Jul 12, 2019 | News
In California, a bill is in the works that would make mink shawls and authentic fur-trimmed coats a think of the past.
By Gina Vitale
Our weekly round-up of news stories about human, animal, and environmental health, from within our community and around the world.
FEATURED: States across U.S. are taking bold steps toward protecting animals
National Geographic, July 10, 2019
As California moves forward on a bill to ban fur sales, New York is close to outlaw the procedure of declawing cats. California and Nevada have both outlawed the sale of animal-tested cosmetics, and the same ban in Illinois is just waiting for the governor’s signature.
The 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change will experience population booms in the coming decades
TIME, July 11, 2019
Madagascar, Burundi, and Liberia are among the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, places also forecasted to see population growth through 2100. Some are projected to see their populations double.
Antarctica’s ice is degrading faster than we thought, and there may be no way to stop the consequences
CNN, July 10, 2019
The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is at a greater risk of being unstable than scientists were aware of before a new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA JPL and the University of Washington.
Global heating: London to have climate similar to Barcelona by 2050
The Guardian, July 10, 2019
In just three decades, the climate in cities like Madrid, Stockholm, and London will match that of those closer to the equator. In a study of 520 major cities, nearly eight in 10 were projected to see dramatic changes. The heat increase may lead to water shortages. In the worst case, the glacier’s melting could result in a two or three feet rise in sea level, but it may not come into effect for 200 to 600 years.
Record heat in Alaska fuels wildfires
High Country News, July 9, 2019
This Independence Day, Anchorage hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in history. Summer wildfires aren’t unusual in Alaska, but there almost 120 fired that still hadn’t been contained as of this article’s publication.
Jun 21, 2019 | News
New York aims to create a “net-zero” carbon economy by 2050, one in which carbon emissions are completely offset with carbon removal. (Photo credit: Pixabay/JuergenPM)
By Gina Vitale
Our weekly round-up of news stories about human, animal, and environmental health, from within our community and around the world.
FEATURED: New York to approve one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans
The New York Times, June 18, 2019
By 2050, New York’s pollution levels will be 85% below what they were in 1990, according to the newly minted Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The other 15% will be offset, potentially by atmospheric CO2 removal, bringing New York’s carbon footprint down to zero.
Changing your meat-eating habits could mean a longer life, study suggests
CNN, June 13, 2019
Eating more red meat can be linked to a higher risk of early death, according to research published in medical journal BMJ. The study’s senior author says that swapping out red meat for fish, nuts, and poultry can mediate that risk.
How Argentina is saving one of Earth’s most remote places
National Geographic, June 13, 2019
Eric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and advocate for ocean protection, documents his journey to the edge of Tierra del Fuego. Findings from his trip spurred the Argentine government to create a marine park in that region of the ocean.
Climate change could threaten dogs with diseases pushing into new parts of the USA
USA Today, June 15, 2019
Dog ailments such as heartworm disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease are spreading across the U.S., and experts postulate that climate change may be contributing to this distribution.
Ammonia pollution damaging more than 60% of UK land–report
The Guardian, June 18, 2019
Ammonia and nitrogen pollution, originating mainly from farmland, is significantly affecting local wildlife in the United Kingdom, according to a government report. Studies suggest that the most sensitive areas are being overloaded the most with pollutants.
Jun 17, 2019 | News
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, was found in 21 products, from breakfast cereal to granola bars. (Photo credit: Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures)
By Gina Vitale
Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.
Cheerios, Nature Valley cereals contain Roundup ingredient, study finds
CBS News, June 13, 2019
Six varieties of Cheerios and some varieties of Nature Valley granola bars were among 21 products that tested positive for traces of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup. In 17 of the products, glyphosate levels were above what is considered safe for children by the Environmental Working Group.
Are we killing off all the wild buffalo that still know how to roam? Most of the bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park are fair game.
Popular Science, June 6, 2019
A massive conservation effort revitalized the bison population after 19th-century colonization decimated the once-abundant population. While most are now in fenced-in herds, the last wild bison are much fewer in number, living in Yellowstone National Park. Those that travel outside of the park are often hunted, leaving researchers to wonder whether humans are forcing a natural selection that will favor bison that don’t roam free.
Pollution standards on the Ohio River are now optional and local environmental groups are alarmed
NEXT Pittsburgh, June 11, 2019
The Ohio River provides drinking water for about 5 million people, but as of last week, the member states of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia—no longer have to abide by the commission’s regulations. For the first time since 1948, the states may choose to follow their own local rules for water quality.
Striking photos show a decade of environmental decline along the Ganges
CNN, June 12, 2019
The 1,500-mile Ganges River is a site of great spiritual significance to many worshippers in India. But lately, it has become littered with pollution. A series of photos captures this new reality.
Two-hour ‘dose’ of nature significantly boosts health—study: Researchers say simply sitting and enjoying the peace has mental and physical benefits
The Guardian, June 13, 2019
People who spent two or hours in nature per week were more likely to be in good health and satisfied in life, according to a new study. To get these results, researchers interviewed 20,000 people in England about how they spent their previous week.
May 31, 2019 | News
David Vann of the School of Arts and Sciences heads up the research efforts around Shoemaker Green’s stormwater management system. Using sensors placed around the site, he hopes to be able to closely monitor how much water drains out of the system, and how quickly. (Photo: Eric Sucar)
By Katherine Unger Baillie
Shoemaker Green, three acres of green space on Penn’s campus, is more than just a nice place to have lunch. Formerly home to tennis courts, the space was revamped in 2012 and now includes garden beds with native plantings, benches, and shaded walkways.
But all that conceals what is perhaps the most unusual facet of the Green—an underground cistern capable of holding 20,000 gallons of water.
The site represents one example of how the University is increasingly incorporating design features into campus buildings and landscapes to manage stormwater. From green roofs and rain gardens to buried storage tanks and water-reuse systems, Penn is playing a leading role in the city’s efforts to keep runoff from overwhelming the sewer system. All significant new building projects at Penn are designed to meet the Philadelphia Water Department goal of managing the first inch and a half of rain that falls on impervious surfaces.
“That means that the first inch and a half of water that falls from the sky literally can’t go down the drain as runoff,” says Bob Lundgren, Penn’s landscape architect. “That regulation dictates how we do a lot of projects here. We do green roofs, we do cisterns, we do permeable paving, so the rain can soak into Mother Earth or sit somewhere and then drain slowly or be reused.”
The rationale behind all of this attention on stormwater management is tied intimately with Philadelphia’s older infrastructure. In many parts of the city, the pipes that carry stormwater are connected to those that carry sewage. When a rainstorm sends a deluge into the storm drains, the overflow from these pipes goes directly into waterways, such as the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, instead of routing to wastewater-treatment plants. These so-called “combined-sewer overflow” (CSO) events degrade the environment, make the rivers unsafe for recreation, and increase the cost of treating the water.
Lundgren notes that managing runoff has been part of campus design strategy since long before the city required it. The late Penn landscape architect Ian McHarg, lauded as an innovator in ecological design, incorporated such elements into campus plans half a century ago.
“When he designed Woodland Walk in the 1950s,” Lundgren says, “he disconnected the drainage system from the sewer line, used permeable paving—cobbles over gravel—and put in native species. He was one of the first to be taking that approach.”
And though Penn has been a leader in environmental design since McHarg’s tenure, Philadelphia’s 2006 Stormwater Management Regulations and 2011 launch of “Green Cities, Clean Waters” prompted a closer look at management efforts.
The “Green Cities” plan in particular places emphasis on green infrastructure—increasing permeable surfaces—over traditional infrastructure like larger stormwater pipes and storage tanks. The 25-year initiative, which emerged under the leadership of Howard Neukrug, then-commissioner and CEO of Philadelphia Water and now a professor of practice and executive director of the Water Center at Penn, aims to reduce stormwater pollution entering city waterways by 85 percent. The plan includes provisions to encourage large property owners to take on the brunt of the responsibility in reducing CSOs.
“Residential and smaller commercial landowners can take steps to address stormwater on their properties and the government can manage runoff from roads, but we won’t solve our problems unless large property owners do their part,” says Neukrug. “When we are talking about a 50-acre or larger property in the middle of the city, economies of scale make the cost and impact of the project that much more important.”
The University has taken up the reins on this issue. A Stormwater Master Plan for Penn published in 2013 identifies areas where stormwater management is already succeeding, and pinpointed opportunities to extend this influence to new areas.
Penn Park represents perhaps the largest project that has conferred stormwater-management benefits to campus. Constructed in 2011, the site was overhauled from a series of paved parking lots and other impervious surfaces to a 24-acre multi-use complex with turf playing fields, tennis courts, grass playing fields, picnic areas, and an orchard. The site includes a cistern with a 300,000-gallon capacity so stored rainwater can later be used for irrigation, as well as several large natural areas, including six acres of native-grass meadows that serve to collect rainwater and allow it to soak slowly into the ground.
“One of Penn’s first projects, Penn Park, became the model for how private landowners can respond to stormwater issues and gain additional benefits at the same time,” Neukrug says. “The ecological, economic, and recreational co-benefits of green stormwater infrastructure to Penn and Philadelphia as a whole speak for themselves.”
Some green infrastructure helps on a small scale: Tree pits and trenches, for example, can intercept runoff from paths and sidewalks before it reaches a storm drain. But large-scale projects make even more of a difference. At Penn, every recent significant building project has some stormwater-management elements. The Singh Center for Nanotechnology, New College House, and Golkin and Fagin halls have green roofs that function not only to keep rain from entering the sewer system but in some cases, provide green spaces to eat lunch or take a study break.
“We have 1.4 acres of green roofs on campus,” says Lundgren. “By the time New College House West comes out, we’ll have close to two acres. That’s a pretty big deal.”
While green infrastructure confers a variety of benefits, it also comes with challenges. The spaces around porous pavers must be kept clear to allow rainwater to seep into the ground. Underground cisterns with pumps for irrigation require significant upkeep and technical skills to operate.
“It can be a learning curve,” says Lundgren.
That’s part of the reason why, when Shoemaker Green was installed, provisions were made to carefully monitor its systems as well as conduct research aimed at improving it and other future stormwater-management projects.
David Vann, a research coordinator in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, has led efforts to study and monitor those systems for several years. Partly as a component of a course on bioremediation and partly as independent research projects, Vann has worked with students to measure how much water the system is taking in, how fast or slow it drains, and how the plants and trees planted on the Green itself contribute to water management through evapotranspiration, the process by which water is taken up by plants and then evaporates from their leaves.
“We have found the system is doing pretty faithfully what it was designed to do: Regulate the stored water and permit it to drain slowly in the two or three days after a rain event,” says Vann. “One thing we’re looking at is whether, as the trees and plants grow, the contribution of evapotranspiration will increase.”
When Shoemaker Green was redesigned, care was taken to preserve six mature London planetrees in front of the Palestra, each estimated to be roughly 80 years old. As the largest trees at the site, their contribution to evapotranspiration is significant. Vann and colleagues have found that, in summer, evapotranspiration causes roughly 2,000 gallons per day to leave the system. As the Green’s younger bald cypress, red maple, swamp white oak, and other trees continue to mature, that figure may grow, leaving room in the cistern to capture additional rainfall.
Recently, Vann has identified places to drop down equipment that can measure the flow of water more precisely than the system’s original sensors. “With these wells, we’ll be able to measure the quantity of water in each of the catchment areas, so we can more or less understand where the water is at all times,” Vann says.
Beyond the quantity of water, Vann is also monitoring the quality of the water entering the cisterns. Though an environmentally friendly salt substitute is used to keep walkways on campus ice-free in the winter, Vann is concerned that rock salt used on the adjacent road may be infiltrating and building up in the system.
In the future, Vann would like to incorporate studies of the ecology and sociology of the space. “It’s not my area but there is interest in understanding how the space is being used by insects, birds, and even people,” he says. “Is it being integrated into the campus as intended, being used as a place where people can rest, relax, play soccer?”
Armed with data from such experiments, Lundgren hopes the University will continue to push the boundaries of designing with ecology and sustainability in mind. “The ecological health of a place is pretty much the highest thing on my list,” he says, “and that feeds right into stormwater management.”
Bob Lundgren is University landscape architect in Facilities and Real Estate Services.
Howard Neukrug is executive director of the Water Center at Penn and a professor of practice in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science.
David Vann is a research coordinator in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science.
May 28, 2019 | News
By Michele W. Berger
Rachel Kyte has a unique perspective on climate change and the environment. She’s both a special representative to the United Nations and CEO of an international organization called Sustainable Energy for All, technically one job for which she wears two hats. All the work is geared toward broadening access to sustainable energy worldwide, including for the billion or so people who still don’t have access to electricity.
When Kyte came to Penn at the invitation of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, she spoke to an overflowing room about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, how the world can more easily transition to renewables, and how, despite the progress to date, there’s still much farther to go.
Penn Today discussed with Kyte her vision for making sustainable energy available to all.
How did you get your start in the sustainable energy world?
I’ve worked in aspects of sustainable development for a long time. I started off in youth politics in Europe, and in the early days of understanding climate change it was acid rain [that people worried about], but it was also the colonial footprint that Europe had on the world. I was born of the generation that wanted to change that; we wanted Europe to be a force for good in the world.
I’ve also worked for NGOs and the International Finance Corporation and at The World Bank, focusing on private investment. Those were the early days of what is now a robust green bond movement and other new financial tools used to speed up sustainability. Then, in the run-up to the Paris Climate Agreement, I ended up as special envoy and vice president for climate change for the whole of the World Bank group.
Where does Sustainable Energy for All fit into all of this?
Sustainable Energy for All was set up with one foot in the U.N., one foot outside of the U.N., to allow the private sector to be a genuine partner. When you’re inside the U.N., it’s a construct of member states, but, being outside, we’re a true partnership, so we can work in a way that’s more flexible.
Within that capacity, as the secretary general’s special representative, my job is to make sure that he and his senior team understand what’s going on in the energy transition and what member states need to understand, as well as where the U.N. can nudge, encourage, propel people forward faster. I’m bringing his view out to the world and bringing the world to him, saying, “There are these new developments, this is how we can understand them, and this is what it might mean for progress.”
From your vantage point, how has the renewable energy sector changed in the past decade?
In the last 10 years, the technology has improved, and the cost of the technology has fallen by 80%, in particular for solar photovoltaics and wind energy. Now, in most parts of the world, solar and wind are price-competitive, certainly with coal but with most fossil fuels. That’s not to say that you have two M&Ms in front of you, one’s blue, one’s brown, which do you pick? You have a grid into which the energy has to be absorbed, so you’ve got issues around stabilization and making sure that the grid can work, but it’s not the case that we can’t afford renewable energy. The revolution is here, and we’ve now got to exploit it. We can go at scale, and we can go affordably at scale. That’s a success story.
Are there other, lesser-known success stories?
Countries like Kenya are embracing [renewable energy] and you see them going from 20% to 50% electrification in just 20 years. You see Bangladesh having built a really effective model of a rural electrification agency, and you see those numbers going up very fast as well. In India, where Prime Minister Modi said he wanted everybody to have a toilet and everybody to have electricity, you see an extraordinary closing of the access gap. Where there’s a political will, there is now—because of technology—a way.
What happens if the political will doesn’t align with a focus on renewable energy and the Sustainable Development Goals?
From the U.N.’s perspective, the Sustainable Development Goals are universal. This need to have affordable, reliable, clean energy is as relevant if you’re living on a low income in a small town in rural Texas or if you’re living on a reservation in the northwest United States or if you’re living in a project in Brooklyn. You have the same rights, and the international community has the same responsibility. This isn’t a developing project for developing countries; this is about everybody.
When I travel around the United States, blue states or red states, what I hear and see are communities wanting good local jobs, clean air, and affordable energy bills. The really great news is that most of them have realized that is going to come from renewable energy. It’s also going to come from energy efficiency. We’ve got so much to thank fossil fuels for because they’ve allowed us to develop to this point. But that era is over.
That doesn’t seem to be the sentiment at the top levels of the U.S. government, at least not in 2019.
The federal government’s focus on propping up part of the energy system of the past is at odds with where the science is saying we need to go but also where investment—including U.S. investment, public at the level of states, and private—is voting. Private investment is going into the clean economy, public and private. We have a situation where we have one narrative coming from the federal government and another reality in large parts of the rest of the country. It’s not a Democrat-Republican dichotomy. It is a federal-and-everybody-else dichotomy.
We should be having a different conversation in the U.S., one about how to decarbonize the economy by 2050. In Alberta, an economy built on tar sands, there is a dialogue between the union, communities, the federal government, and the provincial government about what they want Alberta to look like in the future. In other parts of the world, like in Poland and Germany, that’s the conversation that’s going on. Americans are being short-changed by not having that conversation now.
Where do we go from here?
We’re standing at this really important moment. Everything’s a little bit too little too late. We’re not on course for the energy transition we need. We’re not on course for the climate action we need. But what’s exciting is that we have the money, we have the technology, mostly. Now we need the political will to put the policies in place that will make it go quickly. Energy systems of the future are going to look nothing like the energy systems of the past. They’re going to be highly digital, highly decentralized, and, in fact, democratized, and that’s actually very exciting.
* * * * *
Though the world has made significant headway in the push toward renewable energy, with serious technological advancements and lower costs for those technologies, there’s one area that Kyte says the world isn’t yet doing well enough: Clean fuels for cooking.
“It seems ridiculous to me that in 2019, in a world with so many sophisticated solutions to so many problems, we can’t find a way for almost 3 billion people to have access to a meal that’s cooked with clean fuels,” she says.
It’s a deadly problem, she adds. The World Health Organization estimates that each year, nearly 4 million people die from illnesses related to indoor air pollution caused by using kerosene and solid fuels like charcoal and dung in open fires. The people who do the cooking—mostly poor women in rural areas—and their children experience the greatest levels of exposure.
But that fact, that there’s a human-health cost is finally starting to turn the tide in a way that environmental and climate pressures never did, Kyte says. “It’s been a silent problem because it’s a got a female face,” she adds. “But the health statistics are now beginning to force this issue to the top of the to-do list.”
May 24, 2019 | News
Benjamin Rohr, a graduate student in environmental studies, is studying the invasive spotted lanternfly at The Woodlands, a large cemetery a stone’s throw from Penn’s campus. The pest was first spotted there last year, in the wilder portions of the property’s periphery, where SEPTA and Amtrak trains pass regularly. (Photo: Eric Sucar)
By Katherine Unger Baillie
By the chain link fence lining the southern border of The Woodlands Cemetery property, Benjamin Rohr attempts to avoid brushing against poison ivy as he approaches a large black walnut tree. “Oh good, it’s still up!” he says, assessing a wide, sticky band encircling the trunk, now covered with the bodies of dozens of small insects. “No SLFs I don’t think,” he observes, using a shorthand for spotted lanternfly, an exotic bug that is poised to wreak havoc on farms, wineries, and forests in the mid-Atlantic states.
Rohr, a student in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program, is embarking on his capstone project to culminate his degree. The premise of his experiment is straightforward: to determine the types of trees the lanternfly prefers beyond its known affinity for ailanthus, commonly known as tree of heaven, dozens of which sprout enthusiastically in several groves at The Woodlands and elsewhere around the region.
“Maybe they prefer cherry over ash or maple instead of willow,” says Rohr. “If we find these finer-grain preferences, and land managers on Penn’s campus or with the Natural Lands Trust are replanting, maybe they wouldn’t choose as many of those species that are lanternfly attractors.”
The stories of the ailanthus and spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) run in parallel, albeit a few centuries apart. Ailanthus, a tree species native to China and Taiwan, was introduced to the United States in 1784 by William Hamilton, an avid plant collector who inherited a sprawling estate along the Schuylkill River: The Woodlands. The species spread rapidly, outcompeting native species. They’re now widely considered “trash trees,” often targeted for removal.
Meanwhile, the spotted lanternfly’s introduction into the U.S. appears to have been accidental. The bugs, which can fly but more often hop, up to 20 meters or more in a go, were first seen in 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and quickly extended their range. They’re known to feed on 70 species of tree and vine, 30 of which occur in Pennsylvania. Using their piercing mouthparts, they feed on tree sap, leaving plants weak and vulnerable to secondary infections. Currently, 13 counties in Pennsylvania are under quarantine for the lanternfly, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), in partnership with Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, have kicked into high gear to keep the species under control.
For Rohr, who just finished his first year in the MES program, the lanternfly wasn’t on his radar until the spring semester, when he took a course in urban forestry taught by Sally Willig and Lara Roman. When an alternative capstone project didn’t pan out, Willig invited him to attend a meeting headed by Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Servicesdepartment focused on urban forest management. The Woodlands’ Facilities and Landscape Manager Robin Rick was also attending, and mentioned that she was working with USDA APHIS to manage what appeared to be an emerging infestation in parts of the property.
“I knew about the threat of the spotted lanternfly from reading different publications from Penn State and hearing about it in different horticultural forums,” says Rick. “I started to keep an eye out. And around the same time, we were approached by the USDA as a property owner in the city to participate in their efforts to control and stop the spread of the lanternfly. So that really raised our awareness.”
Following the FRES meeting, Rohr reached out to Rick, who was enthusiastic about a project on The Woodlands property. Together they formulated the experiment. At four different areas where ailanthus grow at The Woodlands, Rohr is affixing wide, sticky bands—in essence, big pieces of sturdy tape placed stick-side out—on one ailanthus tree. Then, within the 20-meter hopping range of the lanternfly, Rohr and Rick identified another tree species that the insects are known to feed on, and will monitor those trees as well.
To avoid catching birds, Rohr overlays the sticky band with chicken wire. The Woodlands will also post signage to inform visitors about the project. Rohr will switch out the bands once a week until the species goes dormant, likely around December, and count the lanternflies he catches on each tree.
The USDA has visited The Woodlands to note the location of ailanthus trees on the property and set up a treatment plan. The survey, Rick says, identified 274 saplings under 1 inch in diameter, 36 trees between 1 and 6 inches in diameter, and 45 larger trees greater than 6 inches in diameter. A couple are in the heart of the cemetery, but most sit along the fence line, bordering the Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines or the VA hospital. Rick says the first signs of lanternfly came from near the train tracks.
In Rohr’s first time out checking the bands, he found only five lanternflies—unsurprising since late May is when the nymphs generally emerge.
Once the season revs up, Rohr expects to find many more, and he’ll be tracking what happens after USDA treatment later this summer—herbicide for the smaller trees and pesticide applications on the larger ones.
“There are a lot of really old mature trees at The Woodlands, some have been there for centuries,” says Rohr. “These massive maples or black walnuts could drop branches if they get sick. So just from a safety perspective, it will be interesting to get a sense of how much this pest could damage The Woodlands, and how Robin, the USDA, and others might mitigate this.”
Eventually, Rohr would like to pull together his findings into a user-friendly format to serve as a guide for other land managers. And Rick hopes to spread the word to the West Philadelphia community that lives near or recreates in The Woodlands.
“Learning more about this bug is going to rely on collaboration,” Rick says. “Large institutions like Penn and SEPTA will need to work together with smaller ones like us as well as community members to understand how [the lanternflies] are moving through the area and take efforts to slow and stop them.”