Earth and Environment
Many kilometres above the Earth’s equatorial region, something strange occurs for several hours in the late evening: vast bubbles of plasma form in the upper atmosphere, which quickly rise upwards into space. Dr Joe Huba at Syntek Technologies in Virginia aims to gain a better understanding of this complex process, by recreating it through computer simulations. His team’s work is providing researchers with a more complete understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, and could also provide critical insights for satellite systems that communicate using radio waves, as well as global positioning systems.
Intensive livestock farming has contributed to environmental degradation across the globe, and is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. However, meeting the protein demands of a growing global population requires further increases in the food supply. Dr Luis Tedeschi and his team from Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife Research have been studying the sustainable intensification of livestock production, utilising modelling-based approaches. They consider whether these tools can be used to increase production efficiency while minimising environmental impacts, helping to preserve and regenerate the natural resources that form the basis of the industry, for future generations.
In recent decades, advancements in agricultural practices have made the large-scale production of cheap and nutritious food possible. However, these practices are often damaging to the environment, making them unsustainable in the long term. Technology is now sufficiently developed that many of these environmental impacts can be reduced or mitigated, by using ‘big data’ to inform farming management decisions. Dr Bruno Basso from Michigan State University and his network of researchers have been exploring how digital technologies could usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture that balances competing economic and social interests while minimising trade-offs.
Founded in 1947, the British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) is an international membership organisation and charity dedicated to the study of soil in its widest aspects. Funded through subscriptions and income from its publications, BSSS is a platform for exchanging ideas and representing the views of soil scientists to decision-making bodies. The Society stimulates research by hosting conferences and publishing two scientific journals, and promotes education through a number of initiatives in schools, colleges and universities. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Professor Sacha Mooney, President of BSSS, who describes the great importance of soil science research, and the varied ways that the Society advances this diverse and fascinating field.
Dr Peter Beck | Dr Michael Wasserman – Saving Tropical Forests Through International Research Collaboration
Tropical forests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, but extensive deforestation has pushed many species to the brink of extinction. Conservation efforts have been limited by political and socioeconomic backgrounds of each region. By integrating ecological and social research techniques, Dr Peter Beck at St Edward’s University, Dr Michael Wasserman of Indiana University and their colleagues examine the effectiveness of tropical forest conservation strategies and the factors that encourage people to conserve their forests. Their extensive project also provides international research experience to STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds, and helps foster scientific and cultural exchange between countries.
The world’s boreal, or high latitude forests, contain around 25% of global terrestrial carbon stores – mostly in their soils. These forest ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change, but the effects that rising temperatures could have on their carbon stocks are poorly understood. Dr Sylvie Quideau and her team from the University of Alberta have been studying the complex interactions involved in the storage and stability of boreal soil carbon. Their work will help to inform management and conservation decisions, with implications for global climate change mitigation.
Dr Paul Curtis | Dr Peter Smallidge | Dr Bernd Blossey | Kristi Sullivan – Protecting the Future Health of Forests in New York State
The white-tailed deer is an important part of North America’s forest ecosystems. However, large deer populations are now causing wide-scale habitat changes and threatening biodiversity, economics, and human health. Dr Paul Curtis, Dr Peter Smallidge and Dr Bernd Blossey from Cornell University have developed new protocols for evaluating deer impacts on forest ecosystems and the ability of different forest areas to regenerate and retain their diversity. Where current methods for managing deer are failing, they consider how data related to deer browsing could provide the rationale for novel methods of reducing deer impacts to retain healthy forests.
Climate change is already having devastating effects felt across the globe. Without adequate measures to counteract the human drivers behind climate change, these negative consequences are guaranteed to increase in severity in the coming decades. Esteemed biomedical scientist, Dr Charles DeLisi of Boston University, urges that a multi-disciplinary approach to mitigating climate change is vital. Using predictive modelling, he has demonstrated the potential power of genetically engineering plants to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate change.
Insect pests cause devastating economic losses in agriculture, and as vectors of disease they have significant impact on the health of humans, livestock and pets. Plant essential oils have been used for centuries as protection against insect pests, but scientists have only recently begun to explore the extent of their potential for pest control. Dr Joel R. Coats and his team at Iowa State University’s Department of Entomology have been investigating essential oils as greener alternatives to conventional pesticides, and as a vital tool for overcoming pesticide resistance in insect populations.
Canada, like most other countries worldwide, is facing serious issues related to water security. To better address these challenges, Dr Cherie Westbrook at the University of Saskatchewan, and her collaborators from various Canadian universities, developed NSERC CREATE for Water Security. This add-on academic program provides graduate and postgraduate students with skills and learning opportunities that prepare them to tackle current and future water security issues.
The alarming decline of pollinating insects in recent years has garnered a wave of interest from the media, scientists and the public. This has resulted in a wealth of research into pollinator conservation, but despite this, adoption of beneficial practices that support pollinators has been low amongst private landholders. Dr Shannon Westlake and Dr Kevin Hunt of Mississippi State University have been investigating the human elements behind pollinator conservation, with the aim of developing targeted outreach and support programs to improve the uptake of conservation efforts amongst landholders.
The HoChunk people of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska traditionally enjoyed a close connection with their environment, which has gradually become fractured due to increased urbanisation. The community has become reliant upon external producers for nearly all of its food requirements, and the health of its members is suffering as a result. In an effort to reconnect people with the land, a project coordinated by former Tribal Council member, Vincent Bass, and Brian Mathers of the HoChunk Community Development Corporation, aims to maximise the use of local resources to produce healthy, sustainable, culturally-appropriate food. Their ultimate goal is to achieve food sovereignty for the Winnebago Tribe.
Wine is a firm favourite at dinner tables everywhere, but keeping up with consumer demand is becoming increasingly difficult as the incidence and severity of drought increases. While previous irrigation systems have helped maintain grape yield and quality, they are hindered by multiple disadvantages. Dr Pete Jacoby and his team at Washington State University have developed an improved system called Direct Root-Zone irrigation, which combats many of the limitations of previous systems. With the efficacy confirmed, they aim to make their irrigation system available to growers in wine-producing regions across the globe.
In certain areas of the US, local berry growers face difficulties in meeting the growing customer demand for high-quality berries, while also managing pests in sustainable ways. Aware of these challenges, researchers from different universities, including Michigan State, Penn State and Cornell Universities have been collaborating on a project called TunnelBerries. Their aim is to conduct research related to berry growing and provide berry crop producers with useful information, paving the way towards the use of forward-looking practices.
In a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) estimate that herbicide resistance of a major agricultural weed is costing the UK economy £400 million each year. The research team’s new model is the first to be able to accurately quantify the economic costs of herbicide-resistant black-grass and its impact on wheat yield under various farming scenarios, with significant implications for national food security. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Dr Alexa Varah, lead author of the research, who describes the growing problem of herbicide resistance and the capabilities of her team’s model.
Fungi feeding on other fungi (mycoparasites) represent a promising alternative to chemical fungicides for plant disease control. They also have potential applications in medicine and across industry. Dr Susanne Zeilinger and her team from the University of Innsbruck in Austria are working to identify and characterise the genes and gene products that are active during the interactions of antagonistic fungi. This critical work is paving the way for improvement of fungal strains as biotechnological workhorses in plant protection and beyond.
The global peatland ecosystem has often been overlooked in its importance within the global geochemical cycle. It contains approximately 21% of global carbon, and their maintenance and restoration are vital for lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change. Dr Bernd Lennartz of the University of Rostock and his team of interdisciplinary scientists are investigating peatlands and how they respond to changing climate conditions.
Dr Mike Müller-Petke | Dr Stephan Costabel – Enhancing Groundwater Detection with Magnetic Resonance
Detecting underground water is of considerable importance, particularly for applications such as groundwater exploration, predicting the movement of contaminants in soils or building underground tunnels and mining facilities. Underground water is a limited resource that is essential for human life, but it can pose a safety threat in cases where the structural integrity of underground structures, such as tunnels, depends on solid earth being present throughout. Dr Mike Müller-Petke of the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics, and Dr Stephan Costabel of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, are investigating methods to greatly improve the detection of underground water, using a technology known as nuclear magnetic resonance.
When the Sun’s surrounding corona erupts, colossal streams of charged particles are ejected out into interplanetary space, and go on to interact with the material that resides there. Dr Robert Ebert at the Southwest Research Institute and his colleagues combine observations from spacecraft with the latest computer models to uncover the mysteries of these interactions. Their research focuses on advancing astronomers’ understanding of the highly energetic processes that play out in the void that comprises over 99% of the Solar System’s volume.
Globally, grassland ecosystems represent a vast, often under-appreciated store of carbon. Sustainable grazing practices offer the potential for maximising the role of these ecosystems as carbon storehouses and biodiversity safeguards. Dr Mark Boyce and his team from the University of Alberta have been investigating how cattle-grazed systems can be adapted to increase carbon storage on the Canadian Prairies. They use the data collected to create protocols for supporting the inclusion of grazing strategies in climate mitigation plans.
Professor Leila Farhadi – Remote Sensing & Computer Modelling: Understanding the Dynamic Water Cycle
The Earth’s water cycle is an incredibly complex system, and is closely coupled to the planet’s energy and carbon cycles. One of the biggest challenges for hydrologists is to accurately model the components of this system and begin to understand how human-induced changes to the climate and landscape will affect it. Combining computer modelling with observational data, Professor Leila Farhadi and her team at the George Washington University created a novel approach to mapping two critical components of the water cycle: evapotranspiration from the landscape and recharge to aquifers. Their work has implications for predicting and responding to water shortages, towards ensuring global water and food security.
If there is one thing to celebrate about this year, it’s the fact that the country has finally started to wake up to the climate emergency. Thanks, among other things, to the thousands of children regularly striking for their right to have a better future than the one we have been building for them, a majority of the UK public, now back a 2030 zero-carbon target.
The economically important Norway spruce tree naturally grows in mountain forest ecosystems, and is the main tree species in vast plantations across Europe. However, in the recent decades, its risk of attack by the destructive Eurasian spruce bark beetle has considerably increased. Although the complex interactions of host, pest and environmental conditions that allow attacks to occur have been extensively studied for more than 100 years, predictive tools for pest management still suffer from knowledge gaps. Dr Sigrid Netherer and her team at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Austria, have been investigating the role of drought stress and other environmental and biotic factors on infestations, to produce a novel universal framework for monitoring and predicting bark beetle outbreaks.
A key limitation of pest control in agriculture and forestry is the ability to detect pests and diseases early enough for effective treatment. This is exacerbated in the pine forestry industry, where plantations cover vast areas and many pests remain hidden inside the trees. Pine trees killed by beetles are often discarded, causing significant economic and environmental consequences. Dr Cedric Ogden at Fort Valley State University is developing a comprehensive loblolly pine pest-management plan, using drones to detect infestations early, and salvaging damaged timber for use as a fuel source.
Every 10 years, the ocean science community comes together to present a vision for advancing key scientific priorities to maximize societal benefit. In September 2019, leading ocean and climate scientists from around the world presented a plan for improving weather and climate forecasts through better observations of the heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere. Such improved forecasts will be critical for effectively managing natural resources and mitigating risk to vulnerable populations.
A completely decarbonised society may now be firmly on the agendas of many businesses and world leaders, but the paths that need to be taken to realise this goal still remain far from clear. Dr Donald Fosnacht at the University of Minnesota believes that biomass is currently underappreciated as a way to realise a carbon-neutral society. The techniques his team has developed have already been demonstrated on industrial scales in some cases, and even promise to improve the lives of some communities in the developing world. With further research, Dr Fosnacht hopes that biomass will transform the ways in which our industries and power stations function.
With ongoing climate change, land use change, and changing disturbance regimes that negatively impact Earth’s ecosystems, it is critical that educators convey the importance of safeguarding the natural environment to younger generations to prepare them to face current and future environmental challenges. Teaching Change comprises a collection of innovative programs aimed at strengthening the relationship between youth and nature in Hawaiʻi while also inspiring Hawaii’s youth to become the next generation of natural resource scientists and managers. Teaching Change addresses this mission through immersive, place-based, outdoor Field Courses for local students, and Teacher Training Workshops for local teachers.
The incidence and severity of droughts continue to increase across the globe, posing a significant threat to agricultural productivity and our ability to feed a rapidly increasing human population. However, drought-stressed plants encourage a shift in the microorganism communities surrounding their roots, which in turn may help the plants to tolerate drought conditions. By harnessing this system, Dr Devin Coleman-Derr and his team at the USDA Agricultural Research Service and University of California, Berkeley, aim to develop microbial-based treatments to improve the drought tolerance and productivity of important crop species.
Traditional intensive farming practices have significant negative consequences for the land and surrounding ecosystems. By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised. Dr Richard Teague in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues around North America, are investigating the costs and benefits of replacing traditional farming practices with regenerative cropping and grazing techniques that restore ecosystem function and soil health as the base for improving profits.
Fruit flies cause significant annual damage to fruit crops globally by laying their eggs into healthy, living fruit tissue. The difficulty in predicting the attacks and controlling the flies before it is too late leads farmers to spray pesticides that can have damaging consequences for surrounding ecosystems. Dr Nicholas M. Teets and his team from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology aim to eliminate the need for pesticides in the battle against these insect pests, through the development of sterile insects that are easy to rear and release en masse.
As the human population increases, so does the demand for food and fuel. However, suitable land for growing crops is already severely limited, and there is an urgent need to protect remaining wilderness areas from being converted into cropland. Through a translational research approach, Dr Sanju Sanjaya and his team at the Energy and Environmental Science Institute of West Virginia State University are developing ways to increase the oil content of crops that are able to grow on poor-quality land, such as reclaimed surface coal mines. By increasing the energy provided by plants, the land requirement to grow both biodiesel and food crops could be significantly reduced.
Native grasses have great environmental benefits, not least as a food source for a wide variety of butterfly and moth species. However, native grassland habitats are some of the most endangered in North America, with less than 1% of original tallgrass prairie remaining. Dr Mary Meyer and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota have been working to evaluate the use of native grasses by butterfly and moth species. They are also working with garden centres to increase the volume of native grasses sold and grown in Minnesota.