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Can urban farms be fun as well as functional? As interest in producing food in cities grows, so do visions for hybridizing function with aesthetics in innovative and entertaining ways. Among the ideas that have taken root in architects’ imaginations are a 132-story dragonfly-shaped vertical garden powered by the sun and wind; a geodesic greenhouse whose angled panels direct winter light to plants throughout the interior; plant-mimicking towers with “stems” that carry water to food-producing plots arrayed like leaves; a combined apartment building, greenhouse and chicken farm; and a literal food pyramid. They’re not all just pie in the sky, either: One such “farmscraper,” a 175-foot-tall greenhouse planned for Linköping, Sweden, is scheduled to begin producing food as early as next year.

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Keeping tabs on plant and animal phenology is important as the climate changes around us. Just where and when plants and animals are popping up, sticking around, migrating to or abandoning all together is key to understanding what exactly is taking place as our world warms. So, for easy reference the USA National Phenology Network put together a series of eight quick-hit informational PDFs that show changes in phenology over the last 100 years by U.S. region. Now you have one easy destination to find out anything from how many days earlier winter wheat is blooming in the Great Plains to how higher water temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic may affect pink salmon fry migration. Photo by Dr.DeNo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Plastic pollution is ubiquitous – and an especially serious and confounding problem in the world’s oceans, where immeasurable amounts of plastic debris are scattered. A feasibility study is underway to build and test a network of fixed vessels with winglike, floating booms that could potentially remove 55 shipping containers worth of plastic per day. Called Ocean Cleanup Arrays, the network would be solar-powered and use currents to divert plastic into the vessels to store for later removal and recycling.

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To assess a heart’s health, doctors use an EKG. To assess the health of America’s ecosystems, scientists are setting into place a nationwide network that will use standardized tools and techniques to track long-term changes in air and water quality, plant and animal populations, climate, and more. Known as the National Ecological Observatory Network, the National Science Foundation–funded system will gather observations from more than 100 monitoring stations over a 30-year period, with data, models and related educational materials all available free online. Although it’s not expected to be fully functional until 2017, NEON already has several projects underway, including assessment of conditions in Colorado following last summer’s fires, a season-tracking initiative known as Project Budburst, a citizen science academy for educators and an undergraduate internship program. Image credit: NASA and Thinkstock (design by National Science Foundation)

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Do you have a couple minutes to spare? Great! Check out “The True Value of Our Oceans” – the latest installment in the “Two Minutes on Oceans with Jim Toomey” video series produced by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Regional Office for North America and Jim Toomey. Mixing humor and science, terms like “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” have never been funnier. Photo by nathangibbs (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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With the proportion of Africans living in cities expected to climb from 18 percent in 1950 to 56 percent by 2030, building materials will be in greater demand than ever. Rising to the task are two recent studies reporting new ways to make bricks from common materials, including mining waste and desert sand. Although more research is needed to ensure the innovative bricks can withstand extreme weather and won’t pose health risks, initial tests are promising. Photo by Marc Falardeau (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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What if cities could be powered by the noise they create? The Soundscraper — a building cloaked with sensors that would convert sound vibrations into electricity — could transform urban cacophony into enough power to light a small city. The design won honorable mention in the 2013 eVolo architectural magazine skyscraper competition, where participants submitted designs that would “challenge the way we understand vertical architecture and its relationship with the natural and built environments.”

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Did you know that water use has grown twice as fast as population over the past century? Or that irrigation accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use worldwide? Learn more about water and catch the latest data on global water distribution and use at UN Water, a fact-filled website that compiles statistics, policy documents and other resources from the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization and 29 other U.N. entities into a one-stop shop for global water information.

Photo by Casper H. Peterson (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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When you plan for the future, how far do you look? For the folks at The Long Now Foundation, the operative time frame is millennia, not decades. Check out videos and podcasts of what pundits like Mark Lynas and E.O. Wilson see when they take a really long look at the future.

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Can a ticket to food security fit into a backpack? Creators of the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program think so. A winner at the 2012 Katerva Awards, which recognize exceptionally promising sustainability ideas, BPF creates networks of rural business and nonprofit franchises that distribute packs filled with green agricultural inputs along with training to smallholder farmers in East Africa. Farmers use the new tools and knowledge to improve food production while protecting the environment.

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The Canadian province of Ontario recently announced that it will be shuttering six more coal plants by the end of 2013. The announcement means 17 out of 19 coal plants from a decade ago will soon be decommissioned. Across Ontario greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector are projected to decrease from a high of 41.4 megatonnes in 2000 to only 5 megatonnes post-2020. The coal-fired plants are being replaced by a combination of power sources, including nuclear, natural gas and renewables such as hydropower. Photo by Jeffrey Beall (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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Some people, communities and nations are able to weather and rebound from substantial shocks. They are, in a word, resilient. But what exactly does that mean? What characteristics confer resilience, and how can they be cultivated? In Goldilocks Had It Right: How to Build Resilient Societies in the 21st Century, New Security Beat describes eight traits of resilient systems and explores how communities can cultivate resilience in increasingly uncertain times. Photo by ccho (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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Tap water, crop irrigation and other human uses around the world are using groundwater at 3.5 times the sustainable rate. In some cases, water is being sucked from aquifers (underground water-bearing formations) faster than new water can filter in. In others, “fossil aquifers” – formations that no longer replenish – are being used up. Solutions being explored include improving the efficiency of water use by agriculture and encouraging conservation in homes and businesses.

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At last, a good use for that chemistry book you last cracked in 2001. Green Textbooks finds new homes for textbooks, software, study guides and related educational material up to 20 years old, saving them from landfills and providing a valuable source of knowledge to individuals who lack other options. Every book donated to the organization is either used or recycled into new paper products. Photo by Sarah Cady (Flickr | Creative Commons).

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It’s easy to identify the obvious challenges to biodiversity: climate change, invasive species, habitat loss. Less obvious are the things we’re not thinking of but should. Led by Cambridge University conservation biologist William Sutherland, scientists from around the world recently completed an elaborate “horizon scanning” exercise to identify 15 relatively obscure global events and trends that stand to have huge impact on biodiversity conservation. Among them: growth of concentrated solar power, the increase in demand for coconut water and the use of antimicrobials in health care and food industries.

Photo from Flickr | Aziz T. Saltik  

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly half of the fish consumed in the world today come from aquaculture. Fish Meat, a new documentary from Fish Navy Films, explores the pros and cons of this growing industry while looking at what the future of aquaculture means for global food production and the environment. Photo by Aziz T. Saltick (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Graphene - Photo by Conrad Gesner  

The European Union is betting 1 billion Euros ($1.3B U.S.) on graphene – a wonder material that is said to be 100-300 times stronger than steel and conducts electricity much better than copper. Graphene has the potential to revolutionize entire industries and can be applied to a range of applications from flexible electronics and advanced batteries to more energy efficient airplanes. The Graphene Flagship research consortium is being coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Photo by Conrad Gesner.

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Does your business have a product or idea that will measurably reduce the burden of global plastic pollution? If so, the Plastic Pollution Coalition wants to hear from you! Enter the Think Beyond Plastic competition for a chance to win a $50,000 first prize, plus other benefits to the most innovative idea. But hurry — the competition closes March 10, with awards presented at a public event in Berkeley, Calif., in June.


Does conservation need a new narrative that accounts for human economy, engages local ownership, values ecosystem services and motivates private and public partnership for investment in natural infrastructure? That’s the question nearly three dozen conservation leaders tackled most recently as part of the Dialogue on Conservation in the 21st Century convened by the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program. Check out the dialogue’s report, Nature as Foundation of Economy: Investing in Natural Infrastructure for Conservation Supporting Human Development. Photo by Brian Gratwicke (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Vibro-wind panels  

Most wind generators go around and around. This one just waves. Inspired by the rustling of leaves in the breeze, Cornell University faculty Frank Moon and Kevin Pratt are working on capturing wind energy through panels that oscillate rather than blades that spin. The approach could find application in restricted spaces such as urban areas unsuitable for conventional turbines.

Photo of a plastic bag  

Lorna Rutto looked around her childhood neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and saw three big problems: plastic litter, disappearing trees and jobless workers. Instead of despairing, she created a company that makes fence posts and lumber from discarded bags. EcoPost has salvaged more than 1 million kilograms of plastic waste for wood-replacement products since it began in 2009.

Ants crawling over a stick  

The species we encounter on a typical day make up only the tiniest fraction of what’s out there. To make it easier to learn about them and share that knowledge, the Encyclopedia of Life is working to bring info on every known species together from all over the world. So far contributors have created more than 1.1 million species pages. Check out your favorites and learn how you can contribute at eol.org.

Two women using a solar cooker  

Desperate for fuel to power their wood-fired cook stoves, residents of Tilori, a rural village in Haiti, were harvesting trees faster than they could regrow. Convinced food and forest don’t have to be an either-or proposition, The Nature Conservancy and Solar Household Energy, Inc., began working several years ago with government and other nonprofit organizations to find a better option. Along with a tree-planting project, the team brought 30 solar ovens to the community. Tilori women now use the ovens regularly to cook meals, helping the forest heal and reducing health-harming pollutants from conventional cooking.

Photo of Walk on Watts  

Power to change our planet may soon be as close as your own two feet. PaveGen produces pavers that use the energy of footsteps to generate electricity. Good for high traffic areas, the pavers took a step toward a more sustainable world as part of an installation near London’s Olympic Village. Learn more at pavegen.com.

Photo of the sun  

As the components of solar collectors get smaller, ideas about how to apply them grow. Notre Dame scientist Matthew Genovese and colleagues recently developed a liquid suspension of sunlight-capturing nanoparticles that can be applied to a surface to create a thin layer that transforms energy from the sun into electricity. Called “Sunbelievable,” the coating still needs perfecting to become practical, with efficiencies in the range of 1 percent. But the proof of concept takes the idea of painting the town with solar closer to reality.

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