CGRER Looks Forward: Writer Activist Barbara Eckstein


Julia Poska| April 5, 2019

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Barbara Eckstein, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska 2019.

Barbara Eckstein’s environmental interest was a product of place. Her first jobs were in New Orleans, “where class and race and environmental degradation are very present,” she said. “So the need for activism on the behalf of those causes was just very apparent.”

When she came to teach at the University of Iowa, an urban and regional planning professor introduced her to sustainability, which was a useful model for pulling her interests together into her second book, Sustaining New Orleans.

The English professor has since spent her career studying, advocating for and writing about racism, environmentalism and the relationships between the two. She’s also addressing climate change.

Eckstein’s other environmental-literary interest? Mosquitos! Learn more here. 

“Locally, what I saw was on the one hand an interesting, deep commitment in Iowa to Iowa as a political entity…and a distance from the climate change conversations that scientists and others were having at the universities and the colleges in Iowa,” Eckstein said.

Together with various students and colleagues, she has spent years creating the People’s Weather Map, an online collection of stories about extreme weather in every Iowa county  from both the recent and distant past.

The target audience, she said, ranges from the dubious to the concerned: not the alarmed, and not the explicit deniers, who she said have a political stake in denial and remain a significant portion of the U.S. population. Eckstein instead wants to help people understand the complex links between climate change and extreme weather.

The most important audience for climate communication, she said, is “Implicatory Deniers.” These are people who are convinced by climate science but have struggled to adjust their lifestyles accordingly.

“We live this double consciousness, where we fully believe it, but we take plane trips to Bora Bora at the drop of a hat if we can afford it,” she said.

Listen for more of Eckstein’s thoughts on climate denial. 

Narrative can be a powerful tool to sway such people. Eckstein referenced a model in which a human figure stands at the center of several concentric circles, each representing a psychological barrier to personal climate action, starting with “Identity.” An arrow representing stories attempts to pass through the circles.

“As a person who studies and writes about literature and who is a writer, I think ‘Oh my God. What a huge responsibility!’” Eckstein exclaimed.

Readers often identify themselves in stories, she said, but carefully written ones can bend their self-perception. Eckstein hopes the stories told in the People’s Weather Map can help readers think about the places they live in a new light.

“We want the story to be familiar and then not,” she said. “Pull people in with the familiarity, and then turn it so there’s capacity to learn from the story.”

Stories also provide vicarious experience. Readers can learn from the mistakes and decision making of characters instead of making their own mistakes.

But some stories are even more valuable than others.

“I think we need to hear more from those people that we know generally are more vulnerable to a changing climate,” Eckstein said.

Hear Eckstein’s plans for the future of the People’s Weather Map. 

The environmental movement is inherently a social movement, but it has not always been (and still sometimes fails to be) socially oriented and inclusive. She said environmentalists have some racism to live down and must do all they can imagine to heal the rift with those who have faced social injustice.

“We have to just kind of go out there and try to undo it, by being present and listening,” she said. “Not by telling people ‘Here’s our schtick.’”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

CGRER Looks Forward: Statistician Kate Cowles


Julia Poska | March 22, 2019

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Kate Cowles, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Hydrologists can never completely predict when flooding will strike. Conservationists can never be sure how chemical spills will impact fish populations, nor can anyone really foretell how extreme the effects of climate change will be. That’s why environmental researchers need statisticians like Kate Cowles.

“One of the hallmarks of statistical work is assessing realistically how much uncertainty remains,” said the University of Iowa professor of statistics and biostatistics.

Cowles’ was first introduced to environmental statistics when another environmental statistician, her early mentor Dale Zimmerman, called on her expertise in Bayesian statistics. Together they calibrated four methods of measuring water held in snow across the western U.S..

“Indeed I learned an enormous amount from Dale and really got hooked on the environmental and spatial,” she said. and “I’ve pretty much been working in that area ever since.”

Cowles began her career as a piano teacher…how did she get here today? Listen to her describe her fascinating journey.  

Notably, Cowles was director of GEEMaP (Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction), a value-added graduate program funded by the National Science Foundation. Before it ended last summer, GEEMaP brought together faculty and graduate  students in fields like statistics, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, computer science,  geoinformatics and geography.

The problems they discussed and solved exposed students to real-world problems and gave them a strong grounding in statistics and geographic information systems (GIS), Cowles said. Every project promoted interdisciplinary collaboration.

Cowles said a class she teaches on Bayesian statistics, her specialty, also resonates well with engineering students. The Bayesian approach allows users to quantify what they do and do not know and update their understanding as more information comes in. Cowles believes it parallels the way engineers think and lends itself well to engineering problems. She is always excited to advise engineering students and further promote collaboration with statisticians.

“I think that it is crucially important for those two types of data analysts to work together and communicate with each other,” Cowles said.

Because environmental datasets are often measured over both space and time, researchers in fields like agriculture and meteorology must account for spatial correlation. As the first law of geography states, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Hear about a possible application for Cowles and her student’s spatial correlation software.

Calculating that relationship requires complex statistics, but failing to account it properly can lead to faulty conclusions.

“Statistical methods that help us draw the right conclusions for complex data like that are becoming more and more important,” Cowles said.

One of Cowles’ graduate students is developing software that “mops up that spatial correlation,” making things easier for non-statisticians making predictions based on spatial data.

Processing  such enormous datasets is slow work, however. In many cases, engineering methods like machine learning are faster than statistical methods, which Cowles said creates  tension between disciplines.

Listen to Cowles explain how she hopes to speed up complex spatial processing.

Another large part of her work focuses on activating underutilized graphical processing units inside computers to do many simple computations simultaneously, which can speed up the processing of such data.

“Statisticians need to catch up, because engineers and environmental scientists cannot wait for a long time for results of their analyses!” she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

CGRER Looks Forward: Electrical and computer engineer Ananya Sen Gupta


Julia Poska | February 22, 2019

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Ananya Sen Gupta, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Ananya Sen Gupta’s entire career may have looked very different had she not serendipitously stopped to pet a colleague’s dog one day as a postdoctoral researcher in Massachusetts. The dog’s owner connected Sen Gupta with a marine chemist who was seeking a data scientist like her to make sense of unknown compounds in the 2010 BP oil spill.

“In his signature way of awesome honesty, he said, ’You are perfect for the job because you don’t understand chemistry at all!’” she recalled.

Sen Gupta successfully “fingerprinted” that spill, and has been looking at the environment as a data problem ever since. Today, as anassistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa, she still lends her computational skills to environmental efforts.


Hear Sen Gupta describe her work in kid-friendly terms. 

Sen Gupta helps a colleague in environmental engineering analyze harmful pollutants in the air and studies the spread of disease-causing pathogens with an environmental health professor. With two physicists, she’s developing algorithms to find high energy events in the Earth’s radiation belts and identifying patterns of particles in the Martian ionosphere.

“I think of myself more as an applied mathematician, honestly,” she said.

While her collaborators see the data through the specific knowledge of their fields, Sen Gupta only learns what she must to develop useful tools. To identify the problem and understand the data, she listens to the experts and takes detailed notes, which she later translates into her own language: mathematics.

She is then able to build algorithms that identify patterns in the datasets, which are far too large for manual processing. Because she does not know what her algorithms should find, they are essentially free from the confirmation bias field experts might carry. Thus, Sen Gupta’s objectivity can add great credibility to a researcher’s findings;  recall the marine chemist’s excitement at finding a chemistry novice all those years ago.

“Sometimes not knowing is a good thing, because it leads to discovery,” she said.

Listen to Sen Gupta’s metaphor comparing mathematics to a verbal language. 

Environmental pollutants and pathogens tend to have complex boundaries that are difficult to define mathematically. Sen Gupta said applying existing models and equations correctly is a skill in itself, but the nature of environmental research lets her work from scratch, too.

“What inevitably happens is when apply something existing to a new problem, it starts well, and then it hits a ceiling,” she said. “To crack that ceiling I have to invent something.”

She makes the majority of her code for those inventions open source, encouraging further discovery from others who can directly use her algorithms.

Though today she is busy teaching and conducting defense-related research on underwater sonar, Sen Gupta said if she could clone herself, she would devote more time to environmental issues, perhaps those related to climate change.

Since she cannot solve every problem on her own, though, she calls for more interaction between other data scientists and environmental researchers.

Learn how a seemingly aimless conversation about coffee and tea came to inform Sen Gupta’s environmental research.

As she sees it, there is unlimited potential for what problems computer engineering can help solve. But such collaborations cannot occur unless experts in vastly different fields come together.

“I would hope that, not just me, but all the data scientists on campus and all the environmental scientists on campus would basically get together in a local coffeeshop, in some happy hour, just sit down and chat about their pet peeves and hopes and dreams,” Sen Gupta said. “Because that would just lead to so much new science.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate


Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

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Eric Tate, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.


Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.


Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.


Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor


Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

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Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”


Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.


Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”


Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”


***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***