Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: Climate/Global Change Page 1 of 6

World Bank takes on big data for development

Apparently, data is the new oil.

Like oil, data might be considered a productive asset capable of generating innovation and profit. It also needs to be refined to be useful. And according to Haishan Fu, Director of the World Bank’s Development Data Group, data is, much like oil, a development issue. She was the keynote speaker for a Feb. 25 program at Duke, “Rethinking Development: Big Data for Development.”

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Haishan Fu, Director of the World Bank Development Data Group

While big data is… well, big, Fu explains that it has a more focused quality as well. “When you go deeper, you can see something really personal,” she says. Numbers don’t have to be quite so intimidating in their largesse and clutter: everything is integrated in some way. All of the numbers address the same questions: who, what, when, where?

That’s why the World Bank and countless other organizations and individuals across the globe have begun moving toward big data for the purpose of social and economic development studies. It helps tackle the whowhat-when-where of real and complex global issues with increased precision, greater efficiency, and a fresh perspective.

For example, the World Bank’s 2019 Tanzania Poverty Assessment integrated household survey results and geospatial data to estimate poverty within a small region of Tanzania. Despite lacking exact data for that area, using big data to make this estimation was still extremely powerful. In fact, its precision increase was equivalent to doubling the survey’s sample size.

A bit further northwest in Africa, the World Bank has also been using big data in Cote d’Ivoire to predict population density based on cellphone subscriber data.

In Cote d’Ivoire, making predictions from big data (figure on right) has actually allowed for more precision than predictions from census data (left).

In Yemen, integrated data from multiple sources is being used to determine road networks and physical accessibility of hospitals. The World Bank can estimate this kind of information without actually having any ground contact, improving both time- and money-efficiency. Studies have made it evident that less road access is linked to poverty, so they’re hoping to improve road networks as well as update population estimates and further other local developments.

And Brazil has served as a case study in “how social media can provide economic insight,” Fu explains. There, the World Bank has been using Twitter to detect early variations in labor market activities, searching for key words and hashtags in tweets and determining if users’ later employment statuses future have any sort of relationship to the content of their earlier tweets. Interestingly, the Twitter index and unemployment rates in Brazil display similar trends.

These examples are just a few of many big data initiatives the World Bank has been working toward. And though they have proven valuable for lower-income countries across the world, the lack of data in certain areas still poses a huge problem. The data deficit has been contributing to global inequalities, with higher-income countries being able to provide and have access to more data and thus also new improvement technologies. Ending poverty requires eradicating data deprivation, Fu says.

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The World Bank’s twin goals: (1) end poverty, (2) promoted shared prosperity.
Image from the World Bank

Eradicating data deprivation is a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors, which is also an issue of its own. On the one hand, there’s a major under-investment in public sector data. On the other, today’s winner-take-most economics and the dominance of select superstar firms have led some private companies to avoid sharing data and favored only those companies able to produce the biggest of datasets.

Fu says working toward data partnerships is a learning process for everyone involved; it’s still a work in progress and probably will be for a while. The potential of big data is already there—it’s just waiting to be totally harnessed. “We will collectively have this platform to increase efficiency, promote responsible use, and come up with sustainable initiatives,” Fu says of the future.

In other words, the World Bank is just getting started.

by Irene Park

Polymath Mae Jemison encourages bolder exploration, collaboration

Photo from Biography.com

“I don’t believe that [going to] Mars pushes us hard enough.” This was just one of the bold, thought-provoking statements made by Dr. Mae Jemison, who came to speak at Duke on Monday, February 24 as part of the 15th annual Jean Fox O’Barr Distinguished Speaker Series, presented by Baldwin Scholars.

Dr. Jemison is at the pinnacle of interdisciplinary engagement—though she is most famous for serving as a NASA astronaut and being the first African American woman to go into space, she is also trained as an engineer, social scientist and dancer. Dr. Jemison always knew that she was going to space—even though there were no women or people or color participating in space exploration as she was growing up.

Dr. Jemison says that simply “looking up” brought her here. As a child, she would look up at the sky, see the stars and wonder if other children in other places in the world were looking at the same view that she had. Growing up in the 1960’s instilled into Dr. Jemison at an early age that our potential is limitless, and the political culture of civil rights, changing art and music and decolonization were all about “people declaring that they had a right to participate.” 

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Roy

One of the biggest pieces of advice that Dr. Jemison wanted to impart on her audience was the value of confidence, and how to build confidence in situations where people are tempted to feel incapable or forget the strengths they already possess. “They told me if I wanted to lead projects I needed an M.D.,” Dr. Jemison explained. “I went to medical school because I know myself and I knew I would want to be in charge one day.” 

At 26 years old, Dr. Jemison was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year as the Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. She described a case where a man came back with a diagnosis of malaria from Senegal. When Dr. Jemison first took a look, the diagnosis seemed more likely to be meningitis. After making an “antibiotic cocktail,” from what she had on site, she realized this man might lose his life if they didn’t get him to a better hospital. At this point, Dr. Jemison wanted to call a military medical evacuation, and she had the authority to do it. However, another man working with her suggested calling a doctor in Ivory Coast, or a doctor at the hospital in Germany to see what he thought before making the evacuation. Dr. Jemison knew what the patient needed in this situation was to be flown to Germany regardless of the cost of the evacuation. In reflecting on this experience, she says that she could have given someone else her authority, but letting her confidence in herself and what she knew was the right thing to do would have negatively impacted her patient. 

So, how do you maintain confidence? According to Dr. Jemison, you come prepared. She knew her job was to save people’s lives, not to listen to someone else. Dr. Jemison also admonished the audience to “value, corral and protect your energy.” She couldn’t afford to always make herself available for non-emergency situations, because she needed her energy for when a patient’s life would depend on it. 

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Roy

Dr. Jemison’s current project, 100 Year Starship, is about  trying to ensure we have the capabilities to travel to interstellar space. “The extreme nature of interstellar hurdles requires we re-evaluate what we think we know,” Dr. Jemison explained. Alpha Centauri, the next closest star, is more than 25 trillion miles away. Even if we go 10% the speed of light, it will still take us 50 years to get there. We need to be able to travel faster, the vehicle has to be self-replenishing, and we have to think about space-time changes. What Dr. Jemison calls the “long pole in the tent” is human behavior. We need to know how humans will act and interact in a small spaceship setting for possibly decades of space travel. Dr. Jemison is thinking deeply about how we can apply the knowledge we already possess to fix world problems, and how we can start preparing now for problems we may face in the future. For example, how would health infrastructure in deep space look different? How would we act on a starship that contains 5,000 people when we can’t figure out how to interact with each other on the “starship” we’re on now?

Returning to the childhood love for stargazing that brought her here, Dr. Jemison discussed towards the end of her talk that a stumbling block for the majority of people is insufficient appreciation of our connection across time and space. She has worked with a team to develop Skyfie, an app that allows you to upload photos and videos of your sky to the Sky Tapestry and explore images other people in different parts of the world are posting of their sky. Dr. Jemison’s hope is this app will help people realize that we are interconnected with the rest of the universe, and we won’t be able to figure out how to survive as a species on this planet alone. 

By Victoria Priester

A Research Tour of Duke’s Largest Lab

“Lightning is like a dangerous animal that wants to go places. And you can’t stop it,” smiled Steve Cummer, Ph.D. as he gestured to the colorful image on the widescreen TV he’d set up outside his research trailer in an open field in Duke Forest.

Cummer, the William H. Younger Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, is accustomed to lecturing in front of the students he teaches or his peers at conferences. But on this day, he was showing spectacular videos of lightning to curious members of the public who were given exclusive access to his research site on Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill, about 8 miles west of campus.

Steve Cummer shows a time-lapse video of lightning to the visitors on the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in the Blackwood Division of the Duke Forest.

More than two dozen members of the community had signed up for a tour of research projects in the Blackwood Division of Duke Forest (which recently expanded), a research-only area that is not normally open to the public. Cummer’s research site was the last stop of the afternoon research tour. The tour also covered native trees, moths and geological features of the Blackwood Division with biologist and ecologist Steve Hall, and air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies with John Walker and Dave Williams, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Hardwood Tower in the Blackwood Division is used for air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies. Researchers frequently climb the 138 foot tall tower to sample the air above the tree canopy.

Cummer’s research on lightning and sprites (electrical discharges associated with lightning that occur above thunderstorm clouds) sparked a lively question and answer session about everything from hurricanes to how to survive if you’re caught in a lightning storm. (Contrary to popular belief, crouching where you are is probably not the safest solution, he said. A car is a great hiding spot as long as you don’t touch anything made of metal.)

Cummer kept his tone fun and casual, like a live science television host, perched on the steps of his research trailer, referring to some of the scientific equipment spread out across the field as “salad bowls,” “pizza pans” and “lunar landers,” given their odd shapes. But the research he talked about was serious. Lightning is big business because it can cause billions of dollars in damage and insurance claims every year.

An ash tree (Fraxinus spp.) being examined by one of the visitors on the Duke Forest Research tour. Blackwood Division ash trees are showing signs of the highly destructive emerald ash borer invasion.

Surprisingly little is known about lightning, not even how it is first formed. “There are a shocking number of things,” he said, pausing to let his pun sink in, “that we really don’t understand about how lightning works. Starting with the very beginning, nobody knows exactly how it starts. Like, really the physics of that.”  But Cummer loves his research and has made some advances in this field (like devising more precise sensor systems), “When you’re the first person to understand something and you haven’t written about it yet or told anyone about it… that’s the best feeling.”

The Duke Forest hosted 49 research projects last year, which —with less than half of the projects reporting—represented over a million dollars of investment in Duke Forest-based work. 

“The Duke Forest is more than just a place to walk and to jog. It’s an outdoor classroom. It’s a living laboratory. It’s where faculty and teachers and students of all ages come to learn and explore,” explained Sara Childs, Duke Forest director.

The Duke Forest offers their research tour every year. Members of the public can sign up for the email newsletter to be notified about future events.

Post by Véronique Koch

Republican to RepublicEn: Climate Change for Conservatives

My mom’s calling—we talk every day. She asks me if I’ve eaten, and I complain about the usual: essays, exams, horrifying clumps of hair on the shower floor. 

Bob Inglis, former Congressman and speaker at the Change My Mind Symposium during Duke Energy Week.

I sit on the steps of the chapel, a warm yellow against a silent sky. Durham is chilly tonight. Cloudy, starless, I feel rain coming. My fingers — naked, against my phone and ear —fare worst, somewhere between cold and numb. They crave my pocket’s warmth, and I tell my mother goodbye.

“Wait, Mom, before I go, did you see the climate change report?”

And with a single sentence, cordial relations are over, and little things like “familial love” fall away. Constructed arguments become a battle of volume. Mom, if we don’t do anything, millions will die. But, Jeremy, she says, climate change is natural — and these summits, they’re PR moves, politicians don’t actually care. In the ring, it’s Me vs. Mother, Ali vs. Frazier, Democrat vs. Republican. An hour in, I’ve forgotten the cold — hell, I’m sweating in self-righteous anger.

These little spats parallel increasingly intense partisanship in the United States. Hot-button topics fuel the divide, with gun control, abortion rights, and impeachment splitting Democrats and Republicans along party lines. Particularly contentious is climate change. While 84% of Democrats “consider climate change a ‘major threat,’” only a fourth of Republicans feel the same. 

Enter Bob Inglis, former US Congressman and 1981 Duke alumnus. Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4th House district, one of the reddest regions in the nation. Initially, he wasn’t so hot on global warming himself. “For years, I was in Congress saying climate change was nonsense,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it.

But what changed his mind?

“Inglis 2.0,” as he calls it, began with his son in 2004, who pushed him to adopt greener policies. Next was the increasing body of evidence that proved climate change undeniable. But it would take a spiritual awakening to transform Inglis’s views. On a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Inglis met oceanographer Scott Heron. The two were kindred spirits, and in Heron’s conservation work, Inglis saw a love for God. For Inglis, “Conservation became loving God and loving people,” he says.        

Inglis addresses free-enterprise solutions to climate change
(Source: Duke University Energy Initiative)

In 2009, he introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” designed to curb global warming. Central to the bill was a carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon-based fuel use. Voter backlash was swift. “They were having a Tea Party— and I was specifically uninvited,” Inglis chuckles. In the 2010 election, he was soundly defeated in a primary race against Trey Gowdy, largely in response to the carbon tax. 

But Inglis didn’t stop there. In 2012, he founded republicEn, an organization that promotes free enterprise solutions to global warming. republicEn targets a right-wing audience—those most hesitant to accept global warming. 

The core of republicEn is its online community. Thousands of members convene in local events and write letters to Congress advocating a carbon tax solution. Dedicated spokespeople also tour the nation to promote the need for conservative leadership. Both benefit from republicEn’s media wing, which gives conservative voices a platform for climate change.

Inglis firmly believes that conservative solutions are key to fighting climate change. Citing the explosion of smartphones, he poses a question: would the cell phone industry have grown as rapidly had it been intensely regulated? He doubts it. Similarly, he sees free market solutions as the fastest way to slow global warming.

republicEn has no set timeline, no five-year plan. But Inglis is hopeful: “You weren’t there when we marched in Selma, but you can be there when we solve climate change.” 

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Responding to the Climate Crisis Through Dance

Kimerer LaMothe began her talk in an unconventional way, by singing a song. As she reached the refrain she repeated the words “everybody dances” and invited the audience to join her. 

She then posed an intriguing question: How can dance be a response to the climate crisis? In the western world, dance is usually seen as a recreational activity and here LaMothe was asking how it could be used as a tool or even as the solution to one of the largest issues of our time. I was definitely a little skeptical. 

Image by Geoffry Gee

The talk was a part of Duke’s Ruby Fridays organized by the staff of Duke Arts and the Rubenstein Arts Center. LaMothe was invited to contribute to the series which features casual art talks with the intention of connecting art across a multitude of disciplines.

Her response to the climate crisis began with a discussion about the body. LaMothe explained that for three and a half billion years after the planet was formed, there were no complex bodies on the planet, just microbes. She said they developed multicellular bodies because they needed to move.

“We build our knowledge of the world through the bodily movements we make,” she said.

The idea is that a body’s ability to move and interact with the world around it is a form of dance. This is especially demonstrated by how human babies interact with their caregivers. Human babies, unlike many other animals, are extremely reliant on their caregivers and must find a way to communicate with them. Thus, they use movement to garner attention. They have an impulse to connect and use patterns of movement like a smile or a snuggle to make sure they are taken care of. What results is something like a dance.

LaMothe described it as, “A vital human expression of kinectivity.”

Using movement and dance as a way to connect or interact, however, is important to human life past infancy. Many different cultures around the world use dance as the primary ritual of their community.

One example LaMothe gave was the healing dance practiced by the Bushmen of the African Kalahari. They use dance to “stir energy” and understand any pain. As the dancing intensifies the energy grows. 

LaMothe explained that this allows them to “enter what they call first creation, a perception of reality where everything is changed and everything is changing.”

Through this, the healer can see the capacity of that pain to change and help the members release the pain. The idea is that to dance is to heal both themselves and the earth. 

Still, the question remains: How does dance heal the earth? The earth that is facing ecosystem collapse, species extinction, and overexploitation. The past five hundred years have exponentially brought us to the brink of the climate crisis. These are the same centuries that Europeans traveled around the world colonializing and overtaking native lands. One of the main ways colonists tried to make native people civilized was by stopping them from dancing.

LaMothe stated, “Native communities were told to stop dancing and instead make “progress towards civilization.”

In many places, it actually became a crime to dance. In fact, until 1932 it was against the law for native people to engage in ceremonial dances in the United States. Furthermore, in efforts to “civilize” people, a focus was placed on learning through reading and forsaking movement as a way to gain knowledge. This “civilized” culture also abandoned the awareness and respect native communities showed towards the environment around them. Dance not only allowed them to connect with each other but with the earth. This connection was reflected in the other parts of their life resulting in sustainable living and caring for the earth.

In LaMothe’s words, “dance can catalyze a sensory awareness of our own movement making.” 

An Image from LaMothe’s Presentation Featuring People Participating in
Climate Conscious Dance

She explained that through climate-conscious dance we can reconnect ourselves with the environment and help restore the earth.

One example she gave of how to do this is through events like Global Water Dances where people can participate in events all over the world to dance and raise consciousnesses about how to protect water.

In 2005 after teaching at both Brown and Harvard, LaMothe moved to a farm with her family so she could write and dance in an environment closer to nature. She has written six books, created several dance concerts and even a full-length musical titled “Happy If Happy When.” She spends her time writing, singing, dancing, and tending to the farm alongside her family.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Legendary Paleontologist Richard Leakey Visits Duke

Hoping to catch up with an old friend who is a professor at Duke, Richard Leakey accepted an invitation to speak at the university on Oct. 22, though he “gave up public speaking to a large extent many years ago.”

Richard E. Leakey visited Duke on Oct. 22, 2019.

Leakey, age 74, is a world-renowned pioneer in Paleoanthropology – the study of the human fossil record – and is also well-known for his involvement in Kenyan politics and lifelong efforts towards conservation and wildlife protection. Once, he famously burned twelve tons of elephant tusks that were confiscated from poachers, which gathered international attention and helped usher in a global ban on the ivory trade.

Leakey came to paleontology by heredity. He is one of an entire family of Paleo-pioneers. His mother, Mary, discovered a skull in Africa that was dated to 1.75 million years ago (MYA) in 1960. Leakey said that this “electrified interest in the origin story” – that is, the human origin story. When his father, Louis, showed that the “quite clever” ancient tools he had discovered were made around 1.75 MYA, the original idea that human origins began outside of Africa began to change.

Leakey said the British people were hoping that “if we had evolved … let it happen in England” and if not England, then Asia, but this was not to be the case. At first, Louis Leakey was ostracized because of his work and discoveries of human origins in Africa. This helped steer Richard away from academics because of the fights that he saw his father endure.

Leakey’s famous 1984 Kenyan discovery, “Turkana Boy,” a 1.5 million-year-old, nearly-complete specimen of Homo erectus. (Wikipedia)

Successfully achieving his self-described ambition to not finish high school, Richard Leakey was thrown out of school at age 16. Yet today he is accredited with many awards, has written at least eight books, and has advanced the Leakey family legacy of discovery. From 1968 to the present day, he and fellow workers have discovered enormous numbers of fossils of our ancestors along the East and West shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, which have an age span from 4.5 MYA to our very recent ancestors, which Leakey calls “fossil us.”

Leakey described for the Duke audience in an overflowing auditorium at the Nasher Museum a scenario he facilitated with colleagues and students.

He had taken a group to a camp site to talk about evolution and asked them to perform some tasks. First, they were charged to make tools from stone. The following day, they were led to a freshly slaughtered goat. Leakey told his pupils to butcher the goat and remove the flesh from its carcass.

After several hours watching the individuals try to pull at the goat with their hands to no avail, Leakey suggested that they might use their new stone tools. So they did, but they still could not get through the animal’s tough hide, even with a blade.

He said that during human evolution, our imagination was turned on genetically and this gave early humans the “capability to think of things that weren’t.” There is lots of work to be done studying an ancient period over 3.5 million years that Leakey says lends itself to “early ancestry of speech, imagination, [and] cooperation.” He is hopeful for the knowledge and new understandings that will come from investigation of this period. 

“Why not ask someone to help you?” Leakey prompted again, and within an hour, nothing was left of the goat. The exercise demonstrated that though other monkeys and apes use stone, it is the human’s vocal communication and sense of working together that sets us apart, says Leakey.     

Leakey’s current project is a “mega-museum” to “cerebrate and celebrate the story of the African origin.” The origin story which his parents first provided crucial evidence for is hugely important to the African continent and to the people of Africa and because we have “desecrated our motherland,” he said. Leakey wants the museum to highlight stages of evolution, genetics, climate, ecology, other species, and extinctions.

An architectural rendering of Ngaren: The Museum of Humankind to be built near Nairobi. (Studio Libeskind )

Before moving into the panel and Q&A portion of his talk, which was moderated by Duke professors Steven Churchill and Anne Yoder, Leakey prompted the audience to think about climate change, asking why we do not think we need to save ourselves. If we die, then other species go with us.

“Don’t for a minute think that climate change isn’t a real crisis that we’re in together,” Leakey said, earning a round of applause.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Don’t Drink the Tap

Have you ever questioned the quality of the water you drink every day? Or worried that cooking with tap water might be dangerous? For most of us, the answer to these questions is probably no. However, students from a Bass Connections team at Duke say we may want to think otherwise.

Image result for image of water

From bottle refilling stations to the tap, drinking water is so habitual and commonplace that we often take it for granted. Only in moments of crisis do we start worrying about what’s in the water we drink daily. The reality is that safe drinking water isn’t accessible for a lot of people.

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Pig waste discoloring lagoon water

Images like this hog farm motivated the Bass Connections project team DECIPHER to take a closer look at the quality of water in North Carolina. On April 16 they presented their concerning findings from three case studies looking at lead contamination, coal ash impoundments, and aging infrastructure at the Motorco Music Hall.

Motorco in Durham. The talk was inside, though.

Nadratun Chowdhury, a Ph.D. student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, investigated lead contamination in water. Lead is an abundant and corrosion-resistant material, making it appealing for use in things like paint, batteries, faucets and pipes. While we’ve successfully removed lead from paint and gasoline, a lot of old water pipes in use today are still fashioned from lead. That’s not good – lead is very toxic and can leach into the water.

Just how toxic is it? Anything over a blood-lead level concentration of fifty parts per billion – fifty drops of water in a giant Olympic swimming pool – is considered dangerous. According to Duke graduate student Aaron Reuben, this much lead in one’s blood is correlated with downward social mobility, serious health concerns, diminished capacity to regulate thoughts and emotions, and hyperactivity. Lower income and minority areas are more at risk due to the higher likelihood of owning contaminated older homes.

Rupanjali Karthik, a Master of Laws student, conducted research on the intersection of water and aging infrastructure in Orange County. Breaks in water pipes are common and can result in serious consequences, like the loss of 9 million gallons of drinkable water. Sometimes it takes 8 or 9 months just to find the location of a broken pipe. In 2018, the UNC-Chapel Hill water main break caused a huge shortage on campus and at the medical center.

Excess fluoridation is also an issue caused by aging infrastructure. In February 2017, a combination of human and machine error caused an excessive fluoride concentration coming out of an Orange County Water Treatment Plant. People were advised not to use their water even to shower. A UNC basketball game had to move locations, and stores were completely swept of bottled water.

Another issue is that arsenic, a known carcinogen, is often used as the fluoridation agent. We definitely don’t want that in our drinking water. Fluoridation isn’t even that necessary these days when we have toothpaste and mouthwash that supports our dental health.

Tommy Lin, an undergraduate studying Chemistry and Computer Science, topped off the group’s presentation with findings surrounding coal ash in Belmont, NC. Coal ash, the residue after coal is burned in power plants, can pollute rivers and seep into ground water, affecting domestic wells of neighboring communities. This creates a cocktail of highly concentrated heavy metals and carcinogens. Drinking it can cause damage to your nervous system, cancer, and birth defects, among other things. Not so great.

The group’s presentation.

Forty-five plastic water bottles. That’s how much water it takes Laura, a Belmont resident, to cook her middle-sized family Thanksgiving. She knows that number because it’s been her family’s tradition the past three years. The Allen Plant Steam Station is a big culprit of polluting water with coal ash. Tons of homes nearby the station, like Laura’s, are told not to use the tap water. You can find these homes excessively stockpiled with cases on cases of plastic water bottles.

These issues aren’t that apparent to people unless they have been directly impacted. Lead, aging infrastructure, and coal ash all pose real threats but are also very invisible problems. Kathleen Burns, a Ph.D. student in English, notes that only in moments of crisis will people start to care, but by then it may be too late.

So, what can people do? Not much, according to the Bass Connections team. They noted that providing clean water is very much a structural issue which will require some complex steps to be solved. So, for now, you may want to go buy a Brita.

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

Building a Mangrove Map

“Gap maps” are the latest technology when it comes to organizing data. Although they aren’t like traditional maps, they can help people navigate through dense resources of information and show scientists the unexplored areas of research.

A ‘gap map’ comparing conservation interventions and outcomes in tropical mangrove habitats around the world turns out to be a beautiful thing.

At Duke’s 2019 Master’s Projects Spring Symposium, Willa Brooks, Amy Manz, and Colyer Woolston presented the results of their year-long Masters Project to create this map.

You’d never know by looking at the simple, polished grid of information that it took 29 Ph.D. students, master’s students and undergraduates nearly a full year to create it. As a member of the Bass Connections team that has been helping to support this research, I can testify that gap maps take a lot of time and effort — but they’re worth it.

Amy Manz, Willa Brooks, and Colyer Woolston present their evidence map (or gap map) at the 2019 Master’s Projects Spring Symposium

When designing a research question, it’s important to recognize what is already known, so that you can clearly visualize and target the gaps in the knowledge.

But sifting through thousands of papers on tropical mangroves to find the one study you are looking for can be incredible overwhelming and time-intensive. This is purpose of a gap map: to neatly organize existing research into a comprehensive grid, effectively shining a light on the areas where research is lacking, and highlighting patterns in areas where the research exists.

In partnership with World Wildlife Fund, Willa, Amy, and Colyer’s team has been working under the direction of Nicholas School of the Environment professors Lisa Campbell and Brian Silliman to screen the abstracts of over 10,000 articles, 779 of which ended up being singled out for a second round of full-text screening. In the first round, we were looking for very specific inclusion criteria, and in the second, we were extracting data from each study to identify the outcomes of conservation interventions in tropical mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef habitats around the world.

Coastal Mangroves (Photo from WikiCommons: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

While the overall project looked at all three habitats, Willa, Amy, and Colyer’s Master’s Project focused specifically on mangroves, which are salt-tolerant shrubs that grow along the coast in tropical and subtropical regions. These shrubs provide a rich nursery habitat to a diverse group of birds and aquatic species, and promote the stability of coastlines by trapping sediment runoff in their roots. However, mangrove forests are in dramatic decline.

According to World Wildlife Fund, 35 percent of mangrove ecosystems in the world are already gone. Those that remain are facing intense pressure from threats like forest clearing, overharvesting, overfishing, pollution, climate change, and human destruction of coral reefs. Now more than ever, it is so important to study the conservation of these habitats, and implement solutions that will save these coastal forests and all the life they support. The hope is that our gap map will help point future researchers towards these solutions, and aid in the fight to save the mangroves.

This year’s team built a gap map that successfully mapped linkages between interventions and outcomes, indicating which areas are lacking in research. However, the gap map is limited because it does not show the strength or nature of these relationships. Next year, another Bass Connections team will tackle this challenge of analyzing the results, and further explore the realm of tropical conservation research.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

A How-To Guide for Climate-Proof Cities

Roughly 400 miles separate Memphis and New Orleans. Interstate 55 connects the two cities, snaking south parallel to the Mississippi River. The drive is dull. There are few cars. The trees are endless.

South of the Louisiana border, the land turns flat, low, and wet. The air grows warmer, and heavy with moisture. I-55 cuts through the center of Maurepas Swamp, a 100,000-plus acre tract of protected wetlands. Groves of gumball and oak are rare here—instead, thin swamps of bald cypress and tupelo trees surround the highway on either side. At night, only their skeletal silhouettes are visible. They rise from the low water, briefly illuminated by passing headlights. Even in the dark, the trees are unmistakably dead.

*  *  *

A healthy cypress swamp in Lake Martin, Louisiana (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

Traditionally, Maurepas Swamp serves as a natural barrier against flooding that threatens New Orleans each year. Native flora soaks up the rainfall, spreading it across a network of cypress roots and cattail. But centuries of logging and canal construction have drastically altered the swamp’s ecological composition. The Mississippi levee system compounded the issue, isolating the swamp from vital sources of fresh water and nutrients. Flooded with saltwater, much of the existing cypress withered and died. Young trees, now, are few and scattered. 

Maurepas Swamp highlights the danger of even the most well-intentioned changes to the  environment. This problem is hardly unique to the wetlands. “Many of the issues that we are experiencing today were seen as solutions in the past,” says Nancy Grimm, a professor of ecology at Arizona State University. “What we want to do now is to think about the future, so that the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow.”

Nancy Grimm addresses urban sustainability at the 2019 Henry J. Oosting Memorial Lecture in Ecology. (Source: Nicholas School of the Environment)

Grimm is the co-director of the UREx Sustainability Research Network. UREx aims to climate-proof urban municipalities without sacrificing environmental stability. To do so, UREx has partnered with several cities across the United States and Latin America. Each city hosts a workshop geared towards municipal decision makers, such as government officials,  environmental NGOS, and more. Together, these participants design different “futures” addressing their cities’ most pressing concerns. 

Phoenix, Arizona is one of the nine initial cities partnering with UREx. One of the hottest cities in the United States, Phoenix is already plagued with extreme heat and drought. By 2060, Phoenix is projected to have 132 days above 100°F—a 44 percent increase from data collected in 2010.  

UREx doesn’t dwell too much on these statistics.  “We’re bombarded constantly by dystopian narratives of tomorrow,” says Grimm, with a slight smile. “Instead, what we want to think about are ways we can envision a more positive future.”

The Phoenix workshop produced five distinct visions of what the city could look like in sixty years. Some scenarios are more ambitious than others—“The Right Kind of Green,” for example, imagines a vastly transformed city defined by urban gardens and lush vegetation. But each vision of Phoenix contains a common goal: a greener, cooler city that retains its soul. 

A visualization accompanies each scenario. In one, a family walks about a small orchard. The sky is blue, and the sun is out. But no one seems bothered by the heat. The oranges are vibrant; the trees thick, and full. It’s an idyllic future. But it’s one within grasp.  

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

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