VEG OUT

Originally posted in @theU on Sept. 18, 2017.

By the Sustainability Office

While students are cramming for exams, working and completing homework, it can sometimes be challenging to find and afford fresh food. This semester, the Edible Campus Gardens and Feed U Pantry have partnered to place healthy, fresh produce in the hands of busy students at the Friday afternoon Produce Pickups.

U students with a valid uNID will find Edible Campus Gardens staff members and fresh harvested vegetables outside of the Feed U Pantry, on the lower level of the Student Union on Friday afternoons from 1-2 p.m., through Oct. 6.

Produce available for pickup may include huge heirloom tomatoes, basil, chard, beans, zucchini, rhubarb, cucumbers, herbs and more, all grown on campus and gathered by student volunteers and the Garden Stewards.

“Our goal is to offer fresh items for students at the food pantry. Everyone deserves local and healthy produce, students especially. I hope that the event only continues to grow,” said Jessica Kemper, Garden Program coordinator.

Supplying fresh vegetables to the university community is part of the mission of the Edible Campus Gardens. Produce harvested from the gardens is sold at the University of Utah Farmers Market and to different food vendors on campus. The gardens have historically donated unsold farmers market produce to the Feed U Pantry on Fridays in the fall. However, it has sometimes been difficult to distribute the produce before it spoiled.

When Kemper arrived on campus in summer 2017, she began working with the Feed U Pantry to transplant an idea from her alma mater UW-Madison that would get the produce in the hands of more students. This idea has become the Friday afternoon Produce Pickups.

In the first two weeks of the Produce Pickups, more than 20 students took 50 pounds of delicious vegetables home with them. Edible Campus Gardens staff members were also able to engage students in meaningful conversation about where the garden produce comes from, how to cook with it, and food resources available on campus, including the Feed U Pantry.  

“We are delighted to have fresh foods available through the Produce Pickups, and to help students become more aware of the resources the Feed U Pantry and Edible Campus Gardens have to offer,” said Nick Knight, executive director of the Feed U Pantry.

Current U students can check out the Produce Pickups for themselves and take home fresh, free vegetables. Don’t forget to bring your uNID (and a reusable bag) and head down to the basement of the Student Union this Friday from 1-2 p.m.

Sprouting Upward

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Farmers Market co-manager. Originally posted on August 14, 2017.

In 2008, the Sustainability Office and several campus partners came to a conclusion: The university needed better access to healthy and local food options. To meet this need, the partners launched the University of Utah Farmers Market. Organizers sent invitations to students, administrators and even residents of neighborhoods adjacent to campus, explaining their goal to “bring fresh, local food to the campus in order to help build healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.”

Ten seasons later, the popular market excels at connecting students, faculty and staff with local farmers and food purveyors. But even more so, the market has become a space for community, where students hang out and interact with small business owners from the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. This year’s market kicks off at Tanner Plaza, west of the Union, on Thursday, Aug. 24, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and takes place every Thursday through Oct. 5.

I first participated in the Farmers Market in 2013, where I witnessed firsthand the powerful link between food and community. The market is a staple of the fall semester, and campus members come back year after year to frequent their favorite stalls. It can look like seeing old friends, or in some cases, even like seeing family. Searching through the records of the past 10 seasons, I learned that some vendors, such as Tagge’s Famous Fruit & Veggie Farms and Jensen Farms, have been part of the market since the very beginning. Perennial favorites Tamales Tita joined the market in 2012. Other early vendors are now better known for their brick-and-mortar stores, such as Tulie Bakery and Skewered Thai. And newer vendors are branching out beyond traditional farmers markets — you can grab a Bubble & Brown pastry at Three Pines Coffee downtown or get some Salsa Del Diablo on your sandwich at The Bagel Project. For this fall’s market, we have accepted 25 vendors — some new and some returning.

In celebration of the 10th season, we are broadening our community focus by inviting more nonprofit organizations and campus partners to join the market to better highlight local opportunities and resources. Groups including the Green Urban Lunchbox and Enterprise CarShare will be part of the market, and campus entities including (but not limited to) Student Success Advocates, Student Equity & Diversity and Career Services will be in attendance.

We’re also keeping our original mission to increase access at the forefront of our market. The Double Your Dollars program will return for its fifth season, thanks to support from University of Utah Health. Double Your Dollars provides students with a $1-to-$1 match for students and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to purchase produce/food items at the market. Participants purchase tokens from the Market Manager’s Booth and can spend those tokens on grocery-like food items, including (but not limited to) fruits, vegetables, honey, salsa and baked goods. More than 400 students took advantage of the program last year.

When I took over management of the University of Utah Farmers Market in 2015, I was reminded of the service the market provides the campus community. I watched consumers interact with producers, which is so often lost in our faceless food system. I listened to producers describe where ingredients are grown, which is regularly hidden by lists of indecipherable ingredients. The market is a place to eat local, real food, and just as important, a place to gather. See you Aug. 24.

Merging Research and Design

By Ashley Babbitt, public relations specialist, College of Architecture + Planning. Originally posted on July 3, 2017.

The University of Utah recently approved the creation of the Center for Ecological Planning and Design. The new center merges the provisional Ecological Planning Center and the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center — both in the College of Architecture + Planning — in a new partnership with the Global Change and Sustainability Center. The Center for Ecological Planning and Design is positioned to bridge the gaps between research and the design and planning fields, both within CA+P and across campus, with a focus on the built environment and the human communities that inhabit it.

Sarah Hinners, director for the provisional Ecological Planning Center, answers questions about the new center:

Tell us about the significance of the work of the new research center?

The built environment refers to buildings, roads, parking lots, etc. — all that stuff that humans build for ourselves to make life easier, safer and more comfortable or convenient. Cities are dominated by the built environment and it is becoming more and more the dominant habitat of humanity worldwide. But our environments are not always a healthy and life-enhancing and can be vulnerable to environmental changes and disasters. The built environment affects people’s lives and in turn, human communities shape and influence the built environment.

At the center, we’re focused on bringing together the people who study the built environment, such as scientists, social scientists and engineers, with the people who plan, design and build it. We have most of these disciplines represented here on campus, but they are widely dispersed among multiple colleges and dozens of departments. We’re interested in bringing these experts from across campus and outside of academia together to generate ideas and knowledge, ultimately to build better places for humans.

How will this center allow the college to collaborate in new ways?

There are challenges to interdisciplinary work. People in different disciplines and in different colleges on campus don’t necessarily speak the same language and it can be difficult to work with others without the feeling of stepping on toes or coming into competition with one another. There is a tremendous opportunity, one that is so often missed, to build collaborations and this potentially has the power to transform the way cities and communities take shape. The center is intended to build bridges between departments in the College of Architecture + Planning and across campus. By working under the umbrella of the Global Change and Sustainability Center, we offer a place to collaborate on disciplinary neutral ground — a place where people interested in resilient communities and built environments can meet in the middle and do great things together.

What types of research will emerge from this center?

We anticipate building a research portfolio of collaborative solutions for cities, including sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems, highly functional and beautiful urban ecosystems, strong inclusive communities and equitable access to a high quality of life in cities.

 Who are the key participants and collaborators of the center?

The center started out as the Ecological Planning Center, established as a provisional center in 2012 and funded with a donation from the Swaner family. As we grew, we came to understand just how interdisciplinary this work needed to be. A bunch of pieces fell into place within the past year that really opened important doors for us. One was an opportunity to join forces with the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center that has been doing research on the ecology of construction practices and building materials for a long time. The second was a desire, with the Global Change and Sustainability Center, to coalesce some of its expertise into a smaller number of topical themes, one of them being the built environment and communities.

In addition to myself, the new center includes Diane Pataki, associate professor of biology, and Ryan Smith, director of Integrated Technology in Architecture Center. The steering committee also includes members from city and metropolitan planning, parks recreation and tourism, mechanical engineering, biology, geology and geophysics, environment and sustainability studies, the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Law School and a member of the local planning professional community.

How can a person get involved?

We’d love to engage with anyone who is interested in these topics through collaborative interdisciplinary research, education, events and symposia. One opportunity is to get involved with our work associated with Red Butte Creek here on campus. We have been working on a plan for revitalization of the U’s portion of the creek and the intent is to create a hub for implementation of the plan as well as the development of research and education programs associated with Red Butte Creek.

Our website: cepd.utah.edu
Contact Sarah Hinners: sarah.hinners@utah.edu

Another Year in SCIF

Another Year in SCIF

By: Emerson Andrews, SCIF Coordinator.

One more academic year has passed us by, and as people get ready for their summer adventures, now is a good time to reflect on some of the wonderful work that students did this year through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). Since the creation of SCIF, the money available for projects has never been fully spent, however, 2017-18 marks a big change as all SCIF funding for this year was allocated to some awesome projects.

The following three projects are a small cross section of all the wonderful work that has happened through student energy and SCIF support this year. For detailed information about all SCIF projects, please stay tuned for the 2017-2018 SCIF Annual Report, which summarizes every project that was funded.

Burned Out – $262.14

  • This grant funded the construction of an interactive sculpture installation that lit up when viewers interacted with it on the second floor of the Marriott Library. This sculpture encouraged people to discuss energy usage, indirectly bringing awareness to carbon dioxide emissions created by power plants which generate electricity by burning fossil fuels. The piece consisted of black structures – evoking industrial facilities – and had handles placed at varying points, which viewers were encouraged to touch. Cranking the handle hard enough caused a certain portion of the sculpture to light up. All four handles must be turned by different people at the same time in order to see the entire piece light up. This piece encouraged people to engage with energy production, and both physically and mentally reflect our current global crisis.

Food Recovery Network Operations Coordinator – $4,953.05  

  • This grant funded the pay and equipment necessary for a Food Recovery Network Coordinator. The coordinator recorded food waste data and gave it to Dining Services so that Dining Services could adjust their production scheduling and eliminate unnecessary waste at pre-production. This data included up-to-date records of inventory and preferred foods for delivery based on student/client preference and acquisition. Additionally, this process provided a larger variety of foods while giving students and clients healthier alternatives to existing dry and canned food options. All of these objectives helped to reduce the amount of edible food waste in the university’s waste stream; recorded hard data with respect to specific aspects of the campus food systems, and provided hungry students with healthy food options.

Sustainable Tech for Design Build Bluff – $35,535.00

  • This grant funded the purchase and acquisition of appropriate sustainable technologies to be used on the Bluff Campus. These technologies increased energy and operations efficiency, specifically through the use of a solar PV array – arrangement of solar panels – on an existing building, and an earth block press and non-toxic insulation machine for future university building projects on the Bluff campus and throughout the region. These are all demonstrable technologies in an area that is a confluence of students and locals — both who could benefit from exposure to, and training in, the workings of these technologies. In addition to their practical applications on a regional scale, these operational improvements bring sustainable outcomes to a U of U remote campus.

These three projects reflect the power of the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund to approach sustainability from multiple perspectives. SCIF truly allows students to experiment on the living, learning, laboratory that is campus through whichever lens they study. This ability is unique to SCIF and benefits everyone on campus.

For more information regarding SCIF, check out the website and please contact the SCIF Coordinator: Emerson.andrews@utah.edu

Your Utah Your Future

Sustainability Office receives “Your Utah Your Future” award.

On May 31 at the State Capitol, the University of Utah Sustainability Office was honored to receive a Your Utah Your Future award from Envision Utah for our U Drive Electric program—a community discount program for electric and plug-in-hybrid vehicles.

Envision Utah is a nonprofit community partnership that includes both public and private sectors, with the goal of maintaining a high quality of life for current and future generations of Utahns. Envision Utah recognized the combined success of two electric vehicle programs – U Drive Electric, which was managed by University of Utah in coordination with Salt Lake City, and Drive Electric Northern Utah with Utah State University and Weber State University. Both electric programs were administered by Utah Clean Energy with support from UCAIR.

“We are thrilled to be honored and to share this recognition with our great partners and all those who participated in the program,” said Amy Wildermuth, the university’s chief sustainability officer. “The university strives to serve as a model for what is possible in sustainability. Only 22% of the people who enrolled in U Drive Electric had planned to buy an electric vehicle. But what they saw and heard about electric vehicles inspired them. With over 200 zero to low emission vehicles now on the roads, we know that programs like these play an important role in our shared goal of improving our air quality and community.”

Sustainable Sanitary Pads

Originally posted on May 29, 2017.

By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, University of Utah College of Engineering

Each year, nearly 20 billion sanitary pads, tampons and applicators are dumped into North American landfills every year, and it takes centuries for them to biodegrade inside plastic bags, according to a 2016 Harvard Business School report. Additionally, it requires high amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce the plastic for these products, resulting in a large carbon footprint.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ashlea Patterson

The SHERO Pad, developed by a team of University of Utah materials science and engineering students, is a new feminine hygiene pad that is 100 percent biodegradable and made from all natural materials. It consists of four layers and can break down in as little as 45 days.

But a team of students led by University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor (lecturer) Jeff Bates has developed a new, 100-percent biodegradable feminine maxi pad that is made of all natural materials and is much thinner and more comfortable than other similar products.

The SHERO Pad uses a processed form of algae as its super-absorbent ingredient, which is then covered with cotton and the same material that makes up tea bags. The result is a maxi pad that is effective, comfortable to wear and can break down anywhere from 45 days to six months.

“This is novel in comparison to other biodegradable options out there for pads,” said Amber Barron, a University of Utah junior in materials science and engineering who is on the team of four students. “Most are really bulky because they don’t have a superabsorbent layer.”

The need for something like the SHERO Pad originally came from SHEVA, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and girls in Guatemala, which turned to Bates because it was looking for a sustainable solution for feminine hygiene waste. One of Bates’ area of research is in hydrogels, which are water-absorbing polymers.

“In Guatemala, there’s no public sanitation system. All the rivers are black because they are so polluted,” Bates says. “So there really is a genuine need for people in Guatemala to have biodegradable options.”

Part of Bates’ solution came one night while feeding his 5-year-old daughter.

“One day we were eating dinner with white rice, and my daughter spilled it all over the floor,” he says about that night two years ago. “The next morning, when I was cleaning it up, it was all dry and crusted. I drove to work and thought, ‘What was it about rice that does that?’”

That question of how rice hydrates and dehydrates began a two-year process of searching for the right natural materials for the feminine pad, which included testing with different leaves, such as banana leaves, and forms of cotton.

Bates, Barron and the rest of the team — which includes sophomore students, Sarai Patterson, Ashlea Patterson and Ali Dibble — ultimately developed the SHERO Pad, which is made up of four layers: An outer layer of raw cotton similar to a tea bag to repel liquid, a transfer layer of organic cotton to absorb the liquid and pull it from the outer layer, the super-absorbent layer made of agarose gel (a polymer from brown algae), and a final layer made of a corn-based material that keeps the moisture inside and prevents leakage.

While there are other similar sustainable feminine pads on the market today, they either use a hydrogel that is not 100 percent biodegradable or they use thicker layers of natural cotton that are uncomfortable to wear, Barron says. Another advantage to the SHERO Pad is that it can easily be manufactured in smaller villages using locally sourced materials and without sophisticated tools, just common presses and grinding stones, Bates says.

While the team originally developed the SHERO Pad for users in developing countries such as Guatemala, Bates and the students also will start selling the product in the U.S. for environmentally conscious women. A working prototype has been produced, and they have launched a startup company based in Bountiful, Utah. They hope to have products in Guatemala and on U.S. store shelves within a year.

Crunching Numbers

 

Steve Burian at the Sustainability Faculty Learning Community. Photo: Jonathan Duncan.

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Steven Burian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah. He is also the Project Director of the USAID funded U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water at the University of Utah. His research is focused on the planning and engineering of sustainable and resilient urban water resource systems.

Burian was one of the folks who developed and initiated the Wasatch Experience at the University of Utah. In April 2017, Burian shared how he integrates sustainability into his courses at the interdisciplinary Sustainability Faculty Learning Community, a joint initiative of the Sustainability Office and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

I sat down with Burian after his presentation to discuss current projects, teaching strategies, and what the Wasatch Experience has to do with it. 

You were a part of the group effort to bring the Wasatch Experience to the University of Utah. What inspired that initiative?

The short answer: Myron Willson. [Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer].

Dan McCool, a professor of political science, and myself were working as co-directors of sustainability curriculum development. As part of that charge, we were developing sustainability programs on campus that would be broadly applicable to any student. The programs had to be for any student, sustainable, and would last—which is very difficult to do at a university. Each year we did something different; develop the undergraduate certificate one year, the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability another year, and then we did the Wasatch Experience.

About 6-7 years ago, Myron was telling Dan and I about two programs. He kept pointing us to the Piedmont Project at Emory University, a teaching workshop for faculty. The content was taught through active learning to develop curriculum teaching materials with the help of experts in sustainability. Some universities were using that approach, but not really any other universities of our size at the time. But Myron urged us to consider what the Piedmont Project was doing. So, we did, and the first Wasatch Experience was born.

What impacts have you seen the Wasatch Experience having on campus?

I think it gets instructors focused on how they bring sustainability into the classroom in a meaningful way, which is not easy to do. It has moved past just talking or reading about sustainability in an assignment to a more pedagogical approach to incorporating sustainability.  Faculty are already teaching. The Wasatch Experience is a way to amplify what they are already doing. It’s not really about adding more sustainability courses, rather about adding better sustainability instruction to campus.

I enjoyed your discussion of using an ethics approach to incorporate sustainability in the classroom during your presentation. Could you speak a little bit to how you personally incorporate sustainability into your civil engineering courses?

I do it in a cyclical way. I provide the students motivation to act on the issue, set the structure, have them do quantitative work, and then come back and discuss.

I try to get students motivated with some fundamentally ethical responsibility either environmental, social, economic, or all three. That is the entry point. After I provide the ethical motivation, I contextualize it. I say: “Okay, this is why we are doing it, but this now is how we are going to do this.”

Integrating the sustainability issue into the concepts you are covering in class is critical. When you don’t, the majority of students will say, “oh well, that was a waste of my time because he is just teaching me something from the humanities or social sciences, and I already had that class.” So, I move quickly into what the sustainability topic means from the civil engineering perspective, and get them crunching numbers, because crunching numbers is what they want to do in almost all cases.

After they crunch those numbers, they want to come back and talk about it. That is when I bring out the discussion about sustainability and ethics. I rarely ever just talk about the ethical issues or things without having gone through this cycle. I found if I do then it becomes an opinionated discussion, and not as effective as it could be. After contextualizing an ethical or sustainable issue in civil engineering design, and doing some quantitative work, the students are armed with a better perspective of how it fits in civil engineering practice.

Have you found any surprising connections or other notable connections to sustainability through this process?

The part that is always the most surprising to me is the social sphere of sustainability. The economic and environmental spheres I know pretty well, and I get a feeling for what’s needed in practice, from a personal standpoint, and a philosophical worldview standpoint. But the social part is where I always struggle, because I don’t know it. When I prepare for a lesson I try to learn a little bit more about the social side of some issues or topics.

How do you know when you have successfully incorporated sustainability into your courses?

While there are many sustainability literacy assessments, none really fit into what we are covering in civil engineering, so I created my own quiz that measures student’s sustainability learning; a Civil Engineering Sustainability Literacy Assessment. The assessment is very quantitative. I measure student learning of sustainability, their attitude change towards sustainability, and their affinity for sustainability.

If or how has the Wasatch Experience impacted your teaching?

It hasn’t changed the topics I cover, but it has made me much more intentional about the things I am doing and reflective on what has worked in my teaching, and what hasn’t. It has made me be more reflective and think at a more cognitive level. I have become more of a technician for pedagogical methods following some of the things that were included in the Wasatch Experience. If I am training others on the best instructional strategies for helping people integrate and effectively teach sustainability, I need to make sure I have all those concepts down. This process may just have been my maturation as an educator, but I do think the Wasatch Experience had a lot to do with it.

Do you have any advice for faculty members or teaching assistants who want to start incorporating sustainability into their courses?

The best thing to do is to get a mentor. Not to have someone assigned to you, but to take the initiative and seek someone out. Look for someone who is good at teaching, and has a behind-the-scenes understanding of what they are doing in the classroom. Find someone who has been in it and done it for a while and then just ask them questions. You will learn so much from that mentoring experience.

Making Real Progress

Originally posted on April 24, 2017.

By Katie Stevens, Sustainable Utah Blog Writing Intern

In February 2015, President David W. Pershing committed the University of Utah to the Real Food Challenge — a goal to have 20 percent of the university’s food categorized as “real” by 2020. “Real food” is a newer term used to describe food that is local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane.

This semester “real food” labels have arrived in some campus stores, and the local New Roots Farm, which employs refugee farmers, has begun sourcing organic produce to the Peterson Heritage Center dining hall.

The new labels highlight the elements of “real food,” and are now on food items at Mom’s Café and Mom’s Pantry at the Marriott Library and the Counsel Café in the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

“These labels increase transparency about the food students are consuming,” said Emily Paul co-chair of the U’s Real Food Challenge student group. “This will give students the opportunity to make more sustainable and ethical food choices now and moving forward.”

In fall 2016, New Roots Farm provided 500-1,000 pounds of organic produce to Dining Services, according to Chris Natalie, farm incubator specialist at New Roots Farm. The farm operates under the International Rescue Committee, equipping people from refugee communities with garden beds through a community garden program and enabling them to grow food for their families. If individuals are moved into the farming program, they have the potential to make an income from farming.

“I can see reaching the goal of having 20 percent real food on campus before 2020,” said Daniel Waters*, assistant to the executive head chef for University Dining Services and food sustainability coordinator.

GET INVOLVED: Use the Real Food guide to put your food to the real food test. If you are interested in the progress of the Real Food Challenge on the University of Utah campus or want to get involved, email realfoodutah@gmail.com.

*Editor’s Note: Since the time of publishing, Daniel Waters has moved on from the U. 

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.

IN DEFENSE OF DARK SKIES

By: Colter Dye, Sustainability Ambassador.

Bridging the borders of three great North American ecosystems: the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City is a popular destination for wildlife enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, and those seeking to connect to the natural world. While snow-capped mountain peaks, vast red deserts, and tree-filled canyons are majestic, one of the most awe-inspiring views comes from glimpsing an arm of the Milky Way Galaxy against a deep blue night sky.

Maintaining a view of our dark skies has implications beyond the inspirational connection to the universe, it is also vital to the health and safety of humans and wildlife as well as our respective ecosystems, which often overlap.  The new Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah hopes to preserve access to dark skies.

Formal recognition of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS) was made official last month by the University of Utah, a strategic location for the CDSS as Salt Lake City is central to what Stephen Goldsmith, co-director of the CDSS and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning calls the “Great Starry Way.”

“This portion of the West, basically Montana down to New Mexico, is what I would call the Great Starry Way. These are the darkest places left in the developed world – That’s on the planet, on the Earth!” remarked Goldsmith.

Courtesy of Bettymaya Foott.

Many migratory birds, including thrushes, wrens, orioles, black birds, cuckoos, tanagers, and most species of sparrow, make the majority of their seasonal migrations during the nighttime hours. Species may migrate during the nighttime hours to avoid daytime predators, maximize foraging time during the day, navigate using the moon or constellations, or to prevent their bodies from overheating due to hours of wing flapping. These species now have to navigate new challenges in nighttime migration caused by the constant blaring lights emitted from human settlements.

Flocks of birds may mistake these glowing metropoles for the shining light of the moon or they may be unable to see the constellations they use to navigate because they are muted by the glowing artificial lights. Other birds seem to mistake gleaming glass windows for the surface of water reflecting moonlight. The fate of many of these birds ends with disorientation or confusion leading to missed navigational points, exhaustion, or a quick demise as they collide with buildings. Each year, in North America alone, anywhere between 365 million and 1 billion birds die from collisions with buildings.

Migrating birds are not the only wildlife affected. Many species of frogs wait for cues from the night sky and the moon to cue their breeding rituals of croaking and calling to find a mate. Nocturnal insects are fatally attracted to artificial lights, preventing them from breeding naturally and making them vulnerable to nighttime predators. On the warmer coasts of the world, baby sea turtles search for the twinkling lights of the moon and stars being reflected on the ocean, but are instead drawn toward the glowing lights of roads and cities, leading them to a certain death by car, dehydration, or predation.

Humans are also physiologically ruled by the regular pattern of night and day. Exposure to artificial light at night negatively affects the human circadian rhythm which not only affects sleep cycles but also the production of important hormones which regulate vital biological processes. These changes have been linked to depression, obesity, as well as breast and prostate cancers. While most cities have had ordinances in place for many years to regulate noise pollution, very few have paid any attention to the important consequences of light trespass and pollution.

The work of the CDSS will help to fill this gap. CDSS affiliates come from many departments of the University of Utah, as well as community, government, and industry partners. Tracy Aviary is an advisor for the CDSS.

Beginning in April of 2016, Tracy Aviary began implementing a strategic campaign to decrease light pollution in Salt Lake County, Utah, by holding a series of ‘migration moonwatch’ events to educate the public about the impact of light pollution on migrating birds. In 2017, the Aviary will expand the program to include strategic data collection on birds that strike buildings as a result of light pollution in Salt Lake’s urban core. Building off of strategies from other successful dark skies projects such as FLAPand “lights out,” the Aviary developed the Salt Lake Avian Collision Survey (SLACS), a citizen science project where volunteers will walk early morning survey routes during the migration season to search for and collect data on birds that had collided with lighted buildings overnight. Information collected by SLACS will help target photon reduction strategies and build public support for a “lights out for migration” initiative in Salt Lake.

This kind of period of decreased artificial light benefits human communities as well as birds and other wildlife. It reduces the consumption of fossil fuels that are used to power unnecessary lights, potentially saving billions of dollars and reducing pollutant emissions by many tons. It also allows humans living in urban areas to reconnect with the night sky and enjoy the Milky Way, which some people may not have seen for many years and some children may have never seen in their lives. Many communities are even using these lights out periods to host festivals celebrating the night sky, uniting divided populations, and teaching citizens about the wonders of astronomy.

With its placement on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, University of Utah’s campus is one of the only college campuses in the United States that provides a direct connection to wild, undeveloped land and the opportunity for encounters with the natural world. Our special connection to and awareness of the natural world makes our campus the ideal place to continue research on the values of reducing light pollution and implementing practices to restore dark skies to our campus and Salt Lake City.

Colter Dye is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation through the Bachelor of University Studies program at the University of Utah. He is a Sustainability Ambassador for the Sustainability Office at the University of Utah. He is also a Conservation Science Intern at Tracy Aviary and an affiliate of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah.