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Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

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Jonny Behrens looks for aquatic macroinvertebrates with Duke Forest Research Tour participants.

“Who would be surprised if I told you that rivers fart?”

Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., went on to explain that streams release greenhouse gases from decaying matter and gas-producing bacteria. This revelation was one of several new facts I learned at the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in December.

“First and foremost,” says Duke Forest Senior Program Coordinator Maggie Heraty, “the Duke Forest is a teaching and research laboratory.” The Office of the Duke Forest hosts an annual Research Tour to showcase research activities and connect to the wider community. “Connecting people to science and nature, and demystifying scientific research, is a key part of our goals here,” Heraty says.

Duke Forest, which consists of over 7,000 acres in  Durham, Orange, and Alamance Counties, lies within the Cape Fear and Neuse river basins, two of seventeen river basins in North Carolina. What exactly is a river basin? Heraty quoted a poetic definition from North Carolina Environmental Education:

“A river basin encompasses all the land surface drained by many finger-like streams and creeks flowing downhill into one another and eventually into one river, which forms its artery and backbone. As a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides and directs the water out its drain, a river basin sends all the water falling within its surrounding ridges into its system of creeks and streams to gurgle and splash downhill into its river and out to an estuary or the ocean.”

Located within the Cape Fear River Basin, the headwaters of New Hope Creek, which passes through the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, are fed by roughly 33,000 acres of land, over 5,000 of which are in the Duke Forest. Land outside of the Forest is of vital importance, too. Duke Forest is working in partnership with other local conservation organizations through the Triangle Connectivity Collaboration, an initiative to connect natural areas, create wildlife corridors, reduce habitat fragmentation, and protect biodiversity in the Triangle region.

New Hope Creek in the Korstian Division of the Duke Forest.

Dwarf waterdogs

We walked down a short trail by the creek, and the tour split into two groups. Our group walked farther along the stream to meet two herpetologists studying the elusive dwarf waterdog.

Bryan Stuart, Ph.D., Research Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., Duke University Senior Lecturer Emeritus, are involved in a study looking for dwarf waterdog salamanders (Necturus punctatus) in New Hope Creek. Dwarf waterdogs are paedomorphic, Stuart said, meaning they retain larval characteristics like external gills and a flat tail throughout their lives. In fact, the genus name Necturus means “tail swimmer” in reference to the species’s flat tail.

According to Stuart, on October 3, 1954, Duke professor and herpetologist Joe Bailey collected a dwarf waterdog in New Hope Creek. It was the first record of the species in Orange County.

The Duke Forest is in the westernmost part of the species’ Piedmont range, though it extends farther west in parts of the sandhills. “To have a dwarf waterdog record in Orange County—that’s almost as interesting as it gets,” Stuart said.

Ron Grunwald and Bryan Stuart discuss dwarf waterdog research at New Hope Creek.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

In the late 1960s, Michael A. Fedak, Bailey’s graduate student, did a thesis on dwarf waterdogs in the area. His specimens are still stored in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

No one had studied this population since—until now.

Dwarf waterdogs are very sensitive to pollution and habitat disturbance, Stuart said, on top of the fact that New Hope Creek is already at the edge of the species’s habitat. When Fedak studied them several decades ago, the salamanders were abundant. Are they still?

Stuart, Grunwald, and other researchers want to find out. “The challenge of salamander biology,” Grunwald said, “is that it always happens when it’s freezing.” Surveying salamander populations, he explains, isn’t like watching birds or counting trees. It requires you to go where the salamanders are, and for dwarf waterdog research, that means dark, cold streams on nights when the water temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers bait funnel traps with chicken liver or cat food and set them underwater overnight. Sometimes they catch crayfish. Sometimes they catch nothing. And sometimes they catch exactly what they’re hoping to find: the elusive dwarf waterdog. After all this time, these slippery, nocturnal, chicken-liver-loving salamanders are still here.

Two dwarf waterdogs in a funnel trap before being released back into New Hope Creek.

Though the traps have been successful at capturing some individuals, they will never catch them all, so researchers calculate the recapture rate to estimate the total population. Imagine a bag of rice, Grunwald said. You could count each individual grain, but that would be challenging and time-consuming. Alternatively, you could pull out one grain of rice, color it, and put it back in the bag, then estimate the total number by calculating the probability of pulling out the same colored grain of rice again. In a very small bag, you might draw the same rice grain several times. But the more rice you have, the less likely you are to draw the same grain twice.

To figure out if any of the dwarf waterdogs they catch are recaptures, the researchers mark each individual with a visual implant elastomer, which is “just a fancy way of saying rubber that we can see,” Grunwald said. The material is injected under a salamander’s “armpit” with a small syringe, creating a pattern visible under ultraviolet light. With two colors (fluorescent yellow and red) and four possible injection locations (one behind each leg), there are plenty of distinct combinations. Grunwald showed us a waterdog that had already been marked. Under a UV flashlight, a spot just below its right foreleg glowed yellow.

Captured dwarf waterdogs are injected with a special rubber material that glows under a UV light. Each salamander is marked with a distinct pattern so researchers can recognize it if it’s ever recaptured.

Establishing a recapture rate is essential to predicting the total population in the area. The current recapture rate? Zero. The sample size so far is small—about a dozen individuals—and none of them have been caught twice. That’s an obstacle to statistical analysis of the population, but it’s good news for the salamanders. Every new individual is one more dwarf waterdog survivor in New Hope Creek.

Ron Grunwald with Research Tour participants looking at dwarf waterdogs in bags.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Stream health

Next, at a different spot along the stream, we met Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar, and Jonny Behrens, a Ph.D. student, to learn more about New Hope Creek itself. Marzolf and Behrens have both been involved with aquaterrestrial biogeochemistry research in the lab of Emily Bernhardt, Ph.D., at Duke University.

Nick Marzolf (right) and Jonny Behrens discuss stream health.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Protecting New Hope Creek requires understanding individual organisms—like dwarf waterdogs—but also temperature, precipitation, oxygen levels, pesticide runoff, and biodiversity overall. When humans get stressed, Behrens said, different organs have different physiological reactions. Similarly, different organisms in a stream play different roles and respond to stress in different ways.

Jonny Behrens and Research Tour participants look at aquatic macroinvertebrate samples.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Behrens passed around vials containing aquatic macroinvertebrates—specimens big enough to see with the naked eye—such as the larvae of mayflies, crane flies, stoneflies, and dragonflies. They are known for being good indicators of stream health because there are many species of macroinvertebrates, and they have different tolerances to stressors like pollution or changes in water temperature.

Aquatic macroinvertebrates can indicate the health of a stream through their species diversity and abundance.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

The water downstream of a nearby wastewater treatment plant is much warmer in winter than other waterways in the area, so researchers see more emergent adult midges and caddisflies there than they do here. Aside from temperature, organisms need to adapt to other changing conditions like oxygen levels and storms.

“Rain is really fun to watch in streams,” Behrens said. The water level rises, pulling up organic matter, and sand bars change. You can tell how high the water got in the last storm by looking for accumulated debris on trees along river banks.

Farting rivers and the peanut butter cracker hypothesis

Marzolf studies hydrology, or “how water moves through not only the landscape but also the river itself.”

Nick Marzolf demonstrates a technique to measure gasses in streams using a syringe.

Part of his research involves measuring gases in water. Streams, like cars and cows and people, release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, Marzolf and colleagues hypothesize that New Hope Creek contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere per unit area than anywhere else in the Duke Forest.

Decaying matter produces CO2, but that isn’t the only source of greenhouse gasses in the creek. Microscopic organisms, like methane-producing bacteria, produce gases as well.

The “peanut butter cracker hypothesis,” Marzolf said, compares organic matter such as leaves to a cracker, while the “peanut butter,” which makes the cracker more palatable, is the microbes. Scrumptious.

Disturbing the sediment at the bottom of New Hope Creek causes bubbles to rise to the surface due to the metabolic activities of gas-producing bacteria.

Marzolf turned to Behrens. “Do you want to walk around and see if you can stir up some methane bubbles?” Behrens waded into the stream, freeing bubbles from the pressure of the overlying water keeping them in leaf mats. We watched the bubbles rise to the surface, evidence of the activities of organisms too small to see.

Behrens walks around in New Hope Creek to stir up gas bubbles from aquatic bacteria.

Restoring a stream to protect its pigtoe

Finally, Sara Childs, Executive Director of the Duke Forest, discussed stream restoration projects. Though structures in the Duke Forest like remnants of old mills and dams can alter and damage ecosystems, they can also have historical and cultural significance. Duke Forest prioritizes restoration projects that have meaningful ecological, teaching, and research benefits while honoring the history of the land.

For instance, the Patterson Mill Dam was built in the late 1700s and probably remained in use for about 100 years. The stream has already adapted to the structure’s presence, and there isn’t necessarily ongoing degradation because of it. Duke Forest restoration projects, Childs said, don’t revolve around very old structures like the Patterson Mill Dam. Instead, they are planning to remove two more recent structures that are actively eroding banks, threatening wildlife habitat, and creating impounded, oxygen-poor areas in the stream.

One of the structures they are hoping to remove is a concrete bridge that’s endangering a threatened freshwater mussel species called the Atlantic pigtoe (Fusconaia masoni). Freshwater mussels, according to Childs, require a fish species to host the developing mussel larvae on their gills, and the Atlantic pigtoe favors the creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus). The concrete bridge forms a barrier between the pigtoe and the chub, but removing it could reunite them.

Before starting construction, they will relocate as many mussels as possible to keep them out of harm’s way.

New Hope Creek, home to waterdogs and pigtoe and farting microbes, is precious to humans as well. Heraty describes it as “a really spectacular and beautiful waterway that we are lucky to have right in our backyards here in Durham.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Capital, Canaries, or Catalysts: Insurance Industry’s Role in Climate

Mining foreman R. Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928. Credit: George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, canaries were used in coal mines to assess the risk of toxic gasses. If the birds became ill or passed away, their fate served as a warning for miners to vacate the premises. 

Similarly to how a canary detects unseen risks, the insurance industry is responsible for matching assets to liabilities based upon risks, according to Francis Bouchard, the managing director for climate at the insurance company Marsh McLennan. Bouchard spoke at Duke University on November 10 to discuss the insurance sector’s responsibility to tackle risks as a result of climate change.

During a one-year residency that begins in January, Bouchard will explore ways in which the insurance sector can incentivize and support advances in management of climate risks by helping Duke to build new research partnerships and networks with the insurance and other affected sectors.

Historically, the insurance industry has served as a catalyst to influence safety regulations for the welfare of citizens, as opposed to a canary that withers under risks. Take, for instance, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was the first time in history “anyone would deploy electricity on a large level,” Bouchard said. Therefore, an insurance company sent an engineer to examine the security of the electricity and determine the hazards for attendees. Consequently, the brightest minds of this sector banded together to create the Underwriters Laboratories, which is now the largest testing laboratory in the United States. 

But more recently, the insurance sector has not acted as a catalyst in its role to address climate risk. Several policies and systems “distort the purity of the risk signals insurance companies send.” Firstly, its inability to combat systemic level risks as they are providing individual incentives. The industry is highly effective in “handling individual risk and incentivizing immediate actions to address an immediate risk,” Bouchard said, but this method cannot translate on a systemic level.

Secondly, the insurance sector provides a “temporal mismatch” as they sell 12 months of risk, but the lasting impacts of climate change will not occur within a year. Therefore, their “ability to capture in a 12 month policy, decades worth of climate change risk is impossible.”

Thirdly, the regulations for insurance differ between states. In most states, the insurance commissioner dictates the price of insurance based upon the company’s risk assessment because when “risk goes up, price of risk also goes up.” When citizens cannot afford insurance, commissioners are more likely to side with the experts of the insurance companies as opposed to their disadvantaged constituents.

Finally, their climate model is not advanced enough to estimate how specific cities will change within a few decades due to climate change. Therefore, it cannot entirely predict its risks either. 

You can watch Bouchard’s talk, with slides, on YouTube

The insurance industry has been successful in its asset-liability matching “in committing some of its capital to advancing climate technology or green technology.” However, this sector receives “publicity around insurance companies withdrawing capital from wildfire or climate exposed jurisdiction.”

This system is explained by the TCFD Filing, which was created by the Bank of International Settlements to discover insurance companies exposure to climate transition issues, physical risks from climate change, and their strategy to aid clients. Essentially, most insurance companies are not “concerned about physical risks” as they would simply reprice their 12-month insurance policy if there is a heightened threat to physical risk. According to Bouchard, the “insurance industry has already signaled through its TCFD filings precisely what their strategy is: ‘we’re gonna play this game as long as we can and then we’re going to withdraw.’” Therefore, an insurance company would continue to increase their cost until a person can no longer afford its price or actually endures physical damage to which they would cease providing insurance. “These last resort-type mechanisms are when the government steps in,” Bouchard said. He even estimates that the government will control 30% of this $1 trillion industry ($2 trillion globally) within ten years. This is dangerous as the government is already enduring fiscal dilemmas and will not be equipped to manage the complexity of the sector.

Bouchard, with 30 years of experience in this industry, said he “truly, truly believes in the social role that the industry plays. I’m petrified that we’re not going to be there to help society cope with climate with the technical knowledge we have, the expertise we have, the mechanisms we have, and the money.” If the sector continues upon this path, they will dissolve under the risks, similarly to a canary in a mine. 

Francis Bouchard’s work in combating climate battles with insurance is of the utmost necessity. Continued global warming will force citizens to rely on this industry for aid against climate disasters. The most recent Conference of Parties, created by the United Nations for climate change discussions, recognized the insurance industry as a “key finance player in climate transition alongside private industry and government because the world is recognizing that we have a key part to play.”

By Samera Eusufzai, Class of 2026

How to be a Global Inventor

Gadgets, devices, doo-dads, oh my! The Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI)  recently hosted three of its members to lead a panel on creating medical devices for low- and middle-income countries. The event was called “Global Medical Device Innovation: Three Models for Creation and Commercialization.”

Each sought to decrease costs and increase scalability for medical procedures. In short, they are expert inventors who are doing good in the world. 

Two of the most prominent inventors of our era. Image courtesy of Disney.

We’ll go step-by-step in a moment, but to start you on your journey to being just like our panelists, here’s a short glossary:

Standard-of-care: a public health term for the way things are usually done.

IRB: institutional review board, a group of people, usually based in universities, that protect human subjects in research studies. 

Screening: when doctors look at signs your body might show to determine
whether you need to be tested for certain conditions. 

Supply-chain: the movement of materials your product goes through before, during, and after manufacturing. It is a general term for a group of different suppliers, factories, vendors, advertisers, researchers, and others that work separately. 

Regulatory pathways: supply-chain for government approvals and other paperwork you need to have before introducing your product to the public.

Step 1: Meet your Mentors

Walter Lee is Chief of Staff of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery & Communication Sciences, Co-Director of the Head and Neck Program, and an affiliate faculty member at the Duke Global Health Institute. He presented ENlyT (pronounced like en-light), a newfangled nasopharyngoscope – a camera that goes down your nose and down your throat to screen for cancer. He wants to expand with partners in Vietnam and Singapore. 

Marlee Kreiger helped found the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke in 2007. Since then, she has led the Center in many interdisciplinary and international ventures. In fact, the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies spans both the Pratt School of Engineering and the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. She presented on the Callascope, a pocket-sized colposcope – a camera device for cervical cancer screening. 

Julias Mugaga will soon be a visiting scholar at Duke – until then, he heads Design Cube at Makerere University in Uganda. He presented his KeyScope, a plug-and-play surgical camera with 0.3% of the cost of standard-of-care cameras. 

Kreiger’s presentation slides

Step 2: Name your Audience

DGHI has “global” in the name, so it is no surprise that these presenters serve communities around the world. Perhaps something that inventors like Dr. Doofenshmirtz often get wrong is that new innovation should come at the benefit of underserved communities, not at the cost of them. For Lee, that focus would be in his collaborations in Vietnam; for Mugaga it was his community in Uganda; and for Kreiger, it was the many studies conducted in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Costa Rica, Honduras, and India.

Each of the presenters could agree that the main strategy is simple: find partners. Community members on the ground. Organizations that can benefit from your presence.

Another prominent–albeit villainous–inventor, Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Image courtesy of Disney.

Another notable aspect of your audience will be the certification you vie for. Depending on your location, you may need different permissions to distribute your product, or even begin on the journey to secure funding from certain sources.

In the United States, the most relevant regulatory pathway is FDA clearance, which is notably less restrictive than the CE mark distributed in the European Union. Both certifications are accepted in other countries, but many of the inventors on the panel opted to secure a CE mark to potentially appeal to a wider variety of governments around the world.

ISO is an international organization that is also necessary for certification, particularly if you are looking to test a medical product. No reason to be dragged down by the paperwork, though! When asked about securing Ugandan product certification, Mugaga declared, “This is one of the most exciting journeys I have taken.” His path to clearance was even more wrought with uncertainty – without steady sources of material in the Ugandan economy, it is harder to earn FDA or CE approval, two of the most widely-acknowledged certifications in the world. 

Mugaga’s presentation slides

Step 3: Test 

Now that you have permission, you can start changing lives. Many participants in our panelists’ studies were patients in community health clinics across the globe. Their partners in these clinics also had the opportunity to save tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. While it seems like a no-brainer, there are ethical concerns that need to be addressed first. For that, you need to fill out…. You guessed it: more paperwork. IRB approval is usually granted by educational institutions (as you should recall from my handy glossary), and is crucial to secure before any testing with humans is started. In fact, the government (and most private investors) won’t even give you a second glance if you ask them for money without IRB approval. 

One big hurdle many of the panelists noted was a distrust of the technology and institution it came from – a foreign entity testing their products on you does not always invoke fear, but it certainly does not always promote trust. Kreiger noted that the work of their community health partners does the heavy lifting on that front; not only are they known community pillars, but they have authority to promote health technology through their existing relationships. If you run into trouble identifying partners in your inventorship journey–never fear. Lee has a message for you: “Ask around. At Duke, there’s always an expert around who’s willing to lend you their time.”

Step 4: Distribute

Now that you are an expert, your invention works, and you’re saving lives, you can attempt to cement your design as standard-of-care. This may look different depending on where in the world you want to distribute, but the next step is to contract a large-scale manufacturer. Your materials have been sourced by now (FDA says they better be) — so finding someone to put them together at an industrial scale should be easy! Your cost may fluctuate at this scale with the increased labor costs, but bulk production and distribution altogether should provide you, your institution, and your clients the best possible chance at changing the world. 

Lee did not receive NIH funding until his fourth attempt at applying. Kreiger did not settle on the first manufacturer contracted. Mugaga is still in the process of securing a CE mark. And yet, all of them are success stories. You can see the ENlyT saving lives in hospitals in Vietnam; you can track the reallocation of $18,000 in savings from purchasing a Calloscope; and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch Mulgaga on campus next year as a visiting scholar at Duke!

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

“Wonders and Realities of the Universe”: Rachel Carson’s Legacy

Rachel Carson was a twentieth-century marine scientist, conservationist, and writer. She is the author of Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book about the dangers of DDT and other pesticides.
Photo courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H., recently visited Duke to talk about Rachel Carson’s environmental legacy and its implications for North Carolina today. Musil is the president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, an environmental organization founded in 1965 by friends and colleagues of Rachel Carson — a twentieth-century marine scientist, conservationist, and writer — after her death.

Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H., president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council.
Photo courtesy of Musil.

Musil began his presentation with a stirring quote by Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

Rachel Carson is famous for writing Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book warning of the dangers of DDT and other pesticides. Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. She died in 1964. In 1972, the United States banned DDT.

More than half a century later, in our world of climate crisis and biodiversity loss, Carson’s devotion to the natural world is still incredibly timely. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring documented how the insecticide DDT was harming not just insects but also animals farther up the food chain, human health, and the environment as a whole. The book spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Image courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Carson, Musil says, “believed that you had to develop real empathy for other creatures, other beings, other people, other nations… that unless you loved it, you would destroy it.” In Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, she takes the perspective of animals like the black skimmer, the mackerel, and the eel. Carson was writing about the perils facing marine ecosystems, but she was doing it “from the point of view of the ‘other,’” as Musil puts it, focusing our attention on creatures other than ourselves.

A black skimmer, a bird Rachel Carson wrote about in Under the Sea-Wind.
“Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in flight” by Charles J. Sharp is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

“With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.”

-A passage from Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson. Rynchops, Carson’s name for the black skimmer, comes from the bird’s genus name.

Musil describes how Carson would lie on the beach and hear crabs scratching the sand and listen to birds and imagine “how this life came to be, how these creatures, incredibly unique, came to this place in evolution.”

Carson was a marine scientist well before she published Silent Spring. She attended graduate school in marine biology with a full fellowship to Johns Hopkins University. At the same time, Musil says, she was working as a research assistant, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, and caring for extended family. Afterward, she worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and eventually became an author. Under the Sea-Wind was her first book; she wrote Silent Spring two decades later.

Carson is credited with spurring the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring and the concerns Carson raised about DDT prompted the President’s Science Advisory Committee, under the orders of John F. Kennedy, to investigate its dangers. Ultimately, DDT was banned in the United States, though Carson didn’t live to see it.

Rachel Carson and Hawk Mountain - Rachel Carson Council
An “iconic photo” by Shirley Briggs of Rachel Carson on Hawk Mountain.
Photo courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

But Musil emphasizes that throughout all Carson’s accomplishments, she did not act alone. He shows an “iconic photo,” as he describes it, of Rachel Carson sitting on Hawk Mountain and looking off into the distance through binoculars. The same photo is on the cover of Musil’s book Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment. He looks at the audience and asks a question: “Is Rachel alone on top of the mountain?” In the photo, Carson seems to be alone in a great expanse of wilderness, but the obvious answer to Musil’s question is no. Someone, after all, had to be there to take the picture.

That someone was Shirley Briggs, a friend of Carson’s and a scientist in her own right. “Rachel Carson,” Musil emphasizes, “was not alone.” Friends, colleagues, and mentors worked alongside her. And many of those people continued her work after she was gone. Before Carson died, Musil says, she asked Shirley Briggs and others to form an organization to carry on her work. The Rachel Carson Council was founded the following year. Nearly six decades later, the Council is still committed to “Carson’s ecological ethic that combines scientific concern for the environment and human health with a sense of wonder and reverence for all forms of life in order to build a more sustainable, just, and peaceful future,” according to a statement on their website.

According to Musil, North Carolina was one of Carson’s favorite places. After she had a breast cancer operation, he says, “she took refuge at Nags Head and walked its beaches.” The Rachel Carson Reserve commemorates Carson and preserves coastal habitats and wildlife. Musil believes that Carson’s legacy has broader environmental implications as well. One pressing issue in North Carolina today is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where many animals are raised in confinement. North Carolina produces ten billion gallons of hog waste from CAFOs each year—enough to fill 1500 Olympic swimming pools, according to Musil.

This is an ecological and animal welfare issue but also an environmental justice case. CAFOs are more often built near lower income and minority communities, and the waste from CAFOs can negatively affect human health, pollute waterways, and lead to fish kills and other ecological problems. Living near CAFOs is associated with higher rates of asthma and other health conditions, according to Musil. He acknowledged Francesca Cetta in the audience, who along with Lucy Goldman, both Duke Stanback Fellows at the Rachel Carson Council, did the research and writing on the Rachel Carson Council report, Swine and Suffering: An Introduction to the Hidden Harms of Factory Farms.

Environmental justice was not a term Carson used, but she had similar concerns about who was most affected by environmental issues. In Silent Spring, Musil says, Carson wrote about farmers who dealt directly with DDT and how unjust that was. Today, environmental justice is gaining momentum as organizations and governments wrestle with fairness and equality in the environmental sphere.

In spite of ongoing environmental degradation, Musil remains hopeful. “I have incredible hope for the future,” he says, because of his organization and its mentoring of future generations of environmentalists. “It’s not like every single person has to go out and go birdwatching — though I would recommend it,” he says, but he does believe it is important to learn about and appreciate the natural world and to recognize how it intersects with, for instance, capitalism and social justice. “Designing a much more equitable, greener society is critical,” he says, and when it comes to working toward that future, he is “never going to stop.” 

He references the photo he showed earlier of Carson on the mountain: “I like to think instead of looking at hawks, she’s looking across those ridges and seeing… ranks and ranks of young people from Duke and across the country carrying on her vision.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Blue is The New Color of Sustainable Investing

The green bond market’s remarkable success, currently valued at over US $500 billion[i], shows how bond finance is an effective way to raise substantial capital for climate-related investments. Following on this success, blue bonds are emerging as the newest trend in sustainability investing and they’re poised to make waves.

Introduced in 2008, green bonds commit to using the funds they raise exclusively for environmentally friendly projects, assets, or business activities[ii]. Since then, the green bond market has seen explosive growth and helped to shape investor attitudes toward sustainable investing.

The blue bond market — blue as in oceans — is where green bonds were 15 years ago[iii]. Blue bonds are a relatively new type of sustainability designed to finance the conservation and sustainable management of ocean and coastal resources[iv].

The Republic of Seychelles issued the first blue bond in 2018, with funds dedicated to expanding Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and improving fisheries governance[v]. To date, only 25 other blue bonds have been issued[vi]. Although in its infancy in comparison to green bonds, the blue bond market is poised to follow a similar trajectory as governments, companies, and investors begin to realize the importance of the blue economy and the relationship between climate change and our oceans[vii].

The Ocean’s Big Role

The ocean covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, comprises 97% of all water on earth, and contains 99% of all living space on the planet[viii]. It plays a vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide and producing the oxygen we breathe, it is a significant component of the global economy, and a key element in fighting climate change. However, governments and organizations around the world continue to abuse the ocean rather than protect it. But with over three billion people reliant on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods, and more than 350 million ocean-related jobs, continued exploitation of our oceans will have catastrophic consequences[ix].

Commitments without Capital

The past few years have seen numerous commitments to restoring and protecting the long-term health our oceans. The United Nations declared 2021-2030 as “The Ocean Decade” and the 30×30 campaign pledges to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030[x]. Despite these commitments, the ocean remains chronically underfunded. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 “Life Under Water” receives the least amount of long-term funding of any of the SDGs. Recent reports suggest that $175 billion per year is needed to achieve SDG 14 by 2030; and yet, between 2015 and 2019, just below USD $10 billion was invested.[xi]

Source: https://icg.citi.com/icghome/what-we-think/citigps/insights/sustainable-ocean-economy

Not only does this gap prevent any meaningful progress, the cost of inaction is devastating. Failing to invest in our oceans could result in a total bill of USD $200 billion to $1 trillion a year by 2100 in loss of land, people relocation, and coastal protection[xii]. To put it simply, we cannot afford to underinvest in our oceans.

Mobilizing Capital Through Blue Bonds

Current ocean funding comes primarily through public and philanthropic sources, which are essential, however incredibly insufficient. Enabling the increased use of private finance is critical to achieving ocean conservation goals, and the use of blue bonds can play an essential role.

Bonds are a debt instrument that facilitates an interaction between a borrower and an investor. The investor provides capital to the borrower, and the borrower is required to pay back that capital within a certain period. In the case of blue bonds, the borrower is also required to use the capital to create positive impact on the marine environment. Such an arrangement enables the borrower to access significant amounts of capital upfront and provides the investor with a predictable income stream. This relationship is of particular use within the climate landscape. Green and blue bonds effectively unlock additional sources of capital for climate-related investments and enable private investors to participate in markets that would otherwise be considered too risky.

Source: https://enviroaccounting.com/green-bonds-and-pay-for-performance/

Successful Green Bonds as a Blueprint

To enable the rapid and responsible scaling of the blue bond market, we can leverage existing frameworks from green bonds as models. The green bond market has seen numerous innovative bond structures that support investment in traditionally underserved markets and align financial incentives with sustainability-focused outcomes. Three of these innovative bond issuances are outlined below and offer unique opportunities to apply similar structures to the blue bond market.

Blue is the New Green: A deep dive into three green bond structures and how they can turn blue

The Wildlife Conservation Bond

In 2022, The World Bank and Global Environment Facility issued a first-of-its-kind Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB) which channels investment into conservation outcomes. This five-year $150 million bond contributes to protecting and increasing black rhino populations in two protected areas in South Africa[xiii]. The WCB is a great example of an innovative green bond that unlocked new financing streams for biodiversity protection and conservation initiatives.

Using the Wildlife Conservation Bond as a model, we can replicate this template across new geographies and species and transform how conservation is funded. Investors in the WCB do not receive coupon payments. Instead, the issuer makes conservation investment payments to help fund rhino conservation initiatives. In a similar manner, blue bonds can be created that enable coupon payments to be channeled to protect critical marine species.

Uruguay’s Sustainability-Linked Bond

In 2022, Uruguay issued a USD $1.5 billion sustainability-linked bond which includes a pricing feature designed to reward progress made on emissions-reduction targets. Coupon payments received by investors would decrease if the Uruguay government met pre-determined emissions targets, but if targets were missed there was a required increase in payment[xiv]. This arrangement aligned financial and environmental incentives and offered a signal to borrowers that more affordable finance is available in return for performing – or exceeding – sustainability strategies[xv].

Similar financing structures could be applied across a range of sustainability goals within the ocean landscape. Rather than reward progress on emissions reductions, blue bonds could be structured to offer favorable financing for biodiversity, establishing marine protected areas (MPA ) reducing plastic pollution, or fisheries management.

The Forests Bond

The Forests Bond was issued by the International Finance Corporation in 2016 to help unlock private finance for reducing deforestation. Investors in the USD $152 million Forests Bond could choose to receive coupons in the form of verified carbon credits, rather than cash payments[xvi]. This arrangement helped to boost demand for carbon credits and demonstrated investor interest in sustainability-focused investments.

The Forests Bond model can be repeated to support conservation of blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses. Blue carbon ecosystems sequester two to four times the amount of carbon of terrestrial forests, however, it is estimated that these ecosystems are being destroyed at four times the rate of tropical forests[xvii]. Designing a bond to act as a catalyst for the blue carbon market could offer the critical incentives needed to protect these essential environments.

Building the Blue Bond Wave

In all three of the above cases, investor demand for the green bond far exceeded initial expectations or the planned bond offering. This indicates that there is high investor interest for innovative bond models that provide both positive financial and climate returns. The main challenge is then providing investors with enough attractive opportunities to participate. With just 25 blue bonds issued to date, the blue bond market is nascent. Establishing a robust blue bond market requires transparency, standardization, and accountability. Clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) must be developed to demonstrate the tangible benefits of blue bond investments in terms of ocean conservation and sustainable resource management. Additionally, collaboration between governments, financial institutions, and environmental organizations is essential to create a supportive ecosystem that encourages blue bond issuance. Ultimately, the future of the blue bond market hinges on aligning financial incentives with environmental objectives, fostering innovation, and building a robust infrastructure that inspires trust and commitment from a diverse set of stakeholders[xviii].

Guest Post by Mackenzie Audino, 2024 Masters candidate in business administration and environmental management. This project was completed as part of the ClimateCap Fellowship, a program of the ClimateCap Initiative led by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and supported by the Hearst Foundations.


[i] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X22002664#bib26

[ii] https://www.oecd.org/environment/cc/Green%20bonds%20PP%20%5Bf3%5D%20%5Blr%5D.pdf

[iii] https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/ocean/communication/blue-bonds-accelerating-sustainable-ocean-business

[iv] https://www.undp.org/indonesia/blog/indonesia-launches-worlds-first-publicly-offered-sovereign-blue-bond-undps-support

[v] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/29/seychelles-launches-worlds-first-sovereign-blue-bond

[vi] https://www.mdpi.com/1911-8074/16/3/184

[vii] https://www.wellington.com/en-gb/intermediary/insights/blue-bonds-marine-ecosystem

[viii] https://oceanliteracy.unesco.org/our-blue-planet/

[ix] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/risk/ocean-financing.pdf

[x] https://marine-conservation.org/30×30/

[xi] https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/sdg14-financing-landscape-scan-tracking-funds-to-realize-sustainable-outcomes-for-the-ocean/

[xii] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23168-y

[xiii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/03/23/wildlife-conservation-bond-boosts-south-africa-s-efforts-to-protect-black-rhinos-and-support-local-communities

[xiv] https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/bank-floats-10-bln-brazilian-bond-plan-halt-amazon-deforestation-2022-12-19/

[xv] https://www.ifre.com/story/3661444/latin-america-bond-uruguays-us15bn-sustainability-linked-bond-wh65f7xrlp

[xvi] https://www.conservation.org/docs/default-source/peru/forests-bond_factsheet.pdf?Status=Master&sfvrsn=867eadb8_3

[xvii] https://siwi.org/latest/what-are-we-getting-wrong-about-blue-carbon/

[xviii] OpenAI. “The future of the blue bond market and what needs to happen to increase the amount of capital that is invested.” ChatGPT, 2023, [https://chat.openai.com/c/ba58a2d7-1129-465c-9fa5-f4815f08aa91]. Accessed [September 27, 2023]

Bolivia’s Lithium is Like White Gold in the Salar de Uyuni

As the world undergoes the great energy transition — from fossil fuels to alternative energy and batteries — rare earth metals are becoming more precious.

Open The Economist, Forbes, or Fortune, and you’ll see an article nearly every day on Lithium, Nickel, or Copper. For investors seeking to profit off of the transition, lithium seems like a sure bet. Dubbed “white gold” for electric vehicles, the lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). Although EVs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, their batteries require more minerals, particularly lithium. 

On Sept. 26, Duke’s campus welcomed the first in a series of discussions on climate and energy diplomacy focused on the challenges and opportunities of mining and development in South America’s Lithium Triangle. In a room crowded with curious undergraduate and graduate students alike, some lucky enough to have snagged a seat while others stood at the perimeters, three experts discussed the possible future of Bolivia as a major player in the global lithium market. 

Professor Avner Vengosh of the Nicholas School

Duke Distinguished Professor Avner Vengosh, Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality in the Nicholas School of the Environment, began by highlighting the staggering EV growth in 2020-2022: Sales of electric cars have more than tripled in three years, from around 4% of new car sales in 2020 to 14% in 2022. That number is expected to rise to 29.50% in 2028. Speaking of the critical element to EV production, lithium, Vengosh said frankly, “we don’t have enough.” 

Lithium is mined from two major sources, Vengosh explained. The first is from hard-rock pegmatite, where lithium is extracted through a series of chemical processes. Most of these deposits are found in Australia, the world’s biggest source. The second is from lithium-rich brines, typically found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle.” These brine deposits are typically found in underground reservoirs beneath salt flats or saltwater lakes. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and the largest lithium source in the world. It stretches more than 4,050 square miles and attracts tourists with its reflective, mirror-like surface. 

Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47617647
Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, (Diego Delso)

A group of Duke students led by a PhD candidate pursuing research on Bolivian lithium development recently traveled to Bolivia to understand different aspects of lithium mining. They asked questions including: 

  • How renewable is the lithium brine? 
  • Are there other critical raw minerals in the lithium-rich brines? 
  • What are the potential environmental effects of lithium extraction?
  • What is the water footprint of the lithium extraction process?
  • Is water becoming a limiting factor for lithium production?

The Duke team conducted a study with the natural brine in the Salar, taking samples of deep brines, evaporation ponds, salts from evaporation ponds, wastewaters, and the lithium carbonate. Vengosh said that “we can see some inconsistency in the chemistry of the water that is flowing into the chemistry of the brine.”

This indicates that there is a more complex geological process in the formation of the brine than the simple flow of water into the lake. The team also confirmed the high purity of the lithium carbonate product and that there are no impurities in the material. Additionally, the Duke team found that the wastewater chemistry produced after lithium carbonate production is not different from that of the original brines. Thus, there are no limitations for recycling the water back to the Salar system.

After Vengosh shared the findings of the Duke research team, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Dr. Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings and a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, discussed Bolivia’s lithium policy. With the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world, Bolivia has constructed a pilot plan for their lithium production, but Ledebur highlighted that the biggest hurdle is scaling. Additionally, with a unique prior-consultation system in place between the central government and 36 ethnic and indigenous groups in Bolivia, natural resources are a key topic of concern and grassroots action. Ledebur said, “I don’t see that issue changing any time soon.”

Another hurdle is that Bolivian law requires that the extraction process is controlled by the state (the state must own 51%). Foreign investors have been hesitant to work with the central government, which nationalized lithium in 2008 despite, critics said, lacking much of the necessary technology and expertise. 

Maxwell Radwin, a writer for Mongabay, writes, “Evo Morales, the former socialist president who served from 2006 to 2019, nationalized the industry, promising that foreign interests wouldn’t plunder Bolivia’s natural resources as they had in the past. Instead, he said, lithium would propel the country to the status of a world power. Morales didn’t just want to export lithium, though; he wanted to produce batteries and cars for export. This complicated deals with potential investors from France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, none of which came to fruition because, among other things, they were required to take on YLB (the state-owned lithium company) as an equal partner.”

Ledebur said, “At this point in time, the Bolivian government has signed three contracts… and I think things will fall into place.” 

Naysayers say that the Bolivian government hasn’t done anything to take advantage of the massive market sitting beneath their Salars and that grassroot consultations don’t work. Ledebur said, “I don’t think that it’s perfect, but it’s happening.”

Duke students will return to Bolivia with professor Vengosh next year to conduct more research on the lithium extraction process. Then, they’ll be able to see the effects of this ‘happening’ first-hand. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

Helping People and Wildlife Coexist in Ways That Benefit Both, Using Math

Duke team wins top prize in mathematical modeling contest


Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the math competitions for college students, the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is one of the biggest. And this year, Duke’s team took home a coveted top prize.

Undergraduates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall, ’24, represented the Blue Devils at this year’s contest, a grueling 4-day event where teams of undergraduates use their mathematical modeling skills to solve a real-world problem. The results are finally in, and the Duke team was chosen as one of the top 22 outstanding winners out of more than 11,200 teams worldwide.

Their task: to analyze some of the challenges facing a nature reserve in Kenya known as the Maasai Mara. This region is named for the local Maasai people, a tribe of semi-nomadic people who make a living by herding cattle. It’s also teeming with wildlife. Each year, more than a million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles travel in a loop from neighboring Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve and back, following the seasonal rains in search of fresh grass to eat.

Some 300,000 safari-goers also flock to the area to witness the massive migration, making it a major player in Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry. But protecting and managing the land for the benefit of both wildlife and people is a delicate balancing act.

The reserve relies on tourism revenue to protect the animals that live there. If tourism slumps — due to political unrest in Kenya, or the COVID-19 pandemic — desperate communities living around the park resort to poaching to get by, threatening the very wildlife that tourism depends on.

Poachers aren’t the only problem: wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants sometimes venture into human settlements in search of food. Conservationists must strike a balance between protecting these animals and managing the dangers they pose by raiding crops or killing valuable domestic livestock.

Tourism is a mixed blessing, too. While safari-goers bring money into the region, they can also disturb the animals and pollute the Mara River, and off-road drivers can erode the soil with their jeeps.

The mission facing the Duke team was to identify ways to mitigate such conflicts between wildlife and people.

From left: Teammates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall ’24 finished in the top 0.1% in the 2023 Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

This year’s contest ran over a single weekend in February. Camped out on the third floor of Perkins library, the team of three worked 12 hours a day, fueled by a steady supply of Red Bull and poke bowls. During that time, they built a model, came up with budget and policy recommendations, and wrote a 25-page report for the Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Committee, all in less than 96 hours.

They built a mathematical model consisting of a system of six ordinary differential equations. According to the model’s predictions, they said, it should theoretically be possible to increase the reserve’s animal populations by about 25%, reduce environmental degradation by 20%, nearly eliminate retaliatory lion killings, and cut poaching rates in half — all while increasing the average yearly flow of tourists by 7.5%.

Participating in a smaller-but-similar contest last fall, the Triangle Competition in Mathematical Modeling, helped them prepare. “It’s kind of like a practice for the MCM,” Salazar said.

Veronica Ciocanel

“They did not win that contest, but they took everything they learned and look what they did with it. I’m very proud,” said assistant professor of mathematics and biology Veronica Ciocanel, who coached the team and co-organized the Triangle competition.

In addition to finishing in the top 0.1% of competitors, the Duke team got three additional awards for their performance; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) award, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) prize, and an International COMAP Scholarship Award of $10,000.

The problems in these contests tend to be much more open-ended than typical coursework. “We didn’t know what the solution was supposed to be or what tools to use,” Novak said.

Modeling, computation and coding skills are certainly important, Ciocanel said. “But really what matters more is practice, teamwork, and communicating their results in a written report. Students who have a solid course background don’t need to do anything else to prepare, they just need to be creative about using what they know from the courses they already took.”

“Use what you have and work well together,” Ciocanel said. “That I think is the most important thing.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Rural Exodus: An Era of Climate-Migration

Amid fracturing arctic ice shelves, late September tempests, floods, droughts, jumping wildfires, a few decades of quick extinction and species blinking out like the quiet collapse of distant supernovae, our climate crisis has begun to displace humans en masse. 

68.5 million people were forcibly displaced by climate change and disasters in 2017. By 2021, that number grew to 89.3 million people. In 2022, we reached 100 million.

In a series of articles for the San Francisco News entitled “The Harvest Gypsies,” John Steinbeck described the 1930s Dust Bowl migrants in California’s Central Valley, uprooted by drought and crumbling wheat, then later novelized in the American classic Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck wrote, “The new migrants from the dust bowl are here to stay. They are the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible. To attempt to force them into a peonage of starvation and intimidated despair will be unsuccessful. They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering to take what they need. On their future treatment will depend the course they will be forced to take.”

Alluding to Steinbeck, Dr. Robert McLeman joined Duke’s Dr. Sarah Bermeo for Climate Change, Adaptation and Migration, a conversation on climate-migration and rural impact central to Dr. Kerilyn Schewel’s Rural Development and the Capability to Stay project.

Co-sponsored by Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and the Center on Modernity in Transition (COMIT), the lecture is part of the larger Rural Transformations speaker series, highlighting rural perspectives in the discourse around development. This objective embodies COMIT’s research as well as their cognizance of “modernity as an age of transition towards a future world society—one that will emerge not through the universalization of any existing way of life, but rather through the sustained, creative, and complexly interacting contributions of all the diverse cultures and peoples of the world.”

The Dust Bowl, McLeman pointed out, is a quintessential example of climate migration, conjuring Dorothea Lange’s depression-era photojournalism and 8th grade US history. More recently, this phenomenon has been exemplified by hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Harvey, Irma, Sandy, Ida, Hugo, Andrew, Ian, and Maria (just to name a few) with similar, though smaller scale effects.

As McLeman and Bermeo acknowledged, climate-catalyzed movement is highly dependent on complex interactions between environment, society, economy, and politics, including a myriad of non-ecological factors like “land tenure, social networks, [and] access to government programs.” 

Dr. Robert McLeman is a Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada and is the author of Climate and Human Migration: Past Experiences, Future Challenges

Their research on the demographic composition and rates of climate-migration answers a number of questions: who is disproportionately affected by climate change? Who is migrating? And who is participating in policy decisions?

December 2022, the Biden Administration announced a $135 million investment for relocation and adaptation planning for Native American tribes severely impacted by environmental crises, such as “coastal and riverine erosion, permafrost degradation, wildfire, flooding, food insecurity, sea level rise, hurricane impacts, potential levee failure and drought.”

In less than a lifetime, one such tribe, the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, witnessed nearly their entire island sink into swampy silt. 

The sinking of Isle de Jean Charles, National Geographic

On their tribal website, they write: “For our Island people, [Isle de Jean Charles] is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our Tribe and traditions. It is where our ancestors survived after being displaced by Indian Removal Act-era policies and where we cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture.

Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes.”

To date, 98% of the island has sunk. The tribe has begun relocation to the New Isle 40 miles north.    

Dr. Sarah Bermeo is a political economist, associate professor of Public Policy and Political Science in Duke’s Sanford School, and author of Targeted Development.

Climate migration in America, however, is not contained within and between states. In the past decade alone, Bermeo’s research points to a significant increase in migration from Central America to the US as well as novel patterns of family unit migration to the southern border (as opposed to a predominantly individual, male demographic in previous years). She attributes two recent droughts to this out-migration, disproportionately displacing rural communities whose livelihoods are integrally tied to subsistence farming and year-to-year crop yield. 

“People leave their homes because of climate but leave their countries for other reasons,” Bermeo explained. A large percentage of climate-migration is “inter-state,” i.e. a rural coastal community is forced to move inland (but still within their country) because of dangerous erosion.

“Central America’s choice: Pray for rain or migrate. Ravaged by drought, farmers in rural Honduras and Guatemala live on the edge of hunger,” reports NBC News.

In Central America, however, there is a distinct relationship between the incidence of drought and violence. Environmental stress has catalyzed a mass exodus from rural areas, increasing urbanization, yet these cities (particularly those in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) often rank globally among the most violent, based on year-to-year per capita homicide rates.

With high levels of urban corruption and gang affiliation, it is often difficult for rural “outsiders” to find employment in the cities, leaving them unable to compensate economically for a season of crop failure. This conflict is further exacerbated by large proportions of young workers in these populations. 

Despite deep-seated political polarization, climate-migration is adaptive. 

McLeman described migration generally as “neither good nor bad… something that people sometimes do and always have done… [But] in North America, we lose sight of the fact that it is normal human behavior… it’s the circumstances under which it occurs that creates the challenges.” 

When migration is voluntary, when people have access to social safety nets, are able to remit money to their families back home, and to mobilize legally across borders, migration is beneficial for the migrant, the migrant’s family, and the receiving community (which often benefits by filling labor demands). Often, the ramifications of immigration portrayed in the media (crime, destitution, etc.) are exacerbated by the lack of legality, social networks, and “gray markets.”

Bermeo acknowledged that the most effective mechanisms of decreasing undocumented migration are those that increase legal pathways. Historically, when the US has increased the number of visas allocated to Central American immigrants, illegal immigration subsequently decreased. 

The panelists agreed: in order for both the migrating and receiving communities to benefit, we must prioritize the dignity of migrating individuals.

Though conversations surrounding climate change feel threateningly existential, Bermeo and McLeman described ways in which climate adaptation can be manageable. When migrants and rural communities are excluded from conversations and subsequent policy-making, not only do they benefit less from the proposed and funded interventions, but other communities (perhaps at less imminent risk from climate change) will still suffer from this missing insight.

Here, I return to the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. Despite the appearance of a successful relocation project, the tribal council released a press statement in 2022, condemning the state of Louisiana. Elder Chief Albert Naquin spoke on the issue:

“If you believe that the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles was successful, you’re headed in the wrong direction.” The memo added that, “Moving people while trampling upon our Tribe’s inherent sovereignty and rights to self-determination and cultural survival must not be viewed as a ‘success’ for future public climate adaptation investments.” 

Dr. Kerilyn Schewel is a lecturing fellow at the Duke Center for International Development. She has received an award from the Social Science Research Council for her research project titled “Rural Development and the Capability to Stay.” 

The mass movement of climate-migrants, from Indigenous to rural communities, represents a loss of autonomy, of land integral to identity, and often of home. 

Still, Schewel’s Rural Transformation project advocates for the prioritization of these communities, rejecting the notion of passive policy-making and, instead, endorsing their active participation. Her project is indicative of how we must approach climate change adaptation: with empathy, education, and inclusion.

In a conversation with DCID, Schewel put it best: “[R]ural places are often treated as an afterthought… Some of the most promising advances in sustainable and equitable development are taking place in rural contexts, where a diversity of actors are striving to transform food systems, incorporate local knowledge, strengthen climate resilience, and widen participation in the development process.”

The DCID article ends with key insights from Schewel that encompass the Climate Change, Adaptation and Migration discussion and bear repetition: “As more focus is going towards migration, this is a project that will take very seriously the constraints on rural livelihoods and the motivations of migrants who leave rural places, while offering forward-looking solutions to advance our understanding of what it would mean to build more sustainable and flourishing rural futures.” 

Next up in the Rural Transformation lecture series: Religion and Development (June 20) and Local Knowledge, Global Change (June 30)

By Alex Clifford, class of 2024
By Alex Clifford, class of 2024

A Naturalist’s View of “Extraordinary” North Carolina

Naturalist Tom Earnhardt on Black River in North Carolina. The forests around Black River are home to the oldest trees in eastern North America, 2,700-year-old bald cypresses.
All photos courtesy of Tom Earnhardt.

There are many ways to think of North Carolina. It was the 12th U.S. state to enter the Union. It is bordered by Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. North Carolina’s capital city is Raleigh, and it has an estimated population of 10,698,973. These are all facts, but they tell only part of the story: the human side of it.

Naturalist Tom Earnhardt offers other ways to view North Carolina: the state contains the oldest forest in the eastern United States, with trees up to 2,700 years old. It has 17 river basins, and some of its rivers show evidence of fishing weirs used by indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago. And from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Appalachian mountains in the west, North Carolina is home to thousands of native plants, animals, and fungi. There are 3,000 species of moths alone in North Carolina, and “Every one is essential; not one is optional.”

“North Carolina,” Earnhardt says, “is still one of the most biodiverse and extraordinary places on the planet.”

A prothonotary warbler. Prothonotary warblers inhabit swamps and coastal rivers in North Carolina. They are one of only two warblers in America that nest in cavities.

Earnhardt is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and attorney. He wrote and produced the show “Exploring North Carolina,” a series of dozens of episodes about North Carolina’s biodiversity, geography, and history. Earnhardt recently visited Duke to speak at the Nasher Museum of Art.

One inspiration for his talk was the ongoing Nasher exhibit “Spirit in the Land,” an exploration of ecology, culture, and connection to the natural world. “Art in its many forms,” Earnhardt says, “tells a story of love, loss, and renewal.”

Black River in North Carolina.

Earnhardt has spent much of his career balancing caution and hope. We are facing environmental crises, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Earnhardt believes it’s important for people to know that, but he has put a lot of thought into how to get that message across. Earnhardt has learned that it can help to “tell it as though it was your best friend or brother who needed to hear an important story.” Science alone isn’t always enough. “To hear bad news of any kind is not easy,” Earnhardt says, “and people want to hear it from people they know, people they trust or can relate to.”

The stories he tells aren’t always easy to hear, but they are important. We need to know — whether on a local, state, national, or international scale — what exactly we stand to lose if we continue on a path of environmental destruction. Many species are becoming more scarce, Earnhardt says, “but we still have them.” They can’t be protected once they’re gone, but many of them are still here and can still be preserved. The goal for all of us should be to keep it that way.

North Carolina, Earnhardt says, is at “the epicenter of the temperate world.” The state has a range of climates and habitats. It marks the northernmost native range of the American alligator, while coniferous forests in the North Carolina mountains resemble boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada. North Carolina, according to Earnhardt, contains “whole ecosystems that other states only dream about.”

Eastern North Carolina is characterized by beaches, salt marshes, and other coastal ecosystems. Here you can find “wildflowers that grow in salty sand” and painted buntings, multicolored songbirds unlike any other in North America. On four occasions, he’s even seen manatees in North Carolina.

A male painted bunting, a summer resident on North Carolina’s barrier islands. Female painted buntings are bright green.

“Travelers from around the world vacation here and raise their families in the summer,” Earnhardt says—and he’s not talking about humans. Many shorebirds and sea turtles lay their eggs on North Carolina’s beaches. Human disturbance, including artificial lighting and crowded beaches, can put their babies in danger. Minimizing light pollution near beaches, especially during turtle nesting season, and staying away from nesting shorebirds can help.

A longleaf pine savanna in southeastern North Carolina.

Moving farther west, we can find savannas of grasses and pine trees. “You drive past this, and people go, ‘ho hum, a pine barren.’” To that Earnhardt says, “Look a little closer.”

White-fringed orchids, one of North Carolina’s 80 native orchid species. Earnhardt took this photo in the Green Swamp, a longleaf pine savanna nature preserve.

These pine barrens are home to some of North Carolina’s 80 species of orchid, like the white-fringed and yellow-fringed orchids. “Look at them from all angles,” Earnhardt urges, “because from up above it becomes a sunburst… for those who watch.”

A yellow-fringed orchid, viewed from the side.

Be one of those who watches.

A yellow-fringed orchid, viewed from above.

North Carolina rivers, forests, and swamps are also home to many wildlife species. Forests around Black River contain “huge buttresses of tupelo that hold the world together” and bald cypresses that have been alive for 2,700 years. The early years of these now-ancient cypress trees coincided with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the establishment of the first emperor of Japan. Many centuries later, they are the oldest trees in eastern North America.

Cypress trees on Black River. Both tupelos and cypresses have buttresses at their bases to provide stability in the water.

They are also in danger. “If seas rise three feet,” Earnhardt says, “there will be enough pressure to flood these [trees]…. We could lose them.” But “they are worth saving.”

Still farther west are the Appalachian mountains, another biodiversity hotspot. North Carolina is home to 60 species of salamanders, many of which live in the mountains. The southern Appalachians and western North Carolina contain more salamander diversity than anywhere else on the planet. One species that lives here is the American hellbender, a two-foot-long denizen of mountainous streams.

Despite increasing human development, North Carolina is still rich in flora and fauna. “We have wild places,” Earnhardt says. North Carolina has more than 450 bird species, over 30 native pitcher plants, 20 freshwater turtles, and 38 snakes—“and they’re all good neighbors,” Earnhardt adds.

Venus flytraps in a longleaf pine savanna.

North Carolina has pink and yellow lady slippers and ten-foot-tall Turk’s Cap lilies; crayfish and thousands of mushrooms; native azaleas and insects that depend on them. It has Earnhardt’s “new favorite bird,” the swallow-tailed kite, and vultures, “the clean-up crew: not optional.” That’s a refrain throughout Earnhardt’s talk. “Nothing I’ve shown you tonight is optional,” he says.

“Both in banking and nature,” Earnhardt says, “when we make too many withdrawals and not enough deposits… there’s a deficit.” There are too many creatures we have already lost. The eastern cougar. The Carolina parakeet. The passenger pigeon. Too many more. There are still others that are threatened or endangered but not yet gone. “We humans tend to forget the failures and close calls,” Earnhardt says. While talking about biodiversity loss, he references a quote by biologist E.O. Wilson: “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

A swallow-tailed kite. Earnhardt says that these kites, which spend their winters in South America, now nest along several rivers in southeastern North Carolina.

So what can be done? To preserve biodiversity, we have to consider entire ecosystems, not just one endangered animal at a time. “We are part of the natural world, part of links and chains and pyramids,” Earnhardt says, and humans too often forget that. Everything is connected.

He recalls visiting entomologist Bill Reynolds’s lab and noticing crickets hopping across the floor. “Don’t step on the transmission fluid!” Reynolds warned. He was referring to the crickets and to insects more broadly. Like transmission fluid in cars, insects are essential to making sure the systems they are part of run smoothly. Insects serve crucial roles in food webs, pollination, and decomposition. Studies show that they are declining at alarming rates.

“We are at a crossroads,” Earnhardt says. “Our transmission fluid is low, and we have made too many withdrawals from the bank of biodiversity.” Still, he emphasizes the importance of not giving up on wildlife conservation. Given a chance, nature can and will regenerate.

Tupelo tree buttresses on Tar River near Greenville, North Carolina.

Despite all our past and current failures, conservation also has remarkable success stories. The brown pelican is one North Carolina resident that almost went extinct but has since “come back in incredible numbers.” The bald eagle is another. Its population plummeted in the 20th century, largely due to the insecticide DDT as well as habitat loss and hunting. By 2007, though, after intensive conservation efforts, it had rebounded enough to be removed from the endangered species list. Until about 1980, Earnhardt had never seen a bald eagle in North Carolina. Today, Earnhardt says, “I see them in every county.”

A bald eagle that Earnhardt saw near the Raleigh-Durham airport. Bald eagles, once on the brink of extinction, can now be seen in every county in North Carolina.

“Everyone’s going to have to fly in the same direction,” to preserve North Carolina — not to mention the rest of the world — at its best and wildest, Earnhardt says. But individual actions can make a difference. He suggests planting native flowers like milkweed and coneflower, both of which are good food sources for pollinators. And if you choose to plant ornamentals like crepe myrtle, “Treat that as a piece of art in the yard and then plant the rest as native.”

Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady and conservation advocate, once said that “Texas should look like Texas, and Mississippi like Mississippi.” Choosing native plants can be a powerful way to help native wildlife in your own yard. “If you plant it,” Earnhardt says, “they will come.”

One audience member asks, “How do you recommend that we recruit non-believers?” It’s a conundrum that Earnhardt has put a lot of thought into. “It takes time, and it takes patience,” he says. “Some of my best friends are not full believers, but I work on them every day.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Is The World In Crisis?

According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, nearly 70% of Americans believe that U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” Two out of every three respondents also agree that U.S. democracy is “more at risk” now than it was a year ago. 

These fears are not unfounded. For the past three years, the United Nations Human Development Report has issued increasingly grave warnings for the state of the world. The warnings focus specifically on the Anthropocene, rising inequality, and growing polarization, conveying themes of both uncertainty and hope.

Pictured above: The 2022 Human Development Report.

On March 22nd, the director of the United Nations Human Development Report Office, Dr. Pedro Conceição, discussed his perspective at Duke University. The fireside chat was hosted by the Duke Center for International Development and the South-North Scholars, and was moderated by Dr. Anirudh Krishna.

“People should be able to live their lives at their full potential,” Dr. Conceição began. “When you look at the world and see how people are living their lives compared to how they should be living their lives, you get the need for human development.”

First introduced in 1990, the Human Development Report focuses on improving the quality of human life, rather than just the economy in which human beings live. The report emphasizes three pillars: people, opportunity, and choice. “Living life to your full potential is essentially about human freedom,” Dr. Conceição said. It is these freedoms that are at risk as the conditions in the Human Development Report worsen.

Credit: 2021/22 United Nations Human Development Report.

“We need to dig more deeply into why we aren’t taking action,” Conceição maintains. He explains that current efforts to spark change are too factual. Governments and corporations are focused too heavily on raising awareness and should pivot to trying to take tangible steps.

Political division is also a major source of stagnation, as those who lie on either side of the spectrum tend to be more insecure in their views of the future. Because of these obstacles, it requires a “more complex and unusual way of trying to understand these problems.”

The report has citizens from around the world concerned about potential declines in the quality of well-being. But Dr. Conceição asserts that the reports are meant to communicate hope.

“It’s precisely because we are having this level of uncertainty that this becomes even more relevant,” he said. In fact, it is this uncertainty that the report will build off of for future publications. The literature will dig deeper into novel areas of uncertainty, to figure out the best way forward.

An analysis of the current global uncertainties. Credit: 2021/22 United Nations Human Development Report.

Dr. Conceição urges students to invest in the United Nations and its initiatives, as it is crucial in creating a better outlook on the future. As Abraham Lincoln once expressed, “The most reliable way to predict the future is to create it.”

Want to get involved with the United Nations? Click here!

Written by: Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

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