Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Climate/Global Change (Page 2 of 5)

Seeing the Research for the Trees

The Duke Forest is more than just a place to run the trails or harvest timber. It’s also an important living laboratory for Duke’s research community.

On Dec. 4, we joined the annual tour of research sites in the 7,000-acre forest, led by forest Director Sara Childs and Operations Manager Jenna Schreiber. Nearly two dozen of us learned about water and bugs, climate change and nanoparticle pollution.

Maggie Zimmer opened up the equipment box for her show and tell of the hydrology experiment.

Maggie Zimmer opened up the equipment box for her show and tell of the hydrology experiment.

At the first stop, in the Edeburn Division south of Hillsborough, Nicholas School graduate student Maggie Zimmer showed us a densely instrumented watershed for studying how a raindrop reaches a stream.  A little valley of 130 hectares is studded with wells and dammed by a weir that measures every drop flowing out of the watershed. Zimmer and her thesis advisor Brian McGlynn are trying to get a handle on how a drop of water falling on a leaf or the ground eventually makes its way through several feet of soil and clay, in and around chunks of old rock, to the stream.

It’s not as simple as you think, says Zimmer, who has hand-augured 35 test wells in the study area and spent many dark, wet nights tending to her delicate equipment. For example, the rain gauge measures .01 millimeters at a time!

Across the road from the hydrology lab, we visited a global warming forest built by Jim Clark’s research team and overseen by lab manager Jordan Siminitz.

Jordan Siminitz showed us inside one of the warming forest test chambers.

Jordan Siminitz showed us inside one of the warming forest test chambers.

There are 24 plastic enclosures for studying how temperature increases in the soil might affect the growth of young trees. The warming scenarios were produced by a network of propane-heated pipes under the soil in each enclosure. The funding that built the site and operated it for four years has stopped, but the trees are still there and the team is hopeful they can restart the experiment.

Here and in Harvard Forest, the team was looking at soil temperature increases of 3 degrees or 5 degrees Celsius. The surprising finding out of four years of data was that southern tree species seemed to be more adversely affected by the temperature increase than northern species.

“Long term research like this is really hard to get funding for,” Childs said. But without long term studies, we won’t know much about what to expect from climate change. Incidentally, NC State was conducting a parallel study of ants and warmer soils in the same experimental booths, but they’ll be shutting down this year as well.

Duke Forest Director Sara Childs checked out a pickled Southern Pine Beetle.

Duke Forest Director Sara Childs checked out a pickled Southern Pine Beetle.

At the next stop, we found nattily uniformed NC Forest Service ranger Philip Ramsey standing next to an elaborate plastic contraption like 10 black funnels in a series leading down to a reservoir of antifreeze at the bottom. It’s a pheromone trap for the Southern Pine Beetle and its predator, the Clerid beetle. All is well with those bugs for now, but the devastating enemy of ash trees, the Emerald Ash Borer, is on the march and due to arrive any month now, Ramsey said, passing around pickled specimens of the bugs for our inspection.

Our last stop was an update on the nanotechnology test site called the mesocosm  facility – 30 boxes filled with water, silt and plant life. They’re meant to mimic a tiny slice of a shoreline ecosystem to see how various nanoparticle materials are taken up by plant and animal life.

Steve Anderson (at right) explained the mesocosm test chambers to the tour group.

Steve Anderson (at right) explained the mesocosm test chambers to the tour group.

Research analyst Steve Anderson from Emily Bernhardt’s lab explained the latest experiments on what happens to all the poisonous stuff infused into anti-bacterial socks and pressure-treated lumber. The good news so far is that nanoparticies don’t seem to get taken up by ecosystems as readily as some had feared.

This isn’t really forest research per se, but where else are you going to put 30 big bunkers of mud, surrounded by an electrified raccoon fence, a super-fine frog fence and a Quonset hut enclosure for the cooler months?

Duke Forest houses 71 research projects at the moment, 16 of them started in just the last year. We’ll look forward to more fun discoveries on next year’s tour!

Follow Duke Forest on Facebook or subscribe to their updates to catch this and other tours.

Karl Leif Bates

Post by Karl Leif Bates

Geography and the Web: A new frontier for data vizualization

A GIS Day earth cake made by the Collegiate Baker

You might be forgiven if you missed GIS Day at The Levine Science Research Center Nov. 18, but it was your loss. Students and faculty enjoyed a delightful geography-themed afternoon of professional panels, lightning talks, and even a geospatial research-themed cake contest.

What is GIS and why is it important?

Geographic information systems (GIS) give us the power to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends in the world around us. Those who work with data and analytics have a responsibility to contribute to this change by helping us make the right decisions for our future. As noted during ESRI’s 2015 User Conference in the video below, “We have a unique ability to impact and shape the world around us. [Yet] for all of our wisdom, our vast intellectual marvels, we still choose a path of unsustainability and continue to make decisions that negatively impact the Earth and ourselves. […]We must accept our responsibility as stewards of the Earth. […] We must apply our best technology, our best thinking, our best values. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for change.”


How does GIS help?

Doreen Whitley Rogers, Geospatial Information Officer for the National Audubon Society, led a lively discussion about GIS and the World Wide Web at Duke’s GIS Day. She said GIS is essential to understand what is happening in the geographic space around us. As GIS becomes increasingly web-based, efficiently distributing the system to other people is crucial in a time when new data about the environment is being created every second.

3D map displaying the height of buildings that birds hit windows

3D map displaying the height of buildings at which birds fly into windows in Charlotte, NC

Rogers and her team are aiming to move authoritative GIS data to web for visualizations and create a centralized system with the potential to change our culture and transform the world. As the technology manager, she is working on bringing the information to people with proper security and integrity.

In order to get people to use GIS data in a generalized way, Rogers needed to implement several core capabilities to assist those integrating GIS into their workflow. These include socializing GIS as a technology to everybody, creating mobile apps to work with data in real time, and 3D maps such as this one of bird-strikes in downtown Charlotte.

Case Studies

ClimateWatch helps us predict the seasonal behaviour plants and animals.

Mobile apps connecting to the GIS platform promise a strong “return on mission” due to the vast number of people using maps on phones. By mobilizing everyone to use GIS and input data about birds and geography in their area, the platform quickly scales over millions of acres. In the Bahamas, an  app allows users to take pictures to support bird protection programs.

ClimateWatch is an app that gives us a better understanding of how bird habitats are affected during temperature and rainfall variations – motivating people to speak up and act towards minimizing anthropogenic climate change. Developed by Earthwatch with the Bureau of Meteorology and The University of Melbourne, the app enables every Australian to be involved in collecting and recording data to help shape the country’s scientific response to climate change.

Virtual simulation of scenic flights as an endangered bird.

Virtual simulation of scenic flights from the perspective of an endangered bird.

Apps such as the 3-D flight map give users the vicarious thrill of cruising through nature landscapes from the view of endangered birds.

With the movements toward cleaning air and water in our communities, our planet’s birds will once again live in healthier habitats. As the Audubon Society likes to say: “Where birds thrive, people prosper.”




For more information about bird-friendly community programs, you can visit Audubon‘s site or send them a message.

Doreen Rogers after her presentation on National GIS day.



To learn more about data visualization in GIS, you can contact Doreen Whitley Rogers via email here.


Post by Anika Radiya-Dixit

Duke Forestry Celebrates its Roots in 75th Anniversary

Photo Credit: Duke Environment

Duke Forestry started off its 75th anniversary on Oct. 17 with a morning walk in the Duke Forest, for those brave enough to endure the week’s low temperatures. For everyone else, panel discussions were held throughout the day in Environment Hall covering a variety of topics relevant to forestry today, from its importance in modern society to the latest innovations in the field.

Forestry education at Duke began in the 1930s, when the program was established as the Duke School of Forestry. Over the years, the department evolved, and in 1990 the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies combined with the Duke Marine Laboratory to form the symbiosis that is now the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Alumni panel discussions were held by Nick Diluzio, M.E.M’10, M.F.’10, Katie Rose Levin, M.E.M.’12, M.F.’12,  Gary Myers, M.F.’77, and Meyer M. Speary, M.F.’92. The four alums have worked in various sectors of the forestry industry, and had much to share.

Discussions on the importance of forestry included its impact on capital structure and public policy, with Myers explaining how a tax law in 1979 on timberland lowered the government’s tax revenue, Diluzio tackling the importance of ecosystem services beyond the production of paper products, including clean water and carbon, and Rose considering the social benefits of forests.


Photo by Karduelis via Wikimedia Commons

Diluzio and Rose both talked about the subject of urban forestry, and its increasing relevance in today’s society. Urban forestry can be combined in a variety of ways with cities to help with infrastructure, stormwater management, and even hunger, as Diluzio brought up fruit trees being planted in Atlanta to feed the homeless. Rose discussed how urban forestry can provide a moral value in cities, as a source of recreation and stress management.

On innovation, the panelists agreed that the latest technology centered around data gathering, and its essential role in making informed decisions. Speary discussed the increasing use of drones in managing forest fires and reducing risk for firefighters, from picking up hotspots, to carrying water, smoke modeling, and examining where lightning occurs. Diluzio addressed web-GIS tools, and applying technology from other sectors to forestry.

They’ve changed the old forestry department to the Nicholas School of the Environment, but no matter what happens in forestry technology, Duke will help pave the way, with 75 years of leadership behind its back.

Devin_Nieusma_100By Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

A fireside chat with Marc Jeuland

Living in Few dorm has its perks, aside from being right beside the bus stop. My faculty-in-residence, Dr. Hwansoo Kim had kindly hosted a reception in his residence, where he invited Dr. Marc Jeuland for a talk about the development of water infrastructure to help improve health. A Chat with Dr. Jeuland
I was immediately captivated when I saw the email invite – as I personally had worked with affordable water filtration, in the developing world, so this was right in my field of interest.

Jeuland is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Global Health Institute. He shared his experience working on one of his most recent, major projects, which was of his water infrastructure improvements in Zarqa, Jordan. For a long time, Jordan has been experiencing a water crisis. For the residents of Zarqa, water often has to be purchased from other areas, and then carefully preserved for days, or weeks, and even up to a month. The piped water infrastructure that currently existed in Zarqa was very inefficient, and was a major source of the shortages.

Jeuland, who is an environmental engineer, said that as much as 70 percent of this water can be lost from pipelines as the water reaches the citizens of Zarqa. Jeuland worked to assess inefficiencies within the current water supply systems and tried to design and implement improvements to remedy the faults.


Marc Jeuland is an assisstant professor of global health and public policy

Aside from his work in Zarqa, Jeuland has been involved with countless other projects and studies that have ultimately benefited underserved communities around the world. He has characterized the effects of contaminated groundwater on inhabitants in Rift Valley, Ethiopia and done a detailed analysis of the correlation between water quality and kidney disease in Sri Lanka.

Jeuland’s work shows the real-world applicability of interdisciplinary fields. His work has encompassed the field of not only environmental science, but also behavioral science, economics, and engineering.

For those of you interested in learning more about the interdisciplinary fields of global health and environmental sciences/policy, it would definitely be a great idea to take a look at the classes Jeuland teaches, which include “ENVIRON 538: Global Environmental Health: Economics and Policy” and “GLHLTH 531: Cost Benefit analysis for Health and Environmental Policy”.

It was an honor to get to meet Professor Jeuland. I could tell he was a very busy man. By the time you read this, he is probably off traveling somewhere else in the world, working to improve more lives.

Thabit_Pulak_100By Thabit Pulak, Class of 2018



Marine Lab Hosts 500+ at Open House

In what was a record high turnout, more than 500 people made their way to Pivers Island on Saturday Aug. 1, for the Duke University Marine Lab’s annual open house. Visitors listened to whales, peered at plankton and sea urchin larvae through microscopes, and learned how salinity gradients and wind can drive ocean currents at 16 research stations scattered throughout the campus. Kids of all ages also got to meet horse conchs, pen shell clams, tulip snails, fiddler crabs, slipper snails and other creatures in the marine lab’s touch tanks. “We don’t think of snails as having teeth but they really do; that radula is quite a weapon. It’s like a cross between a chainsaw and a tongue,” said Duke visiting professor Jim Welch. Photos by Amy Chapman-Braun, Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke.

Bringing a Lot of Energy to Research

By Karl Leif Bates

The Duke Energy Initiative‘s annual research collaboration workshop on May 5 was an update on how the campus-wide alliance of more than 130 faculty has been pursuing its goals of making energy  “accessible, affordable, reliable and clean.” In short, they’ve been busy!

energy posters

Energetic discussion swirled around research posters from graduate student projects and Bass Connections. (Photo: Margaret Lillard)

At the afternoon session in Gross Hall, David Mitzi, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, led a panel of five-minute updates on energy materials including engineered microbes, computational modeling of materials, solar cells built on plastic rather than glass, and a nanomaterial-based sheet of material that would combine photovoltaics with storage on a single film.

Kyle Bradbury, managing director of the new Energy Data Analytics Lab that works with the ‘big data’ folks at iiD and the social scientists at SSRI, led a panel on the lab’s latest projects. As smart meters and Internet-enabled appliances enter the market, energy analysts will be flooded with new data, Bradbury explained. There should be great potential to improve efficiency and provide customers with useful real-time feedback, but first the torrent of information has to be corralled and analyzed.

energy panel

Kyle Bradbury (standing) moderated a data analytics panel with Leslie Collins and Matt Harding (right).

For one example of what big energy data might do, Bradbury and Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Leslie Collins (his former advisor) have done a pilot study to see if computers could be taught to  pick out roof-top solar arrays in satellite photos.  Nobody actually knows how many arrays there are or how much power they’re producing, Collins said. But without too much fussing around, their first visual search algorithm spotted 92 percent of the arrays correctly in some hand-picked images of California neighborhoods. Ramped up and tweaked, such an automated search could begin to identify just how much residential solar there is, where it is, and roughly how much energy it’s producing.

The third group of researchers, moderated by Energy Initiative associate Daniel Raimi, is working on energy markets and policy, including energy systems modeling and the regulation of green house gasses through the Clean Air Act.

Energy Initiative director Richard Newell said there were 1,400 Duke students enrolled in energy-related courses this year. A first round of six seed-funded research projects was completed and seven new projects have been selected. Eight Bass Connections teams in the energy theme were very productive as well, examining smart grids, solar energy and household energy conservation with teams of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

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