Seeking Systems that Serve Us All

by Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

In the western United States, most of our cities are situated in arid landscapes–dryland ecosystems or deserts.  Historically, dry landscapes have been viewed as wastelands, lacking value until we created a use for them. Most humans now live in cities, and dryland ecosystems are currently home to over 2 billion people worldwide. Like any other organism, we humans modify our environment to facilitate our survival and meet our needs. And there is a tendency for us to think of cities as separate from “nature”. Dr. Nancy Grimm’s groundbreaking work examines the relationship of humans and other living creatures with their urban environments and looks at ways we might rethink the socio-cultural value of the water-limited landscapes we call home.

On Tuesday, February 25th, Dr. Nancy Grimm will present her talk “Rivers of our dreams: water futures in urban central Arizona” from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Dr. Grimm, an ecosystem ecologist and interdisciplinary sustainability scientist, is the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences, distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and Regents Professor at Arizona State University. Last year, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Grimm currently serves as the co-director of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN), working with cities to create collaborative visions for future urban infrastructure, building resilience and sustainability plans, and exploring nature-based solutions to urban resilience challenges. As the director of the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER), an innovative interdisciplinary study of complex metropolitan regions, she helped develop conceptual models of social-ecological-technological systems, expanding how we think of ecology today.

Biodiversity makes ecosystems healthier and more resilient to destabilizing disturbances. Climate change is already bringing more potentially catastrophic disturbances like storms, floods, and droughts to our doorsteps. Couple this with the lack of biodiversity in cities, and one can see how, in thinking of our cities as separate from nature, we’ve made ourselves more vulnerable and less prepared to survive climate crises. Dr. Grimm’s research asks the question of how we might come together collectively to make plans and increase our ability to adapt to stability-rattling events.

A desert city like Phoenix, with 20 years of CAP-LTER data, can help researchers model systems around questions like how pollution might cycle through the water of the city and desert streams. Who might be impacted most in extreme events like floods or droughts? How will the city’s infrastructure hold up? How does stormwater impact water quality? Different ecosystems respond differently to the same disturbance, so not every city will approach, respond to, or withstand droughts or floods in the same way. But looking at ecosystem models that include cities is a way to start thinking of all the complex interworking parts of the system.

What does it look like for an urban environment to affect changes in an ecological system? How important is the factor of scale in shaping more sustainable cities? What sorts of tradeoffs might we expect in an effort to create a more sustainable future for ourselves?

Come explore these questions with Dr. Grimm on Tuesday afternoon, February 11, 2020.  Her talk “Rivers of our dreams: water futures in urban Arizona,” will be from 4 – 5 p.m. in room 210 of the Aline B. Skaggs Biology Building.  As usual, we’ll have some sweet treats, coffee, and tea, so bring your mug and enjoy.

the greening of the arctic

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

What do you think of when you think of the Arctic? Vast glacial landscapes? The Aurora Borealis? Polar bears and melting sea ice?  Most of us are aware that global warming is rapidly heating up the Arctic, but for many of us, it’s still a relatively foreign, frosty place. Dr. Ken Tape is a scientist who’s spent his career studying the Arctic tundra’s shifting ecosystem as climate warming transforms the globe’s northernmost landscapes. He’ll be at the University of Utah on Tuesday, October 1st from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210 to talk about “The Changing Arctic Landscape” as part of the GSCS seminar lecture series.

As an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dr. Tape is interested in the interconnectedness and transformation of this unique arctic ecosystem. Born and raised in Alaska, his specific focus is on what the changes in this integrated arctic ecosystem will mean for the future. His educational background spans geology and the biological sciences. He’s published a book, The Changing Arctic Landscape, has a traveling museum exhibit (Then & Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape), and is a renowned fine art photographer.

By comparing old photographs from up to 150 years ago to today, he looks at shifts in plant and animal life from the boreal forests into the greening arctic tundra. Combining this with other environmental data, Dr. Tape’s work enriches our understanding of what is happening to the Arctic ecosystem as a once icy and inhospitable place warms to become extended habitat for an array of wildlife. He’s studied the shrubs and vegetation, moose and snowshoe hare populations, shifting snow and melting permafrost, and his most recent work focuses on beavers and hydrology.  As mini-ecosystem engineers, beavers can have a dramatic and swift influence on landscapes, and Tape points out, “very few species leave a mark so visible that you can see it from space.”[1] He uses not only aerial but also satellite imagery as part of his research looking at how these large-toothed lodge-dwellers are shaping the greening tundra, most massively via their hydrologic habitat effects. Warmer air temperatures lead to more shrubs and flowing water in the winter which provides new terrain for beavers to colonize and transform, ultimately impacting stream and riparian ecosystems and thawing permafrost.

Permafrost is continuously frozen soil, rock, or sediment that exists either below ice sheets or below an active soil layer. We know it stores carbon and methane gases, and we’re learning that global climate warming is contributing to rapid thaws in the Arctic’s permafrost.  We’ve also known about disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic and the potential global implications, but we’re just starting to talk as a global community about what the “abrupt thaw” of arctic permafrost could mean. Some estimates predict that the quantity of global greenhouse gas released will be double that of earlier projections, a number not previously accounted for in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate model report unveiled last October.

Dr. Tape’s observations of beavers as an ecosystem disturbance suggest that permafrost thaw in the Arctic could be self-reinforcing, making the thaw faster than we’ve expected. In seeking to understand what’s happening with an integrated ecosystem he’s quick to engage with geographers and historians as interdisciplinary knowledge is a meaningful way to deepen comprehension of complex systems. He isn’t one to make strong predictions of the future but prefers to his work to open the door for more questions of how the interconnectedness of these systems plays out. New knowledge about how global warming alters entire ecosystems at the northernmost parts of our planet opens up new ideas on the potentialities of the future. Aside from a faster permafrost thaw feedback cycle, the greening of the tundra could also mean new habitat for salmon, for instance. In this way, the knowledge that Dr. Ken Tape has to share is a valuable piece in the grand picture of our future on the earth.

Come learn about “The Changing Arctic Landscape” from Dr. Ken Tape on Tuesday, October 1 from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210.  We’ll have coffee and treats for you, so bring a mug and enjoy!

[1] National Geographic, August 2019