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

Category: Environment/Sustainability Page 1 of 11

The Major Player in Global Infrastructure Investment – And What That Means for the Climate

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Perhaps no singular economy in the world has grown and expanded as rapidly as China’s. “Made in China” labels prove just how far of a reach China has globally – from clothes to technology to automotive parts. But there’s another facet of this expansion that is poised to become more and more important.

Developing countries across the world face infrastructure challenges that hinder their growth and prosperity, and these challenges have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. China, along with other key economic players, is sensing this sore lack, and competing to invest in global infrastructure projects. There are many questions to be asked about the ethics and impact of global infrastructure investment, but one thought in particular rises to the top: what does infrastructure investment mean for the climate?

To prod at this question, the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies hosted a conversation with Dr. Jackson Ewing on September 29 entitled “The Great Infrastructure Game: Why Asia, Europe, and America are Competing to Build in the Developing World and What It Means for the Global Climate”. Ewing, who holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy as well as adjunct associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, unpacked the “game” by taking a specific deep dive into China’s investment sources, standards, and approaches.

Dr. Jackson Ewing

A couple of key things stood out from the conversation. The first is that to understand China’s infrastructure investment impact, it’s important to understand the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is arguably the most important “umbrella mechanism” for China’s infrastructure investment, associated with projects such as ports, railways, airports, and power plants. Launched in 2013, its name comes from the concept of the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean, that was established during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. This modern-day Silk Road connects Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks. The initiative defines its five major priorities to be “policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and connecting people.”

Mapping the Belt-and-Road Initiative

The BRI has led to what Ewing called “meteoric investment growth.” What does that investment look like? Ewing made note of several key characteristics. One is that Chinese lending has shifted significantly, from lending to sovereign banks to lending to companies and organizations in destination countries. This type of investment makes up nearly 70% of China’s portfolio. Another characteristic of this investment is that a chunk of the BRI project portfolio – 35%, to be exact – has encountered massive criticism on the grounds of corruption and environmental issues.

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Previously, energy investment along the BRI looked mostly like coal. Between 2007 and 2015, China led all nations in financing nearly 25 billion dollars of outbound coal creation, with India, Indonesia, Mongolia, Turkey, and Vietnam being its biggest recipients.

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Ewing noted that while China arguably does have a coal overcapacity problem, “it still compares significantly in outbound renewables.” The diagram below gives a breakdown of BRI energy investments – while the orange chunk of coal is still the biggest chunk of investment, the green renewable chunks don’t lag far behind. This increased interest in the renewable space is largely fueled by capacity problems, as well as domestic and environmental challenges. There has been a plateauing of coal consumption in the country – but is that something to get excited about?

 There have been cross-ministerial efforts to promote a Green BRI in response to criticism, but as Ewing put it, “They’ve led to debatably meaningful practices to undergird existing initiatives.” While coal investment has slowed down as hydro investment has picked up the pace, China’s annual energy finance from policy banks has taken a hit and is slowing down. So what can we conclude?

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing
Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Well, it’s safe to conclude two things. The first is that this Chinese shift away from coal does matter – but whether this will lead to a change in Chinese investment philosophy that will mark the next decade remains to be seen. The second thing to conclude is that as China dips more into the renewable space, other countries will follow. In fact, the U.S and EU have been prioritizing renewable investments for a while. This competition may very well mean that we see a growing number of renewable projects, which is undoubtedly good news for the climate.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

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Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Carrying On a Legacy of “Whimsical” Gardening

A contorted hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. The brightly colored structures in the background are pollinator houses.

On Wednesday, September 15, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens hosted a drop-in event in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, an area near the main entrance with a focus on organic and sustainable gardening. This part of Duke Gardens is almost ten years old, but Wednesday’s event, led by curator Jason Holmes and horticulturist Nick Schwab, showcased what makes it unique.

The entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is marked by a lovely arbor draped with vines. Inside, the winding paths are lined with flowers, fruiting trees, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Bees and butterflies flit here and there, bright against the rainy sky.

Holmes finds me admiring a display of carnivorous plants. He introduces himself and shows me around.

Flirting with danger: a fly perches on a Venus flytrap. The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant native only to parts of the Carolinas.

One of the first things I notice is the array of pollinator houses scattered amongst flowers and attached to wooden structures. Many plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, and the pollinator houses can help attract native species like mason bees and leaf-cutter wasps, but Holmes says they have another purpose as well: bringing awareness to the importance of pollinators.

Along with the pollinator houses, which are designed to attract native bees, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden has beehives for honey bees. Though honey bees are not originally native to the New World, they are important pollinators, and their populations are declining. Like many native bees, honey bees are threatened in part by habitat loss and pesticide use, but gardeners and landowners can help.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is only about an acre in size, but exploring it feels like walking through a museum, a new exhibit around every corner. Over here, raised beds of hot peppers, organized by level of spiciness. (“I don’t do spicy,” says Holmes, but even Schwab, who has sampled the garden’s hottest peppers, tells me he often finds the less spicy ones to be more enjoyable.) Over there, clusters of pumpkins. Despite the steamy day, the pumpkins are a reminder that fall is coming. I’ve been noticing subtle hints of fall for weeks—brisk mornings, breezes that send dry leaves skittering across pavement—but despite these tantalizing harbingers of autumn, some days still seem distinctly summery. As it turns out, this garden is experiencing a similar transition.

A recipe for “Peri-Peri Sauce” within a display of hot peppers. Peppers are common in many cuisines, but they are originally native to tropical America.

Holmes and Schwab, along with other dedicated gardeners, are in the process of phasing out summer vegetables like okra, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant and planting crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in anticipation of cooler weather.

Change is something of a constant in the garden. Holmes likes to tell everyone who works with him that “every day’s going to be different.” When I ask if he has a favorite season in the garden, Holmes mentions two: “I love the cool-down of fall, and I love the rebirth of spring.” As for winter, Holmes describes it as a period of much-needed rest—for both the garden and the gardeners.

Potted succulents and clusters of bright orange pumpkins add to the garden’s whimsical feel.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is a fully functioning garden, donating most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but it is also a space for discovery. Since its inception in 2012, the garden has sought to foster curiosity about gardening and the natural world.

The garden also houses a chicken coop, which Holmes says is constructed out of recycled materials from local factories. Holmes picks up a white silkie chicken, holding her gently before prompting her to join the others in the enclosure outside. He tells me she’s acting “broody,” exhibiting a tendency to behave as though she is incubating eggs.

Jason Holmes with one of the chickens. Holmes also cares for chickens at his home, but not because he wants to eat their eggs. He considers them “companions” instead.

When I ask Holmes about Charlotte Brody, he describes a woman who lived in Kinston, North Carolina, and invited kids to her home to learn about organic gardening and discover its joys for themselves. Holmes says Brody had a “whimsical, free approach” to gardening.

“Whimsical” describes this garden well. Tiny, orange spheres dangling from bushes. A tree frog peering out from a pollinator house. Hand-written signs nestled amongst peppers, offering recipes for “Peri-Peri Sauce” and “Hot Honey.” Everything from cacti to chickens to oranges coexisting peacefully in the same garden.

Before I leave, I linger under the arbor. The sun streams through the dome above me. The frog is still hiding in the same pollinator house as before. Looking around, I see more than a small garden. I see the legacy of a woman who devoted her time to gardening joyfully and sustainably and teaching others to do the same.

The arbor at the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Despite the rain earlier in the afternoon, the sun had come out again by the time I left.

Jason Holmes, Nick Schwab, and the many workers and volunteers who have put their time and effort into this garden are continuing that legacy. Holmes hopes that visitors will find inspiration here, whatever that means to them. I know I did, and next time I come back, I’ll wander the paths and notice the changing seasons, ready to be inspired again.

By Sophia Cox, Class of 2025

Cemetery, Community, Classroom: Collaborating to Honor the Dead

Open Durham

The institutional neglect and indignity faced by many African Americans during and after the Jim Crow era in the South didn’t end when their lives did. In a panel hosted by the Duke Office of Durham & Community Affairs on Sept. 10, a community leader, Duke professor, and undergraduate student discussed some of the work they are doing to combat the marginalization of Durham’s deceased in Geer Cemetery, two miles from Duke’s campus. 

Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, President, Friends of Geer Cemetery

Founded on land purchased from Frederick and Polly Geer by John O’Daniel, Nelson Mitchell, and Willie Moore in 1877, Geer Cemetery is the final resting place for over 3000 of Durham’s African American citizens. As Maplewood Cemetery was segregated, from 1877 until the opening of Beechwood cemetery in 1924 Geer served as the only cemetery for the African American dead. Lacking public funding and under fire from the health department for overcrowding, Geer Cemetery closed in the 1930s and, in the absence of a plan for its continued upkeep, fell into a state of disrepair

President of Friends of Geer Cemetery Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia provided a brief history of Geer Cemetery. 

The nonprofit Friends of Geer Cemetery was formed in 2003 by “concerned citizens and neighbors” and has worked to “restore the cemetery’s grounds and research its histories” under their mission statement “restore, reclaim, respect.” According to Gonzalez-Garcia, work consists of maintaining the cemetery grounds, repairing headstones, writing life stories, and advocating for recognition. 

Friends of Geer Cemetery has accomplished a lot in terms of restoration: in 2004 the cemetery was unrecognizable, with broken headstones, overgrowth, and sunken burials. Today, with the help of Keep Durham Beautiful, Preservation Durham, and other volunteers, the entire cemetery can now be easily viewed.

The organization also continues to work tirelessly toward their other objectives, reclamation and respect. By mining local records, research volunteers have created a database which includes approximately 1,651 burials, but efforts are ongoing. 

Gonzalez-Garcia expressed excitement about the organization receiving grant funding for an archaeological survey. “[The survey] will help us to map out burials, because currently, there is no map,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “We aren’t sure where people are buried.” 

The community leader discussed how efforts to reclaim Geer Cemetery bring about questions that reckon with white supremacy in general. “We’re not told stories of the African Americans who built Durham,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Why do we know so much about Washington Duke, and nothing of Augustus Shepard? Why should Maplewood still exist and not Geer Cemetery?” 

Adam Rosenblatt

Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies Adam Rosenblatt expressed his interest in how care for the dead is “bound up with human rights and social justice.” This interest is personal: he has his own graveless ancestors who disappeared in the Holocaust. He expressed his passion for educating others about “places of mourning in our midst” through “community-engaged” scholarship.

Along with Gonzalez-Garcia, Rosenblatt sponsored a Story+ program at Duke entitled Geer Cemetery: Labor, Dignity, and Practices of Freedom in an African American Burial Ground. With the help of sponsors and a graduate mentor, Duke undergraduates Nyrobi Manuel, Kerry Rork, and Huiyin Zhou researched the cemetery closely in order to “uncover the stories of ordinary citizens and add these stories back into the historic narrative about Geer.” The researchers produced three unique, interactive digital projects which will contribute to the Friends of Geer Cemetery’s online platform for education and outreach. 

Rosenblatt discussed one challenge the Story+ engaged with: What really constitutes a human subject? The IRB’s definition doesn’t include the dead; there’s no IRB protocols for researching the dead and their stories. Many archives disappear entirely, or are fragmented.

Nyrobi Manuel

Nyrobi Manuel, a Duke undergraduate, was one of Rosenblatt and Golzalez-Garcia’s mentees. Manuel took Rosenblatt’s course “Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas” and says the course inspired her to dig deeper into African American death practices. Through the Story+, Manuel researched John C. Scarborough, who established the fifth-oldest Black-owned funeral home in the country. She produced a project entitled “Scarborough and Hargett Funeral Home: Dignified Death and Compassion in the Black Community.” 

Manuel discussed her findings. Many funeral directors became important figures in their community, and John C. Scarborough was no different. A philanthropist and important community member, he helped to establish Scarborough Nursery School, North Carolina’s oldest licensed nursery school.

What’s always drawn Gonzalez-Garcia to Geer Cemetery is its “quiet beauty” and sense of connection. Though her ancestors are buried in Virginia, where she’s from, Geer Cemetery seeks to tell stories of African Americans through “emancipation and reconstruction: throughout history.” Geer is special because it seeks to tell the story of her “blood relatives” while also celebrating the history of Durham, which, she said fondly, is “my community now.”

Introducing: The Duke Space Initiative

NASA

Engineers, medical students, ecologists, political scientists, ethicists, policymakers — come one, come all to the Duke Space Initiative (DSI), “the interdisciplinary home for all things space at Duke.”

At Duke Polis’ “Perspectives on Space: Introducing the Duke Space Initiative” on Sept. 9, DSI co-founder and undergraduate student Ritika Saligram introduced the initiative and moderated a discussion on the current landscape of space studies both at Duke and beyond.

William R. & Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law Jonathan Wiener began by expressing his excitement in the amount of interest he’s observed in space at Duke. 

One of these interested students was Spencer Kaplan. Kaplan, an undergraduate student studying public policy, couldn’t attend Wiener’s Science & Society Dinner Dialogue about policy and risk in the settlement of Mars. Unwilling to miss the learning opportunity, Kaplan set up a one-on-one conversation with Wiener. One thing led to another: the two created a readings course on space law — Wiener hired Kaplan as a research assistant and they worked together to compile materials for the syllabus — then thought, “Why stop there?” 

Wiener and Kaplan, together with Chase Hamilton, Jory Weintraub, Tyler Felgenhauer, Dan Buckland, and Somia Youssef, created the Bass Connections project “Going to Mars: Science, Society, and Sustainability,” through which a highly interdisciplinary team of faculty and students discussed problems ranging from the science and technology of getting to Mars, to the social and political reality of living on another planet. 

The team produced a website, research papers, policy memos and recommendations, and a policy report for stakeholders including NASA and some prestigious actors in the private sector. According to Saligram, through their work, the team realized the need for a concerted “space for space” at Duke, and the DSI was born. The Initiative seeks to serve more immediately as a resource center for higher education on space, and eventually as the home of a space studies certificate program for undergraduates at Duke. 

Wiener sees space as an “opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned from being on Earth” — to consider how we could avoid mistakes made here and “try to do better if we settle another planet.” He listed a few of the many problems that the Bass Connections examined. 

The economics of space exploration have changed: once, national governments funded space exploration; now, private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic seek to run the show. Space debris, satellite and launch junk that could impair future launches, is the tragedy of the commons at work — in space. How would we resolve international disputes on other planets and avoid conflict, especially when settlements have different missions? Can we develop technology to ward off asteroids? What if we unintentionally brought microorganisms from one planet to another? How will we make the rules for the settlement of other planets?

These questions are vast — thereby reflecting the vastness of space, commented Saligram — and weren’t answerable within the hour. However, cutting edge research and thinking around them can be found on the Bass Connections’ website.

Earth and Climate Sciences Senior Lecturer Alexander Glass added to Wiener’s list of problems: “terraforming” — or creating a human habitat — on Mars. According to Glass, oxygen “isn’t a huge issue”: MOXIE can buzz Co2 with electricity to produce it. A greater concern is radiation. Without Earth’s magnetosphere, shielding of some sort will be necessary; it takes sixteen feet of rock to produce the same protection. Humans on Mars might have to live underground. 

Glass noted that although “we have the science to solve a lot of these problems, the science we’re lagging in is the human aspects of it: the psychological, of humanity living in conditions like isolation.” The engineering could be rock solid. But the mission “will fail because there will be a sociopath we couldn’t predict beforehand.”

Bass Connections project leader and PhD candidate in political science Somia Youssef discussed the need to examine deeply our laws, systems, and culture. Youssef emphasized that we humans have been on Earth for six million years. Like Wiener, she asked how we will “apply what we’ve learned to space” and what changes we should make. How, she mused, do prevailing ideas about humanity “transform in the confines, the harsh environment of space?” Youssef urged the balancing of unity with protection of the things that make us different, as well as consideration for voices that aren’t being represented.

Material Science Professor, Assistant Professor of Surgery, and NASA Human System Risk Manager Dr. Dan Buckland explained that automation has exciting potential in improving medical care in space. If robots can do the “most dangerous aspects” of mission medical care, humans won’t have to. Offloading onto “repeatable devices” will reduce the amount of accidents and medical capabilities needed in space. 

Multiple panelists also discussed the “false dichotomy” between spending resources on space and back home on Earth. Youssef pointed out that many innovations which have benefited (or will benefit) earthly humanity have come from the excitement and passion that comes from investing in space. Saligram stated that space is an “extension of the same social and policy issues as the ones we face on Earth, just in a different context.” This means that solutions we find in our attempt to settle Mars and explore the universe can be “reverse engineered” to help Earth-dwelling humans everywhere.

Saligram opened up the panel for discussion, and one guest asked Buckland how he ended up working for NASA. Buckland said his advice was to “be in rooms you’re not really supposed to be in, and eventually people will start thinking you’re supposed to be there.” 

Youssef echoed this view, expressing the need for diverse perspectives in space exploration. She’s most excited by all the people “who are interested in space, but don’t know if there’s enough space for them.”

If this sounds like you, check out the Duke Space Initiative. They’ve got space.

Post by Zella Hanson

Saving Africa’s Biggest Trees to Help Earth Breathe

Like wine, cheese, and savvy financial investments, many tropical trees become more valuable with age. This is particularly true when it comes to carbon storage, because old trees are often the biggest trees and the larger the tree, the more carbon it stores.

The value of big, old trees in combating climate change was underscored in a recent study of Gabon’s forests, led by the Nicholas School of the Environment’s John Poulsen. The team’s striking finding — that half of Gabon’s wealth of carbon is found in the largest 5% of trees — has implications that reach far beyond the sparsely populated Central African country’s borders.

Nicholas School Ph.D. student Graden Froese admires a forest giant in Ivindo National Park, Gabon.

Tropical forests play a key role in the global carbon cycle by keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Trees take in CO2 — one of the infamous, heat-trapping greenhouse gases — during photosynthesis and use the carbon to grow, making new leaves, thicker and taller trunks, and more expansive root systems.

Scientists can estimate how much carbon a tree holds by measuring its trunk. So, like rainforest tailors, trained technicians traveled to all corners of the country to measure the girth and height of tens of thousands of trees.

This extraordinary two-year long effort was one of the first nationwide forest inventories in the tropics, making Gabon a leader in comprehensive forest monitoring.

John Poulsen is an associate professor of tropical ecology.

Poulsen and collaborators used the tree measurements to estimate the amount of carbon stored in Gabon’s forests and to determine why some forests hold more carbon than others.

“The field techs deserve all the credit”, Poulsen explained, “as they often walked for days through thick forest, traversing swamps and enduring humid, buggy conditions to measure trees. We turned their sweat and toil into information that could be used by Gabon’s government to prioritize areas for conservation.”

Who needs ladders, when you have colleagues? The field team collaborates to measure a forest giant.

The team analyzed a suite of environmental factors to see their effects on carbon storage. Of the natural factors, only soil fertility had a noticeable positive effect on tree biomass. Much more important was the impact of humans. As human activities such as agriculture and logging tend to target large trees, more heavily human-disturbed forests had a much different structure than pristine forests. The farther a study area was from human settlements, the more likely it was to host large trees and consequently, higher amounts of carbon.

The paper notes that Gabon stands out as a country with “one of the highest densities of aboveground forest carbon.” In fact, Gabon’s undisturbed forests store more carbon than those in the Amazon, which have been referred to as the lungs of the planet.

According to Poulsen, “Gabon is the second most forested country in the world with 87% forest cover, a deforestation rate near zero…” Because of its impressive forest cover and its location straddling the equator, Gabon’s forests host an incredibly diverse array of plants and animals, including many threatened and endangered species. Rural communities depend on these forests for their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, even Gabon’s ‘small’ trees make for spectacular felled logs.

However, Gabon’s impressive forests are valuable to more than just wildlife, climate researchers, and local communities. The logging industry also sees these forests as a chance for profit. More than half (about 67%) of Gabon’s forests are under contract with logging companies to harvest timber, putting them at risk of losing many of their carbon-storing giants.

Poulsen’s study highlights the importance of a more nuanced approach to forest conservation in Gabon. One that doesn’t simply focus on stopping deforestation or promoting restoration, as is prescribed in many international climate change plans, but an approach that recognizes the necessity of preserving high conservation value, old growth forests.

Anna Nordseth

Guest Post by Anna Nordseth, a graduate student in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Following In The Footsteps of Elephants

Imagine for a moment that you’re 6,000 pounds, living in one of the wildest places on Earth, with no schedule, nowhere to be. How do you decide where to spend your time? Where to go next? Do you move where food is most plentiful? Is water your main priority?

Amelia Meier in the field.

These are some of the questions addressed by Duke Ph.D. candidate Amelia Meier and former postdoctoral researcher Dr. Chris Beirne in Dr. John Poulsen’s lab. Their recent study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution focused on the African forest elephant–the slightly smaller yet still undeniably huge cousin of the savanna elephant.  

The team wanted to know what influences certain aspects of elephant behavior. Specifically, how much climate and resource availability drives elephant movement and influences their diet. To do this, the team looked at fruit abundance (a high-energy staple of elephants’ diets), water availability from rainfall, and elephant identity and how those factors affect how an individual moves and eats.

One might think that such a massive animal is easy to spot in the forest. However, the dense vegetation of Central African rainforests can be an impenetrable wall, allowing the massive animals to move unseen through the forest, leaving broken branches and steaming dung piles in their wake.

To better track them, the researchers fitted individual elephants with GPS collars that turn an iPhone into an elephant-tracking tool. This also allowed trackers to follow the elephants at a distance and avoid conflict with the sometimes temperamental animals.

Collared elephant, Marijo, (left) enjoying the rich minerals found at the Langoue Bai forest clearing.

Meier, Beirne, and colleagues also wanted to know more about the diets of the tracked elephants to see if what they ate changed with how much fruit is available. This less-than-glamorous job was done by dissecting fresh dung piles, estimating the proportions of leafy and woody material, and counting the number of seeds in each one.

Tropical rainforests are lush, yet have patchy resources, making it important for many frugivores to have flexible diets. Some trees only produce fruit in the wet season. Others fruit every other year. To gauge fruit availability, the research team conducted “fruit-walks” at the beginning and end of each day of following an elephant, in which trackers counted all of the ripe fruit on the ground.

A key finding of the study was that the most important factor driving movement was an elephant’s individuality; some respond to food or water availability differently and some simply move around more than others.

Field researcher Marius Edang getting the straight poop on elephant diets.

Interestingly, elephants appear to be affected by resources differently depending on the timescale the authors looked at. Water was important on both a day-to-day and month-to-month basis. Yet on a daily basis, fruit and water were more equally matched, with water still maintaining a slight lead.

Fruit availability was also critical in determining how much elephants moved and what they ate. When there was more fruit available, the elephants ate more fruit, as evidenced by the proportion of seeds in dissected dung piles.

Aside from being an awe-inspiring species, forest elephants are important to the health of their native ecosystems. They are unwitting gardeners, planting seeds of the fruits they consume in piles of dung and giving those seeds a better chance of survival. That’s part of why understanding what motivates forest elephant movement is more than the satisfaction of an elephant enthusiast’s curiosity; it is critical to managing and conserving a species that is vulnerable to multiple threats from humans.

Meier’s dissertation research focuses on elephant social behavior and the effects of human disturbance on elephant social groups, allowing her to pursue her long-term interest in animal behavior with a practical conservation application.

“I was living in Congo and I knew I wanted to keep working in the region. There, you have elephants–this amazing, highly intelligent, social species that is surrounded by conflict.”

Poachers seek elephants for their ivory tusks, which are valuable on the black market. The pachyderms are also prone to conflict with humans when they start foraging in village plantations, destroying crops and damaging livelihoods.

The team’s findings open the way for new questions about why different elephants exhibit different patterns of movement. What underlying factors affect behavior, and why? Does it have to do with age? Sex? Their social environment?

These questions remain unanswered for now, but the work of Meier and colleagues represents a critical step in understanding elephant behavior to improve forest elephant management and conservation strategies.

Guest Post by Anna Nordseth, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment

Contaminated Drinking Water in Our Backyard

About 70% of the human body is made up of water. Water is something we consume on a daily basis. Therefore, when a community’s water source is threatened or contaminated it can be extremely detrimental. 

In 2017, it became apparent that there was water contamination in eastern North Carolina. Specifically, PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl Alkyl chemicals were found in the water supply. As a result, several legislative mandates were issued in 2018 establishing a PFAS Testing Network to investigate the contamination.

Lee Ferguson, an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke and Kathleen Gray, a professor at UNC’s Institute for the Environment, are testing PFAS water contamination and communicating any risks to the public. 

Gray is part of the network’s risk communication team. She explained that PFASs are hard to address because the health effects are unknown and they have yet to determine a standard or guideline for these substances. However, because this water contamination affects the lives of everyone connected to the water supply it is extremely important to communicate risk to the affected community but without eliciting panic. 

Gray explained that people often ask, “Are my family and I safe?” “What can I do to protect myself and my family?” “Why did this happen?” and “Why wasn’t it prevented?”

In the last year Ferguson and his research team have tested 409 sites in North Carolina for PFAS compounds.

He explained that PFAS substances are particularly dangerous because they are non-degradable, potentially toxic and constantly changing. Long-chain PFASs are being replaced by fluorinated alternatives.

Ferguson described this phenomenon as “playing environmental ‘whack-a-mole’ with different substances.”

Ferguson and his testing team have found two contaminated water supply sites in North Carolina. Dangerous contamination is based on the EPA health advisory level of 70ng/Liter. The exceedances were found in Maysville and Orange Water and Sewer Authority. Maysville was able to switch to the Jones County water source once the problem was identified.

New data that came in within the last couple weeks found high month-to-month variability in PFAS in the Haw River near Pittsboro. Ferguson and his team predict that it is coming downstream from a waste treatment plant. 

Brunswick County is shown having the worst PFAS concentrations. However, Dr. Ferguson and his team have recently found that the contamination in Haw River is even worse.

While all of this information may seem very alarming, Gray and Ferguson both reiterated that it is not necessary to panic. Instead, people should make sure they are drinking filtered water or invest in a water filter. 

Ferguson added, “The best choice is reverse osmosis.”

Gray and Ferguson presented their work at a SciComm Lunch-and-Learn, a monthly event sponsored by Duke Science & Society Initiative that explores interesting and innovative aspects of science communication. The event is free and open to anyone in the Duke community.

By Anna Gotskind

How Do You Engineer a Microbial Community?

This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.

Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D.

Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge. Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.

Map of U.S. Superfund Sites (2013)

“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day, we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”

“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile. “But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”

Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate capabilities of these microorganisms.

A photo montage from Dr. Gunsch’s lab page.

Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs. The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.

The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts to be the most effective in a certain scenario.

“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.

“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”

Post by Emily Yang, NCSSM 2021

A Research Tour of Duke’s Largest Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Véronique Koch

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