Category Archives: Environment Blog

Georgia Invasives Case Study

Invasive species are a concern all over the U.S. and all over the world. Some invasive species are well known such as Lionfish or Kudzu in parts of the U.S. However, there are a multitude of other invasive species that can be just as harmful to the surrounding ecosystem, even if they aren’t well known. It’s important to raise awareness of invasive species to help prevent their spread to new areas. This post covers three invasive species that can be found in the state of Georgia.

NOTE: All three species presented below have been identified in some quantity in Lullwater Preserve at Emory University.

Chinese Lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata)

Lespedeza cuneata is a notoriously invasive perennial on the east coast of the United States, most often found in old fields or prairies (Schutzenhofer et al. 2009). The species was introduced from Asia deliberately in 1895 for use in erosion control and as a forage plant for wildlife (Schutzenhofer et al. 2009). The species became further widespread with the passing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which listed L. cuneata as one of the acceptable ground cover species for reclamation of old mining sites (Bauman et al. 2015).  Old mining sites are often unproductive landscapes and provide more value in spreading invasives than for colonizing native species (Bauman et al. 2015).

L. cuneata is a successful invader of a range of habitat types due to several characteristics that increase the tolerance of the species. The species has a high seed production rate and high dispersal potential, increasing in abundance more than 20 fold in a single year(Schutzenhofer et al. 2009, Kibis and Buyuktahtakin 2017).Another feature of its survival is the large seed bank created, in which seeds can survive for decades (Kibis and Buyuktahtakin 2017). Plants also have a heteromorphic flowering system, producing flowers that can reproduce asexually in addition to flowers that are insect pollinated, which helps to increase the chances of successful reproduction (Schutzenhofer et al. 2009). L. cuneataalso engages in several behaviors that promote its survival over similar native species, such as L. virgnica: these include, shading of other vegetation, allelopathy, resistance to herbivory, and a greater efficiency of light harvesting (Allred et al. 2010).

Approaches to management of L. cuneatadepend on a variety of factors, but in most cases, it is preferable to apply treatment within the first two years of establishment to prevent the building up a sizeable seed bank (Kibis and Buyuktahtakin 2017). The species is most vulnerable in the early stages of its life, but has low rates of natural herbivory in the wild and thrives in disturbed habitats, which makes management strategies such as plowing not useful (Schutzenhofer et al. 2009, Bauman et al. 2015). The most successful treatments are ones involving herbicide and frequent monitoring (Bauman et al. 2015).

Alligator Weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides)

             Aternanthera philoxeroidesis a perennial, clonal plant originally from South America that has spread as an invasive species across multiple countries, in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (Wu et al. 2017b). Since it is so widespread, little is known about the exact time and origin of the species within the United States. The species can effectively spread from aquatic systems to terrestrial systems, which may have played a role in its introduction (Wu et al. 2017a).

A. philoxeroidesis a major threat to a number of ecosystems, especially rivers, waterways, wetlands and a number of crops ecosystems, in which it has been linked to declines in crop yields (Tanveer et al. 2018). The species is fast growing, doubling its growth in less than two months and forming dense masses of underground root systems (Tanveer et al. 2018). Aquatic systems are more vulnerable to invasion by A. philoxeroides,but climate change is likely to increase the spread of the species onto land and to higher latitudes (Wu et al. 2017a, Wu et al. 2017b). The species reproduces vegetatively with efficient dispersal via stem fragmentation, and its high genetic variability allows it to occupy a number of niches enhancing its survival (Tanveer et al. 2018).A. philoxeroides inhibits other species through allelopathy and a greater ability to photosynthesize and capture water (Wu et al. 2017b, Tanveer et al. 2018). Its clonal integration also increases its competitive ability against natives and other species present in the habitat (You et al. 2016).

Management practices of this species are numerous, widespread and costly. China alone spends $72 million per year to manage its spread (Tanveer et al. 2018). Practices include physical removal, such as excavating roots, chemical management through herbicide use over a number of years, and biological control(Tanveer et al. 2018). The beetle, Agasicles hygrophila, has been shown to be successful in managing A. philoxeroidesand is used as a management practice in many countries (Tanveer et al. 2018).

Common Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

             Vinca minor is an evergreen vine originating from parts of Eurasia (Schulz and Thelen 2000). It is an edge forest species that was commonly used as a decorative plant (Panasenko and Anishchenko 2018). This particular type of periwinkle was introduced at the end of the 19thcentury, especially for its use as ground cover and an edge species in parks and other green spaces(Panasenko and Anishchenko 2018).

V. minor spreads prolifically through vegetative propagation and can form extensive curtains of vines when not controlled (Panasenko and Anishchenko 2018). The species thrives best in forest ecosystems such as pine forests, where it has been shown to greatly reduce forest biodiversity (Panasenko and Anishchenko 2018). Unlike other plants, V. minor grows well in shady regions helping to increase its spread into established forest ecosystems (Tatina 2015). It has been shown to exhibit high allelopathy to the point of inhibiting seed germination of neighboring species, which has greatly aided its survival in otherwise highly diverse forest ecosystems (Panasenko and Anishchenko 2018).

As a relatively new invasive species that has yet to cause the widespread removal efforts of more imposing species such as lespedeza and alligator weed, there is limited research on the successful removal and management of V. minor. The management practice of combined cutting and herbicide applications has been shown to be moderately effective, but further research into more aggressive means of management will be necessary as this species continues to spread and threaten diversity in forest ecosystems (Schulz and Thelen 2000). Herbicide impacts on surrounding native species is a concern in the management of periwinkle (Tatina 2015).

Works Cited

Allred, B. W., S. D. Fuhlendorf, T. A. Monaco, and R. E. Will. 2010. Morphological and physiological traits in the success of the invasive plant Lespedeza cuneata. Biological Invasions 12:739-749.

Bauman, J. M., C. Cochran, J. Chapman, and K. Gilland. 2015. Plant community development following restoration treatments on a legacy reclaimed mine site. Ecological Engineering 83:521-528.

Kibis, E. Y., and I. E. Buyuktahtakin. 2017. Optimizing invasive species management: A mixed-integer linear programming approach. European Journal of Operational Research 259:308-321.

Panasenko, N. N., and L. N. Anishchenko. 2018. Influence of Invasive Plants Parthenocissus vitacea and Vinca minor on Biodiversity Indices of Forest Communities. Contemporary Problems of Ecology 11:614-623.

Schulz, K., and C. Thelen. 2000. Impact and control of Vinca minor L. in an Illinois forest preserve (USA). Natural Areas Journal 20:189-196.

Schutzenhofer, M. R., T. J. Valone, and T. M. Knight. 2009. Herbivory and population dynamics of invasive and native Lespedeza. Oecologia 161:57-66.

Tanveer, A., H. H. Ali, S. Manalil, A. Raza, and B. S. Chauhan. 2018. Eco-Biology and Management of Alligator Weed Alternanthera philoxeroides) (Mart.) Griseb. : a Review. Wetlands 38:1067-1079.

Tatina, R. 2015. Effects on Trillium recurvatum, a Michigan Threatened Species, of Applying Glyphosate to Control Vinca minor. Natural Areas Journal 35:465-467.

Wu, H., J. Carrillo, and J. Q. Ding. 2017a. Species diversity and environmental determinants of aquatic and terrestrial communities invaded by Alternanthera philoxeroides. Science of the Total Environment 581:666-675.

Wu, H., M. Ismail, and J. Q. Ding. 2017b. Global warming increases the interspecific competitiveness of the invasive plant alligator weed, Alternanthera philoxeroides. Science of the Total Environment 575:1415-1422.

You, W. H., C. M. Han, L. X. Fang, and D. L. Du. 2016. Propagule Pressure, Habitat Conditions and Clonal Integration Influence the Establishment and Growth of an Invasive Clonal Plant, Alternanthera philoxeroides. Frontiers in Plant Science 7:11.

Environmental Justice Case Study- Arco Recycling

Working at an environmental nonprofit in Ohio last summer, I became very familiar with environmental issues facing the state of Ohio especially in regards to agriculture and its impact on water supply and toxic algal blooms. These issues are widespread across the state and fairly well documented and reported on, so I wanted to highlight a different type of environmental justice concern occurring in the state.

This fact sheet covers the Arco Recycling facility turned illegal dumpsite in East Cleveland, Ohio. The city permitted a recycling facility to aide in the safe removal of debris from home demolitions in the area but the company soon began using the facility as a place to store the materials, only recycling the smallest required amount. The facility quickly became an issue of public health for the East Cleveland community, especially those whose homes were directly behind the dumpsite. This community is a minority community with documented low-income families and a history of environmental issues and disproportional representation in these issues.

View the Fact Sheet Here!

Environmental HiSTORY

Dr. Thomas D. Rogers home/people/faculty/rogers-thomas.html

I was pleased to attend an on-campus lecture this week presented by Dr. Thomas Rogers. He is an Associate Professor in the College whose interests focus on modern Latin American history—especially Brazil—labor and environmental history, and Afro-Latin American history. Dr. Rogers is currently working on a book entitled Agriculture’s Energy: Development and Hunger During Brazil’s Ethanol Boom that discusses the advent of agriculture in Brazil, and how that played a role in shaping the country.

Dr. Rogers’s talk entitled “Environmental History’s Audience Challenge” highlighted some of the key points from his new book, and also sought to address the importance and use of environmental history. I would not describe myself as a history buff by any means, and this talk helped me to see more clearly how important history can be.

A brief synopsis of Brazil’s environmental history, specifically that of the The National Alcohol Program:

Around 1975, Brazil experienced its first oil shock, which led to the need for another fuel source. Sugar cane production boomed within a few years, as more and more forests were cut down to grow cane for ethanol production. This development was very rapid, and was an important step in the modernization of Brazil, but it led to an unfortunate outcome. As sugar production increased, so did waste and pollution.

One liter of ethanol produces 15 liters of waste, which is equivalent to the daily average waste produced by 7.5 people! Tons of water is used for washing the sugar cane, and for evaporation and distillation of the ethanol. More solid waste comes from all of the husks of the sugar cane, which isn’t used in production.

This increase in pollution rates can easily be tracked through newspaper coverage. In the early 1970’s, there was little coverage on pollution, but this increased as sugar cane production made the issue hard to ignore. At one point, half of industrial pollution came from sugar cane production alone.

Why is this especially interesting to us? Because of what happened after. 

A very clear process of steps followed that instituted more control around the growing issue of pollution. This process was similar to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. It especially follows a similar waste case study that occurred in Hawaii just a few years prior to the process in Brazil, which goes like this:

  1. An aggressive industry creates some kind of environmental effect [Waste from massive sugar cane industry]
  2. Local activism leads to activism at a more federal level [Local areas protesting the waste in their watersheds]
  3. State action is triggered as a response to activism efforts
  4. Government action increases as activism moves up to the federal level [More pollution controls were instituted]

While this pattern is not a catchall for what happens during the modernization of agriculture and other industries, it does point us toward interesting patterns of development and responses at all levels of society.

What is the use of studying this and other aspects of environmental history?

This question reaches further into the future. Dr. Rogers described that the future of history is storytelling. That is, taking lessons from history and composing a narrative that tells a story to anyone willing to read it. People tend to approach history with the perspective that the world is a given and set in stone, but with history as a form of story telling this apprehension can be transformed into a thoughtful understanding of the world as made.

These lessons of history can be applied to policy, especially when considering the consciousness of the public-at-large, or when considering who may be an expert on recent issues. These lessons are also important for students, because in many ways historians = teachers.

Hurricane Pyro

Category : Blog , Environment Blog

Severe hurricanes are covered extensively in the news because of their relative infrequency and the utter destruction they bring. While wildfires are destructive, they are also a fairly regular occurrence in certain states, particularly those with hot or dry climates. So news of them tends not to travel much outside of the affected states’ borders. However, unlike hurricanes, we cando something about wildfires.

The past several weeks has seen the news filled with terrifying stories of hurricanes pummeling the southeast U.S. and our Caribbean territories, but behind the wall of water and wind laid the stories of roaring flames spreading across the west. Unfortunately, national coverage of these awful events did not spread as quickly as the flames, with most news stories occurring in state newspapers and relatively few in national news outlets.

While wildfires are a large blow for local community members, the wildfire’s impact extends far beyond. Many aspects of tourism are interrupted including visitors’ access to affected areas, and jobs and trade such as lodging and sales, and these losses continue even after the fire is extinguished. Damage to the natural resource of the trees themselves cannot be forgotten, as well as the loss of wildlife habitats. The economic and physical destruction caused by a major wildfire can be similar to a small hurricane, but there is action that can be taken to reduce the impact of a forest fire.

Fire was often used by Native Americans to open forests and promote biodiversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the occasional small fire helps to thin areas, allowing new growth to develop, and that some species of plants are even dependent upon fire for dormant seeds to sprout.

In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service recognized wildfires as a hazard and began to suppress them, isolating plants from this important resource and indirectly promoting larger and more intense fires. This policy has since changed, but the time it was in force was enough to set our forests off kilter.

Without the natural balance obtained through frequent burning, forests grew denser, providing more fuel for fires to consume. Reports by the U.S. Forest Service have also shown that widespread insect outbreaks have led to an increase in the number of dead standing trees, or snags. These trees fuel wildfires, allowing them to traverse deeper into the forest and grow at times to uncontrollable levels.

Climate change also plays a part, especially its role in earlier snowmelt as a result of warmer summers has led to warm and dry climates that are the perfect atmosphere for fires to thrive. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that a 1°C increase in temperature could increase area of a forest burned during a fire by as much as 600 percent.

Some people may think that wildfires only impact the forest, but in fact the negative impacts of wildfires can stretch for miles and influence the whole state. Each year, 7-8 million acres of forest and grasslands burn, costing tens of millions of dollars for firefighting. The 2017 fire season alone has already cost over $2 billion, as compared to $1.6 billion last year as reported by the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, wildfires lead to reduced air quality and numerous other health impacts for those living in the area.

Recently, Oregon suffered a massive hit as a result of the Eagle Creek Fire, which burned an estimated 33,682 acres as reported by The Oregonian. Although this a relatively small acreage as opposed to some of Oregon’s historic fires, this one hit close to home.

The fire started in the area of Eagle Creek, quickly spreading west towards Portland and even jumping the Columbia River into Washington. There were 140 hikers evacuated from the area, and Highway 84, one of Oregon’s main thoroughfares, was shut down due to the fire.

Smoke from the fire rolled over Portland and stretched even farther west of the city. In some areas, ash built up to an inch in height covering resident’s driveways and patios. Portland residents Wesley and Cassie Boisvert described how the smoke caused hazy driving conditions and made your eyes sting. The air quality was so bad that they worried about bringing their young daughter outside. Residents with respiratory problems were advised to stay indoors. Even though the fire occurred four weeks ago, there is still a noticeable amount of smoke hanging in the air.

The damage was considerable within the forest. The trails in the Eagle Creek area, beloved by all those who live in Oregon, suffered large amounts of damage and continue to be closed to hikers. Residents followed the progress of the fire, heartbroken, afraid to check the news in case it brought worsening updates of the fire’s destruction, especially in the historic area of Multnomah Falls. As it was, the destruction of trails at Eagle Creek was a large hit to the community. For Oregonians, not being able to get out to that area of the gorge is sad and devastating. The access to nature is why people live in Oregon, as reflected by Portland resident Cassie.

The U.S. Forest Service and other forest management entities often face major legal issues when trying to employ methods such as forest thinning to prevent wildfires. Thinning a forest by specific cutting decreases forest density, thereby limiting the possible fuel for a fire. Many environmental groups view this practice the same as logging, but their viewpoint does not consider the destructive impacts a fire can have if it rages through a densely-packed forest.

Controlled burns are another resource management method that is more commonly employed today. Purposely burning sections of a forest helps to decrease density and contributes to ecosystems that require fire to survive.

While wildfires are typically a concern for the most vulnerable areas like California, Oregon, and Montana, it is important to support better policies for forest management and to work toward preventing the rise of major destructive wildfires. In the end, this may not be enough in the increasingly hot and dry climates of the west, but it gives us the fighting chance that might just be enough to save our forests.


From Sea to Shining Estuary

I was going to start out with a marine-inspired rendition of America the Beautiful but I think the pun is already clear. So I will begin instead with this map of Port Aransas, courtesy of Google maps. 

I have marked on this map in orange to show the starting point of the trip I took on the Katy- the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s research vessel. If you are interested in learning more about the trip and the research vessel, check out my post: On the Katy

Also for your reference, marked in bright blue, is the direction of the open ocean. The dark greenish blue area shown on the map is part of the estuary ecosystem.

What makes the area shown so different from the ocean that it gets its own name? Estuaries are a unique middle ground between river and marine ecosystems. As defined clearly by NOAA, an estuary is where fresh and saltwater mix.  Estuaries are home to a wide range of interesting species, due to the low energy of the system and the uniquely brackish water. In Port Aransas, the estuary ecosystem is formed by two major rivers—the Aransas River and the Mission River—hitting the ocean. We explored differences between this ecosystem and the more typical marine ecosystem while aboard the research vessel Katy.

Case Study #1: WATER

An estuary is composed of many different zones, with the end of the river called the head of the estuary, and the end just before the ocean called the mouth. The conditions between these two regions are diverse, with a significantgradient of salinity levels and variable water speeds. Estuary areas are often in protected bays or inlets, and as such water speeds are relatively slow.

Case Study #2: MUD

Similar to the water salinity gradient, there is also a gradient in the amount of ground cover over the range of an estuary system. At the estuary head, larger pebbles and stone from the riverbed tend to make up most of the ground cover. As this sediment gets pushed along with the current and weathered, it gradually becomes smaller and smaller particles increasing the turbidity of the water (amount of suspended solids) and forming the mud that we pulled up during our mud grab on the R/V Katy. This high turbidity and loose muddy bottom limits organisms that need a sturdy base to grow on, but makes the perfect home for the worms, crabs and brittle stars we found in our sample. As you move towards the mouth of the estuary, you approach the sandy or rocky bottom typical of an ocean floor.

Case Study #3: FISH

The species that live in an estuary are specifically adapted to the variable salinity waters and the high volume of suspended solids. While there are not as many species adapted for this as opposed to straight freshwater or marine systems, estuaries do play an important role in biodiversity—they are home to a lot of young species. There are many species that lay eggs in freshwater but live in saltwater, and vice versa. Estuaries serve as an important transition zone between these two parts of an organism’s life. Many of the fish species we pulled up in our trawlin the estuary area were smaller and younger fish, including a baby squid. The instructors said it is also common to pull up baby crabs or other young marine species.

Estuaries are often protected areas to ensure the safety of the unique flora and fauna and to monitor water quality. The Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a great place to learn more about this unique ecosystem and how it is being protected.

Over the Creek and Through the Woods

…. To Barton Springs we go!

For our first of many field trips this summer, our REU group visited Barton Springs, a natural groundwater fed pool in the city of Austin. This is a prime spot of interest for those looking to escape the heat of the day as the pool’s water is around 68°F yearlong.

Barton Springs Creek

However, we weren’t there just to swim. Barton Springs is an interesting case study in biodiversity and climate effects on a karst (characterized by a lot of limestone) region. Through this trip we explored both of these aspects in person. Curious to learn more? Prior to the trip we read these three articles on the Barton Springs area and some of the issues impacting it.

After arriving in the Barton Springs complex, we hiked along the greenbelt trail to the upper springs area to explore the geologic formations in a karst region. We then went to the Old Mill Spring on the other side of the complex to discuss biodiversity. The final exploration of the day was a comparison between the surface water in the springs area, as compared to the groundwater in the Barton Springs Pool.

Barton Springs- Edwards Aquifer

The four springs in the Barton Springs Complex act as the discharge points for water from the Edwards Aquifer. These springs are part of an artesian system which means the water is under high pressure, causing its discharge to be seen at the surface in the form of a spring. There are three important features that make up this unique ecosystem, the karst nature of the site, the wide biodiversity, and the springs themselves.

1. Karst Regions

Fault Line in Campbell’s Hole Outcrop

While many karst regions do tend to be characterized by the presence of limestone, it is more correctly defined as a landscape formed by a dissolution of soluble rock material such as limestone or gypsum. At the end of our hike along the greenbelt, we crossed the creek and arrived at an area of exposed limestone from which we could examine the material that characterized this region and also to explore the rock layers in the nearby Campbell’s Hole Outcrop. One of the defining features of this outcrop— besides the easily differentiated layers—is the noticeable fault line. After our exploration of the rock layers and material, we hiked a little ways up the cliff front to the exposed fault line which is shown in the picture I took on the right.

Drought and wet conditions are especially impactful in karst regions because an increase in surface water can rapidly affect the groundwater quality because of the easily soluble nature of the rocks. Spring flow and groundwater levels can change rapidly in a short amount of time in these regions, and thus they are more susceptible to climate change.

2. The Springs

There are four springs in the Barton Springs complex: Old Mill Spring, Eliza Spring, and Upper and Main Barton Springs. These streams are connected by an intricate network of dams and other structures. It is difficult to describe the exact nature of this system from a single visit, but I think this description from does a great job.

Main Spring, also known as Parthenia Spring, feeds the 900′ long swimming pool. There is a dam at each end of the pool; the upper dam directs flow from Upper Spring and Barton Creek into a bypass culvert so that stormwater flows do not enter the swimming area.  Old Mill Spring, sometimes called Walsh or Zenobia Spring, is just south of Barton Creek about 450′ below the lower dam and is surrounded by a round limestone enclosure built by the Works Progress Administration.  Upper Spring occurs about 1,200′ above the swimming pool. The fourth spring, Eliza Spring, is adjacent to the swimming pool and also surrounded by a WPA structure, a deep concrete ampitheatre that used to be a swimming hole.

As a part of our field trip, we visited Old Mill Spring which is now closed to the public as can be seen by the bars in the photo on the right below. This space, along with Eliza Springs, are being preserved for their historical value but are also being reserved as habitat for the diverse range of species that take residence in the springs.

Old Mill Spring
Old Mill Spring

3. Biodiversity

Barton Springs Salamander (Photo By: Lisa O’Donnell, City of Austin)

The unique nature of the spring ecosystem makes it an ideal home for a wide range of species. Two species of concern are the Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander, which are both federally listed endangered species. This spring complex is the only known home for these two salamanders, and dams and other uses of the springs have greatly reduced their numbers. As mentioned above, Old Mill Spring and Eliza Spring are being reserved as habitat for these and other species.


Overall, I would deem this a very successful field trip with interesting ties to the project I am working on this summer. My research looks at modeling non-residential indoor water demand in Austin. So it was very fascinating to explore Barton Springs, particularly in regard to the recreational water demand aspect to see how that use compares to the usage I am tracking in my research. Many of the patterns experienced by the springs during drought and wet conditions can be similarly modeled to match indoor water demand and usage over those same time periods, especially for irrigation. I highly recommend visiting Barton Springs, both to swim in the cold groundwaters of the pool and to have a chance to experience all that this unique ecosystem has to offer.

Science… Only Part of the Equation

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Category : Environment Blog

Every year, 2.7 million people die as a result of ambient, or outdoor, pollution. An even more astonishing fact is that close to double that number die from indoor air pollution.

photo from:
Photo of Professor Saikawa from:

This tragedy is the foundation of Emory University Professor Eri Saikawa’s research. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently to discuss her work.

Professor Saikawa originally started her career as a modeler, studying the relationship between pollution and ambient emissions. When she learned that negative effects from indoor pollution are much worse than ambient, she wanted to explore it herself. She began a research project to study the impact of burning yak dung as a fuel for heating and cooking in Tibetan households.

Have you ever thought of culture as being an integral part of scientific research? It is what makes her work “interesting but challenging,” Saikawa says.

This study produced fascinating scientific results, and it also revealed a different side of science and the impact that culture can have. Science showed that purchasing chimneys, using alternative fuel sources, and improving ventilation would all help to decrease harmful indoor emissions in Tibetan households, but no one wanted to do it. Why? Culture.

Tibetans have been using yak dung as a fuel source for generations. Saikawa described that many families were aware of pollution within their homes but were not worried about the health impacts.

People often relate ambient pollution to its contribution to climate change, and Tibetans are very worried about climate change. There is a snowy mountain peak that the Tibetan people consider holy. They watch fearfully as the snow recedes further each year and disappears.

However, indoor pollution is a more serious and immediate issue for them than climate change. It is a problem of human health, and as a result should receive very different attention.

Photo by Qingyang Xiao
Photo of Tibetan household by Qingyang Xiao

Professor Saikawa described how one of her biggest challenges was getting the Tibetans to “perceive the environmental risk and see it as a problem.” Unlike the very visible cue of the mountain losing its snow, the impacts of indoor air pollution are not as easy for people to recognize as a problem.

In general, healthcare is not well promoted. When Professor Saikawa visited Tibet, she noted that the nearest healthcare facility was an hour drive from the rural villages. The people did not view it necessary to spend their time going to get healthcare.

The health risk caused by breathing in emissions from burning yak dung in their homes without proper exhausts and ventilation is immediate. In other countries having similar indoor air quality problems, scientists went in with fancy chimney and stoves but they have gone unused. People simply continued in the same ways they always had.

In addition to overseeing the research, Professor Saikawa has to balance her personal views of the situation with how Tibetans think and act. The difficulty resides in how much responsibility we have over the situation. It is important to protect people from negatives health effects while still respecting their culture.

In situations like these, it is not enough to rely on the science of the issue. Saikawa described this as one of the main problems facing the scientific community. She described her experience in Tibet as very positive and eye opening to their way of life and how “you can only understand how people live by going through what they do.” A good lesson for all of us!

Want to learn more about Professor Saikawa’s research? Check out this article on Emory’s eScience Commons:

Or read the full research article here: