Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Climate/Global Change Page 1 of 5

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.

Image result for pink hog farm water
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.

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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

The Importance of Evidence in Environmental Conservation

What counts as good evidence?

In medical research, a professional might answer this question as you would expect: evidence can be trusted if it is the result of a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment, meaning the evidence is only as strong as the experiment design. And in medicine, it’s possible (and important) to procure this kind of strong evidence.

But when it comes to conservation, it’s a whole different story.

Dr. David Gill (photo from The Nicholas School)

The natural world is complicated, and far beyond our control. When studying the implications of conservation, it’s not so easy to design the kind of experiment that will produce “good” evidence.

David Gill, a professor in Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment, recently led a study featured in the journal Nature that needed to  define what constitutes good evidence in the realm of marine conservation. Last Wednesday, he made a guest appearance in my Bass Connections meeting to share his work and a perspective on the importance of quality evidence.

Gill’s research has been centered around evaluating the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) as a way of protecting marine life. Seven percent of the world’s oceans are currently designated as MPAs, and by 2020, the goal is to increase this number to 10 percent. MPAs arguably have massive effects on ecosystem health and coastal community functioning, but where is the evidence for this claim?

Although past investigations have provided support for creating MPAs,  Gill and his team were concerned with the quality of this evidence, and the link between how MPAs are managed and how well they work. There have historically been acute gaps in study design when researching the effects of MPAs. Few experiments have included pre-MPA conditions or an attempt to control for other factors. Most of these studies have been done in hindsight, and have looked only at the ecological effects within the boundaries of MPAs, without any useful baseline data or control sites to compare them to.

As a result of these limitations, the evidence base is weak. Generating good evidence is a massive undertaking when you are attempting to validate a claim by counting several thousand moving fish.

Gill’s measure of ecosystem health includes counting fish. (Photo from Avoini)

So is there no way to understand the impacts of MPAs? Should conservation scientists just give up? The answer is no, absolutely not.

To produce better evidence, Gill and his team needed to design a study that would isolate the effects of MPAs. To do this, they needed to account for location biases and other confounding variables such as the biophysical conditions of the environment, the population density of nearby human communities, and the national regulations in each place.

The solution they came up with was to compare observations of current conditions within MPAs to “counterfactual” evidence, which is defined as what would have happened had the MPA not been there. Using statistical matching of MPAs to nearby non-MPA and pre-MPA sites, they were able to obtain high-quality results.

A happy sea turtle pictured in a marine protected area (photo from English Foreign and Commonwealth Office.)

The research showed that across 16,000 sampled sites, MPAs had positive ecological impacts on fish biomass in 71 percent of sites. They also discovered that MPAs with adequate staffing had far greater ecological impacts than those without, which is a pretty interesting piece of feedback when it comes to future development. It’s probably not worth it to create MPAs before there is sufficient funding in place to maintain them.

Gill doesn’t claim that his evidence is flawless; he fully admits to the shortcomings in this study, such as the fact that there is very little data on temperate, coldwater regions — mostly because there are few MPAs in these regions.

The field is ripe for improvement, and he suggests that future research look into the social impacts of MPAs and the implications of these interventions for different species. As the evidence continues to improve, it will be increasingly possible to maximize the win-wins when designing MPAs.

Conservation science isn’t perfect, but neither is medicine. We’ll get there.

Energy Week Kicks Off With Electric Bikes, Buses and More

Global warming is becoming a bigger issue every day. But have no fear – “Energy Week at Duke’ is here! The 2018 event featured everything from electric mountain bikes to the world’s most fuel-efficient vehicle.

To kick off the exciting week, eBike Central and Proterra founder Dale Hill rolled up to the Chemistry parking lot on Sunday to inform everyone about today’s latest tech that’s helping our planet become more sustainable.

eBike Central had a whole fleet of electric bikes, or “e-bikes,” on display for people to try out: mountain bikes, commuter bikes, cargo bikes and more. I tried out one of the mountain bikes and took it off-roading up a steep hill nearby (which I never would’ve been able to make up without the electric assist). Then just to mess around I tried out the “Packster 40,” which was equipped with a child seat in front of the handle bars. It was surprisingly maneuverable and went really fast.

Instead of having a throttle, these e-bikes work through pedal assist, meaning each time you pedal, the bike outputs additional power to the wheels. You can select from five different modes, ranging from “eco” (a 25 percent additional assist), to “turbo” (an extra 300 percent). You can reach top speeds of around 28 miles per hour without even breaking a sweat. What was really cool about the Packster 40 was that it could shift gears at a standstill, and you could add up to three seats if you’ve got triplets!

As you can see, e-bikes are a very eco-friendly and convenient mode of transportation. They allow for longer, faster commutes while also helping out the environment. The mountain bikes are appealing to a variety of riders, whether they have bad knees or just want the energy to do more laps per session. The batteries take about 4-6 hours to get a charge that lasts for 70 miles. Just within this past year, the mile range has increased by 30 percent, and that number is only growing. As the price for e-bikes goes down and their functionality improves, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them around.

E-bikes aren’t the only cool electric vehicle rising in popularity. Dale Hill gave an inspiring a talk on how his company Proterra is bringing positive change to public transit through their electrically powered buses. (pic: Duke Today)

Proterra decided to get involved with public transit because buses are ideal candidates for implementing battery electric vehicles. Buses operate on continuous routes, so it’s easy to watch them and monitor their performance. They come back to a common maintenance facility, operated on by a professional staff. And obviously they drive tons of people around every day, so cutting out fossil fuels for such a heavily used service could make a large-scale impact in the long run.

As the world’s urban density rapidly rises, it simply isn’t feasible for everyone to have cars. More and more people will need to turn to alternative methods, like the bus. By 2030, the majority of the world’s vehicles will be battery electric. Good thing is, not only are they more reliable than diesel ones, but they require much less maintenance . On top of that, they save a ton of money on gas. So not only are electric buses sustainable, but also a smart investment! It makes sense why Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin have already all committed to having 100 percent electric bus fleets within the coming decades. And Proterra is playing a huge part in that. They currently account for 60 percent of all electric bus sales.

Duke itself is hopping on this electric vehicle train – by 2024 students will be riding a fully battery powered C1 between East and West Campus. This is another one of the sustainable steps Duke has been taking towards carbon neutrality.

The Duke Electric Vehicles team was also at the kickoff event, showcasing their vehicle that holds the Guinness World Record for most fuel-efficient vehicle. They did a couple of laps around the parking lot in the “hydrogen fuel cell car,” which gets the equivalent of 14,573 miles per gallon.

I encourage you guys to do your part in living sustainably. Maybe you could buy an electric bike, and effortlessly leave your friends dumbfounded in the dust on your way to school.

Will SheehanPost by Will Sheehan

 

 

 

 

Heating Up the Summer, 3D Style

While some students like to spend their summer recovering from a long year of school work, others are working diligently in the Innovation Co-Lab in the Telcom building on West Campus.

They’re working on the impacts of dust and particulate matter (PM) pollution on solar panel performance, and discovering new technologies that map out the 3D volume of the ocean.

The Co-Lab is one of three 3D printing labs located on campus. It allows students and faculty the opportunity to creatively explore research through the use of new and emerging technologies.

Third-year PhD candidate Michael Valerino said his long term research project focuses on how dust and air pollution impacts the performance of solar panels.

“I’ve been designing a low-cost prototype which will monitor the impact of dust and air pollution on solar panels,” said Valerino. “The device is going to be used to monitor the impacts of dust and particulate matter (PM) pollution on solar panel performance. This processis known as soiling. This is going to be a low-cost alternative (~$200 ) to other monitoring options that are at least $5,000.”

Most of the 3D printers come with standard Polylactic acid (PLA) material for printing. However, because his first prototype completely melted in India’s heat, Valerino decided to switch to black carbon fiber and infused nylon.

“It really is a good fit for what I want to do,” he said. “These low-cost prototypes will be deployed in China, India, and the Arabian Peninsula to study global soiling impacts.”

In a step-by-step process, he applied acid-free glue to the base plate that holds the black carbon fiber and infused nylon. He then placed the glass plate into the printer and closely examined how the thick carbon fiber holds his project together.

Michael Bergin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering professor at Duke collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar and the University of Wisconsin last summer to work on a study about soiling.

The study indicated that there was a decrease in solar energy as the panels became dirtier over time. The solar cells jumped 50 percent in efficiency after being cleaned for the first time in several weeks. Valerino’s device will be used to expand Bergin’s work.

As Valerino tackles his project, Duke student volunteers and high school interns are in another part of the Co-Lab developing technology to map the ocean floor.

The Blue Devil Ocean Engineering team will be competing in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a global technology competition challenging teams to advance deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast and high-resolution ocean exploration. (Their mentor, Martin Brooke, was recently featured on Science Friday.)

The team is developing large, highly redundant carbon drones that are eight feet across. The drones will fly over the ocean and drop pods into the water that will sink to collect sonar data.

Tyler Bletsch, a professor of the practice in electrical and computer engineering, is working alongside the team. He describes the team as having the most creative approach in the competition.

“We have many parts of this working, but this summer is really when it needs to come together,” Bletsch said. “Last year, we made it through round one of the competition and secured $100,000 for the university. We’re now using that money for the final phase of the competition.”

The final phase of the competition is scheduled to be held fall 2018.
Though campus is slow this summer, the Innovation Co-Lab is keeping busy. You can keep up-to-date with their latest projects here.

Post by Alexis Owens

 

High as a Satellite — Integrating Satellite Data into Science

Professor Tracey Holloway researches air quality at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Tracey Holloway researches air quality at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Satellite data are contributing more and more to understanding air quality trends, and professor Tracey Holloway wants the world to know.

As a professor of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current Team Lead of the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST), she not only helps with the science related to satellites, but also the communication of findings to larger audiences.

Historically, ground-based monitors have provided estimates on changes in concentrations of air pollutants, Holloway explained in her March 2, 2018 seminar, “Connecting Science with Stakeholders,” organized by Duke’s Earth and Ocean Sciences department.

Despite the valuable information ground-based monitors provide, however, factors like high costs limit their widespread use. For example, only about 400 ground-based monitors for nitrogen dioxide currently exist, with many states in the U.S. entirely lacking even a single one. Almost no information on nitrogen dioxide levels had therefore existed before satellites came into the picture.

To close the gap, HAQAST employed earth-observing and polar-orbiting satellites — with fruitful results. Not only have they provided enough data to make more comprehensive maps showing nitrogen dioxide distributions and concentrations, but they also have detected formaldehyde, one of the top causes of cancer, in our atmosphere for the first time.

Satellites have additional long-term benefits. They can help determine potential monitoring sites before actually having to invest large amounts of resources. In the case of formaldehyde, satellite-generated information located areas of higher concentrations — or formaldehyde “hotspots” —  in which HAQAST can now prioritize placing a ground-based monitor. Once established, the site can evaluate air dispersion models, provide air quality information to the public and add to scientific research.

A slide form Holloway’s presentation, in the LSRC A building on March 2, explaining the purposes of a monitoring site.

A slide from Holloway’s presentation, in the LSRC A building on March 2, explaining the purposes of a monitoring site.

Holloway underscored the importance of effectively communicating science. She explained that many policymakers don’t have the strong science backgrounds and therefore need quick and friendly explanations of research from scientists.

Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that some people don’t even realize that information exists. Specifically, people don’t realize that more satellites are producing new information every day; Holloway has made it a personal goal to have more one-on-one conversations with stakeholders to increase transparency.

Breakthroughs in science aren’t made by individuals: science and change are collaborative. And for Holloway, stakeholders also include the general public. She founded the Earth Science Women’s Network, with one of her goals being to change the vision of what a “scientist” looks like. Through photo campaigns and other communication and engagement activities, she interacted with adults and children to make science more appealing. By making science more sexy, it would be easier to inspire new and continue old discussions, create a more diverse research environment, and make the field more open for all.

Professor Tracey Holloway, air quality researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented her research at Duke on March 2, 2018.

Professor Tracey Holloway, air quality researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented her research at Duke on March 2, 2018.

Post by Stella Wang, class of 2019

Post by Stella Wang, class of 2019

Using Drones to Feed Billions

A drone flying over an agricultural field

Drones revolutionizing farming

As our population continues its rapid growth, food is becoming increasingly scarce. By the year 2050, we will need to double our current food production to feed the estimated 9.6 million mouths that will inhabit Earth.

A portrait of Maggie Monast

Maggie Monast

Thankfully, introducing drones and other high-tech equipment to farmers could be the solution to keeping our bellies full.

Last week, Dr. Ramon G. Leon of North Carolina State University and Maggie Monast of the Environmental Defense Fund spoke at Duke’s monthly Science & Society Dialogue, sharing their knowledge of what’s known as “precision agriculture.” At its core, precision agriculture is integrating technology with farming in order to maximize production.

It is easy to see that farming has already changed as a result of precision agriculture. The old family-run plot of land with animals and diverse crops has turned into large-scale, single-crop operations. This transition was made possible through the use of new technologies — tractors, irrigation, synthetic fertilizer, GMOs, pesticides — and is no doubt way more productive.

A portrait of Dr. Ramon G. Leon

Dr. Ramon G. Leon

So while the concept of precision agriculture certainly isn’t new, in today’s context it incorporates some particularly advanced and unexpected tools meant to further optimize yield while also conserving resources.

Drones equipped with special cameras and sensors, for example, can be flown over thousands of acres and gather huge amounts of data. This data produces a map of  things like pest damage, crop stress and yield. One image from a drone can easily help a farmer monitor what’s going on: where to cut back on resources, what needs more attention, and where to grow a certain type of crop. Some drones can even plant and water crops for you.

Blue River’s “See & Spray” focuses on cutting back herbicide use. Instead of spraying herbicide over an entire field and wasting most of it, this machine is trained to spray weeds directly, using 10% of the normal amount of herbicide.

Similarly, another machine called the Greenseeker can decide where, when and how much fertilizer should be applied based on the greenness of the crop. Fertilizing efficiently means saving money and emitting less ozone-depleting nitrous oxide.

As you can see, fancy toys like these are extremely beneficial, and there are more out there. They enable farmers to make faster, better decisions and understand their land on an unprecedented level. At the same time, farmers can cut back on their resource usage. This should eventually result in a huge productivity boom while helping out the environment. Nice.

One problem preventing these technologies from really taking off is teaching the farmers how to take advantage of them. As Dr. Leon put it, “we have all these toys, but nobody knows how to play with them.” However, this issue can resolved with enough time. Some older farmers love messing around with the drones, and the next generations of farmers will have more exposure to this kind of technology growing up. Sooner or later, it may be no big deal to spot drones circling above fields of wheat as you road trip through the countryside.

A piece of farm equipment in a field

A Greenseeker mounted on a Boom Sprayer

Precision agriculture is fundamental to the modern agricultural revolution. It increases efficiency and reduces waste, and farming could even become a highly profitable business again as the cost for these technologies goes down. Is it the solution to our environmental and production problems? I guess we’ll know by 2050!

Will Sheehan

Post By Will Sheehan

Game-Changing App Explores Conservation’s Future

In the first week of February, students, experts and conservationists from across the country were brought together for the second annual Duke Blueprint symposium. Focused around the theme of “Nature and Progress,” this conference hoped to harness the power of diversity and interdisciplinary collaboration to develop solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Scott Loarie spoke at Duke’s Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center.

One of the most exciting parts of this symposium’s first night was without a doubt its all-star cast of keynote speakers. The experiences and advice each of these researchers had to offer were far too diverse for any single blog post to capture, but one particularly interesting presentation (full video below) was that of National Geographic fellow Scott Loarie—co-director of the game-changing iNaturalist app.

iNat, as Loarie explained, is a collaborative citizen scientist network with aspirations of developing a comprehensive mapping of all terrestrial life. Any time they go outside, users of this app can photograph and upload pictures of any wildlife they encounter. A network of scientists and experts from around the world then helps the users identify their finds, generating data points on an interactive, user-generated map of various species’ ranges.

Simple, right? Multiply that by 500,000 users worldwide, though, and it’s easy to see why researchers like Loarie are excited by the possibilities an app like this can offer. The software first went live in 2008, and since then its user base has roughly doubled each year. This has meant the generation of over 8 million data points of 150,000 different species, including one-third of all known vertebrate species and 40% of all known species of mammal. Every day, the app catalogues around 15 new species.

“We’re slowly ticking away at the tree of life,” Loarie said.

Through iNaturalist, researchers are able to analyze and connect to data in ways never before thought possible. Changes to environments and species’ distributions can be observed or modeled in real time and with unheard-of collaborative opportunities.

To demonstrate the power of this connectedness, Loarie recalled one instance of a citizen scientist in Vietnam who took a picture of a snail. This species had never been captured, never been photographed, hadn’t been observed in over a century. One of iNat’s users recognized it anyway. How? He’d seen it in one of the journals from Captain James Cook’s 18th-century voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

It’s this kind of interconnectivity that demonstrates not just the potential of apps like iNaturalist, but also the power of collaboration and the possibilities symposia like Duke Blueprint offer. Bridging gaps, tearing down boundaries, building up bonds—these are the heart of conservationism’s future. Nature and Progress, working together, pulling us forward into a brighter world.

Post by Daniel Egitto

 

 

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