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Tackling wildfire, health and environmental risks

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has awarded ten proposals as part of its 2018 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants.


Stanford engineers, geophysicists, disease ecologists, musicologists and others soon will collaborate on finding new ways to detect and reduce wildfire risk; harness the sun’s power to purify water; interpret ocean health through sound and more.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has awarded ten proposals as part of its 2018 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants. Both programs provide funding for interdisciplinary research needed to solve major environmental problems. Such problems – ranging from long-neglected tropical diseases to managing groundwater supplies to drought-fueled wildfires – are too complex to be solved by any one discipline alone. The Stanford Woods Institute prioritizes funding interdisciplinary projects that have the potential to make significant strides in addressing such multifaceted challenges.

Since the EVP program began in 2004 and the REIP program began in 2015, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $14.5 million in grants to 94 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s academic schools.


EVP grants support interdisciplinary, high-risk research projects that identify and develop real-world solutions. The projects selected for 2018 will each receive grants ranging from $21,085 to $200,000 over the next two years:

Tracking Parasite Hotspots: Schistosmiasis is a devasting parasitic disease affecting 250 million people worldwide. Detecting parasite-carrying snails can assist decision makers in managing risk and controlling the disease, but traditional monitoring techniques are costly and labor intensive. Stanford researchers propose a novel approach to assess schistosomiasis risk across large spatial scales, integrating field data on vegetation and snail distribution with high-definition satellite and drone imagery, artificial intelligence and disease dynamics modeling. The goal will be rapid, cost-effective assessments of transmission hotspots. Giulio De Leo (Biology) and Eric Lambin (Earth System Science)

Monitoring Drought with Forest Radar: Droughts can cause dramatic increases in large-scale tree mortality and fire fuel aridity in forests. To manage risk, forest managers need to know the water content of tree canopies, but related remote sensing data is either unavailable or at too poor a resolution. Stanford researchers will test an upward-facing ground-based radar system – previously used to monitor ice sheets – at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve to see if it can measure water content. This technology could eventually be used for distributed monitoring networks operated by the U.S. Forest Service or other organizations to better understand fire risk. Alexandra Konings (Earth System Science) and Dustin Schroeder (Geophysics)

Building Solar-Powered Water Treatment: Contamination of drinking water is a huge challenge. Chlorination is the most common method of disinfection, but it produces carcinogenic byproducts and undesirable taste and odor. An alternative disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), leaves only water and oxygen as byproducts. However, cost and safety concerns make H2O2 inaccessible to a large percentage of people who need it the most. This project will design, build and test a prototype solar-powered water treatment system. The system will electrochemically convert water and oxygen to produce levels of H2O2 sufficient to remove pathogens, odors and metals from water. Xiaolin Zheng (Mechanical Engineering) and Jens Norskov (Chemical Engineering)

Mapping Intersection of Water, Climate and Disease Transmission:Understanding the relationship between water resources, climate change and mobility can help us better understand disease transmission. This projectwill combine detailed ethnographic and epidemiological fieldwork with remote sensing of water resources to create simulation models exploring future climate change scenarios. This effort will create maps to help government ministries and nongovernmental organizations develop combined economic and epidemiological interventions for communities in Africa. James Holland Jones (Earth System Science), Alexandra Konings (Earth System Science) and Jeff Koseff (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Controlling Wildlife Disease:Canine distemper virus (CDV) is distributed globally and causes fatal disease in domestic and wild carnivore species. There is no cure, and the mortality rate is 50 percent in adult dogs and 80 percent in pups. Epidemics have caused 30 percent declines in Serengeti lions, 45 percent declines in Yellowstone wolves, and 95 percent declines in island foxes. This project will bridge understanding of the genetic variations of the disease with models of how, where, when, who and why the disease can be transmitted to improve CDV control in wildlife, particularly in threatened and reservoir populations. Dimitri Petrov (Biology) and Elizabeth Hadly (Biology)

Sonifying the Sea: This project will develop, test and deploy novel methods of displaying complex data through sound. The researchers will focus on interpreting and communicating oceanic data to understand the processes affecting rich and complex ecosystems such as giant kelp forests and coral reefs. Auditory display using musical principles can provide effective translations of many cyclical factors that impact the health and survival of these ecosystems, ranging from the dynamic patterns of biomes, to the effects of climate and other anthropogenic factors. Jonathan Berger (Music) and Stephen Palumbi (Biology)

Evaluating Water Safety:Although New Zealand has the reputation of maintaining a pristine environment, 26 percent of its rivers are no longer swimmable due to waterborne pathogens, and high concentrations of contaminants such as nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides. With these concerns in mind, Stanford researchers will develop a pilot freshwater sustainability policy evaluation model for the watershed containing Auckland. This work, in collaboration with academics and government scientists in New Zealand, has the ultimate goal of extending the model to the entire country. Steven Gorelick (Earth System Science) and Kate Maher (Earth System Science) 


REIP is intended to forward projects from the solution discovery phase of research to the validation phase and toward adoption by end users. The projects selected for 2018 will each receive grants ranging from $130,000 to $200,000 over the next two years:

Optimizing Groundwater Recharge:Increasing groundwater recharge is critical to our water future. Spreading basins (ponds with high percolation rates) can help, but many cities don’t consider how innovative urban water sources, such as recycled water and spreading basins can augment recharge. Stanford researchers have developed a computational tool called AquaCharge that facilitates planning augmented spreading basin systems by optimizing technical designs. This project will apply AquaCharge to case studies of California’s Santa Clara Valley and the Central Valley city of Fresno, comparing insights to draw general lessons about planning these systems. Richard Luthy (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and  Amin Saberi (Management Science and Engineering)

Reducing Coastal Risk:Understanding the increasing risk posed by coastal floods and erosion and the benefits of natural defenses, such as reef and wetland restoration, is critical to governments and private industry. This project will develop fragility curves, which denote the expected extent of damage to structures by extreme events. This data will allow risk managers to describe the long-term effectiveness of coastal habitats, transfer information to industry models and tools and help unlock funding for the conservation and restoration of natural defenses. Jenny Suckale (Geophysics) and Jack Baker (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Preventing Wildfire:Wildfires can cause billions of dollars in damages and drain the U.S. Forest Service of financial resources that would otherwise be available for conservation investments.  Many of the human-caused fires originate in the same hotspots such as mountain passes and highway sections. Unfortunately, there is no environmentally-safe prophylactic fire-retarding treatment available for use in fire prevention. However, Stanford researchers have developed an environmentally-benign cellulose-based hydrogel that can retain polyphosphate fire retardants on target fuels for up to several months following application with common spraying equipment. In collaboration with Cal Fire, the Desert Research Institute, and the U.S. Forest Service, this project will pilot, optimize and validate the technology. Eric Appel (Materials Science and Engineering) and Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

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