2009, after a competitive nationwide search, architect and planner Myron Willson was appointed the next director of the office.

2014-2017: Sustainability is Integrated into Academic Affairs

In 2014, the Sustainability Office made another big change to adapt to the growing campus. Originally, the office was on the organizational chart under Facilities Management with the idea that university employees would take care of recycling, xeriscaping, transit passes and such.

But then an interesting thing happened. Students were getting more and more interested in sustainable change. They wanted to try out their ideas, and the campus was the most natural place for them to do so. With the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) now up and running, grants were available for student-led sustainability projects. The university had become a living laboratory for sustainable change, and sustainability-focused courses had popped up in academic departments all over campus. With so much involvement in interdisciplinary research and learning, the Sustainability Office moved into Academic Affairs, and Associate Vice President for Faculty and law professor Amy Wildermuth was named Chief Sustainability Officer in 2014. Wildermuth added Adrienne Cachelin, Environmental & Sustainability Studies faculty to the team as the director of sustainability education to guide burgeoning sustainability education efforts across campus.

Under Wildermuth, the Sustainability Office also joined forces with the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC), founded in 2010 by biology professor Jim Ehleringer to foster interdisciplinary sustainability research. Nowadays, under Director Brenda Bowen, Geology & Geophysics faculty, the 129 faculty affiliates of the GCSC represent nine colleges. The center supports graduate students through grants and fellowships, offers an interdisciplinary research seminar series, faculty networking opportunities, assistance for large interdisciplinary grants and core courses in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability curriculum.

Sustainability is You: The Next 10 Years

Today, the Sustainability Office team includes fourteen faculty and staff members as well as numerous student interns and volunteers and continues to expands its scope. Though much progress has been made, sustainability is an ongoing effort, and there is still a lot of work to do.

This year, the Sustainability Office celebrates 10 years of dedicated efforts of faculty, staff and students from across campus. The next 10 years of sustainability at the university will be guided by those in our community who get and remain involved. We invite you to be part of this important work. Join us at one of our fall events to learn about ways you can help make the U a better place for all who live, work and play here.

Earth Week 2017

When we imagine the place where we live, we often think of our city, our state, or even our country. But Earth is also our home. We need the planet for more than it needs us. Activist and scientist Vandana Shiva reminds us, “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.” In celebration of our home, the University of Utah will host Earth Week 2017 from April 10-14. The events of the week invite us to connect to our home through education and volunteerism. Join the festivities!

Earth Week is hosted by the Sustainability Office, ASUUthe Environmental and Sustainability Studies Leadership Committee, and U of U Tree Campus USA.

April 10-14

Campus Tree Tour
Monday, April 10
2-3:30 p.m.
President’s Circle

Learn more about the trees at the University of Utah—part of the State of Utah Arboretum—on a tour led by campus arborist Suzie Middleton. Meet at the flagpole on Presidents Circle.

Documentary Screening
Tuesday, April 11
6-8 p.m.
Union Theater

Watch “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change” by award-winning documentary filmmaker Josh Fox.

Earth Fest: Party on the Plaza
Wednesday, April 12
10 a.m.-2 p.m. 
Marriott Library Plaza

Join on- and off-campus groups whose missions focus on the three pillars of sustainability: environment, social, and economic equity.

Social Soup
Thursday, April 13
12:30-2 p.m. 
Gould Auditorium in the Marriott Library

Social Soup is a semesterly reflection on social, economic, and environmental issues surrounding food. Free soup provided by University of Utah Dining Services.

Hoop-La: Hoop House Inauguration and Last Frost Kick-Off
11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Pioneer Garden

Eat, garden, and be merry. Celebrate the beginning of spring growing season while inaugurating our new hoop house. Free lunch for volunteers at 1 p.m. by El Sillero.

NAVIGATING UNCHARTED WATERS: HOW THE HUMANITIES CAN GUIDE THE WAY

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

A man lies on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat. He appears unimpressed by the sharks loitering off the port, and oblivious to the ship faintly on the horizon. This painting, “The Gulf Stream” by Winslow Homer, has been interpreted several times since its creation in 1899. Now, in our current climate chaos, Homer’s depiction of a shipwreck takes on a new meaning.

“Shipwreck captures both the moment of extreme danger, and the potential for rebuilding afterwards,” explained Jeffrey McCarthy, director of the University of Utah Humanities Program. “Shipwreck is an interesting symbol for us in this moment of a distressed and chaotic climate.”

McCarthy on the ocean.

McCarthy will discuss the symbol of shipwreck, the paintings of Winslow Homer, and point to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a way to illuminate the humanities’ crucial role in understanding human relationships to the ocean and our climate future at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 4 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

The ocean is essential to life on earth. It covers over 70% of our planet’s surface, and plays a fundamental role in shaping climate zones—even in places hundreds of miles inland. The ocean regulates earth systems, supplies living and non-living resources, and provides social and economic goods and services. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere came from the ocean.

The ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink. As it absorbs 26% of all CO2 released from fossil fuels, the chemistry of seawater is changing. The ocean has also absorbed 90% of atmospheric heat trapped by greenhouse gasses, which is increasing ocean temperatures. As life in the ocean changes, life on land will change too.

The ocean is less predictable, and less inhabitable for humans than its terrestrial counterparts. As we are entering a climate where there will be less predictability, analyzing seascapes can provide a way “to get our heads around what it means to occupy a space that is given to flux and uncertainty,” explained McCarthy.

Eastern Point Light by Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Environmental literary studies, and environmental studies more broadly, has been largely terrestrial,” McCarthy explained. “It is time to expand our notion of the planet we occupy to include not just the green parts, but also the blue parts.”

Art is a powerful addition to the data on climate change. By capturing how a culture responds to moments of uncertainty and risk, art shows the human-scale of climate change. In his talk, McCarthy will explore how cultural analysis of art can be a tool for understanding the past and navigating future crises.

“Art can remind us who we are, and who we want to be,” McCarthy concluded. “There is hope and beauty with art. We could all use more of both.”

Learn more at McCarthy’s lecture, “The Watery Part of the World: The humanities, the ocean and the Anthropocene” on Tuesday, April 4 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

WHICH WAY WILL WE TIP?

By: Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office.

Tipping Point, def.: the critical point at which a change becomes unstoppable.

Earth is undergoing an alarming series of changes due to human impacts. Warming climatewater shortagesincrease in infectious diseases, and loss of biodiversity. These changes and others are converging into a rapidly approaching tipping point for Planet Earth. What individuals, groups, and policymakers do in the next 10-20 years will determine which way we will tip, and what kind of future the next generation of all Earth’s species will have.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, 4:00-5:00 p.m., Anthony Barnosky will present on the Earth’s tipping points and their implications for political and personal action at the Global Change and Sustainability Seminar Series. The lecture will be held in 210 ASB.

With years of research on past tipping points in Earth’s ecological history, Anthony Barnosky, paleoecologist from Stanford University, focuses his efforts on activating humans to tip towards environmental sustainability.

“What I have done is use the fossil record to understand how the Earth system responds to big changes, unusual changes,” Barnosky said. “It inevitably took me into thinking about some of the big changes that people are causing to the planet today.”

It is difficult to write about Barnosky’s research without sounding apocalyptic. He agrees that this is heavy stuff; however,  he wants people to know that their individual and local actions are meaningful.

“The sorts of issues that I talk about are very weighty, global issues,” Barnosky said. “People often throw up their hands in despair. But the reason these are big issues is that 7 billion people are doing things in a certain way. So, it really does all start with the individual. The cumulative actions of 7 billion individuals are enormous.”

Barnosky hopes the tipping point for Planet Earth won’t be catastrophic change, but rather large-scale social action. In this tipping point, 7 billion people use the knowledge, technology, and resources available to act in more sustainable ways. This vision of positive social action has driven Barnosky into conversation with policymakers.

In 2012, the governor of California approachedBarnosky to turn his Nature paper on Earth’s sixth mass extinction into a scientific consensus statement. The governor was able to use the consensus statement, which was signed by more than 500 scientists, to advocate for positive action towards avoiding a tipping point.

Barnosky also had advice for other scientists about how to effectively collaborate with policymakers.

“It’s not just walking into a policy maker’s office and pronouncing what the science says,” Barnosky concluded. “Working with policymakers means actually asking what are their needs are as far as science. Developing a dialogue is very important so that you understand where they are coming from, and they understand where you are coming from.”

Learn more on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 4:00-5:00 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: Biodiversity by Dano, CC by 2.0 via Flickr

ALTA CALL FOR NOMINATIONS

Celebrate sustainability leadership on campus by nominating yourself or a colleague for an Alta Sustainability Leadership Award. These Awards recognize excellence in leadership in the areas of campus as a living lab, community partnership, sustainability education, and research. Thanks to the generous partnership of the Alta Ski Resort, an award of $2500 will be given to each recipient. All students, faculty, and staff eligible to participate. Submit the nomination form by February 28, 2017.

CONNECTING THROUGH CREATIVE EXPRESSION

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Constructed out of old farming equipment, a rusted silhouette of a tree stands above the other vegetation. Nestled in the branches sits a bee nest. This nest creates space for pollinators specific to the Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa to thrive, provides researchers the opportunity to study the species, all while reminding the community of the rich ranching history of the area. This restorative sculpture, “Supporting Structures” was constructed by Wendy Wischer, assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Art & Art History, in 2016.

Wischer will demonstrate the ways creative expression like “Supporting Structures” can engage individuals and communities with scientific data, and foster a connection to a place at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Jan. 31 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

“Recently we have been seeing more research and publications in articles and books describing the significance of the arts and how they can assist with environmental concerns,” Wischer said. “The arts are important in tackling our challenges with climate change, and sustainability as a whole.”

In her presentation, Wischer will share how her work has progressed from a symbolic practice representing the environment’s intrinsic beauty, to an activist approach designed to ignite action on environmental issues. Wischer hopes her work will create an emotional experience for the viewer, inspiring them to take personal or collective steps to maintain environmental integrity.

“It is usually our emotions that motivate us to act,” Wischer said. Those actions could “be anything from changing personal behaviors to advocating for shifts in policy.”

“Braided Nexus”. Courtesy of Wendy Wischer.

From joining forces with local communities and community organizations, to working alongside other University of Utah professors, collaboration is a crucial component of Wischer’s creative process. This collaboration helps Wischer engage people in social and environmental issues through her art.

“With socially engaged artwork, there are blurred lines in terms of what is art, and what is activism,” Wischer said.

In a current project along the Jordan River, Wischer is collaborating with an ecologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Jordan River Commission, West Valley City, and members of the local community. The Jordan River has recently been a site of restoration. The parkway trail, garbage clean-up, and planting has made the river a great place to spend the afternoon (or the day, if you travel the entire 51 miles of the river).

Wischer is in the process of constructing sculptural elements that will help prevent bank erosion, and offer community residents a place to sit together. This restorative artwork along the bank will provide a tangible way to connect with the place, a connection that Wischer believes is vital for sustainability.

“What is really going to allow initiatives along the Jordan River to become sustainable is when the community feels connected to the river,” Wischer explained, “and they become natural stewards of the place.”

Wischer hopes her work can foster those connections that will help the Jordan River restoration thrive.

Learn more at Wischer’s lecture, “Transcending data through creative expression,” on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: “Supporting Structures”. Courtesy of Wendy Wischer.

SEMINAR: GREENLAND ICE SHEET MAY HAVE LARGER THAN EXPECTED IMPACT ON SEA LEVEL

By: Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office.

New research suggests that the Greenland Ice Sheet is far less stable than current climate models predict, which could mean those models are severely underestimating potential sea level rise.

The ice sheet contains the equivalent of 24 feet of global sea level rise if it melts.

Joerg Schaefer, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will present this new finding and why it matters at the GCSC Seminar Series on Jan. 17 from 4–5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

The Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) is part of Earth’s cryosphere, the frozen water component of our climate system. The cryosphere plays a vital role in regulating planet temperature, sea levels, currents, and storm patterns. Over Earth’s billions of years, elements of the cryosphere have melted and re-frozen. Understanding how these elements have acted in geologic time scales and during prior periods of climate change enables scientists to model how Earth’s systems will react as the climate warms in the future.

Current climate models, including those developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are based on the assumption that Greenland’s ice sheet had been relatively stable over the past several million years. The stability of the GIS is under debate. If the GIS was frozen in the past when natural ‘forcing’ (causes) warmed the globe, that means it could stay stable despite human-caused global warming. Unfortunately, Schaefer’s research finds direct evidence from bedrock underneath the ice that the GIS is more at risk of melting than scientists expected.

“We came up with the worrisome result that the Greenland Ice Sheet was actually rather dynamic under natural forcing, which basically immediately means our models overestimate stability with respect to ongoing climate change…” Schaefer explained. “[The prior melting] was due to periods of natural forcing. We will overtake this by anthropogenic forcing very soon, and we just don’t have an argument to expect that the Greenland Ice Sheet will not go again.”

A map of the Greenland Ice Sheet. By Eric Gaba, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Schaefer and his Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Cosmogenic Dating Group’s discovery is the result of groundbreaking direct evidence from rock underneath the ice’s surface. Schaefer said the researchers asked the rock a question: “Have you ever been exposed to open sky?”

The rock Schaefer is referring to is a sample of bedrock from several miles below the ice sheet, obtained in the early 1990s. It took researchers nearly five years to drill out these rocks; the deepest ice core recovered in the world at that time. The sample is so precious that Schaefer and his predecessors didn’t want to work on them until they knew that the research method would produce accurate results. Enter cosmogenic nuclide technique.

Cosmogenic nuclide technique counts the cosmogenic nuclides in the near surface of the rock. These isotopes are produced when extraterrestrial radiation—cosmic rays—trigger a reaction in rock. The reaction produces radioactive beryllium-10 and aluminum-26 isotopes.

“These nuclides are characteristic for cosmic rays, so whenever you measure the nuclides in excess, you know that it’s due to exposure to open sky,” Schaefer explained. “If you measure these nuclides underneath an ice sheet, you know that the ice was gone.”

Schaefer describes these isotopes as sisters that always occur and decay in a specific ratio to each other. Knowing this relationship enables the scientists to count how long the rock was exposed to open sky, and when it was covered again with ice. Though the process is theoretically simple, it is very complicated to measure. It yields an unprecedented direct record of how the ice has melted and refrozen in the past.

The instability of the ice sheet has implications for policy. Translating this, and other climate science research into governance, is what Schaefer calls the “biggest frontier in climate science.”

“Many of the scientific findings are robust and clear, and now the next step is we have to become much better in transferring that into real decisions,” Schaefer said.

Learn more at Schaefer’s lecture, “Ice sheets, glaciers and society: Past and present cryospheric change and its impact on society,” on Jan. 17 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: The Greenland Ice Sheet. By Christine Zenino, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.