Earth and Environment
Landscapes exist on a spectrum – from those with minimal human impact, to urban sites wherein most natural features have been destroyed. As disturbed urban sites become more geographically prominent, imperatives to create managed urban habitats that provide societal and environmental services are increasingly urgent. Using native plants is a core principle of sustainable urban design, yet we lack standardised protocols to produce enough native plant products to meet demand. Dr Stephen Love at the University of Idaho has employed his expertise in plant breeding to develop high-throughput native plant domestication processes, to enhance offerings of native plants to people who wish to transform personal and public spaces into attractive, resilient ecosystems.
Dr Martín Medina-Elizalde | Collapse of the Ancient Maya Civilisation: Aligning History with Geological Analysis
Between 800 and 1000 CE, one of the world’s most advanced ancient civilisations underwent a devastating decline. The collapse of ancient Maya society has widely been attributed to a century-long drought; but so far, there have been few efforts to quantify this event, or to equate scientific findings with historical sources. Through new geological and paleoclimatological analyses, Dr Martín Medina-Elizalde at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has revealed that the climate changes experienced during the drought followed more complex patterns than previously thought. His team’s discoveries could have important implications for predicting our own society’s future.
Dr Evelyn Cooper | Dr Candice Duncan – Improving Agriculture and Geoscience through Educational Initiatives
Addressing the skills shortage within scientific sectors requires a targeted approach for attracting and retaining students in STEM education. Summer Opportunities in Agricultural Research and the Environment (SOARE), SOARE: Strategic Work in Applied Geosciences (SWAG) and AgDiscovery, three innovative programs at the University of Maryland, provide a gateway for continued education, particularly for students who are traditionally under-represented in scientific fields. Implemented by Dr Evelyn Cooper, the success of the AgDiscovery and SOARE programs at the university has led to the inception of the new SOARE:SWAG program. Co-directed by Dr Candice Duncan, SOARE:SWAG focuses on students within geoscience disciplines.
Founded in 1987, the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) is an academic society that brings together over 2000 biologists from Europe and beyond. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Professor Astrid Groot, President of ESEB, who discusses the many ways that the society supports scientists and helps to advance the diverse field of evolutionary biology.
Cleaner, greener electricity is imperative to meet the demands of a burgeoning population. Many power plants rely on vast quantities of water to cool their systems and maintain proper operation. But sucking up vast quantities of water can pose a risk for fish and other aquatic animals. Balancing the operational efficiency of power plant cooling systems with environmental protection requires a dedicated team of engineers and fisheries biologists. In their recent research, Jenna Rackovan and her colleagues at Alden Research Laboratory in Massachusetts optimise the use of travelling water screens for fish protection.
Hydrogen fuel presents a promising route towards a carbon-free energy source for vehicles – but the technology still faces challenges relating to storage. Dr Sebastian Weber at Ruhr University Bochum, alongside collaborators Dr Gero Egels, Dr Robert Fussik and Dr Mauro Martin, studies the capabilities and limitations of specialised steel alloys for heavily stressed components in high-pressure hydrogen storage systems. Using a combination of simulations and analytical techniques, the team aims to provide a detailed picture of how the atomic-scale structures of these materials relate to their brittleness when exposed to hydrogen. Their discoveries could eventually lead to the development of new materials, which can be used as high-performing components in hydrogen storage systems.
Climate models typically use mathematical equations that govern geophysical fluid dynamics to describe the behaviours of the ocean, atmosphere, sea ice and land ice. Computer simulations that use climate models are an essential tool for capturing the complex, interacting motions found throughout Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. Using some of the most advanced simulation techniques available to date, Dr Prajvala Kurtakoti at Los Alamos National Laboratory aims to learn more about how these processes occur within the seas of Earth’s polar regions. Her team’s results are shedding new light on the intricate connections between the oceans and atmosphere, and how these systems are likely to change as the climate warms.
Dr Alexandra (Sasha) Pavlova | Professor Paul Sunnucks – Genetic Rescue Saves Species from Extinction
Human impacts on plant and animal populations can be striking. Landscape-level transformation of pristine habitats means less room for plants and animals and the inevitable decline and extinction of many species. However, human impacts can also act on threatened species in less obvious ways, including on their genomes. Because of shrinking populations, many plants and animals are highly inbred, tipping the scales in favour of extinction. Dr Alexandra (Sasha) Pavlova and Professor Paul Sunnucks at Monash University, Australia, are at the forefront of applied research that seeks to increase genetic diversity to help populations rebound.
Large-scale circulation patterns can be found throughout Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, and play a crucial role in maintaining the stability of regional climates. As the climate warms, researchers find that these patterns are experiencing a fundamental transformation. Using a combination of satellite observations and computer models, Dr Hu Yang at the Alfred Wegener Institute, identifies and explains the mechanisms of these changes. His study offers crucial insights into how both human populations and natural ecosystems will be affected by these transformations – and how they will need to adapt to cope with them.
The United States National Vegetation Classification: Creating A Common Language To Classify The Nation’s Vegetation
In every introductory biology class, students learn the classification system used to catalogue plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms. In order of increasing specificity, the major levels of classification are: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Global adoption of this system allows us to create an inventory of the world’s species diversity. For instance, we classify the Redwood tree of the US Pacific coast as the species sempervirens in the genus Sequoia, or Sequoia sempervirens. Until recently, however, there was no comparable standard available in the United States to classify the nation’s diverse types of vegetation – the various combinations of species, growth forms, and ecological factors that occur in certain regions. Instead, many land-management groups created their own classifications, hindering communication and collaboration. To address this issue, stakeholders established the United States National Vegetation Classification (USNVC).
Land-based, or ‘terrestrial’, ecosystems can act as both a sink and a source of greenhouse gases. An active field of research centres on understanding which environmental parameters turn a carbon sink into a carbon source. Dr Ülo Mander from the University of Tartu in Estonia concentrates his work on predicting greenhouse gas fluxes from terrestrial ecosystems and monitoring how environmental conditions, such as soil moisture and temperature, influence emissions. He aims to use his research to help resolve numerous environmental issues, including climate change.
Permafrost is key to maintaining the stability of steep mountain slopes. Yet as the climate warms, this frozen ground is becoming increasingly prone to thawing. In some cases, these events can trigger cascades of loose rock, with potentially devastating consequences for surrounding communities. Using a combination of computer modelling, and daring field experiments, Dr Florence Magnin at the Laboratory of Environments, Dynamics and Mountain Territories (EDYTEM) aims to better predict when and where these rockfalls are likely to occur, and how the state of mountain permafrost will evolve in the future.
From a bird’s eye view, farmlands are conspicuous. Unlike wildlands, swaths of agricultural fields form neat squares, fitting together in a landscape-sized jigsaw puzzle. The edges of the puzzle pieces stand out most: dark emerald lines contrasting against the light green interior crisscross across the land. These narrow, vegetated strips – or hedgerows – have been planted for centuries but are receiving renewed interest. Often referred to as ‘living fences’, hedgerows are buzzing communities that provide various ecosystem services. Laura Arneson Horn, the owner of Wild Bee Project in Salt Lake City, works to establish hedgerows and promote their positive impacts on native pollinators and other beneficial insects.
As the impacts of climate change become increasingly obvious worldwide, focused efforts to mitigate its worst effects are becoming more urgent. Through his research, Dr Xander Wang at the University of Prince Edward Island aims to innovate the computer models used to predict these future changes on smaller, regional scales. His team’s work is making important strides towards an advanced predictive toolset, which policymakers could use to make the best possible decisions about how to protect local populations from future climate-related disasters.
As they enter the atmosphere, tiny particles emitted by the burning of biomass or fossil fuels can heavily influence the formation of clouds. Yet due to human influence, the roles that these aerosols play in the process are still poorly understood by climate scientists. Using a combination of ground- and space-based measurements, along with advanced computer simulations, Dr Timothy Logan at Texas A&M University has gained important new insights into the atmospheric impacts of aerosols, and how emissions from both wildfires and human activities are having tangible effects on the weather.
From wildfires to cargo ships, soot particles can originate from many different sources. Once emitted, these particles can be easily spread throughout Earth’s atmosphere. Dr Andrew Metcalf at Clemson University, and his graduate students Nilima Sarwar and Walt Williams, use advanced aircraft observations to investigate how the diverse characteristics of soot can be influenced by their sources, and assess their subsequent influence on air quality and cloud formation. Their work is now helping researchers to better predict the coming impacts of climate change, and to inform urgently-needed efforts to reduce our emissions.
Roads, bridges, and airports are now being built all across the Arctic. However, as this happens, the future of the sturdy permafrost these structures are built upon is looking increasingly uncertain. In his research, Dr Marolo Alfaro at the University of Manitoba uses both computer modelling and real-world sensing to assess the impact that the Arctic’s warming climate is having on this infrastructure. Starting from analysis of a newly-constructed highway in Canada’s Northwest Territories, his team’s efforts could soon provide local communities with vital guidance as to how their infrastructure should be maintained and protected.
The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) is an international organisation devoted to increasing the participation of women in geoscience, and inspiring girls and young women to pursue careers in geoscience-related disciplines. In this exclusive interview, we have had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Noelia Beatriz Carmona, AWG’s past president, who describes how the Association supports the professional development of its members, provides education and outreach to young women and girls, and encourages the participation of women in geoscience.
The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) is an independent learned society representing over 500 atmospheric and oceanographic scientists. Its vision is to advance the scientific understanding of the atmosphere, oceans and climate system, along with their socioeconomic and ecological impacts, and promote applications of this understanding for the benefit of all Australians. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Angela Maharaj, President of AMOS, who describes how the Society advances scientific research and communicates the latest climate science to the public and policy-makers.
Marine sand is both a vital natural habitat and an essential resource. However, while desert dunes are comparatively easy to observe, their oceanic counterparts are still poorly understood. Dr Xiaochuan Ma and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao are mapping the shifting sands of the seafloor and measuring their movement. By investigating how seafloor dunes respond to waves, tides, and typhoons, they can help decision-makers protect and manage this critical resource.
Palau, a remote group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, relies heavily on wild fish to feed its citizens and support its economy. With a growing population and thriving tourism industry, the country cannot afford a crash in catch size. However, climate change is altering the ecosystems of Palau’s fishing waters, threatening harvests of important fish species. To improve the country’s food security and accelerate the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Palauan Government has teamed up with the Nature Conservancy to build a sustainable aquaculture community on the islands, with support from NASA. Using NASA satellite observations, the collaboration helps aquaculture farmers to find optimum locations to farm fish and shellfish, allowing them to produce an abundance of seafood while protecting the surrounding marine environment.
From microscopic, single-celled yeasts to a mycelium that can cover many acres underground, fungi represent a diverse array of organisms. However, despite their global distribution, diverse growth forms, and complex interactions with other organisms, we still know very little about fungi. This lack of knowledge is reflected in the numbers: although it is estimated that there are between 1.5 and 6 million species of fungi, only around 138,000 have been described. Dr Danny Haelewaters of Ghent University is contributing to closing the gap in our understanding. His team’s research explores the diversity of fungi, in addition to their evolutionary history and ecological interactions with other groups of organisms.
Understanding the factors that affect woodland growth can help researchers to develop sustainable forest management practices. This will ensure that society’s needs for forest products such as timber and pulp can be met, while also increasing carbon capture and providing important ecosystem services. Previous studies attempting to determine methods for achieving enhanced growth are inconsistent, leading to misconceptions among researchers and forest managers. Dr Chao Li and his team at the Canadian Forest Service aim to solve this problem by showing that a phenomenon called ‘compensatory growth’ can increase overall forest growth in the long-term. Through providing an enhanced understanding of compensatory growth and the factors affecting it, the forestry industry will be better equipped to meet increasing market demands, while also protecting the environment for future generations.
Despite the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, cooperation is common in life – from the scale of genes or cells through to entire societies. Although these two ideas seem to contradict each other, Dr Egbert Giles Leigh Jr has demonstrated throughout his career at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama that working together has been the key to the success of multicellular life. Here, he explains his view of how competition and cooperation both played essential roles in bringing forth productive, diverse ecosystems.
The Louisiana coastal zone is the fastest-eroding wetland in the US. This region is home to a variety of vitally important fish species for local fishing industry and ecosystems, which are currently under threat. Conservation schemes have been proposed under the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan in an attempt to preserve coastal habitats and their inhabitants. Dr Kim de Mutsert of the University of Southern Mississippi and her colleagues use simulations to reveal how different management strategies will affect fish and shellfish up to 50 years from now.
Professor Enzo Mantovani – Understanding Mediterranean Tectonics to Recognise Earthquake-prone Zones
Precisely predicting when earthquakes will happen is still a distant goal. However, local authorities could reduce the damage caused by such disasters if scientists could identify zones that are most likely to be affected by earthquakes. Gaining this information requires an in-depth knowledge of the ongoing tectonic situation in a given area. In the Mediterranean region, this knowledge is surrounded by considerable uncertainty, as different researchers have different hypotheses to explain tectonic processes in this area. Professor Enzo Mantovani and his team at the University of Siena, Italy, propose a new geodynamic interpretation that offers a plausible explanation for all major tectonic features observed in this area. Using their hypothesis, along with the seismic history of the region, the team has recognised a connection between the short-term development of tectonic processes and the distribution of major earthquakes.
Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) is a laser-based remote sensing tool that can measure the concentration of small particles, called aerosols, in the atmosphere. Monitoring aerosols is crucial for climate modelling, air quality measurements, and understanding the health impacts of atmospheric pollution. However, existing lidar systems require sophisticated and expensive equipment and are usually deployed by research technicians. They also have trouble measuring atmospheric pollutants near the ground, where they impact human health. Scientist Dr John Barnes at NOAA in Boulder, Colorado, and his colleagues have developed an inexpensive and straightforward commercial lidar solution using widely available camera and optical equipment.
Water is vital to sustaining human life and the contamination of drinking water can lead to disease and death. Dr Steve E. Hrudey from the University of Alberta’s Division of Analytical & Environmental Toxicology has identified the challenges of providing safe drinking water and clarified misconceptions regarding threats to drinking water safety. Based on his research findings, he has provided critical recommendations for the provision of safe drinking water to protect public health.
The Sahara Desert in Africa is one of the driest places on Earth. Because of its dry conditions, fine sand particles from the desert can easily become airborne, leading to dust emissions that affect the global climate. However, between 11,000 and 5,000 years ago, this region experienced wetter conditions, known as African humid period, causing reduced dust and a dramatic greening of the land. In the near future, human-induced climate change could dramatically alter rainfall patterns in the Sahara, causing reductions in dust emissions that may further impact the global climate. By examining past humid periods, Dr Francesco Pausata and his colleagues at the University of Quebec in Montreal aim to understand potential future changes.
Accurate knowledge of the water cycle is essential for predicting disasters such as floods and droughts. However, it’s not easy to obtain good information from traditional weather and water forecasts. The Group on Earth Observations Global Water Sustainability initiative (GEOGloWS) provides hydrologic forecasts through an accessible web service to assist local water users. Partnering with water scientists worldwide, Professor Jim Nelson of Brigham Young University worked with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts to develop a global streamflow service. This service provides local communities with actionable water intelligence, enabling them to focus on solutions to water-related problems.
In the face of the combined challenges of climate change and COVID-19, reliable access to accurate information about crop health has never been more crucial. Dr Michael Humber at the University of Maryland is the Data Lead of the NASA Harvest project – a global collaboration of researchers from many different backgrounds, who are aiming to provide this data using advanced satellite-based technologies. His team’s work has already had an important impact on systems that warn farmers of likely crop failures before they occur, and could be vital for ensuring global food security in the coming decades.
Ever since the planets first formed, they have been bombarded with space rocks. Asteroid and cometary collisions are so forceful that planetary surfaces fracture and melt beneath them, leaving behind huge craters. These impact events have played an important role in our planet’s history, by shaping the geological landscape, producing valuable minerals, and affecting the evolution of life. Dr Gordon ‘Oz’ Osinski from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, aims to understand this fundamental process on Earth, Mars and the Moon – with important implications for space exploration, mining, and for understanding the origins of life.