Quantcast
Popular
Even pocket parks in cities (e.g. Duane Park in Lower Manhattan) can shelter wildlife. Read below for ideas about urban biodiversity. Aude / CC BY-SA

Creating a Sustainable Future: 5 Essential Reads

By Jennifer Weeks

Much news about the environment in 2017 focused on controversies over Trump administration actions, such as proposals to promote more use of coal and budget cuts at relevant federal agencies. At the same time, however, many scholars across the U.S. are pursuing innovations that could help create a more sustainable world. Here we spotlight five examples from our 2017 archives.


1. Restoring the Rio Grande

Although many Americans may not realize it, the U.S. and Mexico work together on many environmental issues along their joint border, including drinking water, sanitation and flood control. Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, proposed a bolder vision: greening the entire Rio Grande Valley, which forms more than half of the border.

Restoring vegetation along the river and creating more green space along both sides would help improve river flow and water quality, Montemayor wrote. And it could make the border region an attraction that brings Mexicans and Americans together:

"As the Rio Grande advances to the Gulf of Mexico, it cuts through incredibly valuable, beautiful and remote landscapes, including Big Bend National Park in Texas and the Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Maderas del Carmen reserves in Mexico. Traveling its length could become a trip comparable to hiking the Appalachian Trail, with opportunities to see recovering natural areas and wildlife and learn from two of the world's richest cultures."

View of Tule Canyon and the Rio Grande from Burro Bluff, Big Bend National ParkNational Park Service

2. Making jet fuel from sugarcane

Jet airplane travel is one of the world's fastest-growing greenhouse gas emissions sources. For this and other reasons, including concerns about oil price spikes, there is growing interest in producing jet fuel from non-petroleum sources.

Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on making jet fuel from sugarcane, an abundant and low-cost source. But they are doing it with a twist. Instead of fermenting cane juice into an alcohol-based fuel, as Brazil already does for motor vehicles, they have engineered the cane to produce oil that can be used to make biodiesel.

This engineered version, which they call lipidcane, could become a lucrative crop. "We calculate that growing lipidcane containing 20 percent oil would be five times more profitable per acre than soybeans, the main feedstock currently used to make biodiesel in the United States, and twice as profitable per acre as corn," the authors wrote. They also are engineering it to be more cold tolerant so that it can be grown on marginal land in the southeastern U.S.

3. A legal right to a clean environment

Are all humans entitled to live in a clean and healthy environment? West Virginia University legal researcher Nicholas Stump and his colleagues are exploring this proposal in a challenging setting: Appalachia, where mining and logging have severely damaged the environment and polluted the air, water and soil. Appalachia is well-suited for a bottom-up, critically informed approach that focuses on human rights at the grassroots level, he wrote:

"Discussing rights at the local level will give people opportunity to describe specific harms they have experienced from activities such as mountaintop removal and fracking. It also will help to promote participatory democracy for citizens who have long been denied real self-determination."

This work is part of West Virginia University's new Appalachian Justice Initiative, which will include research, advocacy and direct legal services and outreach to Appalachian communities. "Our goal is to help people in our region call for laws and actions that actually guarantee the right to a healthy Appalachian environment," Stump explained.

4. Stemming world hunger with marine microalgae

Feeding a growing world population sustainably in the coming decades will be a major environmental challenge. Large-scale farm production pollutes air and water, generates greenhouse gas emissions and degrades soil.

William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and Asaf Tzachor, a Ph.D. candidate at University College London, see marine microalgae as a key untapped resource. These tiny organisms live in fresh and salt water, and form the base of marine food chains. They are the sources of the omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids that humans get by eating fish. Moomaw and Tzachor call for "cutting out the middle fish" and developing foods based directly on microalgae.

"Most algae-based products are marketed in the United States as dietary supplements, but we believe the time has arrived to introduce algae-based foods to the dining table," they wrote.

Microalgae can be grown in open ponds or sealed tubes in a laboratory. Moomaw and Tzachor calculate that producing one kilogram of beef-sourced essential amino acids would require 148,000 liters of freshwater and 125 square meters of fertile land. In contrast, producing the same amount from an omega-3 rich microalgae called Nannochloropsis oculata, raised in an open pond with brackish water, would require only 20 liters of freshwater and 1.6 square meters of nonfertile land.

Growing algae indoors in photobioreactors conserves land and water. IGV Biotech, CC BY-SA

5. Understanding biodiversity in cities

Sustainable strategies for the future don't have to be technically complex or sweeping. Geographer Christopher Swan of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studies biodiversity in parks, backyards and other natural areas around the city of Baltimore. Swan wants to see what species thrive in cities and how human activities affect them.

As urban dwellers build and remodel houses and develop neighborhoods, they divide urban space into small units with many edges, Swan has found:

"This benefits species that thrive at edges, like white-tailed deer and nuisance vines, but harms others that require larger interior habitats, such as certain birds. As human activities create a more fragmented environment, it becomes increasingly important to create linkages between natural areas, such as preserved forests, to maintain populations and their biodiversity."

Humans also move species around: They bring plants into their yard, and trap and remove nuisance animals such as squirrels.

Swan is working with his students to identify native plant species that can thrive in poor urban soils, and to identify species traits—such as offering habitat for pollinating insects—that can make species valuable in urban settings. With information like this, city managers can restore and support urban wildlife, making cities more inviting places to live.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.


Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Snow in Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2018. Lisa Panero / Flickr

Climate Change and Weather Extremes: Both Heat and Cold Can Kill

By Garth Heutel, David Molitor and Nolan Miller

Climate change is increasing the frequency and strength of some types of extreme weather in the U.S., particularly heat waves. Last summer the U.S. Southwest experienced life-threatening heat waves, which are especially dangerous for elderly people and other vulnerable populations.

More recently, record-setting cold temperatures engulfed much of the country during the first week of 2018. This arctic blast has been blamed for dozens of deaths. Some scientists believe that Arctic warming may be a factor in this type of persistent cold spell, although others question this connection.

Keep reading... Show less
Trump Watch
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo

One Year Into the Trump Administration, Where Do We Stand?

By John R. Platt

What a long, strange year it's been.

Saturday, Jan. 20 marks the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration officially taking office after a long and arduous election. It's a year that has seen seemingly unending attacks on science and the environment, along with a rise in hateful rhetoric and racially motivated policies. But it's almost been met by the continuing growth of the efforts to resist what the Trump administration has to offer.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Chris J. Ratcliffe / Greenpeace

Greenpeace Slams Coca-Cola Plastic Announcement as ‘Dodging the Main Issue’

By Louise Edge

Friday Greenpeace criticized Coca-Cola's new global plastics plan for failing to address the urgency of ocean plastic pollution.

The long awaited policy from the world's largest soft drink company featured a series of measures weaker than those previously announced for Europe and the UK.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
The two young Iowa vandals knocked over 50 hives and exposed the bees to deadly winter temperatures. Colby Stopa / Flickr

Two Boys Charged With Killing Half a Million Honeybees in Iowa

Two boys were charged with killing more than a half million bees at a honey business in Iowa last month.

"All of the beehives on the honey farm were destroyed and approximately 500,000 bees perished in the frigid temperatures," Sioux City police said in a release.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy

Are Microwaves Really as Bad for the Environment as Cars?

According to many headlines blared around the Internet this week, "microwaves are as damaging to the environment as cars." But this misleading information, based on a new study from the University of Manchester, hopefully doesn't make you feel guilty about zapping your next Hot Pocket.

The research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found that microwave ovens across the European Union generate as much carbon dioxide as nearly 7 million cars and consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour of electricity per year. Okay, that sounds like a lot. But also consider that there are about 130 million microwaves in Europe and some 291 million vehicles on its roads.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO

Monsanto's Roundup Destroys Healthy Microbes in Humans and in Soils

By Julie Wilson

We're only beginning to learn the importance of healthy gut bacteria to our overall health—and the relationship between healthy soil and the human microbiome.

We know that the human microbiome, often referred to as our "second brain," plays a key role in our health, from helping us digest the food we eat, to boosting our brain function and regulating our immune systems.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Trump Watch
Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers

By Elliott Negin

The Trump administration's testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Shutterstock

8 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure to Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals

By Caroline Cox

What keeps you up at night? Sick kids, restless pets, the latest tragedy on the evening news, politics, wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, money troubles, job stress, and family health and wellbeing? There is no shortage of concerns that make us all toss and turn.

But what keeps the chemical industry up at night? A couple of decades ago a senior Shell executive was asked this very question. The answer? Endocrine disruption.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!