PROTECTING OUR WINTERS

Originally posted on @theU on Monday, January 7, 2018.

By Abby Ghent, sports and sustainability student ambassador, Athletics and the Sustainability Office

Mind-blowing fact: According to The Washington Post, if you were born after February 1985, you haven’t experienced a month where the Earth’s average monthly temperature was below average. Rising temperatures, as well as a bunch of other compounding factors, are impacting our snowfall and our snowpack.

Join us on campus Jan. 9 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside the Union to learn more about more ways to cut down on your carbon footprint and possibly win free lift tickets.

As someone within that demographic, who’s an ex-professional and avid skier with friends who are still pros, this fact is frightening. I understand the severity of climate change in relation to professional skiers’ jobs—their livelihood depends on that snowpack. Many of us are concerned there won’t be enough snow to hold downhill ski races in the not-so-far-away future.

I eagerly await each fall and wish to delay each spring. However, these ideas, “I want to keep skiing! I don’t want it to be summer yet!” are selfish. Wanting there to be enough snowpack to thoroughly support our water needs, however, is not. I don’t think we emphasize just how much we rely on the snow in our mountains for non-recreational usage.

Snowmelt is important for many things such as providing for personal water use, dampening (no pun intended) the chance of wildfires, supporting ecological systems and many industrial uses. In the Western U.S., 80 percent of the water runoff from snowpack in the mountains is used for agriculture, according to researchers.

The lack of snow in our mountains creates a significant positive feedback loop. A warming climate leads to less snow, which leads to less water in the ground, which leads to more fires, which leads to more loose dirt or fine particles that are lifted by stronger winds (due to more high/low pressure systems because of our warming climate), which are carried further into the mountains landing on what little snow we have, creating a lower albedo, which in turn melts the snow faster and on it goes. Just one long run-on sentence.

The bus from Snowbird to Alta.

So, what can we do about it? There are many things that can be done but I want to focus on one thing: transportation. Here in Utah, we can see how much nastiness gets trapped in the air, and much of that comes from our cars, buses and trucks. In 2010, the amount of CO2 produced by on-road transportation (this doesn’t even include off-road vehicles and equipment) was the second largest contributor after commercial/industrial buildings (U.S. Department of Energy, 2010).

“But I have to drive to work! But I need to get to the ski area somehow!” Yes, all valid reasons to use some sort of transportation, but do we all need to take our own personal vehicles separately to many of the same places? I think we can do better. Public transit is an option, both around town and to the ski resorts. We know that taking the bus to ski areas can be more difficult than it sounds depending on your starting point, so don’t worry, there are other options. Carpooling can be convenient—ride to the ski areas or park-and-ride lots together and save on parking, gas, emissions and time.

We want you to pledge to look for carpooling and public transportation options first to get to your final destination this winter and forever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abby Ghent is a former U.S. Ski Team and University of Utah Ski Team member. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado, calling Vail her home mountain. She moved to Utah three years ago to race for the U and is currently studying environmental and sustainability studies, international studies and music.

The Way We Learn: Lauren Barth-Cohen for the GCSC Seminar Series

We have all struggled with learning at some point in our education. Mathematics and the sciences can be especially daunting for many, while for others it just clicks. Yet it isn’t just about innate ability: the ways that we learn are essential to our educational success. As climate change bears down upon us, understanding this process can provide the key to preparing the leaders of tomorrow by making science and math education more comprehensible and engaging for students of all types.

Professor Lauren Barth-Cohen, Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Physics and Astronomy, will explore the cutting edge of science, mathematics and climate change education today, and where it can go from here, for her lecture, “Capturing Three-Dimensional Science Learning about Climate Change in Classrooms through Embodied Modeling,” for the Global Change and Sustainability Center‘s (GCSC) Seminar Series on Tuesday, January 15th.

Professor Barth-Cohen began her work in the sciences as a Physics major during her undergraduate education. While tutoring other students, Barth-Cohen explains, “I got interested in why some students had trouble understanding things that to me, as a physics major, seemed really straightforward and clear. I got curious why physics is hard for a lot of students.” This curiosity led her to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where she completed a Ph.D. in Science and Math Education focusing on student learning around complex systems in advanced physics.

From there, she took a post-doc position at the University of Maine where she began research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on how teachers learn, in an effort to help teachers find innovative ways to teach science and mathematics. After a stint at the University of Miami, Barth-Cohen took a position at the University of Utah where she works in both the College of Education and College of Science, offering a course on teaching science for undergraduate students, and a course exploring how people learn through various cognitive and sociocultural theories for graduate students.

In her seminar lecture, Barth-Cohen will talk about her ongoing research in many areas of science and math education and teacher learning. At the moment, Barth-Cohen is Principal Investigator (PI) on a current NSF grant with two faculty members from the College of Science. “What this grant is trying to do is bring together faculty who teach these different classes in Science and in Education and look at ways we can more explicitly connect our classes so there’s more coherence in terms of the classes, how they learn the content, and how they learn to teach the content. “

She will also discuss an innovative project she’s developing on students’ conceptual learning about cross-cutting concepts, the reasoning tools that scientists use to make sense of phenomena across topics. Currently she’s focused on the teaching of the physics of climate change through an embodied learning activity she calls “Energy Theater.”

As she describes it, Energy Theater is “halfway between improv theater and science class or, better yet, improv theater for science class, in which students act out a specific scientific scenario – in this case it’s the stasis of energy of the earth – and they act out this scenario in groups where they have to use their bodies to model the scenario.” Through this group process of interactive modelling, reflecting on the successes and failures of their model, and implementing improvements, the students learn about both the model and the concept. Barth-Cohen believes that this innovative approach to learning difficult subjects like the physics of climate change can make science education more accessible to all types of learners.

“There’s a fair bit of evidence that doing learning that is multimodal,” Barth-Cohen said, “that involves different ways of participating, and different means of engaging with the material, is beneficial for everyone.”

If you’re intrigued by this innovative work on how we learn and how we teach science, mathematics and climate change – or maybe just want to put on your own Energy Theater – come by ASB 210 on Tuesday, January 15th, for Professor Lauren Barth-Cohen’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture.

Longing for A New Direction

The universe is mysterious, beautiful, and unknown. The world around us and the space beyond is a cosmic soup of particles, atoms and energy, yet mixed together these things make up our bodies, our friends and family, the trees and water, the sky and the earth. While science seeks to unravel these mysteries of the universe in the lab, poetry seeks to do the same in our hearts and minds. Yet both ultimately pursue the same fundamental questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What do we do?

Kealoha, the internationally-known slam poet and poet laureate of Hawai’i has a unique understanding of the relationship between science and poetry and their potential to change our perception of the world. Trained as a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he left a lucrative career in corporate consulting to return to his native Hawai’i to find answers in poetry. He’ll share some of his unique insights on Tuesday, November 13 as part of the GCSC seminar series, and then again on Friday, November 16, with his highly acclaimed “The Story of Everything,” hosted by UtahPresents and supported by the Sustainability Office.

For his GCSC seminar, “So many different crossroads, but the paths look the same,” Kealoha will explore the threat posed by climate change by pulling questions from science and the arts. Similar themes will come up on Friday in “The Story of Everything,” an ambitious performance combining poetry, dance, music, art and science. Drawing on everything from the Big Bang Theory to Michael Jackson, Kealoha will show how interconnected our world really is.

These questions have always been a part of Kealoha’s life. Growing up, Kealoha kept his academic interest hidden and pursued arts and sports. But his incredible aptitude for science and mathematics -including a perfect SAT math score – led him to study Nuclear Engineering at MIT. During his education he worked as an intern at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Yet he realized quickly that nuclear energy was more plagued by political funding issues than any other obstacle and changed his course, working with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) in Washington, D.C. where he published work on national security and climate change.

After graduating with honors and a minor in writing, he changed his direction yet again and began a career in management consulting in San Francisco. Yet the long hours and focus on building wealth left him feeling unfulfilled, and after a fortuitous encounter with slam poetry he immersed himself in writing. Back in his native Hawai’I, he dove into the local slam poetry scene, and went on to establish Youth Speaks Hawai’i, which holds poetry workshops for Hawaiian youth with internationally renowned poets. With poetry rooted in community and education, Kealoha regularly performs at schools and towns not just around Hawai’i but across the world.

With his scientific training and poetic genius, Kealoha may just provide the inspiration we need for rethinking how we live and who we are. Come to his GCSC seminar today, Tuesday, Nov. 13, in ASB 210 from 4 – 5 PM  and his performance of “The Story of Everything” in Kingsbury Hall on Friday Nov. 16 at 7:30 PM to get inspired.

 

Modeling Evapotranspiration and the Limits of Plant Life: Gaby Katul for the GCSC Seminar Series

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant

Plants play an essential role in the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the soil and atmosphere. Across eons, they have evolved to optimize processes that maximize their resource uptake and energy usage. Determining the basic mechanisms of this process is complex, as plants are susceptible to subtle changes in their environment. However, in a time of increased threat from climate change—including dire consequences for plant life—understanding the fundamentals of plants’ processes has the potential to revolutionize how we study plants relationship with ecosystems, water, and carbon.

Gaby Katul, the Theodore S. Coile Professor of Hydrology and Micrometeorology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University, will explore plant hydrology in his upcoming GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Evapotranspiration: From kinetic theory to the limits of plant life.”

In his research, Katul seeks a comprehensive model of how water moves through plants. This is not a simple task. Scientists have pieced together an understanding of the processes of drawing water from the soil and carbon from the atmosphere—processes that are bound up in complex and dynamic environmental, biological, and physical conditions. Katul hopes to identify what universal traits exist in the transpiration cycles of plants.

“Our thinking was to try and come up with the most general descriptions of these processes irrespective of the biomes,” Katul says. “The idea is to try to connect certain anatomical and physiological features of the plant to the environment. We want to study in the most generic way how environmental changes impact the responses of plants to drought, or elevated carbon dioxide, or elevated temperature.” Understanding the universal components of transpiration in plants can enable a radically holistic model for future research, regardless of biome, he says.

According to Katul, similar models are already used for understanding these processes in other fields. “For example, look at soil,” Katul explains. “There is sand, there is silt or clay, there are a billion combinations of them. But the objective is that if you know something about, say, the pore-size distribution, or the particle-size distribution, can you come up with general transport laws that describe water movement in porous media? We’re trying to do something similar for plants.”

Katul’s research is necessarily interdisciplinary. The physics of transpiration and carbon uptake are equally important factors. Katul has also drawn on economics, “particularly optimization principles where there are no conservation laws. The idea is to grab some techniques that have worked in different disciplines and try to bring them into this issue of plant-water relations.”

Ultimately, Katul thinks this work could lead to a universal model of plant response to environmental change that can inform future plant research. “We know a lot about water transport, carbon flow, energy flow in the plant. We also know that plants have evolved certain strategies, certain coordination among components to try to deal with certain bottlenecks that will pop up,” he says. “So, if we take this information and put it in a mathematical framework, can we interrogate this mathematical framework, and see what’s going to happen to these processes as climatic conditions evolve?”

A universal model will allow scientists to investigate the effects of changing climate on plants worldwide. By seeking a general model for optimization processes in plants, Katul envisions science where, as he puts it, “I am getting the answer right because I know the process that is being impacted by environmental change.”

To learn more, come to the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. in Room 210 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology building.

WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE CAN HURT YOU

 

 

Originally published on @theU on October 15, 2018.
 
By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, College of Engineering
 

What if you could see nasty microscopic air pollutants in your home?

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering
University of Utah School of Computing assistant professor Jason Wiese (left) and computing doctoral student Jimmy Moore conducted a study to determine if homeowners change the way they live if they could visualize the air quality in their house. They provided participants with air pollution sensors, a Google Home speaker and a tablet to measure and chart the air quality in their homes.

Engineers from the University of Utah’s School of Computing conducted a study to determine if homeowners change the way they live if they could visualize the air quality in their house. It turns out, their behavior changes a lot.

Their study was published this month in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. The paper was also presented Oct. 9 in Singapore during the “ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.” The paper can be viewed and downloaded here.

“The idea behind this study was to help people understand something about this invisible air quality in their home,” says University of Utah School of Computing assistant professor Jason Wiese, who was a lead author of the paper along with U School of Computing doctoral student Jimmy Moore and School of Computing associate professor Miriah Meyer.

During the day, the air pollution inside your home can be worse than outside due to activities such as vacuuming, cooking, dusting or running the clothes dryer. The results can cause health problems, especially for the young and elderly with asthma.

University of Utah engineers from both the School of Computing and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering built a series of portable air quality monitors with Wi-Fi and connected them to a university server. Three sensors were placed in each of six homes in Salt Lake and Utah counties from four to 11 months in 2017 and 2018. Two were placed in different, high-traffic areas of the house such as the kitchen or a bedroom and one outside on or near the porch. Each minute, each sensor automatically measured the air for PM 2.5 (a measurement of tiny particles or droplets in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in width) and sent the data to the server. The data could then be viewed by the homeowner on an Amazon tablet that displayed the air pollution measurements in each room as a line graph over a 24-hour period. Participants in the study could see up to 30 days of air pollution data. To help identify when there might be spikes in the air pollution, homeowners were given a voice-activated Google Home speaker so they could tell the server to label a particular moment in time when the air quality was being measured, such as when a person was cooking or vacuuming. Participants also were sent an SMS text message warning them whenever the indoor air quality changed rapidly.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Wiese
Participants were given an Amazon table that displayed the air pollution data in an easy-to-understand line chart so they could see when and why the air quality worsened. Homeowners also could label points in time when the pollution would spike, such as when they were cooking or vacuuming.

During the study, researchers discovered some interesting trends from their system of sensors, which they called MAAV (Measure Air quality, Annotate data streams and Visualize real-time PM2.5 levels). One homeowner discovered that the air pollution in her home spiked when she cooked with olive oil. So that motivated her to find other oils that produced less smoke at the same cooking temperature.

Another homeowner would vacuum and clean the house just before a friend with allergies dropped by, to try to clean the air of dust. But what she found out through the MAAV system is that she actually made the air much worse because she kicked up more pollutants with her vacuuming and dusting. Realizing this, she started cleaning the house much earlier before the friend would visit.

Participants would open windows more when the air was bad or compare measurements between rooms and avoid those rooms with more pollution.

“Without this kind of system, you have no idea about how bad the air is in your home,” Wiese says. “There are a whole range of things you can’t see and can’t detect. That means you have to collect the data with the sensor and show it to the individual in an accessible, useful way.”

Researchers also learned that circumstances that made the air pollution worse differed in each home. Vacuuming in the home, for example, would have different effects on the air quality. They also learned that if homeowners could visualize the air quality in their home, they always stayed on top of labeling and looking at the data.

Wiese says no known manufacturers make air quality systems for the home that allow residents to visualize and label the air quality in this way, but he hopes their research can spur more innovation.

The study involved engineering in collaboration with other University of Utah scientists, including biomedical informatics and clinical asthma researchers. It was funded as part of a larger National Institutes of Health program known as Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS), launched in 2015 to develop sensor-based health monitoring systems for measuring environmental, physiological and behavioral factors in pediatric studies of asthma and other chronic diseases.

Research reported in this publication was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54EB021973. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

 

 

Green to Red Tailgate Challenge

By Abby Ghent

Ah, football. The smell of barbecued foods, the sound of cheering fans, and the excitement of watching your home team playing their hearts out. The only thing missing is a little bit of sustainability thrown in. But you can change that: Join in the 1st Annual Green to Red Tailgate Challenge!

At the Oct. 12 home game vs. Arizona, join your fellow fans in a little friendly competition to bring some green into your red-out tailgating. The Green to Red Tailgating Challenge offers a contest to make your tailgate as sustainable as possible. Wear red and be green during the U’s first Green to Red Tailgate Challenge. All tailgates are automatically entered. Winners will be chosen by student sustainability leaders based on how sustainable their tailgate team can be in the areas of waste and recycling, transportation, energy, food purchases, and innovation. Here are some ideas:

  1. Ditch the disposables. Bring reusable cups, dishes, and cutlery. Stay hydrated with reusable jugs of water.
  2. Don’t go Solo! Those iconic red cups are a low-quality plastic. If you need plastic cups, look for clear cups that are plastic #1.
  3. Separate your recyclables. Keep two bins—one for trash and one for recycling. Make sure to avoid food and liquid in the recycling bin.
  4. Go local. You can get all your tailgating needs—including BBQ, brats, grass-fed beef, and of course, beer! (21+)—from Utah companies.
  5. More than cars. Points for people in the group that biked, carpooled, or used public transportation.
  6. Reuse your U decor. You wouldn’t throw out your favorite University of Utah t-shirt! Show your team spirit with U decorations you can use game after game.

And the prizes, you ask?

1st Place: On-field experience at your choice of 2018 football game and dinner in the Tower for four people; recognition of your tailgate team on the video board at the chosen game

2nd Place: Tour of Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center and lunch in the cafeteria for four people

3rd Place: Four tickets to any 2018/19 U sports event of fans’ choosing

 

The competition is part of a larger effort by the Pac-12 Conference to be leaders in both championships and sustainability. The Pac-12 Team Green, a first-of-its-kind in collegiate athletics, promotes sustainability initiatives taking place around the Pac-12 Conference and all 12 of its member universities. Learn more at www.pac-12.com/team-green.

HUMANS OF THE U: KEITH DIAZ MOORE

Originally posted on @theU on September 25, 2018.

“When people think of health and well-being, they may think of medicine, pharmacy, nursing—I think of architecture and design. What drove my architectural career was visiting my grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease in a lockdown wing of a nursing home. Architects, designers and planners have a social responsibility to do better, to act with an ethic of care. That has been my driving force.

When others think sustainability, they might think the environment—I think health. This imperative convergence is why we are pursuing and championing renewable energy, like geothermal and solar; active transportation, like bicycling, public transit and subscription ride service; and lifestyle practices, such as healthy foods and zero waste. We need to clean our air, to leave resources for future generations and to make the campus not just sustainable but resilient to future challenges yet unseen.

When others think of higher education and its current challenging context—I think of the amazing opportunities we have to lead. I am a public-school kid from K through Ph.D. and I personally know the powerful transformational force of public higher education. What if the University of Utah envisioned itself as a healthy and resilient campus? One that promotes physical activity, energy independence and overall wellness. One that understands that our community of diverse students, faculty and staff bring their minds, bodies, souls and personal backgrounds to campus. How do we nurture all of those in an inclusive and welcoming setting? This, to me, begins the exciting conversation of the resilient campus of the future.

Every day, no matter where I turn, I see a mountain view challenging all of us to aspire. We are all but part of an amazing ecosystem and much like a mountain, one that is both enduring yet incredibly fragile. How do we, each and every day, play a small role in making this ecosystem a resilient and inclusive one for all?”

—Keith Diaz Moore, Ph.D. AIA, WELL-AP, dean of College of Architecture + Planning and Interim Chief Sustainability Officer

Projecting Nature

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Driving into Salt Lake City from the west, the shady streets and verdant gardens can feel like an oasis at the edge of the desert. Yet the Salt Lake Valley was not always so green. As people settled the valley, they brought new plants to the landscape. Whether for agriculture, aesthetics, or utility, human hands dramatically changed the ecology of the Salt Lake Valley.

For ecologists, the urban environment presents a compelling and pressing issue, as scientific knowledge is complicated by considerations of human values and decision-making. Diane Pataki, professor of Biology and associate dean of research for the College of Science, will explore the complexities of urban ecology in her lecture from 4-5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25 as part of the GCSC Seminar Series.

Pataki’s faculty appointment is in the School of Biological Sciences, but she also teaches in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning. Her work is necessarily interdisciplinary—her Urban Ecology Research Lab examines the many ecological factors at play in urban spaces. Through research on climate, water, pollution, aesthetics and other factors affecting the ecology of urban spaces, Pataki’s research provides valuable data that can better inform how and what we plant.

As climate change and resource scarcity become more important issues in our daily lives, many seek to make more informed decisions in their garden. “Most of the vegetation in Salt Lake City is planted by people, so people are always making decisions: what should they plant, and what should they remove?” Pataki says.

However, most research in ecology doesn’t fully account for how human decision-making affects the environment. Pataki notes that we have extensive scientific knowledge about how plants interact with climatic and biological forces but less about the human element. Yet, in studying urban spaces, the decisions humans make are significant, and often have little relevance to the native ecology of the region.

“People plant things for certain reasons and many of those reasons are aesthetic, and not scientific,” explains Pataki, “and that’s perfectly valid. So how do you bring in things like aesthetics into a decision-making framework?”

The picture is further complicated by the fundamental objectivity of scientific research, Pataki explains, because “traditionally, scientists are not supposed to tell people what to do. Science is supposed to be objective, and we’re not supposed to lobby for certain outcomes.” Science seeks to be objective and not prescriptive, and yet studying urban ecology means ultimately making decisions about what is necessary to a place. To different people, different things are important. “We project things onto urban spaces and not all of those things are scientific. We project cultural meaning onto spaces, we project values onto spaces, we want spaces to have a certain interaction with people, and that interaction can be highly subjective.”

As a result of these philosophical questions, Pataki has collaborated with researchers in the Philosophy department. Ultimately, she explains, they are seeking to understand, “How do you do science in a normative context?”

How can research on urban ecology navigate this dissonance between objective research and subjective decision-making? Come to ASB 210 on Tuesday, Sept. 25 to hear Pataki explore this fascinating intersection of urban space, science and philosophy.

 

GOOD TO GROW

Originally published in Continuum on September 17, 2018.

Jessica Kemper, coordinator of the U’s Edible Campus Gardens, shows off produce from this season’s abundant harvest at their garden east of Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Kemper helps organize more than 75 student volunteers, who work shifts year round composting, trellising, weeding, planting, and harvesting at both the Pioneer Garden and their plot by the Sill Center. Come fall, there is enough produce to donate to the Feed U Pantry, share with volunteers, and sell at the U’s Farmers Market, which takes place Thursdays just west of the Union Building from mid-August to early October.

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.