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Tweeting the New Normal

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The irony was not lost on the 300 or so environmental scientists, policy makers, activists and citizens who gathered earlier this week at the Aspen Institute for three days of solution-seeking around the theme, "Living in the New Normal." Even as participants in Aspen Environment Forum 2012 shared information, ideas and opinions, haze from the forest fires currently ravaging Colorado hung over the nearby mountains. This, more than one participant commented, is the new normal: uncertainty, extremes, unpredictability, unexpected turns of events - all brought on by humans' fiddling with the dials of nature on a grandiose scale.

Of course it's relatively easy to talk about troubles. But that's not what AEF2012 was about. The forum focused not only on defining the new normal, but also on exploring what we ought to do about it. Should we let us take it where it will? Or should we engage? Will we be tossed about like ships at sea? Or will we work to understand the changes taking shape, and shape our own activities to make both most compatible with the preservation of life on Earth?

Perhaps the best way to get a sampling of the conversations is to pull some participant quotes and paraphrases from the Twitter stream (#AEF2012):

If we continue at the present rate of eliminating species, half of them will be gone by the end of the century. - E.O. Wilson

The bulk of the credit for maintaining a planet that works goes to a living ocean. - Sylvia Earle

60,000-90,000 years ago, there may have only been 600-2,000 human beings. We were an endangered species at one time. - Richard Potts

‎‏ We *have* to figure out how to close the gap - to bring environmental externalities into pricing. - Jason Clay

The past is no longer any guide for the future. This planet (w/new climate, biosphere, land use, ocean acidification) is new. - Jon Foley

Abruptness in climate change creates largely unpredictable side-effects. - William Calvin

Eating tuna is like eating something that feeds on dragons. Very high on the food chain. - Daniel Pauly

What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. - Neal Conan

If you're pro-free market and ignore biggest market failure on planet (CO2), you have a problem. - Gernot Wagner

We have the tools at our disposal to end overfishing. We should start tackling the problem now. - Miguel Jorge

Comparing block to block, house to house, there is 7% greater property value to tree lined streets. - Rohit Aggarwala

In public's eye, pollution is top ocean problem. In reality, it's #3, behind overfishing & climate change. - Ayana Johnson

When you say "climate" it turns people off because they fear they'll have to reduce their quality of life. - Heidi Cullen

Not climate change or global warming, but planetary destabilization. - David Orr

‎‏The future of America is networked resilient communities. - John Robb

Never eat shrimp: either caught with 90% bycatch net, or in mangrove-destroying aquaculture. - Ayana Johnson

We have to be careful about what we can measure and what matters - Daniel Pauly

We need to make climate an economic issue, because it is. - Mindy Lubber

The notion that our emergence occurred during the most violent period of climate fluctuation means that we're able to adapt. - Richard Potts

We need to preserve ecosystems as working systems, for us to learn from and emulate in the Anthropocene. Not keep as museum pieces. - Jon Foley

Don't fish, you have zero fish. Fish too much, you have zero fish. Sustainable fishing is in between. - Daniel Pauly

Smart growth is the greatest technology we have to fight climate change, and its not in any of the books. - Peter Calthorpe

Trawling is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. - Sylvia Earle

The past can no longer be a guide to the future.- Dennis Dimick

No farmer is going to invest in sustainability if they don't have land rights. - Jason Clay

Let's celebrate successes in sustainable agriculture - and scale them up. - Chris Reij

U.S. agricultural research budget has gone to hell in a handbasket. - Dan Glickman

‎‏Something that people often miss: resilience doesn't just mean strengthened rule of law, it also means stronger civil society. - Jamais Cascio

We thought the ocean was too big to fail. Now we know otherwise. - Sylvia Earle

Why should unsustainable products cost less? They should cost more because they are subsidized by nature. - Jason Clay

If there's an elephant in the room with the global food system, it's a cow. - Jon Foley

Like to learn more? Check out video of select AEF2012 panel presentations here.


All Aboard!

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shinylocomotive.jpgProject 130 is picking up steam! The plan announced last month to turn a 1937 locomotive mothballed at a museum in Topeka, Kansas, into proof-of-concept for a promising carbon-neutral energy source has been nominated for the 2012 Katerva Award, considered the "Nobel Prize" of sustainability.

The project is the brainchild of the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, a collaboration of Sustainable Rail International and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Its goal is to renovatwashingtrain.jpge the aging engine and run it at 130 mph - a world speed record for a steam locomotive - using torrefied biomass, a carbon-neutral fuel developed by the University's Natural Resources Research Institute. CSR president Davidson Ward says efforts to create the world's first carbon-neutral higher-speed steam locomotive aim to draw attention to the promise of torrefied biomass not only as a sustainable transportation fuel, but also as a potential source of carbon-neutral, renewable combined heat and power in developing countries. 

The Katerva Award recognizes and rewards "paradigm-busting ideas" that create change toward a more sustainable world. Last year's grand prize went to Sanergy, an initiative working to build sustainable sanitation centers in Kenya. Project 130 is among some 300+ projects worldwide nominated for this year's award. After selection by an international team of judges, category winners and a grand prize winner will be announced in December.


Learn more about Project 130 and keep up with the project's progress - on the ground and in the Katerva competition - at csrail.org.

Photos courtesy of CSR


Paul Nicklen: Polar Inspiration

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Few things are as inspirational as people who put their lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves. For National Geographic photojournalist Paul Nicklen, that includes diving beneath sea ice, swimming with leopard seals off Antarctica and trekking across miles of stark Arctic wilderness in -40F temperatures.

His cause? Convincing all of us to care for this wild and precious planet.

Water for Thought

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greenstpaul.jpgFor those living in developed cities, water quality control can be a hidden, underground operation unknown to some citizens. But the plants on private and public lands, such as those in parks, sidewalk tree grates and on lawns, are actually a huge part of planned water flow and water quality control.

That's the science side. Then there's the social side: why we make the decisions about how to manage these plants. Do we add synthetic pesticides, organic fertilizer or none at all? Should we sacrifice a block of park space to build an apartment complex?

A project entitled Improving Urban Vegetation for Water Quality, awarded a Discovery Grant in 2011 from IonE, seeks to find out how urban plants play a role in water quality and how people make decisions regarding their management. People appreciate the power to make decisions, but they most often make them within the context of society. We have a natural tendency to learn the social norms of different communities (like a neighborhood or city), such as how well-manicured lawns are expected to be or what plants grow well and are aesthetically pleasing. 

The research team consists of individuals with extremely diverse backgrounds who collaborate with outside parties, such as citizen science volunteers, St. Paul Parks and Recreation and the Capital Region Watershed District. Together, they collect and analyze samples while engaging the community through their Community Advisory Committee. Interdisciplinary work is, according to team member Kristen Nelson, "the place you have to be to do the big complex changes." The project certainly wouldn't be the same without such a large incorporation of knowledge and the public.

With the knowledge produced, the team hopes to have a greater understanding of what influences management decisions and the ways in which social and ecological factors of decision making can be reconsidered by the public when vegetation issues are at hand.

For more information about lawn care, the project and what impact your management decisions have, visit this website.


Photo courtesy of Cliff1066 via Flickr Creative Commons

Hot Stuff

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mpls.jpgA pleasantly warm summer day in the countryside can be a wonderful thing. A blazingly hot summer day in the city, where blistering pavement, concrete and steel absorb and re-radiate the sun's rays, is another story entirely.

As temperatures rise and city populations soar, the tendency of pavement-rich, plant-poor cities to heat faster and higher than their surroundings - known as the urban heat island effect - has become more than a fascinating phenomenon. It can send air conditioners into energy-sucking overdrive. It can alter precipitation and warm waterways, reducing their ability to provide quality habitat to plants and animals. In severe cases, it can literally be a life-or-death matter for elderly people and others who have trouble coping with heat. 

Enter Islands in the Sun, a four-year research project funded by the Institute on the Environment and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences and led by atmospheric scientists Peter Snyder and Tracy Twine. With the help of monitoring devices they're installing around the Twin Cities, Snyder and Twine are painting a picture of how temperatures vary in the Twin Cities metropolitan area over time and space. Their goal: to better understand the mechanisms behind the development of urban heat islands as a firsttimthumb.jpg step toward finding ways to lessen their effects through landscape design.

So far Islands in the Sun has installed 100 or so temperature sensors across the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. This summer a team of student workers will be installing 125 more. They'll also be taking readings from the Minneapolis Central Library, and Target Center green roof, the roof of the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, and other downtown buildings. Once they have enough data collected, they'll use the information to determine where hot spots occur, what might be causing them, and what the Twin Cities - and, by extension, other cities - can do to cool them down.

 Besides funding the research currently underway, the IonE Discovery Grant behind Islands in the Sun has leveraged a four-year, $750,000 National Science Foundation grant that will finance the development of an urban heat island research network. The network will bring together top researchers in the field to define grand challenge problems and support further research. 

Like to learn more? Check out the project's website here

Photo of Twin Cities by Doug Wallick, Creative Commons
; photo of temperature sensor courtesy of Peter Snyder

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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