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In This Issue

 > Climate

 > Ecosystem Services

 > Food Security

 > Freshwater

 > Oceans

 > Public Health

 > Sustainable Development


Environment and Sustainability:
Get the Latest Science

This inaugural issue of the Stanford Woods Institute Research Digest provides a comprehensive and contextual look at the breakthrough interdisciplinary research being produced by Stanford Woods Institute faculty and researchers, as well as fellows with our Leopold Leadership Program. Produced on a quarterly basis, the Research Digest covers the latest scientific findings from our world-class experts on the environment and global sustainability. While the digest is organized by our core focal areas (climate, ecosystem services, food security, freshwater, oceans, public health and sustainable development), much of our work crosses disciplines and topics. We hope this issue and those to come will inform decisions and inspire hope in the progress our research community is making toward practical solutions for people and the planet.


Managing Weather Disaster Risks

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report intended to help communities around the world adapt to climate change. Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow and Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Chris Field was a co-chair of one of the two working groups that produced it. Field describes the report as "unique because it emphasizes managing risks and how taking precautions can work" for managing extreme weather events such as intense rainfalls, droughts, and hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly common and severe. The report suggests "low-regret" strategies as starting points, including early warning systems, risk communication, sustainable land management, and infrastructure improvements.

"Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,"
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Spring 2012.

Climate Change Could Open Trade Opportunities for Some Vulnerable Nations

The economy of one of the world's least-developed countries could actually benefit from climate change by increasing exports of corn to the U.S. and other nations, according to a study by researchers including Stanford Woods Institute Center Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh. The study,
shows that Tanzania, an African country better known for safaris and Mt. Kilimanjaro has the potential to substantially increase its maize exports and take advantage of higher commodity prices with a variety of trading partners due to predicted dry and hot weather that could affect those countries' usual sources for the crop.

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"Agriculture and Trade Opportunities for Tanzania: Past Volatility and Future Climate Change,"
Review of Development Economics, July 13, 2012.

Climate Change and Corn Price Fluctuations

In the next three decades, America's number one crop could see increased price volatility due to climate change, according to a study by Stanford Woods Institute Center Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh and Purdue University Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics Thomas Hertel. The effect of more frequent climate change-induced heat waves is likely to have far greater influence on the volatility of corn prices than factors such as oil prices, trade policies and government biofuel mandates, the researchers found in "Response of corn markets to climate volatility under alternative energy futures."


"Response of corn markets to climate volatility under alternative energy futures," Nature Climate Change, April 22, 2012.

Biodiversity Loss and its Impact on Humanity

An international group of ecologists including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Gretchen Daily and Leopold Leadership Program Fellow David Hooper (2006) called for renewed international efforts to curb the loss of Earth's biological diversity. The loss is compromising nature's ability to provide goods and services essential for human well-being, the scientists stated in their paper. Over the past two decades, strong scientific evidence has emerged showing that decline of the world's biological diversity reduces the productivity and sustainability of ecosystems. This decline also decreases ecosystems' ability to provide society with goods and services like food, wood, fodder, fertile soils and protection from pests and disease.


"Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity," Nature, June 7, 2012.

Support for Climate Change Action Dips

Americans' support for government action on global warming remains high but has dropped during the past two years, according to a survey by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Jon Krosnick in collaboration with Ipsos Public Affairs. The study found that cooler-than-average weather and political rhetoric appear to have influenced the shift, but economics doesn't appear to have played a role.
Photo Credit: Rich Engelbrecht


"Trends in American Public Opinion on Global Warming Policies Between 2010 and 2012."

Gap in Climate Change Awareness and Concern

The heat waves, massive storms and blackouts that have rolled across the country this summer have not translated into increased concern or support for action on global warming among Americans, according to a poll by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Jon Krosnick in collaboration with The Washington Post. The study shows that most Americans believe temperatures around the world are going up and that weather patterns have become more unstable in the past few years, but it also shows that the number of people who want more government action on the issue has decreased since 2006. A majority still support government action across a range of policies to curb energy consumption, but more than 70 percent of respondents oppose policies that would rely on tax increases on electricity or gas to change individual behavior. Twenty percent want the government to stay out of regulating greenhouse gases altogether.


Climate Sensitivity Study

Modern climate is more sensitive to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than it has been in the past 12 million years and possibly ever, according to a study by scientists including Stanford Woods Institute Center Fellow Michael Wara. It provfides new evidence from deep-sea sediment cores that Miocene period temperatures across a broad swath of the North Pacific were 9-14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today while atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations remained low - similar to those prior to the Industrial Revolution. The research shows that, in the last five million years, changes in ocean circulation have made Earth's climate more closely coupled to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Previous studies had shown that high concentrations of CO2 persist during warm periods, while lower concentrations correspond to colder times.


"Late Miocene decoupling of oceanic warmth and atmospheric carbon dioxide forcing," Nature, June 7, 2012.

Global Warming: Surprising Find on Long-Term Effects on Plants

According to decade-long research by Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Bruce Hungate (2004) and his colleagues, plants may thrive in the early stages of a warming environment, but then begin to deteriorate quickly. The results of their study, done in four grassland ecosystems, were theoppositeof predictions by other models that warming would cause a sustained increase in plant productivity. Having a long-term perspective is key to understanding how plant communities respond to warmer temperatures, the team says."


"Biogeochemical and ecological feedbacks in grassland responses to warming," Nature, April 2012.

Ranchers and Scientists Team Up to Fight Greenhouse Gases

Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Whendee Silver (2009) and her colleagues are partnering with California ranchers to learn how rangelands can be used to remove carbon dioxide from the air and reduce greenhouse gases. The team uses high-quality compost to grow grasses that absorb the carbon and pump it deep into the soil through the plants' roots. They have found that soil in the composted areas stores more carbon than soil in other areas. As a next step, the team is looking to other partners to help create financial incentives for more landowners join the project. "The endgame is to have a real impact on farms and on the climate," they say.


Methane release: Another Call for Attention from the Arctic

A research team including Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Jeff Chanton (2005) documented evidence of widespread release of "ancient" geologic methane, a different type from "younger" methane released when frozen organic material decomposes. In their study the team found that this "ancient" methane comes from coal beds or natural gas deposits deep underground, which scientists previously thought would be permanently trapped under frozen soils and glaciers. Given the vast amount of this trapped ancient methane, the escape of even a small fraction of it could have a significant climate warming impact as a powerful greenhouse gas, the team says.


"Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers," Nature, May 20, 2012.

Ecosystem Services

Integrating Ecosystem-Service Tradeoffs Into Land-Use Decisions

In 2006 Hawaii's largest private land owner partnered with the Natural Capital Project to decide the fate of an iconic 40-square-mile plot on the north shore of Oahu under intense development pressure. Researchers including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Gretchen C. Daily tell the story of the two-year process in a paper. Using the InVEST software tool, they provided ecological models for decision-makers and helped the Kamehameha Schools evaluate the environmental and financial implications of various land-use scenarios. Based on this analysis and community input, the land-holder found a way to achieve economic, environmental and social objectives, meeting a challenge facing communities everywhere.


"Integrating ecosystem-service tradeoffs into land-use decisions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2012.

Finding Common Ground for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

In the conservation community, there is an ongoing debate about whether to focus on ecosystem services - what people want or need from nature - as a strategy to conserve biodiversity. Some see this strategy as a distraction from the primary conservation mission. A research team including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow, Emeritus, Hal Mooney and Natural Capital Project researchers Heather Tallis and Steve Polasky found that the perceived lack of common ground between these differing perspectives is a result of narrow interpretations of metrics, values and management. The team's study found that conservation of ecosystem services often also results in the conservation of biodiversity, depending on how they respond to management interventions. The paper highlight the importance of differentiating between conservation objectives and approaches in conservation projects.

"Finding Common Ground for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services," BioScience, May 2012.

Farming for Ecosystem Services

Farmers potentially can increase both their income and the value that they create for society by managing their lands not only for crops and livestock, but for a wide range of crops and ecosystem services including renewable energy, climate regulation, hydrologic services and wildlife habitat. That is the conclusion of Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Buzz Thompson in an article on what he dubs "EcoFarming." The article examines the opportunity to use private, philanthropic and governmental markets to encourage farmers to manage their land for a broader set of goods and services than they produce today. The article also looks in detail at the current state of these markets and at the policy steps that governments can take to enhance them.
Photo Credit: Editor5807

"Integrating ecosystem-service tradeoffs into land-use decisions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2012.

Better Economic Indicator Could Spur Sustainability

Conventional indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) fail to capture the scope of countries' wealth. These indicators may be fueling unsustainable development because they fail to account for economic development's damage to natural capital - what people want or need from nature. To address these concerns, the Natural Capital Project partnered with the UN University and UN Environment Program, The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund to release the Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (IWR) at the Earth Summit 2012 (Rio+20). The IWR proposes an approach to sustainability based on measuring natural, manufactured, human and social forms of capital. It represents a crucial first step in transforming the global economic paradigm, by ensuring that leaders have the correct information to assess economic development and well-being - and to reassess people's needs and goals.


Biodiversity Ranks with Climate Change, Pollution in Affecting Planet's Health

A research team including Leopold Leadership Program Fellows David Hooper (2006) and Bruce Hungate (2004) has found that future loss of species could impact ecosystem health and productivity as much as global warming and pollution. They are the first group to make a comprehensive comparison of the impacts of biodiversity loss with the effects of other environmental changes. In their study the team emphasizes the need for stronger efforts to protect biodiversity, which supports nature's ability to provide services such as food, clean water, and a stable climate.


"A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change," Nature, May 2, 2012.

Food Security

Oil Palm Surging Source of Greenhouse Gas

Continued expansion of industrial-scale oil palm plantations on the island of Borneo will become a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 unless strong forest and peatland protections are enacted and enforced, according to a National Academy of Sciences study co-authored by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Lisa Curran. The study found that about two-thirds of lands outside of protected areas in the region are leased to oil palm agribusiness companies. If these leases are converted to oil palm at current expansion rates, by 2020 monotypic palm stands will occupy more than a third of regional lands and intact forests will decline to less than 5 percent from approximately 15 percent in 2008.
Photo Credit: Irvin Calicut


"Committed Carbon Emissions Deforestation and Community Land Conversion from Oil Palm Plantation Expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 20, 2012.

Fresh Water

Water and California Business

A recent report by 15 water experts and economists, including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Buzz Thompson, assesses the vital role that water plays in the California economy. According to the report, “Water lies at the heart of California's economy and quality of life," but the state faces “tremendous water management challenge" such as unreliable water supplies, the risk of catastrophic interruptions, flood risks and severely overdrafted groundwater basins. The report, published by the Public Policy Institute of California, urges business to play a proactive leadership role on water issues and recommends seven major policy changes including modernized water measurement and pricing, stronger water markets and improved local groundwater management. The report stems from a one-day workshop on water and the economy held at the Stanford Woods Institute in September 2011.

"Water and the California Economy," Public Policy Institute of California, May 2012.

Improving Groundwater Management

Groundwater is a critical part of our water supply, but groundwater management frequently ignores the impact that groundwater pumping can have on rivers and important ecosystems such as wetlands and springs. A report of the Water in the West program, in conjunction with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, identifies and evaluates a range of policy tools that can be used to ensure more integrated groundwater management. The report reflects the findings of a workshop hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute and attended by 44 groundwater managers and experts from the western United States and Australia. Issues addressed include catalysts to spur more integrated management, better tools for evaluating impacts, methods of reducing the cost of groundwater restrictions, the use of infrastructure to deal with groundwater impacts and aquifer storage and recovery.
Photo Credit: Ba'Gamnan

"Instituting Integration: Findings of the Comparative Groundwater Law & Policy Program's Workshop 1," Water in the West, May 2012.


Predicting the Oceans of the Future

Stanford researchers have helped open a new door of possibility in the high-stakes effort to save the world's coral reefs. Working with an international team, the scientists - including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellows Jeff Koseff, Rob Dunbar and Steve Monismith - found a way to create future ocean conditions in a small lab-in-a-box in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The water inside the device can mimic the composition of the future ocean as climate change continues to alter Earth. The scientists documents their findings in a paper published in the journal Nature.
Photo Credit: David I. Kline


"A short-term in situ CO2 enrichment experiment on Heron Island (GBR)," Nature, May 21, 2012.

Fragile Land-Sea Chains

Students of Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellows Rob Dunbar and Rodolfo Dirzo and Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology affiliated with the Stanford Woods Institute, discovered one of the longest ecological chains ever documented. Their study sheds light on how human disturbance of the natural world may lead to widespread, yet largely invisible, disruptions of ecological interaction chains.
Photo Credit: Gareth Williams


"From wing to wing," Nature Scientific Reports, May 17, 2012.

Changing Arctic Ocean - Surprising Discovery Under Ice

A research team led by Leopold Leadership Program Fellow and Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated associate professor Kevin Arrigo (2009) has discovered a massive algal bloom under the Arctic pack ice, which scientists previously thought would be impossible due to lack of light. The team's paper shows that the light reaching the upper water through the ice has been increasing because of thinning ice cover and the rapid growth of melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean. These conditions have enabled the algal blooms to form. The team hopes that this finding will help predict the impacts of ongoing and future changes in the Arctic Ocean environment.


"Massive Phytoplankton Blooms Under Arctic Sea Ice," Science, June 7, 2012.

Marine Reserves Aid Ecosystem Recovery After Environmental Disasters

Protected ocean areas known as marine reserves jumpstart the recovery of nearby commercial fishing areas after an environmental event, according to a study of abalone by researchers led by Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated Professor Fiorenza Micheli of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. For years, scientists, fishers and government regulators could only speculate that marine reserves, pockets of ocean that are off limits to fishing, could help entire ecosystems bounce back after an environmental disaster. Micheli's results support what was once just an educated guess.


"Evidence That Marine Reserves Enhance Resilience to Climatic Impacts," PLoS ONE, July 18, 2012.

The Value of Small Fish

A group of scientists including Leopold Leadership Program Fellows Dee Boersma (2000), David Conover (2005), and Selina Heppell (2006) is urging significant reductions in global catches of small ocean fish such as anchovies and sardines. These "forage fish" are prey for a wide range of bigger fish, sea birds, and marine animals that depend on them for survival, according to the scientific task force's analysis. These fish are also more than twice as valuable to commercial fishers if they remain in the ocean and are eaten by higher-value fish than if they are caught directly. Forage fish make up 37 percent of the world's marine fish catch and are mainly used to feed farmed fish and livestock. The group recommends cutting forage fishing by half in many parts to prevent their populations from collapsing. The Washington Post and other publications covered the findings.


"little fish, BIG IMPACT," Lenfest Ocean Program, April 2012.

Getting Serious About Valuing the Ocean

Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Rashid Sumaila (2009) and his colleagues estimate that damage to the world's oceans from human activity will cost the global economy over 400 billion dollar per year in the next 40 years. In their study - set to be published as a book later this year - they look at impacts to fishing, tourism and other economic activity from the top six threats to the ocean: acidification, warming, oxygen depletion, sea level rise, pollution and the overuse of ocean resources. By putting a dollar value on services that the ocean provides to human, the authors hope to help people understand the risks and spur policy makers to take action to protect the ocean's irreplaceable resources.


"Valuing the Ocean," Stockholm Environment Institute, 2012.

Sustainable Development

EVPs Hold Promise of Food Safety and Drinking Water Innovation

In June, the Stanford Woods Institute announced the recipients of this year's Environmental Venture Projects (EVPs) awards - two-year grants for interdisciplinary research aimed at finding practical solutions to major environmental and sustainability challenges. Among the exciting projects were two that could revolutionize important areas of public health:

Rapid Detection of Water-borne Pathogens and Pathogen Indicators by Digitization and Concentration of Reporter Enzyme Fluorescence in Microfluidic Picoliter Droplets
Every year, millions die from preventable water-borne diseases. This project will develop a rapid and low-cost detection method involving a probe that lights up in the presence of water-borne pathogens and their indicators. The technology could revolutionize the way water is tested by putting the tools in the hands of citizens. The resulting wealth of citizen-collected data could lead to improved public health policies.
Researchers: Sindy Kam Yan Tang (Mechanical Engineering), Jianghong Rao (Radiology and Chemistry) and Alexandria Boehm (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Trace Organics in Recycled Water: Analysis of Plant Uptake and Processing
There is no effective and feasible way to completely remove N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), a carcinogenic disinfection byproduct, from contaminated reclaimed wastewater. This project will look at how plants cope with NDMA and help predict and model how food crops irrigated with contaminated reclaimed water might serve as a vehicle for human exposure to NDMA. This will aid in predicting the impact of contaminated reclaimed water on food safety and in designing remediation systems.
Researchers: Elizabeth Sattely (Chemical Engineering) and Dick Luthy (Civil and Environmental Engineering / Stanford Woods Institute)


Sustainable Development

Approaching a Global Tipping Point?

In the weeks leading up to Rio+20, group of international scientists including Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Elizabeth Hadly warned that population pressures may be pushing Earth toward a crucial tipping point. If this planetary transition takes place, some plant and animal species we depend on could disappear and major crop disruptions could occur, leading to widespread political instability, according to the scientists' study. The paper was picked up by hundreds of major U.S. and international media outlets.
Photo Credit: NASA


"Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere," Nature, June 6, 2012.

Far From Sustainability

On the eve of the landmark Rio+20 U.N. environmental conference, Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellows Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily joined with Daily's Natural Capital Project co-founder Peter Kareiva to look at how far from sustainability we are as a species. Their paper called on the world's nations to take stock of the world's population (projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050), consumption and biodiversity loss. Rio+20, the successor to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, was, the authors argued, a major opportunity to reconsider how to live more sustainably.
Photo Credit: L.A. Cicero


"Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization," Nature, June 6, 2012.

In Countries Where Cooking Can Kill, Trying to Promote Safer Stoves

Preparing a meal in some of the world's poorest rural areas can turn an ordinary activity into a deadly chore. Animal dung and crop scraps often fuel the indoor fires used for cooking. And before any food fills a hungry belly, thick black smoke fills a family's lungs. Working with Yale researchers, Grant Miller and Lynn Hildemann, both Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated faculty, found that clean and modern cookstoves don't have features people want. Until they're redesigned, people are unlikely to bother with them, the researchers' findings show.
Photo Credit: Lynn Hildeman


"Low demand for nontraditional cookstove technologies," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 8, 2012.

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