climate change research

From Grasslands to Forests, Nitrogen Impacts all Ecosystems

By Ashley Mayrianne Jones

Can there be too much of a good thing?

That’s the case with nitrogen, an essential element for plant growth that, in overabundance, can also be potentially damaging. Nitrogen moves from the air to the land, soil, and water via a process called nitrogen deposition. Atmospheric nitrogen deposition has increased ten-fold or more since pre-industrial levels due to increased emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, fertilizer use, and other human activities.

Blue Ridge Mountains at the Roan Highlands State Park in North CarolinaOnce nitrogen is emitted into the atmosphere, it can travel vast distances and deposit in the environment, making it a national as well as local problem. Elevated nitrogen deposition can increase leaf biomass in the canopy, shading ground-dwelling plants from the sun. Additionally, physical and chemical reactions that occur when nitrogen compounds are deposited can lead to more acidic soils. Both effects restrict plant growth and increase competition for limited resources, resulting in a loss of local biodiversity.

To date, most U.S. biodiversity studies on the effects of nitrogen deposition had been focused on individual sites, where fertilizer was applied and small plots were monitored through time. It was unknown whether the resulting reductions in plant biodiversity at these small scales translated to meaningful changes at the landscape level. A series of recent studies had indicated that across the European continent, many ecosystems were experiencing reductions in plant biodiversity due to nitrogen deposition. However, it remained unclear whether the same held true in the U.S., which historically, has experienced lower atmospheric deposition levels.

That’s why EPA researcher Chris Clark and a team of scientists from EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Colorado, and multiple other universities are exploring the effects of nitrogen deposition on herbaceous plants (those with non-woody stems such as grass) in a first-of-its-kind study focused on multiple ecosystems across the nation. The new research expands the focus to not only grasslands, but into habitats that have not received much attention, including the forest understory.

The study, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, assesses how nitrogen deposition affects herbaceous plants at over 15,000 forest, woodland, shrubland, and grassland sites throughout the United States. The research addresses how physical, chemical, and climatic factors such as soil acidity, temperature, and precipitation can affect an area’s vulnerability to nitrogen deposition.

Nearly a quarter of the sites were vulnerable to nitrogen deposition-induced species loss, and those with acidic soils tended to be more vulnerable. At extremely low levels of nitrogen deposition, the number of individual plant species tended to increase. However, above a certain threshold level, or “critical load,” diversity began to decline.

The study indicated that on average, forests can tolerate slightly higher levels of nitrogen deposition than other ecosystems before showing a negative impact on biodiversity. The reasons for this are unclear, but scientists hypothesize part of the reason is that forest species living under the canopy are already adapted to low-light conditions and are less susceptible to shading effects caused by increased nitrogen. Both grasslands and forests, however, were quite vulnerable to nitrogen deposition, with critical loads in the range of current deposition levels.

Moving forward, EPA scientists and their partners will attempt to determine which individual plant species are most at risk, and which native and invasive species may increase with elevated nitrogen deposition.

Examining multiple ecosystems across the country gives us more information about how different locations may respond to the effects of nitrogen deposition and will help set monitoring and conservation priorities that protect plant biodiversity.

Learn more about EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research.

About the Author: Ashley Mayrianne Jones is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Citation: Biological Sciences – Ecology: Samuel M. Simkin, Edith B. Allen, William D. Bowman, Christopher M. Clark, Jayne Belnap, Matthew L. Brooks, Brian S. Cade, Scott L. Collins, Linda H. Geiser, Frank S. Gilliam, Sarah E. Jovan, Linda H. Pardo, Bethany K. Schulz, Carly J. Stevens, Katharine N. Suding, Heather L. Throop, and Donald M. Waller. Conditional vulnerability of plant diversity to atmospheric nitrogen deposition across the United States. PNAS 2016 113 (15) 4086-4091; published ahead of print March 28, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1515241113

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Gamify the Grid! New EPA game Generate! Helps Students Understand the Relationship between Climate Change and Energy Production

By Rose Keane

When you’re teaching someone, sometimes you never know what’s going to stick. Some people need to hear the information, others might need to read it, but chances are the best way to get someone to remember is to have them try it themselves.

EPA researcher Rebecca Dodder is helping teachers provide middle school and high school students with these kinds of opportunities through her new Generate! game, a board game that requires the player to consider the costs and benefits of the type of energy we use and impacts on air quality and climate.

Hands-on learning! Kids play the Generate! game during Earth Day festivities at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Hands-on learning! Kids play the Generate! game during Earth Day festivities at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Having students actually grapple with the realities of financial limitations, carbon emissions, and limited natural resources makes the lesson much more tangible and long lasting. I had the chance to see these connections being made when students came to EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to play the game during Earth Day festivities.

Here’s how it works.  In the first round, students select which sources of energy—for example, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar or wind—that they would like to use given a finite amount of resources (in this case the number and types of energy pieces). Each energy source comes with its associated installation and maintenance costs, and the aim is to meet energy demands (filling up the full board space) while spending as little as possible.

The second round, however, made things a bit trickier. As with our energy sources in real life, there is a cost associated with the carbon emissions of each energy piece, with heavier costs for higher carbon-emitting sources like coal, and smaller or no carbon costs for the renewable energy sources. These costs refer to the idea that for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted, there are increased costs to communities from climate change. As students factored these numbers in, they realized their original plan was no longer sustainable and also way too expensive. You could practically hear the groans coming from each group’s table when the final tallies came in.

In the third round, students were offered pieces called “efficiencies,” which represent our behaviors, consumer choices, and energy efficient appliances. These pieces incur relatively small costs initially (for example, how much it would cost to replace your washer and dryer), but in the long run actually save the player money. “Think about it,” Dodder said to the students, “A lot of these big decisions are out of our control, like whether or not to build a nuclear power plant, for example. The thing about the smaller energy efficiency pieces is that’s all the stuff that we can change – it’s all in our control.”

Making climate change and its impacts tangible for younger generations can be extremely difficult, but games like Generate! make these kinds of activities fun, educational, and remind the students that their energy choices are in their hands. Educators can use this game to help their students recognize the relationships between energy usage and climate change, and encourage them to investigate their role in the carbon cycle further.

Dr. Dodder’s innovative approaches to educating the younger generation about science and her research contributions are being recognized today at a ceremony in Washington, DC where she will receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists.

Learn more about the Generate! game and download your copy here.

About the Author: Rose Keane is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor with the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Burchette

There are certain things that are always changing: the weather, fashion trends, and technology (which iPhone are we on again?) are a few that come to mind. I can always count on the fact that these things won’t stay the same for long. But there are other things that I typically expect to remain the same: I expect to get hungry around lunchtime, I expect the bus to come every morning, and I expect to be able to breathe clean air. I don’t even think about the possibility of these things not happening—until something changes.

I definitely don’t think about air quality often or expect it to change. As long as I’m breathing and well, why would I? But in reality, air quality changes every day, and over time it may change a lot depending on how we treat our environment—and we need to be ready for these changes. This is why EPA recently awarded research grants to 12 universities to protect air quality from current and future challenges associated with climate change impacts.

Climate change is affecting air quality by influencing the type and amount of pollutants in the air. One type of pollutant present in our air is particulate matter, or PM. Long-term exposure to PM is linked to various health effects, including heart disease and lung function, and it doesn’t take a high concentration to affect our bodies. The more PM there is in the air, the more likely we are to be affected by health conditions.

landscape of Death Valley National Park with dust storm

A dust storm in Death Valley National Park

With EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants, university researchers are approaching the future of air quality from multiple angles with a focus on learning more about the PM-climate change relationship. They will study the impacts of increased wildfire activity that generates PM, often called soot, in the Rocky Mountains. They will look at the impacts that climate change and land use change have on the development of dust storms in the West and Southwest; and they will evaluate the best means of energy production in California where air quality is among the worst in the nation to reduce health care costs and lower levels of PM and greenhouse gases.

Over the next few decades, climate change will be the catalyst for various environmental trends, so finding a way to manage the impacts of these trends is essential to protecting our health. The work these grantees do will help to inform air quality managers and others to make sustainable and cost-effective decisions that keep our air quality at healthy levels and protect public health and the environment. That way, future generations will think of good air quality as something we can expect.

To learn more about these grants and read the abstracts, visit the Particulate Matter and Related Pollutants in a Changing World results page.

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research

By Dan Costa, Sc.D.

Graphic of clouds and buildings in a silhouette cityscape. It’s Air Quality Awareness Week! This week, EPA is showing how we care about the air by announcing grants to three institutions to create air research centers. We now understand more than ever about the threats of air pollution to environmental and human health, but there is still more to learn. EPA has a history of supporting research and development that complements the work of our own staff scientists to bolster scientific knowledge about the effects of air pollution. EPA uses this knowledge to address many pressing questions and understand connections between our changing environment and human health.

Since 1999, EPA has funded three rounds of research centers through a competitive grant process. The scientific experts at these centers have contributed to a more complete understanding of the persistent air quality challenges that continue to face our nation. The first round of EPA funded air research centers focused on particulate matter and examined the link between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease. In 2005, the next round of centers focused on whether differing health effects could be linked to specific sources of air pollution. By 2010, it was clear that to get an accurate understanding of real life exposures, we needed to examine the health effects of exposure to multiple pollutants at once instead of just one or two at a time. The third round of centers took on this complex challenge. The next step is to delve into questions regarding how the health effects of air pollution may vary in different cities and regions across our country – each with its own unique characteristics and set of pollution sources.

This leads us to today and our exciting announcement–EPA is awarding $30 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to fund the establishment of Air, Climate, and Energy (ACE) Research Centers at Yale University, Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University. These Centers will consider changing energy production methods and local climate, while investigating the effects of global climate change, technology, and societal choices on local air quality and health.

I am eagerly anticipating the many new tools and ideas that will be produced by this next generation of EPA funded air research centers.

About the Author: Dan Costa is the national program director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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When Cooking Can Harm: Cookstove Research and Human Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

Two researchers examine a clean-burning cookstove design in a lab.

EPA cookstove research

While I don’t Instagram every meal, cooking is still an important part of my life. It’s a social anchor that ties me to my family and friends. I also see the act of cooking as a major part of being healthy, since it allows me to control what goes into my food.

So when I learned that the process of cooking is one of the greatest health threats that people face globally, I felt disoriented. Cooking is an everyday task that most in the U.S. can accomplish by turning a dial on a stove. Yet three billion people throughout the world use biomass or coal-fed cookstoves to cook their meals and heat their homes, and the smoke from these fires often causes respiratory and heart disease. In fact, household air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for disease worldwide for all genders and the second highest risk factor for women[1]. Cookstove emissions also contribute to climate change.

Recently, I attended a scientific meeting to learn about cookstove studies by researchers who received one of six grants from EPA to research cleaner technologies and fuels for cooking, lighting and heating in homes that have limited or no access to electricity or gas lines. This research into cleaner cooking options will help improve air quality and protect the health of people throughout the world, including native peoples in Alaska and others in rural areas of the U.S. who use cookstoves to make their meals.

A presentation by Dr. Tami Bond, one of the grantees and a professor at the University of Illinois, particularly stood out for me. Bond studies the climate and air quality effects of fuel combustion. She receives assistance from trained citizen scientists in the communities who help collect and assess emissions from cookstoves in their homes.

The research by Bond and other grant recipients has given me an appreciation for how science can help to provide solutions to environmental health risks, including those from simply cooking a family meal. I plan to learn more by visiting the cookstove research lab in Research Triangle Park, N.C. There, researchers are testing a wide variety of cookstoves from all over the world to measure their energy efficiency and how much they pollute. You too can get an inside look at the research by watching this recent video by Voice of America on EPA’s cookstove testing.

Interested in seeing other research presented at the meeting? Click here for a list of presentations.

About the Author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

[1] A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Climate Change and Extreme Events Research Showcased at American Geophysical Union Meeting

By Dr. Michael Hiscock

Satellite image of large storm approaching the eastern United States

“Sandy” approaches the U.S. east coast, October 28, 2012. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon with data courtesy of the NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team.


Derechos. Blizzards. Polar vortexes. Superstorms. Whatever you call them, you’re probably aware of the extreme weather events that have occurred with increasing frequency the past few years. What you may not be aware of is their complicated relationship with climate change, air and water quality.

Although science will probably never be able to pinpoint the specific cause of any extreme weather event, there is rising evidence that human-caused climate change is increasing the probability of future such events. This will have astounding societal and environmental impacts, as climatic and meteorological extremes can affect the hydrologic and atmospheric processes that in turn impact water availability, and water and air quality for people around the world.

This week, at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting, I had the pleasure of convening a technical session focused on the complex interaction between climate change, extreme events, air and water quality. The session, Extreme Events and Climate Change: Impacts on Environment and Resources, was the largest global environmental change session at the meeting, and featured scientists and research teams from 20 different countries. Over two days, we saw more than 70 presentations on how climatic and meteorological extremes have changed and what their impact on resources and the environment will be.

In 2011, EPA released its first grant solicitation (“Request for Applications,” or RFA) to support research exploring the topic of extreme events and climate change. The request, Extreme Event Impacts on Air Quality and Water Quality with a Changing Global Climate, sought research proposals designed to provide the information and capacity needed to adequately prepare for climate-induced changes in extreme events, in the context of air and water quality management. We were looking to support research institutions that demonstrated the ability to develop assessments, tools and techniques, and demonstrate innovative technologies to achieve that.

The 14 institutions we supported, all of which presented at the above mentioned session, are currently seeking to better understand extreme events and establishing ways for climate scientists, impact assessment modelers, air and water quality managers, and other stakeholders to co-produce information necessary to inform sound policy in relation to extreme events and their impact on air and water quality within a changing climate.

The session provided an international networking event for top researchers to showcase their results: to better understand how local and regional extreme events will change in the future; to identify the impacts of extreme events on local and regional
water and air quality; and finally, how to disseminate the information effectively to stakeholders. Collaboration opportunities like this one will lead to comprehensive analyses of extreme events to better form sound policy for preserving and improving air and water quality and protecting human health for generations to come.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hiscock is a project officer in the Applied Science Division at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. He supports scientists and engineers through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program to improve the scientific basis for decisions on air, climate, water and energy issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Clean Cookstoves Research: An Opportunity to Benefit Billions

By Bryan Bloomer, Ph.D.

I have long appreciated the ability to cook and heat my home with minimum risk of exposure to toxic indoor air pollution. But I am also painfully aware that more than 3 billion people around the world rely on inefficient, unsustainable and dangerous cookstove technologies for their everyday cooking, heating and lighting needs.

Display of clean cookstoves.

EPA’s Bryan Bloomer examines clean-burning prototypes at the Cookstoves Future Summit in New York City.

That is why I am so pleased to join EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other prominent leaders this week at the first ever ministerial- and CEO-level Cookstoves Future Summit, “Fueling Markets, Catalyzing Action, Changing Lives,” in New York City.

Traditional cookstoves typically burn biomass fuels such as wood, dung, crop residues, charcoal or the fossil fuel, coal. This causes a wide range of negative health effects to the people, primarily women and children, exposed to the smoke they emit. And there’s more. The use of traditional cookstove technologies also depletes natural resources, contributes to deforestation, and releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change at regional and global scales.

This is why clean cookstoves research is a top EPA priority. Our goal is to transform the sustainability and health impacts of the energy infrastructure in ways that will not only improve the health of billions, most of them disadvantaged women and children, but improve the global environment as well.

We conduct and support cooperative research to identify gaps and deliver practical solutions from a wide array of stakeholders. The Agency is leading an international clean cookstove research effort, helping to support the development of international cookstove standards, conducting trusted independent research on the energy efficiency and emissions of cookstoves, and improving our understanding of the negative health impacts from exposure to cookstove smoke.

In March 2012, EPA announced the funding of six universities to address residential burning and its effects on human health worldwide. This group of researchers is developing innovative technologies to quantify the impacts of cookstove emissions on climate and air quality.

Moving forward, we and our many partners in this global effort will focus on translating these results into the field, primarily bringing innovative, consumer-driven and life-saving technologies to individuals worldwide.

Turning research results into welcomed solutions is the topic of this week’s Cookstoves Future Summit. The summit presents a unique opportunity to further develop a thriving and sustainable clean cookstove market. Such a market will mean substantial progress toward preventing the more than 4 million estimated indoor air pollution related deaths due to traditional cookstoves and fuels.

The clean cookstoves challenge encompasses a number of health, social and environmental issues. Such a pressing and compelling problem presents us with a significant opportunity to improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment for generations to come.

About the Author: Dr. Bryan Bloomer is the director of the Applied Science Division at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. He works with grant managers that support scientists and engineers through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program, to improve EPA’s scientific basis for decision on air, climate, water and energy issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Preparing to “Move:” EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

By Andy Miller, Ph.D.

Large crowd of climate change marchers in New York CIty

Climate change march in New York City, September 21, 2014.

The issue of climate change is generating a lot of headlines again this week. The “People’s Climate March” in New York City, followed by the Climate Summit at the United Nations are sparking renewed interest in “taking action on climate change,” echoing the White House’s Climate Action Plan that President Obama released last summer. To lend our voices to the chorus, it’s also Climate Action Week here at EPA.

As a researcher working on climate change, I’m hopeful that such events, coupled with people’s own personal experiences, mean we are moving beyond the old “discussions” about climate change that have played out in the media by what seem to be a gang of professional arguers.

More and more people are experiencing higher temperatures, heavier downpours, rising sea levels, longer droughts, and bigger wildfires—all impacts that scientists have expected as the climate changes. Even though we can’t say for certain that any one of these is caused by climate change (see my previous post, What Does Climate Change Have to do with Weather…and Baseball?), taken together they provide increasingly strong evidence that the climate is changing and we need to prepare. And people are beginning to respond in meaningful ways to the reality of climate change.

So how do we know how to prepare? A good analogy to me is my recent move across the country. The basic preparation steps are similar: I looked for information about our new location, talked with experts who move people for a living, and made plans. When I started the actual process, I packed things one or two at a time, thinking about what I had to pack last and unpack first. It’s the same with preparing for climate change. We look for information and talk with experts, and then we make plans. We take actions one at a time, keeping in mind how those actions will affect other actions and don’t try to do everything at once.

Newspapers with articles and photographs of climate change march in New York City.

Taking action on climate change is big news.

EPA’s researchers are among the many people studying how climate change is affecting our environment to provide information to those who are making decisions. We study how rivers and coasts will change, and provide that information to towns, cities, states, and tribes so they can decide how they want to prepare for those changes and ensure their local communities will be resilient and healthy. EPA is doing research so we will continue to have healthy air as summers get hotter and drier. And we are working to develop the information needed by local water treatment facilities to deal with extreme rainfall events, so that our drinking water stays clean.

Knowledge, plans, and informed actions—these are at the heart of Climate Action Week. EPA science works behind the scenes to provide the knowledge people need to prepare for climate change and its impacts, so communities will have the best information possible to take action as they prepare their move into the new conditions brought on by our changing climate.

About the Author:Andy Miller is the Associate Director for Climate in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program that conducts research to assess the impacts of a changing climate and develop the scientific information and tools to act on climate change.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Supporting Innovation for Cleaner Burning Cookstoves and Cleaner Air

By Jim Johnson

The end of May is always one of my favorite times of year. It includes Memorial Day, the official holiday to honor the service of our dedicated military personnel and military veterans, and my birthday.

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, the end of May also coincides with the time of year when the evening air fills with the unmistakable scent of backyard grilling. Barbeque season. Here in this country, that distinctive odor of smoke is associated with tasty food, relaxing, and good times spent with friends and family.

But for most of the world’s population, the smell of an open fire is something completely different. It’s not nostalgic or a welcome diversion from the norm, but a necessity.

Nearly three billion people worldwide rely on burning fuels such as wood, plant matter, coal, and animal waste. And because most of that occurs indoors, it’s a health hazard, too.  The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves leads to 4.3 million premature deaths per year.

Cookstove researcher at work

EPA is a leader in conducting and supporting clean cookstove research.

What’s more, it’s not just a local problem. The smoke from traditional cookstoves is a major source of black carbon, an air pollutant linked to a range of impacts associated with our changing climate, including increased temperatures, accelerated ice and snow melt, and changes in the pattern and intensity of precipitation.

And that brings me to another reason why the end of May this particular year is even a bit more special for me than usual: Yesterday, EPA announced almost $9 million in research grants awarded to six universities to help usher in a new generation of clean, efficient cookstoves.

Funded through our Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, the research will focus on measuring and communicating the benefits of adopting cleaner cooking, heating, and lighting practices. The impact of the work will improve air quality and protect the health of billions of people, as well as slow climate change—a benefit for everyone, and the global environment, too.

The universities and their research are:

  • Colorado State University researchers will provide new cookstoves to rural areas in China, India, Kenya, and Honduras to explore how their adoption will impact and improve emissions, chemistry, and movement of indoor smoke; they will also assess health and climate impacts.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers will investigate how local resources in rural communities in Alaska, Nepal, Mongolia, and China affect the acceptance of cleaner heating stoves, and take measurements to learn how their use impacts air quality and carbon emissions.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis researchers will measure changes in air quality and health outcomes from cleaner cooking and heating technologies in China, and model regional weather, air quality, exposure and human health impacts.
  • University of California, Berkeley researchers will explore the relationship between household and village-scale pollution to understand the effectiveness of using cleaner-burning cookstoves.
  • Yale University researchers will use socioeconomic analyses, emissions and pollution measurements, and global climate modeling to investigate the impacts of using next-generation cookstoves in India.
  • University of Colorado, Boulder researchers will use small, inexpensive sensors to monitor indoor air pollution exposure in homes. They will also collect data through health assessments and outdoor air quality measurements in Ghana.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the grants at a reception hosted by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. EPA is a founding member of this public-private partnership, which seeks to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and protect the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. Our collective goal: 100 million homes adopting clean cooking solutions by 2020. Achieving that will really be something to celebrate!

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which runs the Agency’s STAR program as well as other grant, fellowship, and awards programs that support high quality research by many of our nation’s leading scientists and engineers.




Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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New Guide Provides Climate-Smart Solutions

By Jordan M. West and Susan H. Julius

Cover of publication, "Climate-Smart Conservation"If you’ve ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park, you know that it is a land of majestic peaks, clear blue lakes, and green forested slopes. But these days, huge swaths of dead, reddish-brown trees mar the view. As a result of climate change, ongoing drought and rising temperatures have weakened the trees and triggered more extensive and severe infestations of bark beetles. Whole stands of trees have died as a result.

Scientists have been predicting these types of negative impacts for years and expect them to worsen in the future. At the same time climate change also combines with existing pressures from humans in ways that can cause new and unexpected ecosystem changes. Therefore managers who work to protect our natural resources have to not only address traditional environmental problems, but also anticipate and prepare for future climate-change-driven challenges that they may never have seen before.

Managers recognize that conservation and natural resource management must be viewed through the lens of climate change and are asking:

  • How do we prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change?
  • What should we be doing differently in light of climatic shifts, and what actions continue to make sense?
  • What approaches are best for integrating climate change into our planning processes, managing for ecosystem changes, and re-evaluating management goals as new scientific information becomes available?

EPA researchers are helping to answer those questions. Agency climate change experts, together with partners from other federal agencies and non-governmental organizations, developed a guide to help natural resources managers integrate climate change into their planning.  Called Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice, the guide covers topics such as setting goals; assessing ecosystem vulnerability; identifying and prioritizing adaptation and implementation options; and monitoring the effectiveness of what’s been implemented.

For each topic, the guide demonstrates how to consider climate change information using examples such as Chinook salmon in the Northwest. In many streams where salmon spawn, climate change is expected to cause increased sedimentation (deposition of mud and sand particles), increased temperatures, and decreased flows in spawning habitats – all of which will be detrimental to the survival of eggs. The guide advises managers on how to consider “climate-smart” information on changes in stream temperatures, flows, and sedimentation rates in different locations as a basis for selecting sites for habitat restoration. This ensures that the restored sites will be good spawning habitat for salmon far into the future.

This and other examples in the guide provide a path forward for systematically incorporating climate adaptation into management planning and implementation. By using the guide, managers can craft management strategies that successfully achieve conservation goals in a changing climate.

About the Authors: Jordan M. West and Susan H. Julius are research scientists in the Global Change Impacts & Adaptation Program of EPA’s Office of Research and Development who contributed to the guide.

Reference: Stein, B.A., P. Glick, N. Edelson and A. Staudt (eds). 2014. Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice. National Wildlife Federation and US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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