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 > Climate

 > Ecosystem Services

 > Food Security

 > Freshwater

 > Oceans

 > Sustainable Development


Apes Make Case For Land Use Plan

Careful land use planning is key to conserving the biodiversity that both animals and people need for a stable climate, clean water and breathable air. Researchers, including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Lisa Curran (Anthropology) kept that in mind when they mapped distribution of orangutans over Indonesian Borneo’s forested landmass as part of a recent study. They found nearly half of the threatened species' habitat will be lost if all forests outside of protected areas and logging concessions are converted to non-forest uses such as oil palm cultivation. The only way to avoid this problem, Curran and her colleagues write, is to halt plantation development in orangutan habitats. But future growth can still be achieved by increasing yields in existing plantations and expanding new plantations into areas that have already been deforested. Reaching these goals requires a large-scale, island-wide land use master plan.

“Understanding the Impacts of Land-Use Policies on a Threatened Species: Is There a Future for the Bornean Orangutan?” PLoS One, Nov. 7, 2012

Read on for more summaries of the most recent research on environmental challenges and solutions published by Stanford Woods Institute fellows, affiliated faculty and fellows with our Leopold Leadership Program. We invite you to subscribe to our quarterly Research Digest.


Avoiding Flight Shortcuts Could Save Arctic Ice

Long-distance travelers have a lot to do with record low levels of arctic sea ice, but a solution may be at hand. The pollution caused by cross-polar flights is accelerating global warming as dark, sun-absorbing waters replace reflective, white ice. Rerouting aircraft to fly around the Arctic Circle would leave emissions in less stable areas of the atmosphere, where they are more likely to be scrubbed by precipitation, according to a study co-authored by Senior Fellow Mark Jacobson (Civil and Environmental Engineering). While slightly increasing fuel use and carbon dioxide output, flight rerouting would cost less than one-fiftieth of the benefit it would return, the study asserts.

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“The Effects of Rerouting Aircraft Around the Arctic Circle on Arctic and Global Climate,” Climatic Change, December 2012

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute climate research
Ecosystem Services

Considering Social Drivers in the Study of Earth Systems

Earth System Science, the field of inquiry that seeks to develop a global understanding of the functioning of Earth as a system, has long overlooked a crucial component: social drivers and their consequences for human impact on earth systems. However, obstacles to incorporating social sciences are gradually being overcome, according a study co-authored by Senior Fellow Hal Mooney (Biology). The study looks at trends in Earth System Science assessments, as well as basic and applied science programs, to glean lessons that should be considered in emerging research programs such as Future Earth, a new research initiative involving thousands of scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders that aims to provide global sustainability solutions.


“Evolution of Natural and Social Science Interactions in Global Change Research Programs,” PNAS, January 7, 2013

How Rural Chinese Households Deal With Shocks

Researchers, including Woods-affiliated Biology Professor Marcus Feldman and Senior Fellow Gretchen Daily (Biology), studied how rural Chinese households deal with shocks in the natural or economic environment. Using a model based on asset endowments – equipment, buildings and food stocks that farmers can use to mitigate vulnerability to shocks – Daily and her colleagues looked at data from a county in rural western China. They found that human capital, social capital and other capital assets have significant but different effects on agricultural households’ participation in non-farm activities, such as migrant construction work in distant cities, and that these assets can help break down non-farm labor constraints. The model developed in this paper provides insights into rural development and agricultural households’ behavior.
Photo credit: pdvos


"Asset Endowments, Non-Farm Participation and Local Separability in Remote Rural China," China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 5 Issue 1, January 2013

Saving Lions Through Tourism

There is still hope for saving one of nature’s most magnificent creatures, according to Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Stuart Pimm. In a recent study, Pimm and his colleagues estimate that lion populations on Africa's savannahs have decreased by almost two-thirds over the past 50 years due to habitat loss as human population has grown. Pimm stresses that there is still time to prevent lion numbers from decreasing to critical levels. He notes that lions and other wildlife are a valuable resource and can drive tourism and other economic activity in countries where they are protected.


“The Size of Savannah Africa: A Lion’s (Panthera leo) View,” Biodiversity and Conservation, January 2013

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Food Security

Breeding Wheat for a Warmer Future

Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world; it is also one of the most sensitive to future global warming. New breeding approaches are needed for this staple crop to withstand increasingly common heat waves and keep pace with growing global food demand, according to a study co-authored by Stanford Woods Institute Center Fellow and Center on Food Security and the Environment Associate Director David Lobell (Earth Sciences, FSI). The study evaluates 25 years of data from historical trials around the globe and analyzes the outcome of different past breeding approaches to help prioritize future strategies.


“An Assessment of Wheat Yield Sensitivity and Breeding Gains in Hot Environments,” Proceedings of the Royal Society, December 5, 2012

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute food security research
Fresh Water

Mining Wastewater for Clean Energy

A recent study co-authored by Senior Fellow Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering) highlights a promising process for removing nitrogen from wastewater and using it to generate clean power. The waste nitrogen is converted into nitrous oxide that can produce clean power by burning methane recovered from organic waste or by powering a small rocket thruster that emits hot air. Criddle, along with Brian Cantwell, the Edward C. Wells Professor in Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Yaniv Scherson, a Ph.D. student, began developing the technology as part of a 2009 Environmental Venture Projects initiative through Stanford Woods Institute. A group led by Scherson and advised by Criddle and Cantwell won a $100,000 U.S. Department of Energy regional award for the technology last May.


“Nitrogen Removal With Energy Recovery Through N2O Decomposition,” Energy and Environmental Science, Nov. 6 2012

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Heat-Resistant Corals Provide Clues to Climate Change Survival

The onslaught of climate change makes it imperative to understand how organisms respond to extreme temperatures and other environmental stresses. A study co-authored by Senior Fellow and Hopkins Marine Station Director Stephen Palumbi (Biology) looks at heat-resistant corals as a first step to protecting species on a warming Earth. The study finds a genomic basis for these corals’ resilience – a discovery that may hold a key to species survival around the world. The heat-resistant corals demonstrated stress-response genes even before heat stress set in. Finding species with similar “frontloaded” genes – “resilience mapping” – is the first step toward protecting them, Palumbi says.
Photo credit: Dan Griffin-GG Films


“Genomic Basis for Coral Resilience to Climate Change,” PNAS, January 7, 2013

Combating a New Ocean Threat

When Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire announced the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Panel on ocean acidification – a new threat to the state's shellfish industry – it was the culmination of nearly a year of work by Senior Lecturer Meg Caldwell (Law), executive director of the Center for Ocean Solutions. At the panel's request, Caldwell advised Stanford Woods Institute postdoctoral scholar Ryan Kelly (Center for Ocean Solutions) and Jenny Grote Stoutenburg, the authors of a special report titled "Washington State's Legal and Policy Options for Combating Ocean Acidification in State Waters." The panel referred to the analysis in its deliberations and included a copy of the report in its final recommendations.
Photo credit: Alexander Baxevanis


“Washington State's Legal and Policy Options for Combating Ocean Acidification in State Waters,” published online as part of “Ocean Acidification: From Knowledge to Action, Washington State’s Strategic Response,” November 2012


Coral Reefs and Human Well-Being

Coral reefs, among the planet’s most diverse ecosystems, are disappearing. Despite general recognition of the human role in the plight of coral reefs, the vast majority of related research has focused on ecological rather than human dimensions, limiting our understanding of social relationships with these environments as well as potential solutions for reef recovery. A study co-authored by Senior Fellow Larry Crowder (Biology), science director at the Center for Ocean Solutions, finds that specific frameworks for understanding human-coral reef interactions can help illuminate key social relationships and related environmental outcomes. The study suggests cross-disciplinary approaches that researchers can use to analyze the complex linkages among human well-being, coral reef ecology and the services reefs provide.


“Human Dimensions of Coral Reef Social-Ecological Systems,” Ecology and Society, December 2012

Tuna Are What They Eat

To better understand Pacific Bluefin tuna’s migratory and feeding patterns, researchers including Senior Fellow Barbara Block (Biology) started with an age-old dictum: You are what you eat. Tuna are predators near the top of a food chain that starts with plankton. Plankton in different parts of the ocean have different stable isotope ratios, signatures that are reflected up the food chain. So, Block and her colleagues examined changes over time in isotope ratios found in tuna liver and muscle tissue. They measured, for the first time, the rate at which tissue begins to reflect the animal’s new diet. The study’s findings vastly improve researchers’ ability to study wild tuna migration and eating behaviors and allow more accurate interpretation of field data.


“Tissue Turnover Rates and Isotopic Trophic Discrimination Factors in the Endothermic Teleost, Pacific Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus orientalis),” PLoS ONE, November 7, 2012

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute oceans research
Sustainable Development

The Promise of Solar Power

Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations have proliferated rapidly in recent years. A study co-authored by Senior Fellow Stefan Reichelstein (Business) provides a comprehensive assessment of the cost competitiveness of this electric power source. Based on data available for the second half of 2011, the researchers conclude that utility-scale PV installations are not yet cost competitive with fossil fuel power plants. However, they point out that if recent industry trends continue and current tax subsidies remain in place, utility-scale solar PV facilities will be able to compete at current wholesale electricity prices by the end of this decade. Furthermore, the study projects that commercial-scale installations, which are already competitive with retail electricity rates paid by many U.S. commercial customers, are on track to achieve full "grid parity" in about 10 years, even if current federal tax incentives expire at that point.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy


“The Prospects for Cost Competitive Solar PV Power,” Energy Policy, Dec. 25, 2012

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute sustainable development research
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The Stanford Woods Institute Research Digest is a quarterly report of findings by Woods fellows and affiliated faculty, as well as fellows with the Institute's Leopold Leadership Program. Current and past issues are online.

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