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In This Issue

 > Climate

 > Ecosystem Services

 > Food Security

 > Freshwater

 > Oceans

 > Public Health

 > Sustainable Development


Clues to Surviving Climate Change

The 1 billion people who depend on the ocean for their sustenance and livelihoods face a worrisome question: Which sea creatures will survive climate change? A study co-authored by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Stephen Palumbi (Biology) made a discovery that could help some marine species survive increasingly acidic seas. Palumbi and other researchers looked at purple sea urchins with the surprising ability to rapidly evolve in acidic ocean water. This trait, which depends on high levels of genetic variation, could provide important clues about how to maintain robust marine populations despite acidification, climate change, overfishing and other human impacts. Read more and watch video...

"Evolutionary Change During Experimental Ocean Acidification," PNAS, April 8, 2013

Read on for more summaries of the most recent work on environmental challenges and solutions published by Stanford Woods Institute fellows and affiliated researchers. We invite you to subscribe to our quarterly Research Digest.



Surprising Predictor of Ecosystem Chemistry

Researchers, including Senior Fellow Chris Field (Biology), have found that the plant species making up an ecosystem are better predictors of ecosystem chemistry than environmental conditions such as terrain, geology or altitude. The Carnegie Institution for Science study is the first to use a new, high-resolution instrument that maps multiple ecosystem chemicals from aboard a plane. The result is a key step toward understanding how species composition affects carbon, the movement of nutrients from soil to plant and back during growth and decomposition, and the effects of climate change, land use and other ecosystem pressures.


"Environmental and Community Controls on Plant Canopy Chemistry in a Mediterranean-Type Ecosystem," PNAS, April 23, 2013

How the Tax Code Affects Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Do U.S. tax subsidies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions actually work? Maybe yes, maybe no, according to a recent report by a National Research Council committee on which Senior Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh (Earth Sciences) served. The report considers energy-related provisions, such as transportation fuel taxes, as well as broad-based proposals that may affect emissions, such as machinery investment incentives. The combined effect of energy-related U.S. tax subsidies on greenhouse gas emissions is minimal and could be negative or positive, the committee found. Another key finding: Renewable electricity subsidies appear to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while those for ethanol and other biofuels may result in slightly increased greenhouse gas emissions.


"Effects of U.S. Tax Policy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions," National Research Council Report, June 2013

Global Warming and Extreme Weather Events

Recent extreme weather events inevitably prompt the question: Did global warming play a role? Weather systems are too complex and variable for anyone to be able to answer that question. But scientists studying weather records from the last century are identifying historical trends to help understand how global warming has - and will - affect the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Senior Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh (Earth Sciences) reports on this effort in a peer-reviewed journal paper.


"Monitoring and Understanding Changes in Heat Waves, Cold Waves, Floods and Droughts in the United States: State of Knowledge," Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, June 2013


Other Climate Change Research

"The Contribution of African Easterly Waves to Monsoon Precipitation in the CMIP3 Ensemble," Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, May 16, 2013, co-authored by Senior Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh (Earth Sciences)


  More information about Stanford Woods Institute climate research
Ecosystem Services

Forest Insights From Wasps

Land development in the world's tropical regions is driving many animal species to the brink of extinction. While the effect of habitat fragmentation has been widely studied, few researchers have focused on invertebrates in this context. A study co-authored by Senior Fellow Rodolfo Dirzo (Environmental Science) looks at ichneumonid wasps, a species-rich group important to the regulation of other insect populations, in Mexico's Los Tuxtlas tropical rain forest. The study found that species richness, abundance and diversity of ichneumonids were greater in a continuous forest (1,581 acres) than a forest fragment (47 acres). The study's findings also suggest that changes in the wasp community may compromise important tropical ecosystem processes.


"Richness and Abundance of Ichneumonidae in a Fragmented Tropical Rain Forest," Neotropical Entomology, June 2013

What Gophers Can Teach Us About Climate Change

Current climate models overlook a key factor, according to a study led by former Stanford undergraduate biology student Ariel Marcy and co-authored by Senior Fellows Scott Fendorf (Earth Sciences) and Liz Hadly (Biology). Despite its significant impact on organisms that depend on stable soil structures, soil hardness has received little attention from researchers. Fendorf, Hadly and their fellow researchers looked at the varying abilities of different species of Northern Californian pocket gophers to dig into harder soils. Because low precipitation and high temperatures can cause clays to crack and harden within days, they hypothesize that ongoing climate change will dramatically affect hardness of soil and, thereby, the distribution of gophers and other vertebrates. Changes in soil hardness will also affect agriculture, construction and other human services.


"Morphological Adaptations for Digging and Climate-Impacted Soil Properties Define Pocket Gopher (Thomomys spp.) Distributions," PLOS ONE, May 24, 2013

Evolution Shapes New Rules for Ant Behavior

In ancient Greece, the city-states that waited until their own harvest was in before attacking and destroying a rival community's crops often experienced better long-term success. It turns out that ant colonies that show similar selectivity when gathering food yield a similar result. The latest findings from Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated biology Professor Deborah M. Gordon's long-term study of harvester ants reveals that the colonies that restrain their foraging except in prime conditions also experience improved rates of reproductive success.


"The Rewards of Restraint in the Collective Regulation of Foraging by Harvester Ant Colonies," Nature, May 15, 2013


Other Ecosystem Services Research

"Effects of Mammalian Herbivore Declines on Plant Communities: Observations and Experiments in an African Savannah," Journal of Ecology, June 6, 2013, co-authored by Senior Fellow Rodolfo Dirzo (Environmental Science)

"Ecology: Getting the Word Out on Biosphere Crisis," Nature, May 29, 2013, co-authored by Senior Fellow Liz Hadly (Biology)


  More information about Stanford Woods Institute ecosystem services research
Food Security

How to Feed the World Without Deforesting the Planet

Does feeding the world require decimating forests? Senior Fellow Eric Lambin (Earth Sciences) has a surprising answer with far-reaching implications for policymakers, businesses and consumers. Among the findings of a study Lambin co-authored: There is much less potentially available cropland globally than previously estimated, multiple uses compete for it, and its conversion results in significant social and ecological costs. Lambin and his co-authors point out that we don't need to clear more land, including forests, to plant hunger-alleviating crops.


"Estimating the World's Potentially Available Cropland Using a Bottom-Up Approach," Global Environmental Change, June 11, 2013

More Frequent Extreme Heat Makes Farming Riskier

Climate change will affect crop production through rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Exposure to extreme heat, particularly during the flowering period, can severely damage crop production in ways that are not captured by most crop models. A study led by Woods postdoctoral scholar Sharon Gourdji (Center on Food Security and the Environment) and co-authored by Senior Fellow David Lobell (Earth Sciences, FSI) analyzes this phenomenon for global maize, rice, soybean and wheat harvests. The researchers estimate that by the 2050s, 44 percent of maize and 27 percent of rice harvested areas around the globe will be exposed to at least five days a year of extreme heat during flowering in a typical year. Adapting may require changes in sowing dates, crop and variety switching, expansion of irrigation and agricultural expansion into cooler areas.

Read more and watch video...

"Global Crop Exposure to Critical High Temperatures in the Reproductive Period: Historical Trends and Future Projections," Environmental Research Letters, June 13, 2013

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute food security research
Fresh Water

Toward a Healthier Delta

California's story is, in great part, a story of water. Future chapters of that story depend on wise management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, one of the state's most important sources of drinking water and agricultural irrigation. As the state considers plans for the Delta, including a multi-billion-dollar tunnel project to divert water into canals, a new report co-authored by Senior Fellow Buzz Thompson (Law) offers a blueprint to improve the health of the ecosystem. The report recommends comprehensive, science-based management of the multiple sources of stress on the ailing ecosystem. It also recommends improvements to the highly fragmented system of oversight that now involves dozens of federal, state and local agencies.


"Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem," April 2013, Public Policy Institute of California

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute freshwater research

Climate Change-Related Risks and Options for California's Coast

The ever-changing California coast is about to experience an even greater degree of transformation due to climate change, and it's up to coastal managers to figure out how to respond to changes that could potentially impact thousands of residents, billions of dollars of resources and invaluable marine ecosystems. To help coastal managers perform this herculean task, the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS) teamed up with other researchers to craft an in-depth chapter dedicated to California coastal issues as part of a book about climate change in the Southwestern U.S. COS Executive Director and Woods Senior Lecturer Meg Caldwell (Law) was a coordinating lead author of the chapter.


"Coastal Issues" chapter in Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment, Island Press, February 2013


Natural Coast Protector

Kelp forests can help protect coastal areas from wave-induced impact and erosion, according to a study co-authored by Senior Fellows Steven Monismith and Jeff Koseff, both professors of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Using a 1/25-scale kelp model in a laboratory tank that simulates ocean currents and waves, the researchers looked at how kelp forests respond to waves. They found that when waves were present, the kelp's drag, or resistance to flow, doubled, the distribution of the flow currents changed as they passed through the forest and the generation of turbulence in the forest increased by a factor of 2 to 5. Beyond highlighting kelp forests' role as wave attenuators, the study opens the door to a broader look at the value of natural systems - in monetary and other terms - as coastal protectors.


"Interaction of Waves and Currents With Kelp Forests (Macrocystis pyrifera): Insights From a Dynamically Scaled Laboratory Model," Limnology and Oceanography, May 2013

Deep-Sea Waves Reveal Secrets

Researchers, including Woods-affiliated Assistant Professor of Environmental Earth System Science Leif Thomas, have discovered an undersea surf zone where wind-spawned waves traveling as much as 500 meters below the sea surface break as they hit the boundaries between currents of differing density, such as cool subpolar and warm subtropical currents. Their finding has ramifications for understanding how heat, salinity and nutrients are transferred between currents and, by extension, globally. The new data should also aid in improving the physics behind computer models used to predict climate.


"Near-Inertial Waves in Strongly Baroclinic Currents," Journal of Physical Oceanography, April 2013


Other Oceans Research

"Regional Calibration of Coral-Based Climate Reconstructions From Palau, West Pacific Warm Pool (WPWP)," Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, June 12, 2013, co-authored by Senior Fellow Rob Dunbar (Earth Sciences)

"Bacterial Abundance and Composition in Marine Sediment Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica," Geobiology, May 20, 2013, co-authored by Senior Fellow Rob Dunbar (Earth Sciences)

"Using Historical Data to Assess the Biogeography of Population Recovery," Ecography, May 22, 2013, co-authored by Jack Kittinger, an early career fellow (Center for Ocean Solutions)

"'Not Supported by Current Science': The National Forest Management Act and the Lessons of Environmental Monitoring for the Future of Public Resources Management," Stanford Environmental Law Journal, May 15, 2013, co-authored by Visiting Fellow Ryan Kelly and Senior Lecturer Meg Caldwell (Law)

"Ten Ways States Can Fight Ocean Acidification (and Why They Should)," Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2013, co-authored by Visiting Fellow Ryan Kelly and Senior Lecturer Meg Caldwell (Law)


  More information about Stanford Woods Institute oceans research
Public Health

Factoring the Environment Into Health

A special report in the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine examines the connection between health and the environment through the work of Stanford Woods Institute researchers around the world. "Environmental Impact: The Health Effect" includes:

  • "Priming the Pumps" is the story of a radical solution for contaminated drinking water developed by Woods postdoctoral scholar Amy Pickering and Woods Senior Fellows Jenna Davis (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Stephen Luby (Medicine). The story's sidebar, "Coming to a Sprinkler Near You in America, Reused Water on Tap," looks at the work of Senior Fellow Richard Luthy (Civil and Environmental Engineering) on ways to increase recycled water use.
  • "Close Encounters" looks at the work of scientists, including Senior Fellows Eric Lambin (Earth Sciences), Michele Barry (Medicine) and Rodolfo Dirzo (Biology), who are combining data from satellite images with studies on the ground to grasp the ecology of disease-bearing pests. A sidebar describes Woods' role as a hub for environmental research that tackles the world's most pressing environmental challenges.

Woods has supported research related to each of these projects through its Environmental Venture Projects seed grant program.

Photo credit: Amy Pickering


  More information about Stanford Woods Institute public health research
Sustainable Development

How Sense of Place Affects Resource Management

Despite increasing interest in restoring local-level management of natural resources, few studies examine differences between the place connections of residents and tourists and their implications for community-based natural resource management. A survey directed by former Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources graduate student Mehana Vaughan and Center Fellow Nicole Ardoin (Education) in Haena, Kauai, Hawaii, found significant differences in how residents and tourists learn about the area, their perceptions of resource health, who they think is responsible for taking care of resources and their views of personal responsibilities to the place. The findings have implications for, among other things, the importance of guidebooks in mediating visitor perceptions of a place and the potential to engage residents in more organized community-based resource management efforts.


"The Implications of Differing Tourist/Resident Perceptions for Community-Based Resource Management: A Hawaiian Coastal Resource Area Study," Journal of Sustainable Tourism, June 19, 2013

  More information about Stanford Woods Institute sustainable development research
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