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.

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.  

Antifreeze Adaptations

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

The Antarctic snailfish, Paraliparis devriesi, named after Professor Art DeVries from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, lives perhaps 700 m down and has insufficient antifreeze to cope with ice crystals. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Reaching temperatures as low as -89°C, Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on the planet. The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica doesn’t offer much relief for species. In the winter, the ocean surface freezes solid, doubling the continent’s size. In the summer, temperatures rise just above freezing and melt away some of the sea ice.

Despite water temperatures remaining around -1.5 to -2°C, the Southern Ocean is teeming with life.

Peter Wilson, visiting distinguished professor at the University of South Florida and associate dean at the University of Tasmania Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, will provide a general overview of the Southern Ocean and explain how species have adapted to survive in and around Antarctica at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, March 27, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Over the course of millions of years, marine species have adapted to the harsh, cold water in the Southern Ocean.

“A fish from the coast of California would freeze solid like a popsicle if it was placed in the waters around Antarctica,” explained Wilson. “The fishes around Antarctica, and in the Arctic, have evolved to create these wonderfully interesting protein molecules that bind to the ice crystals and stop the crystals from growing.”

One of the species Wilson will discuss is the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). The Antarctic toothfish produces antifreeze glycoproteins that allow it to survive in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. The glycoprotein comes in a variety of size ranges, and can be found in all body water, not just in the blood. But Wilson suggests it isn’t the protein itself that is interesting. Rather it is the way the proteins bind with ice crystals.

Species with these antifreeze proteins can be classified as either freeze tolerant or freeze avoidant. Freeze tolerant species include those species who can handle a significant amount of freezing. Up to 81 percent of their body water can be frozen solid and these species will still survive, said Wilson.

Don Juan Pond is a small, hypersaline lake in the west end of Wright Valley. With a salinity of over 40%, Don Juan Pond is the saltiest of the Antarctic lakes and remains liquid even at temperatures as low as −50 °C. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Freeze avoidant species are the species who prevent the freezing of their bodily water all together. There are a few ways for species to be freeze avoidant. Some might avoid freezing by supercooling—chilling a liquid below freezing temperatures without the liquid becoming solid.

But it isn’t just Antarctic fish that have antifreeze capabilities, insects and mammals have also adapted to the cold temperatures under and on Antarctica. Some insects are able to avoid freezing completely by having gooey hemolymph (the insect equivalent to blood) that slows the formation of ice crystals. In his talk, Wilson will show how a number of species have adapted to the cold.

At the end of his talk, Wilson will indicate some of the ways humans are using this information about antifreeze proteins to transform our own lives. From producing smoother ice-cream to deicing airplanes, Antarctic species might hold the key for future innovation.

To hear more about Antarctic adaptations and Wilson’s journeys through the Pacific to Antarctica attend his GCSC lecture, “Antarctica—Fishes, Adaptations and Dealing with Ice” on Tuesday, March 27 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

 

 

Cover Photo: Ross Island, with Mt Erebus in the background and McMurdo Station seen at front right.  The photograph was taken standing on about 6 feet of sea ice. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Using Time as Our Guide

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Both urban and rural areas around the world rely heavily on groundwater to support agriculture, energy, residential, and industrial use. This demand for groundwater—from a global population of over seven and a half billion—combined with impacts of climate change places more stress on these systems. In order to sustainably manage these resources, we first need to quantify it.

Kip Solomon, department of Geology & Geophysics at the University of Utah, will show how understanding the age and recharge of aquifers can lead to more sustainable use at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

“While we have a hint that we are overexploiting a number of these large regional systems,” said Solomon, “the amount of data we have to make these assessments is rather limited. Part of my pitch is that we need to make more measurements in these kinds of systems.”

Groundwater recharge is a hydrologic process where water moves from surface water to groundwater—like an aquifer—by draining through the soil. Recharge can be a slow process, especially when the body of water is deep underground. The longer it takes water to reach the aquifer, the lower the rate of recharge. This makes measuring the rate of recharge a challenging process. For Solomon, the most promising tool is dating the groundwater.

“By getting the mean age of water we can calculate the recharge,” explained Solomon. “By dating the groundwater and using the geologic information to determine the volume, we can infer the rates of replenishment to the aquifer.”

There are a few tools that can be used to date water—namely isotopes and trace atmospheric gasses. Elements can have several isotopes depending on what the element has come in contact with. In aquifers, isotopes are often generated in the subsurface. Their concentrations build up the longer the water is in contact with the subsurface rock. A higher concentration of an isotope, like Carbon-14, thus signifies older water.

For younger water, atmospheric gasses can be used to date it. Over the past few decades, gasses produced in the industrial processes—like sulfur hexafluoride—have been increasing. When exposed to the air, water absorbs concentrations of these gasses. The longer the water interacted with the gas, the greater the concentration will be. Once the water moves below the surface those concentrations of gas are essentially “locked in.” Measuring the traces of these gasses in groundwater can show how old that water might be.

Determining the recharge rate is important for both hydrologic understanding of subsurface bodies of water and for natural resource management. The recharge is a vital component of understanding the amount of water that can be extracted without overexploiting or compromising the integrity of the groundwater body.

“99 percent of unfrozen freshwater is in the ground,” explained Solomon. “As our world approaches eight billion, it is a growing question of whether or not these big regional aquifers can be sustainably exploited to support agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions.”

To learn more, attend Solomon’s lecture, “Can Groundwater Feed the World? It’s All About Time” on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

 

Cover photo via USGS public domain. 

Re-Imagining Relationships

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Climate change threatens everything about our social organization. But that shouldn’t immobilize us. Instead, Kari Norgaard, associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon, encourages us to view climate change as an opportunity to re-envision our social, political, and economic systems.

Norgaard will show how climate change provides the opportunity to rethink our relationships to the human and other-than-human world at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

In her seminar, Norgaard will discuss the phenomenon of socially organized denial. Norgaard suggests that it isn’t the lack of information that leads people to inaction, but rather the emotions that climate change invokes.

“Denial is a form of environmental privilege,” explained Norgaard. “People who have benefited more from the current system find it harder to grapple with the idea of very large system change and experience a lot of guilt, helplessness, fear of future and present.”

Norgaard suggests the normalization of climate change is an avoidance mechanism. While we can make daily changes in our lives to help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, individuals alone will not be able to slow or stop climate change. There is also an urgent need to rethink many larger aspects of our current systems—like reducing our use of fossil fuels or changing cultural norms of over-consumption.

In her seminar, Norgaard will bridge her work on the social organization of climate denial with her recent work with the Karuk Tribe. The Karuk are an indigenous community in Northern California and are highly mobilized around climate change. The biggest problem they face is the increasing forest fires. Climate change has been producing warmer, dryer conditions in the region—the ideal environment for larger, hotter, and more destructive wildfires. Future mega-fires threaten local ecosystems and cultural practices.

The Karuk have used controlled burns to manage wildfire threats and cultivate traditional plants for generations, but their use of fire has continually been suppressed by management agencies. Recently, wildfire research has begun showing the importance of controlled burns for fire risk management and indigenous practices. Thus, creating an opportunity for cultural and ecological revitalization.

Re-introducing controlled burns is one example of how climate change has created a new possibility for cooperation across worldviews and communities. By incorporating elements of Norgaard’s subtitle—imagination, responsibility, and community—we can start a discourse that inspires action and moves our society to become a more socially and ecologically equitable place.

The “imagination” in Norgaard’s subtitle is defined by the idea of the sociological imagination, which generates awareness between the individual experience and society. It shows how the society we live in shapes what we understand, what we don’t understand, and influences what we think is possible. Norgaard sees that we all have a “responsibility” to be engaged in the world. Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or guilty doesn’t mean we should give up or disengage from climate change action. Despite these feelings, we still have a responsibility to act. Closely related is Norgaard’s third term, “community”. No one can tackle climate change on their own. Rather, we need one another. We need to know how to work together and understand each other to create a community of action.

To learn more about the opportunities to re-imagine our relationships to one another and the natural world, attend Norgaard’s seminar, “Climate Change as Strategic Opportunity: Imagination, Responsibility, and Community” on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 4-5 pm in 210 ASB.

 

Cover Photo: “Wildfire” by NPS via flickr. Public Domain Mark 1.0.

 

curating global ecology through big data

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

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

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

Jack Williams, used with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cover Photo by geralt via pixabay. CC0.

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