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.

 

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.  

PEDESTRIAN SAFETY

By Ginger Cannon, active transportation manager, University of Utah

The University of Utah is committed to reducing carbon emissions, as well as improving local air quality by reducing impacts from university operations and daily commute trips. Consequently, using sustainable modes of transportation to, from and around campus is supported and encouraged.

The university prioritizes the safety of pedestrians and those riding wheeled devices such as bicycles, skateboards, rollerskates and scooters while traveling on university premises.

To ensure the safety of all on pathways and sidewalks, please remember the following:

  • Every person riding any device must yield the right of way to pedestrians at all times. Report any unsafe behavior or conditions to Campus Police at 801-585-COPS.
  • The campus speed limit for wheeled devices is 10 mph. Always wear a helmet, be aware of your surroundings and ride your device responsibly.
  • Shared mobility devices like bike share and e-scooters are managed by private operators and are used to access the university campus. When renting any shared device, please remember:

The university is working to further define regulations for shared mobility devices on university premises. Shared mobility is an evolving area of transportation services and regulations will change according to Utah state code, Salt Lake City ordinance and direction of university administration.

For emergencies or to report violations of university policy, call 801-585-COPS (2677).

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Originally published on @theU on August 20, 2018.

By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, College of Engineering

Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico last September, which left nearly all the island’s 3.4 million residents without power, is one of the most frightening scenarios for a metropolis: A natural disaster or cyberattack wipes out a city’s power grid.

University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Masood Parvania has received a $2 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to build a new laboratory and develop technology that would help communities get their power back online faster in the wake of a natural disaster or cyberattack.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

But University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Masood Parvania is building a new laboratory to develop technology that would help communities get their power back online faster in the wake of those kinds of devastating events.

He was awarded a three-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research beginning July 1 to build the lab and research and test technology for microgrids–smaller, more localized versions of a city’s power grid that could provide backup electricity in a catastrophic situation.

When a natural disaster hits, much of a city’s power grid that receives electricity from sources such as thermal and hydroelectric plants, can go dark.

Microgrids are power systems in smaller areas of a city that operate autonomously from the main grid and get electricity from sources like solar panels or energy storage devices. They can provide emergency power to neighborhoods and essential services such as hospitals until the main system is restored. Microgrids can be as small as a building like a college campus or military base that use backup generators, or a large neighborhood that uses wind turbines or geothermal generation. Microgrids, for example, are now being created all over Puerto Rico in the event of future massive power outages.

Parvania and his team at the Utah Smart Energy Lab (U-Smart) will be developing microgrid controllers that act as the computerized brains of a microgrid and determine how to best distribute electrical power in an area. These controllers will be faster, smarter and more secure from cyberattacks, the newest concern for power companies. Two days before Christmas in 2015, for example, Russian hackers remotely attacked the control centers of three Ukrainian electricity distribution companies, briefly wiping out power to more than 200,000 customers.

“Today, power grids are becoming more and more vulnerable with modernization and digitization,” Parvania says. “These microgrid controllers will be faster and more accurate in returning power back to communities. But we also want to make sure that once they work they are not affected by cyberattacks.”

Parvania’s laboratory, which will be built on the University of Utah’s College of Engineering campus, will consist of software and specialized computers called “real-time digital simulators” that will simulate a power system. New technologies that his team develops can be experimented on this new testbed. The laboratory also will be used to help educate the next generation of power engineers who are studying microgrids.

Another component of the research grant involves commercializing any technology that Parvania’s team develops. The University of Utah is partnering with the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, Governor’s Office of Energy Development, Idaho National Lab, and the U’s Office of Technology and Venture Commercialization.

“We are also going to work with utilities, energy companies, and military bases to see how we can commercialize our technology for the betterment of communities,” says Parvania.

 

 

 

 

WATERSHED PROTECTION

Originally posted in @theU on August 27th, 2018

By Cecily Sakrison, U Water Center

Some come to the Natural History Museum of Utah for the world-class dinosaur exhibit, others are drawn to the vast collection of gems and minerals. But if you’re interested in sustainable engineering and infrastructure, you’ve arrived at your destination the moment you park your car.

 

It could be argued that the museum’s newest exhibit is its “50-year parking lot”—an engineering feat that’s “almost unheard of in Utah,” said David B. Alter, vice president of Ensign Engineering and project manager for the lot upgrade. With the pressures of ice, snow, salt and plows it’s rare that any parking lot in the Beehive state lasts anywhere near the half-century mark. But, this is no ordinary parking lot.

Michael Martin, NHMU Facilities Manager shows the 80mm depth of the pavers which are designed to withstand an exceptional amount of pressure. PHOTO CREDIT: Cecily Sakrison

The LEED-certified NHMU building opened in 2011 with a bevy of site-specific, environmentally sensitive design solutions including planted roofs, solar panels, water-catchment cisterns and a pervious concrete parking lot surface designed to let stormwater runoff percolate back into the soil. The original lot’s high porosity was very effective but, over time, the lot started requiring increasingly numerous repairs and additional maintenance expenses due to uneven surfaces.

At the urging of the museum board, NHMU elected to upgrade to highly durable, permeable concrete interlocking pavers. A coarse sand-filled expansion joint around each paver allows water to percolate deep into the soil below, naturally filtering and recharging groundwater and eliminating the need to transport water off-site through additional infrastructure.

“The base layer had already been established,” noted Alter. “To lose that would have been a real shame.” Alter referred to the 2-3 feet of crushed rock that was reverse-slope graded back into the hillside and had been laid for the museum’s original lot. It’s the most important element of a permeable parking lot yet sometimes overlooked. “It’s so important that the whole system is properly engineered,” said Abby Curran, NHMU’s  Chief Operating Officer.

Project managers were able to design the installation plan to keep the museum’s lot open throughout construction with the exception of 3 days when crews worked to pave the entrance. PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Martin

“When we pave a surface we increase stormwater runoff and that can lead to problems.” said Civil Engineering Professor Christine Pomeroy.  “Excess runoff can cause erosion in urban waterways. It can flush out fish and insects that live in our streams. But it’s not only about bugs, bunnies, and treehugger stuff—erosion from high volumes of runoff can damage infrastructure, creating financial impacts.”

Many Wasatch Front residents don’t realize that, unlike water that’s funneled through the sanitary sewer system, anything that’s flushed down a storm drain goes straight to the valley’s creeks, rivers, ponds and canals. A General Public Stormwater Telephone Survey Report conducted in December 2017 for Salt Lake County found that “only 10 percent of respondents were correct when they said that ‘none’ of the county’s stormwater goes to a treatment plant.”

“Our streams can better maintain a healthy ecosystem if they’re not inundated with excess water,” notes Pomeroy.

Michael Brehm, U environmental compliance manager added “Nearly 10 years ago, the U adopted design standards and initiated policy and programs to accelerate the adoption of best management practices for stormwater. As we develop more of campus, the potential to interrupt the natural infiltration of rain becomes greater.  We’re aware of this and, in response, we’ve updated design standards to replicate natural recharge of water as closely as possible.”

The museum’s respect for and sense of place guided both the re-paving decision and process. Old concrete went to a reuse facility, new pavers were machine-layed for time and cost efficiency and half-pavers that were originally “waste product” of the machine-laying process were repurposed as borders.  “The exterior of the museum is just as important as the interior,” said Curran. “We have many programs that take advantage of our natural, native environment. Being mindful of that space and its natural systems enriches what we can offer our visitors.”


Watershed Stories is a series exploring water work across the University of Utah campus. The stories are curated by the U Water Center, the Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

Lassonde Studios Awarded LEED Gold Building Certification

The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah announced today that Lassonde Studios – a new five-story, student innovation space – has been awarded LEED Gold certification. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is the foremost program for buildings, homes and communities that are designed, constructed, maintained and operated for improved environmental and human health performance.

“We are proud to exceed our goals and achieve LEED Gold certification for Lassonde Studios,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, the executive director of the Lassonde Institute and an assistant dean at the David Eccles School of Business. “The building is not only a one-of-a-kind facility for student entrepreneurs. It is also a model for sustainable construction practices. We look forward to continued growth and recognition as one of the best places in the country for student entrepreneurs.”

The five-story, 160,000-square-foot Lassonde Studios building opened in 2016. The building is dedicated to supporting student entrepreneurship and innovation. The first floor features a 20,000-square-foot creation space with meeting space, cafe, tools, workshop and lounge areas. The upper four floors have bedrooms and living space for 400 residents. All students on campus are welcome to “live, create, launch” here.

Lassonde Studios has received international attention since it opened. It has won many awards and been featured by publications including The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek and Fast Company. In 2017, Architectural Digest named Lassonde Studios one of the “9 Best New University Buildings Around the World.”

Numerous people and organizations have made the Lassonde Studios possible. Building partners include University of Utah Housing & Residential Education, Cannon Design, EDA Architects and Gramoll Construction.

Lassonde Studios achieved LEED certification for implementing practical and measurable strategies and solutions aimed at achieving high performance in: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED certification is based on a 110-point scale. Sixty points are required to achieve Gold certification. The certification ranks projects on categories including: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation in Design, and Location & Transportation.

Here are some of the categories and qualities of Lassonde Studios that helped earn the project enough points to achieve Gold certification:

  • Sustainability Sites – The project demonstrates development density and community connectivity, and it provides easy access to alternative modes of transportation.
  • Water Efficiency – The site uses energy efficient landscaping through limited sod and drought tolerant plants. It also uses low-flow water fixtures.
  • Energy & Atmosphere – The building optimizes energy performance in ways including the use of LED for 100 percent of the lighting.
  • Materials & Resources – The project minimized construction waste and utilized recycled content in 21.2 percent of the building materials. Most of the recycled materials were used in the concrete structure.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality – The project used building materials and finishes that met quality standards.

“Lassonde Studios has been an incredible project to work on,” said Nick Lorenzo, of EDA Architects, who submitted the application for LEED certification. “The design and mission of this building are unlike any other. The LEED certification provides further evidence that we have created an incredible, state-of-the art building for student entrepreneurs to live, create and launch their ideas.”

Lassonde Studios joins many other buildings on the University of Utah campus with LEED certification. The first building on campus to receive LEED certification was the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building in 2006. Since 2009, the state has required that all new public buildings achieve at least LEED Silver certification.

LEED is the foremost program for the design, construction and operation of green buildings. More than 92,000 commercial and institutional projects are currently participating in LEED, comprising more than 19.3 billion square feet of construction space in all 50 states and more than 167 countries and territories.

“The work of innovative building projects such as Lassonde Studios is a fundamental driving force in transforming the way buildings are built, design and operated,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO, USGBC. “Buildings that achieve LEED certification are lowering carbon emissions, creating a healthier environment and reducing operating costs while prioritizing sustainable practices.”

Learn more about Lassonde Studios at lassonde.utah.edu/studios.

The Science of Science Communication

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Communication is a vital part of science. Articulating one’s research to broad audiences can have a significant impact on how that research is discovered and shared. While scientists and communicators have often relied on intuitive rules to guide communication, science communication (as a field in itself), is supported by empirical insights that inform how to best communicate about science issues.

Sara K Yeo, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, will describe the science of science communication at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 10, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Sara K Yeo. Used with permission.

Yeo’s research explores how audiences seek and process information about science from the media. Her research methods include surveys, experiments embedded in surveys (either online or over the phone), and content analysis.

“If you think about where we get science from it is very rarely now in traditional news or television,” said Yeo. “Most people go online to find information about science.”

When you are reading science information online, there are many factors that influence how you understand that information. The social component of online sources (like buttons and share options) are often embedded in the source. According to Yeo, the number of likes and shares can influence how we think about the information we are reading. But it isn’t just the social components that have an influence. The language used within the message, and its context, can also influence how the information is received.

Yeo’s current project explored tweets regarding climate change and global warming, uncovering the context in which audiences used the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. She also worked alongside atmospheric scientists to determine if temperature variations across the United States were related to Twitter reactions.

“What we saw was the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ used in different contexts,” said Yeo. “Global warming was used in context to the weather and was correlated with temperature changes. Whereas, climate change tends to be used in more environmental and political type discourses.”

Mapping the discourse surrounding scientific issues on social media is an important part of science communication research. Collecting this data can inform how communication is being translated to different audiences and inform science communication scholars and practitioners.

To hear more about the empirical research being done on science communication and how the direction the field is moving, attend Yeo’s GCSC lecture, “The Science of Science Communication” on Tuesday, April 10 at 4 p.m. 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

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.