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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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More and more companies around the world are realizing water shortages pose a business risk. Beverage titan MillerCoors is no exception. The company has long depended on barley growers operating across the arid western United States to provide a staple ingredient in the production of beer. In recent years, reduced snowpack, a changing climate and downstream urban development have combined to limit the amount of water available for irrigation. Working with The Nature Conservancy and Hillside Farm in Silver Creek Valley, Idaho, MillerCoors launched a Showcase Barley Farm in 2011 to model the latest water-saving irrigation technologies. According to Kim Marotta, director of sustainability at MillerCoors, in its first two years of operation the farm has saved 270 million gallons of water while increasing yields and reducing the amount of energy needed to pump water. The system has also gone high-tech with irrigation information being sent directly to the farmers’ smartphones. The next step is to share the knowledge gained through this project and expand these water-saving techniques to other parts of the company’s agricultural supply chain. Photo by freefotouk (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Some 90 percent of S&P Global 100 Index companies consider extreme weather and climate change as business risks, according to “Weathering the Storm: Building Business Resilience to Climate Change,” a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The report provides an overview of climate change resilience strategies being developed by S&P Global 100 Index companies as well as a detailed description of activities of six diverse businesses: American Water, Bayer, The Hartford Group, National Grid, Rio Tinto and Weyerhaeuser. It also offers recommendations for boosting resilience in changing times. Photo by Avelino Maestas (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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In the coastal village of Topa, in tropical northern Mozambique, it was once customary for men to cast their nets for fish while women tilled the family farms for staple crops cassava and maize. But overfishing and deteriorating reefs have made fish scarce, and erratic rainfall has made farming less reliable. The people of Topa needed a new way of doing business. Enter the Primeras e Segundas Livelihoods Project (P&S). Named for the nearby archipelago, P&S integrates the humanitarian efforts of CARE and the conservation works of the World Wildlife Fund to protect threatened ecosystems in the region while strengthening the human communities that depend on them. Working through P&S, villagers and the government of Mozambique, which owns most of the land, formed a legal association that allows the villagers to maintain a fish farm on the beachfront, alleviating stress on wild fish populations. P&S also trains families to rotate crops and increase nutrient retention, leading to higher yields while reducing the adverse impacts of agriculture on local ecosystems.

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As human population and resource demands soar, some novel approaches to conservation are beginning to emerge. One example is WildAid’s campaign to squelch illegal wildlife trafficking by reducing demand for products derived from endangered species. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China, where that country’s increasing affluence has intensified demand — even at a whopping $100 a bowl. Despite the fact that one-third of shark species are now endangered, each year up to 73 million sharks have their fins hacked off and are left to drown or bleed to death to fulfill demand for the soup. In one WildAid commercial, a shark-filled aquarium surrounds a room full of restaurant patrons with bowls in front of them. The camera pauses on a shark with a bleeding gash, then pans over the diners, their faces contorted in disgust. A narrator’s voice says ominously, “What if you could see how shark fin soup is made?” The diners push away their soup bowls, and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming affirms WildAid’s slogan: “Remember, when the buying stops, the killing can too.” In another arm of the campaign, Chefs Against Shark Fin, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali, among others, publicly pledge to refuse shark fin and actively promote alternatives. These and other efforts are credited with a 50 percent decline in demand for shark fin in the past year, according to the Hong Kong–based Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association. Photo courtesy of WildAid

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A surprising encounter with plant roots has led scientists from the United Arab Emirates on a path toward a promising new approach for boosting food production on arid lands. At a Dubai research farm, plant geneticist Nanduri Rao noticed that local bacteria were forming nodules along the roots of legumes, drawing nitrogen from the air and making it available to the plants. Taking a closer look, Rao discovered the bacteria could tolerate salt, acidity and heat, and appeared to thrive even in the presence of heavy metals. Scientists are now exploring whether the microbes might be used in other stressed environments to boost agricultural productivity and soil fertility. Photo by Planetina (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Among the many benefits green roofs and similar urban plantings provide is a quieting effect as leaves absorb sound bouncing off roads, buildings and other hard surfaces. But what arrangement of vegetation works best? A research team from Belgium developed a model that predicts green roofs hold the most opportunity for buffering noise, followed by green façade walls. Best of all? A combination of vegetated screens on roof edges and a green roof or green wall. Photo by GarberDC (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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“Imagine it is 2030, and we now live in a world in which the transition to a just and sustainable post-carbon society has occurred. There is now real hope that runaway climate change will be avoided. How did this happen?” The Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and the Centre for Policy Development set out to answer this ambitious question in a recently published report outlining large-scale, post-carbon economy transition strategies. The authors begin by striking a hopeful tone, stating, “From Germany to California … the United Kingdom to China, the global momentum for implementation of large scale de-carbonisation strategies is rapidly accelerating.” But they also pull no punches in outlining existing challenges such as climate science denial, the influence of the fossil fuel industry, political paralysis, unsustainable consumption of energy and more. Download the report to see the complete list of solutions for overcoming these political and social challenges. Photo by GianLuu (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Conservationists may soon have a powerful new tool in the fight against illegal fishing. FishNET, developed by the Center for Ocean Solutions, is a Web-based system that relies on crowdsourcing, drone technology and satellites to monitor and report illegal fishing activities across the globe. The platform holds particular promise for parts of the world that currently lack sufficient monitoring and enforcement. According to project founder and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe, “The oceans are at a critical turning point. Our ability to reverse the effects of the last 50 years of accelerated industrial fishing and protect the earth’s last great frontier is within our capabilities.” The technology also has the potential to curb illegal pollution, ecosystem destruction, illegal wildlife trade and other conservation challenges. Photo by WanderingtheWorld (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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For years light-emitting diodes have been seen as a greener alternative to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. But they come with a cost — both literally and figuratively, since most LEDs are made from rare-earth elements that are expensive and hazardous to extract and process. A team of researchers at the University of Washington has come up with an alternative that’s easier on the eye, the pocketbook and the environment. Using silicon-based nanoparticles derived from sand, the budding entrepreneurs have developed LEDs that more closely mimic natural sunlight for a fraction of the cost of standard LEDs. The future is looking bright — and welcoming — indeed. Photo by samsungtomorrow (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Many fruits, nuts and other food crops depend on pollinating insects for success. Yet modern farms often grow such plants in large monocultures, discouraging the presence of pollinators by reducing the availability of diverse, insect-friendly native vegetation. Looking for a way to make large plantations more welcoming to these beneficial insects, researchers in South Africa added patches of native flowering plants to mango orchards. They found that while mangoes distant from native vegetation showed 47 percent lower pollinator diversity than those near natural settings, mangoes in the orchards with small plots of native plants showed only a 7 percent drop. Not only that, but the orchards with patches of natives produced an extra 1.5 kilograms of fruit per tree — more than making up for the cost of the added plantings. Photo by Malcolm NQ (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Cercopithecus lomamiensis (Lesula)  

Biodiversity seems to be having a tough go of it lately. Many scientists believe we’re in or entering a sixth mass extinction, and given that we discover 15,000 or more new species each year, we’re bound to lose some things we never even knew existed. Still, those 15,000 or so are cause for a renewed sense of awe every year when looking at our planet. Which is exactly how Quentin Wheeler, founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University, feels. “I don’t know whether to be more astounded by the species discovered each year, or the depths of our ignorance about biodiversity of which we are a part,” he said as the IISE recently announced its annual list of top 10 new species. The list — which includes a new monkey with “human-like eyes,” a butterfly discovered through social media and the world’s smallest vertebrate — not only serves to highlight some of the strangest and most interesting species among us, but also as a sounding bell meant to raise awareness about biodiversity loss.

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Is your city taking steps to prepare for a changing climate and related extreme weather events? The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) recently announced its list of 20 leading resilient cities across the United States. Communities at the top of the list are finalizing climate action plans, scaling renewable energy, shoring up coastal wetlands, developing water conservation plans, improving energy efficiency and much more.

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How should conservation reserves be configured to offer the biggest benefit for biodiversity in the face of climate change? Although there are many options, little concrete evidence exists as to which is best. In a study reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, Australian scientists applied a new model to assess whether putting a premium on connectivity, aggregation or representativeness — or balancing all three — would be most beneficial. Using plant biodiversity in Tasmania as a test case, they found the answer depended on the conservation goal: Boosting representativeness offered the best results with respect to total species diversity, but aggregation and balanced strategies made the most sense for increasing the average area of occurrence for all species. Concluding that “adherence to a single habitat configuration strategy … is unlikely to result in the best outcomes for biodiversity under climate change,” the researchers encouraged conservation practitioners to tailor strategies to desired outcomes rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach. Photo by ctudball (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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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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