Balancing river health and renewable energy
While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals promote the use of renewable energy projects, research shows that the expansion of hydropower- specifically through large dams-could negatively impact the people and freshwater species that rely on the world's remaining free-flowing rivers.
Srinagarind Dam in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.Photo: iStock
Dams across the globe have affected ecosystems by blocking fish migration, altering river structure, and even displacing communities. UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), led by James and Katherine Lau Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Dan Kammen, is part of an international team focused on efforts to expand clean energy use while reinvesting in the human and ecological health of river systems.
In January, RAEL researchers co-authored a study that describes how low-cost, low-carbon, and low-conflict power systems could serve as viable alternatives to large hydroelectric dams. Published in Frontiers in Environmental Science, the paper shows that falling prices and technological improvements-coupled with advances in river knowledge and modeling-have now made it possible for small- to medium-scale solar, wind, microhydro, and energy-storage projects to replace the generating capacity of certain large dams when connected to a larger power system.
“In partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and academics from several universities, we show that it is possible to utilize rivers in decarbonized energy systems while protecting the critical ecosystems of the world’s rivers,” said Kammen. “Our research offers developers and policymakers more sustainable models for decarbonizing the energy sector as part of a socially and ecologically Just Transition.”
— Mathew Burciaga
Can AI save the planet?
An image generated by DALL·E with the prompt "a robot scientist in nature with clean energy."
From self-driving cars and medical breakthroughs to surprisingly talented image and text generators like DALL·E and ChatGPT, artificial intelligence is advancing at breakneck speed-and causing lots of speculation, excitement, and concern. In a recent post on the Energy Institute at Haas blog, Agricultural and Resource Economics associate professor James Sallee pondered whether AI tools will help humanity cut emissions and adapt to climate change, or make matters worse. While AI will boost innovation and economic growth and enable new possibilities for research, posited Sallee, it may also increase disinformation and income inequality as workers are displaced-inducing social division that hinders progress for the climate. “The critical question is whether we’ve reached the point where as a society we are willing to prioritize addressing climate change, so that innovation on balance will be climate positive,” he writes.
— Julie Gipple
Charting a “new age” of water
From the creation of the planet to the present day, water has always been crucial to the existence of life. It is the foundation for scientific and technological advancements spanning from agriculture to space exploration, and it is deeply intertwined with our histories and cultures.
But now, according to alum Peter Gleick, PhD '86 Energy and Resources, the very achievements that propelled humanity forward threaten to send us into a new "dark age" marred by “unsustainable water use, ecological destruction, and global climate change.” This trajectory is detailed in Gleick's forthcoming book, Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future (PublicAffairs, June 2023), along with his vision of a sustainable future and a call to instead work toward a “new age of water for the benefit of everyone.”
The book chronicles the long and complex history of humanity's relationship with water, showing how rising human populations and growing pressure on natural resources have increased the risk of environmental collapse, driven massive economic inequality, and sown political conflict. But if we learn from the past, Gleick writes, we can create a positive future “with a balance between humans and nature, growing equality and social cohesion, and healthy, stable societies.”
— Mathew Burciaga
New AAAS Fellows
Top to bottom: David Moore, Whendee Silver, and Neil Tsutsui.
In January, three Rausser College professors were named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an honor considered one of the most distinctive within the scientific community. The new fellows will be formally celebrated in Washington, D.C., later this summer.
David Moore, professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, was recognized for advancing knowledge of nuclear hormone receptors. His seminal research has uncovered the role these receptors play in key biological processes like metabolism and diseases like cancer.
Whendee Silver—professor and Rudy Grah Chair in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM)—was honored for her contributions to the fields of biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology. Her pioneering work has helped illuminate the causes and consequences of climate change, examined the impacts of drought and hurricanes on tropical forests, and revealed possible solutions to climate change through carbon sequestration.
Neil Tsutsui, professor and Michelbacher Chair in ESPM, was recognized for his foundational research on the characteristics of ants. An evolutionary biologist who focuses on communication, behavior, and genetics within insects, Tsutsui has advanced scientific understanding of kin recognition and social behavior in ants.
A First in Microbiology
Jill Banfield is a pioneer in the fields of metagenomics and microbiology.Photo: Elena Zhukova
In February, Jill Banfield was awarded the 2023 van Leeuwenhoek Medal for her contributions to the understanding of microbial communities and interactions between microbes and the environment. The medal is awarded every ten to twelve years by the Royal Netherlands Society for Microbiology in recognition of remarkable advances in the field of microbiology and their impact on science and society.
A professor in the Departments of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and Earth and Planetary Sciences, Banfield's pioneering work includes the development of genome-resolved metagenomics and the advancement of community proteomics to study diverse bacteria, archaea, and phages, adding new branches to the tree of life. Potential applications for her research include bioremediation, biological carbon capture, and medicine.
Banfield is the scientific director of microbiology research at UC Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Institute, and she is the first woman to be awarded the van Leeuwenhoek Medal in its 125-year history.
In April, a project co-led by Banfield received $70 million from The Audacious Project, an initiative housed at TED.
A lark sparrow, one of the species that has experienced declines.Photo: Channel City Camera Club via Wikimedia
Effects of climate change and urbanization on California's birds
It's well known that climate change is affecting California's birds, but that's not the only threat: urban sprawl and agricultural development have dramatically changed the landscape of the state, forcing many species to adapt to new and unfamiliar habitats.
In a study published in Science Advances in February, Rausser College biologists reveal how land-use change has amplified-and in some cases mitigated-the impacts of climate change on bird populations in Los Angeles and the Central Valley.
They found that urbanization and much hotter and drier conditions in LA have driven declines in more than one-third of the region's bird species over the past century. Meanwhile, agricultural development and a warmer and slightly wetter climate in the Central Valley have had more mixed impacts on biodiversity.
Led by professor Steven Beissinger, the study presents the latest results from UC Berkeley's Grinnell Resurvey Project, an effort to revisit and document birds and small mammals at sites first surveyed a century ago by UC Berkeley professor Joseph Grinnell.
The researchers resurveyed birds at 71 sites and consulted current and historical data on land use, average temperature, and rainfall. In LA, they found that 40 percent of bird species were present at fewer sites today than they were 100 years ago, while only 10 percent were present at more sites. In the Central Valley, the proportion of species that experienced a decline (23 percent) only slightly outnumbered the proportion that increased (16 percent). In many cases, opposing responses to climate and land-use change by bird species-where one factor caused a species to increase while another caused the same species to decline-moderated the impacts of each threat alone.
— Kara Manke
An appeal for freshwater conservation
The 30x30 initiative-a global effort to set aside 30 percent of land and sea area for conservation by 2030 in hopes of reversing biodiversity loss and mitigating the effects of climate change-has been adopted by state and national governments around the world.
When it comes to the water side of 30x30, most programs focus solely on conservation of oceans, but a recent study by Rausser College researchers argues that freshwater ecosystems must not be neglected. Published in March in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the paper urges policymakers to explicitly include freshwater ecosystems in 30x30 plans, and outlines how their conservation will be critical to achieving the initiative's broader goals of addressing climate change and fostering economic sustainability, food security, and equitable outdoor access.
“Freshwater ecosystems are especially fragile and often overlooked in global conservation initiatives,” said Jessie Moravek, the study's lead author and a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. “Many times, conservation practitioners assume that water is protected just because the land around it is protected, but that's not always the case. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands usually need special attention.”