UMD Researchers Guard Earth’s Environment
Illustration by Gabriella Hernandez
They monitor the health of oceans and forests from space. They predict when and where floods will strike, measure the likely effects of a warming climate and hunt down hidden sources of deadly pollution. These are just some of the ways that Terp scientists and scholars—working at one of the world’s leading institutions conducting research on global sustainability and climate science—stand watch over the health of the earth and its inhabitants.
Sulfur dioxide spews from fossil fuel-burning power plants and factories, causing breathing problems particularly for the young and old and damaging forests through acid rain. Now, using NASA satellite imagery, a researcher in UMD’s Earth Systems Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) has helped uncover dozens of unreported sources of sulfur dioxide around the world.
While the United States has well-established pollution reporting mechanisms, “for many other parts of the world there is no such information,” says Can Li, ESSIC associate scientist. “So that’s why we want to have an independent check.” All told, the sources uncovered produce 12 percent of all human-made sulfur dioxide emissions.
Honeybees are struggling, with parasites, disease and other factors contributing to 44 percent of colonies dying off in 2015–16, a higher rate than in the previous years. We know the scope of this loss thanks to the Bee Informed Partnership, a nationwide research collaboration headed by Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a UMD assistant professor of entomology.
The results from the group’s annual survey of thousands of beekeepers, showing high summer losses alongside the more typical winter colony losses, are “quite alarming,” says vanEngelsdorp. The survey and resulting analysis support the work he and many others are doing to help
bee colonies continue pollinating plants and crops.
Climate change could make us sicker. That’s the finding of a Maryland-based study led by associate professors Amy and Amir Sapkota, spouses and colleagues in the School of Public Health’s Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. By tracking historical weather data and correlating it with health records, they showed that one expected result of climate change—more bouts of extreme heat and rain—should significantly increase future rates of salmonella infection, hitting coastal dwellers particularly hard.
“The risk is not equally distributed,” Amir Sapkota says. “Adaptation strategies at local and national levels need to account for differential burdens of infectious disease associated with climate change.”
Forest loss contributes to climate change and declining biodiversity worldwide. But before Matthew Hansen, a UMD professor of geographical sciences, created the first-of-its kind Global Forest Change map, gauging the health of forests worldwide took much more than just a click on a website.
Hanson and his colleagues today are using data from advanced earth-imaging satellites to provide the most fine-grained information available about where forests are under siege, arming scientists and policymakers alike in the effort to preserve delicate ecosystems and get in front of climate change.
Major flooding kills thousands of people and costs billions of dollars each year around the world. An experimental tool produced by UMD researchers to determine where water is about to rise catastrophically might put a dent in those totals. The NASA-funded Global Flood Monitoring System (GFMS) uses real-time precipitation data to pinpoint impending floods based on years of flood modeling data comparisons.
It was developed by ESSIC researchers Robert Adler and Huan Wu. Wu grew up near the banks of the mighty Yangtze River in China. “Every year for the monsoon season, there is flooding. Even when I was a child I saw that,” Wu says. “Flooding information can be really useful in saving lives, saving people.”
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