AFTER THE RAIN

By: Liz Ivkovich, Global Change & Sustainability Center. 

Last week, 30 officials from city, county, and state agencies boarded a university shuttle on a tour of campus stormwater infrastructure. For participants, these projects offer a vision for what is possible when it comes to protecting the Jordan River watershed we all share.

Central to the tour was the announcement of $300,000 in new funding awarded to the Center for Ecological Planning & Design by the Utah Division of Water Quality. This grant will be matched with support from University Real Estate Administration to create the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

30 officials from the city, county, and state agencies attended a tour at the University of Utah campus.

The Landscape Lab’s goal is to demonstrate sound stormwater management practices. It will transform a one-acre area of water-intensive turfgrass south of the Williams Building into a picturesque, walkable space featuring local plants that reduce irrigation demand. The Williams Building is adjacent to Red Butte Creek, a tributary of the Jordan River.

All stormwater in Salt Lake City ultimately ends up in the Jordan River. Keeping stormwater on-site will not only protect the Jordan River from pollutants and flooding, it will significantly reduce irrigation costs for the Williams Building.

Sarah Hinners, director of the Center for Ecological Planning & Design, intends for the lab to test how well different types of stormwater management features work in our Northern Utah climate.

“Part of what makes this project unique is the multidisciplinary team of soil, plant, and planning experts and engineers involved in it,” said Hinners. “We are able to engage faculty expertise to monitor and share information about best practices with the rest of the Wasatch front.”  Dr. Hinner’s team of interested stakeholders also includes University Facilities and Operations staff, who oversee the design, construction, maintenance, environmental permitting and compliance of all stormwater on campus.

The lab will re-direct the water runoff from the Williams Building to its beautiful living plant communities. This allows the plant roots and microbial communities to take up pollutants and filter water through the soil to recharge the groundwater.

The grant received from the Utah Division of Water Quality is being matched with funds from University Real Estate Administration.

“Research Park and Real Estate Administration are excited to be involved in the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building,” said Jonathan Bates, executive director of Real Estate Administration. “This opportunity to embrace research resulting in the direct implementation of sustainable water use techniques in a business park setting go to the core of the mission of Research Park. As the Park celebrates its 50th birthday we look forward to the opportunity to update our design standards to include concepts that come out of this exciting research initiative. Additionally, we look forward to future opportunities to blend research initiatives with commercial real estate development in order to show the financial, environmental and community benefits of sustainable design.”

In addition to the site of the Landscape Lab, the group also toured several existing low-impact development (LID) stormwater features on campus, including planned retrofits on the HPER mall, some updated permeable pavement at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the tiered bioswales and rain gardens near USTAR.

The all-day, valley-wide tour was initiated by the Jordan River Commission, an intergovernmental agency tasked with stewarding the Jordan River watershed and implementing the vision for the Jordan River Parkway.

According to Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, stormwater projects such as the Landscape Lab are increasingly important in northern Utah.

“The past century and a half of industrialization and urbanization in Salt Lake and Utah valleys have not always been kind to the Jordan River, ” said Simonsen. “We are confident that what we have learned about our ecosystem through science and application in more recent years will allow us to actually improve the Jordan River watershed as the region continues to grow. It will take a concerted effort, and we are excited to have incredible partners like the University of Utah to demonstrate innovative ways of retrofitting our landscapes and green infrastructure to improve water quality and habitat.”

The lab will test multiple designs for stormwater retention and filtration infrastructure. Sharing this research will minimize trial and error for city, county, and corporate agencies seeking to use these features in their communities.

The lab is the first phase of extensive redevelopment project for Red Butte Creek. Hinners expects to break ground on the lab in Fall 2018. She hopes that the project’s first phase will be completed by Summer 2019.

Melding Perspectives, Finding Solutions

In Utah, the second driest state in the country, water is a critical issue. Our water systems are interconnected with human systems, and as our population expands and the climate changes, protecting and sharing this resource equitably will require collaboration between researchers, practitioners and decision makers.

When it comes to collaborative water research, the U’s Society, Water, and Climate Research Group (SWC) is leading the way. With the addition of five new faculty members, the group has undertaken an ambitious mandate – to meld multiple scientific perspectives toward finding sustainable water solutions for a changing world.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and incoming president, addresses faculty at the forum.

Many U faculty already had significant expertise related to water, society and climate, but there were areas that could be strengthened. A group of U researchers, led by the chair of the U’s Geography Department Andrea Brunelle, formed the SWC in 2013.

The team’s first task was to articulate gaps in the society, water and climate perspectives already at the U. Then they proposed new faculty positions to fill those gaps through the university’s Transformative Excellence Program. The Transformative Excellence Program is an ongoing hiring initiative seeking new faculty focused around interdisciplinary themes rather than discipline.

“If we are to truly address Utah’s – and the nation’s – societal issues, we must think beyond our traditional approaches,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins, who is also the incoming present of the U. “The Transformative Excellence Program was designed to identify areas within the university where focusing on strategic additions to our faculty could enhance our preeminence and allow us to better serve the citizens of this state and country.”

Ten departments – Anthropology, Atmospheric Sciences, Biology, Economics, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, Geography, Geology & Geophysics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology – invested in this unique hiring process, an unprecedented level of interdepartmental collaboration.

“This hiring process was very inspiring and rewarding,” said Brunelle. “Working with a group of faculty who obviously care so much about these topics and this research that they would invest an absolutely tremendous amount of time working on these searches even without a guarantee of a departmental hire was incredible. Even after the hires were completed, all the departments are represented on the SWC executive committee, showing continued investment in this collaborative endeavor.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this kind of cluster-hiring can be a fraught endeavor. It is challenging to ensure the process doesn’t unravel in the context of disciplinary hiring needs.

At the U, the SWC hiring process fit in with the university’s ethos of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Several years earlier, in 2011, the U underwent a similar hiring process for a small group of faculty who would work at the fringes of their discipline on climate- and environmental change-related research. This initial search ultimately brought Diane Pataki (Biology), Gabe Bowen (Geology & Geophysics) and John Lin (Atmospheric Sciences) to the U. This first group hire, which laid the groundwork for the Transformative Excellence Program, happened through the dedicated efforts of faculty in the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), which was led at the time by director emeritus Jim Ehleringer.

Audience members at the forum gather for panel presentation from (L to R) Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer; Steve Burian, director of the U Water Center; Andrea Brunelle, co-chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group; and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

The GCSC is a web of 140 faculty members in 10 colleges who all work within environmental and sustainability themes. The center facilitates faculty connections and interdisciplinary grants, offers graduate fellowships and research funds and manages a sustainability-related graduate certificate. In addition, the GCSC also has a series of ongoing and one-time events aimed at bringing the interdisciplinary community together in meaningful ways. All of these endeavors work to catalyze relevant research on global change and sustainability at the U.

“The investment the administration put into the GCSC really set a tone for the value that collaborative work has on this campus and that translated beautifully to the SWC project,” Brunelle said. “A great example of this is the generous contributions of time, resources and support that my Dean, Cindy Berg, provided throughout the multi-year hiring process.”

To build the SWC research group, broad descriptions of new faculty positions were posted online. The response was immediate and overwhelming. In the first year of the search, 13 candidates were brought to campus, offering fascinating talks about climate change and impacts on water and society.

After several years of intensive searches and interviews, the group is now complete with five new faculty in four departments. These five faculty bring nationally renowned research to the university while seamlessly integrating into their departmental homes.

“The Society, Water and Climate initiative has really helped to integrate GCSC scholars from across campus around a common set of questions and problems that require scholars to come together in new ways,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the GCSC. “The SWC focus has helped us to recognize and identify common research interests between seemingly separate fields and is creating opportunities for faculty and students to advance their work in new directions. The incoming SWC faculty are interdisciplinary leaders and are already catalyzing and supporting projects and grant proposals that move all of us forward as we work towards a future where humans and ecosystems thrive.”

Meet SWC hires. These members will join existing faculty who are part of the group.

William Anderegg, Biology, 2016

William Anderegg is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. His lab studies how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks. This research spans a broad array of spatial scales, from cells to ecosystems, and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests and societies around the world.

Juliet Carlisle, Political Science, arriving in 2018                                                                         

Juliet Carlisle is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research substantively deals with political behavior and public opinion with an emphasis on environmental politics and policy. In particular, Carlisle has investigated issues surrounding environmental concern, including what people know about the environment, where that knowledge originates and how that knowledge influences their opinions and behaviors. Her co-authored book, “The Politics of Energy Crises” (2017), applies policy theories to energy crises and explores energy policy during energy crises with specific attention on the role of public opinion, business interests and environmental activists.

Gannet Hallar, Atmospheric Sciences, 2016

Gannet Hallar is an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah and the director of Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, operated by the Desert Research Institute. Her research focuses on using high-quality measurements of trace gases, aerosol physical and chemical properties and cloud microphysics to understand connections between the biosphere, atmosphere and climate, along with the impact of anthropogenic emissions on these connections.

Summer Rupper, Geography, 2015

Summer Rupper is an associate professor in the Geography Department at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on glaciers and ice sheets as recorders and indicators of climate change and as freshwater resources. Recent and ongoing projects include quantifying glacier contributions to water resources and sea-level rise, assessing glacier sensitivity to climate change and reconstructing past climate using ice core snow accumulation data and geomorphic evidence of past glacier extents. These projects are all part of a larger effort to characterize climate variability and change and the impacts of these on society.

S. McKenzie Skiles, Geography, 2017

McKenzie Skiles is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah. She is an alpine and snow hydrologist whose research interests center on snow energy balance, remote sensing of mountain snow and ice and cryosphere-climate interaction. Her research methods combine numerical modeling, laboratory analysis, and field, in situ, and remotely sensed observations to better constrain the timing and magnitude of mountain snowmelt and to improve our understanding of how accelerated mountain snowmelt is impacting this critical natural reservoir over time.

The SWC is one of 10 Transformative Excellence cluster hiring initiatives currently in place at the U. Current projects include families and health research; society, water and climate; statistical science and big data; digital humanities; biophysics; sustaining biodiversity; health economics and health policy; resilient spaces (aging); science and math education; and neuroscience.

Banner image: Members of the SWC chat at the November 2017 Water Forum, the inaugural event for the Society, Water & Climate Research Group, organized by the SWC, the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and U Water Center. 

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. 

INVESTIGATING CONTAMINATION

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

The Marcellus shale in northeastern Pennsylvania is estimated to hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, possibly making it the second largest natural gas field in the world. The deep sedimentary rock of the Marcellus requires hydraulic fracturing to access the natural gas trapped between rock layers.

By John G. Van Hoesen [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is when a chemical mixture is pumped into the subsurface at high pressures to fracture the rock and release gas used for energy production. Fracturing operations may have the potential to contaminate surface and drinking water, but finding the source of the polluting contaminants is a controversial undertaking. Scientists have relied on isotopes to assess contaminant sources.

Jennifer C. McIntosh, a University Distinguished Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, will critically evaluate how tracing isotopes can help identify contaminants from hydraulic fracturing at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 18 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Almost every element comes in multiple forms. Each element contains a characteristic number of protons—as that is what allows the atom to be identified. The number of neutrons for that element can vary. Atoms with the same number of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons are isotopes.

Isotopes have been used to track sources of contamination (like brine, fracking fluids, methane, or natural gas) to see if the contaminant is natural or human created. McIntosh describes isotopes as a fingerprint. Tracing these fingerprints is an effective way to identify where a contaminant is coming from.

“Depending on what geology an element or water interacts with,” McIntosh said, “the element is going to pick up a particular signature. This is a forensics type of work, you are essentially an investigator.”

By Joshua Doubek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

McIntosh will point to contamination case studies from the Marcellus Shale gas production, and the Bakken Shale oil production in North Dakota. She will also talk about her own work collecting baseline studies on methane and shallow aquifers in Ontario, Canada. In case there are future environmental impacts—like leakage of natural gas or fracturing fluids—from future hydraulic fracturing in the area, McIntosh’s data will serve as a baseline of what Ontario was like before contamination

“Ontario has a shale that is equivalent to the Marcellus Shale, but there has been no shale gas production” explained McIntosh.

Using her expertise in natural tracers, McIntosh developed a road map agencies can use to determine if there is any contamination from oil and gas production. In it, McIntosh illuminates what an agency would want to do beforehand to have the best baseline data in place, the data they would want to collect during a fracking operation, and what data to collect afterward if contamination is suspected.

Learn more at McIntosh’s lecture, “Tracing Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing and Oil/Gas Production” on Tuesday, April 18 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: By lalabell68 [CC0 Public Domain], via Pixabay

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.