New Major: Earth & Environmental Science

A Living Laboratory

Ask many students why they’re at the University of Utah and they’ll tell you they want to make an impact on the world. Maybe it’s medicine, social work, or realizing the next best engineering feat. Maybe their impact lies in the arts, architecture or the humanities. Then there’s politics, management or public health . . . to name a few.

There are a growing number of students looking at climate change and the environment with an urgent sense of purpose and a belief that they can make a difference.

Are you one of them?

The College of Science is offering a new major in Earth & Environmental Science (EES) in fall 2023. EES is an interdisciplinary degree that enables students to study the interconnected nature of earth systems, including the fields of atmospheric science, geology, and ecology. Students with this degree will gain the education and experience to make an impact on the challenges facing our planet.

Living laboratory

So, you’re set to train to make a difference in this world. What is your laboratory going to look like?

Students who declare their EES major will engage with the living laboratory surrounding the university–studying forest ecology in the Wasatch Mountains, geology in the midst of Utah’s national parks and climate science from the top of Utah’s world-famous ski resorts.

A critical part of learning about earth systems is to experience those systems firsthand. “The ability to have our incredible landscapes as our living laboratory, it’s an amazing strength of the University of Utah,” said William Anderegg, associate professor of biology. Anderegg, who is also director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy at the U, played an important role in the creation of the new major as part of a multidisciplinary team. “Utah’s geography, combined with our powerful research make the U one of the best places in the world to study environmental science.”

As an EES student, you will engage with the natural beauty of Utah while working on environmental challenges that face the state and our region. This balance of coursework both in a laboratory and in the field will prepare you for career opportunities in a wide variety of growing sectors, from environmental consulting to land management, and from conservation to corporate stewardship.

Transformational experience

The new Earth & Environmental Science major will focus on providing students with transformational experiential learning opportunities. First-year students will start their studies as part of the Science Research Initiative, where they will join a research lab during their first year on campus–no experience required. After a community-building class providing an introduction to university research, students will be paired in a “research stream” with faculty and a group of peers to experience the challenge and opportunities with research–either in the lab or in the field.

EES has a broad appeal and welcomes existing U students already pursuing science and earth science degrees, and transfer students to the U interested in climate science/environmental science education. Current students transferring into the major have the option to use previous research experience for the SRI requirement.

Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science, believes that EES will not only appeal to a new generation of students at the U, but that it provides a blueprint for other interdisciplinary programs on campus. “The new Earth and Environmental Science degree is meeting surging student and employer demand for quantitative expertise in environmental science,” said Trapa. “Thanks to the merger between the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, the U can deliver new world-class educational pathways to understand the science of earth’s integrated systems that lie at the heart of addressing future environmental challenges.”

The U offers two undergraduate majors that offer an interdisciplinary approach to studying the environment: Earth & Environmental Science and Environmental and Sustainability Studies (ENVST). ENVST strives to foster an understanding of ecological systems and the consequences of human-environment interactions, using a science-based focus to arrive at solutions and integrated problem solving from earth systems science, the humanities and social and behavioral sciences.

The new EES major, on the other hand, is focused on quantitative reasoning and thinking. It requires students to enroll in the science core classes, similar to most degree programs in the College of Science. Three emphases in climate science, geoscience, and ecosystem science will tailor students’ coursework to their interests, with plenty of space in schedules to add electives and supplemental coursework from different disciplines.

Advisors can help students decide which degree is right for them. Motivated students can double-major in both programs, or receive a Sustainability Certificate to add to their credentials.

Close to Home

Ainsley Nystrom

Ainsley Nystrom, a sophomore and College of Science ambassador, is excited about the possibility of declaring her EES major, which promises to streamline her current (multiple) major and minors into one degree. “I stand by the fact that climate science doesn’t just have one aspect,” she said, “and that every aspect … is very interconnected.”

A researcher in the Anderegg Lab, Nystrom studies wildfire as it relates to forest health and drought which, for her, strikes close to home. She remembers the year before she came to the U when she had to initiate an evacuation with her two younger sisters due to a threatening brush fire near their home north of Phoenix. The whys and the wherefores of that frightening scenario were complex, and different aspects that were nevertheless interrelated. And while Nystrom understands that scientists must narrow their research, the new major’s interdisciplinary approach—from atmospheric sciences to chemistry, from biology to geology and from mathematics to physics—will allow her to see how her area of study is impacted by others in living laboratories, and in what way.

“I didn’t know how big of a field environmental science was until I came to the U,” Nystrom concluded. But she knows now, and the new Earth & Environmental Science major is customized to prime her for a long career as a researcher determined to make a difference.

Course plans available now.
Visit for more information.

By David Pace, originally published @theU.


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Utah’s Air Quality History

UTah's air Quality History


Logan Mitchell, credit:KSL TV

You may be surprised to learn that the bad air quality that bedevils the basins along the Wasatch Front is better than any time since 1880. That was the first year that Logan Mitchell was able to detect what became a trove of stories and photos underscored by the concern Utahns had for the effect of bad air on public health.

A climate and energy analyst at Utah Clean Energy and affiliated faculty at the University of Utah's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Mitchell has created a digital archive exhibit about the history of environmentalism in the Beehive State. The exhibit, detailed in a story on KSL TV, includes links to photos and articles and expands on a research paper Mitchell wrote last year.

“There was always an awareness that this was bad for our health,” he said of smoky air.

The story which aired March 22 continues: "When he first pursued the question, he thought, maybe pollution had become a public issue in the last decade or two.  As he scoured the archives, he discovered air quality has been a persistent concern as long as people have lived on the Wasatch Front."

The History of Air Quality in Utah digital exhibit showcases archival materials from the U's J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections and historical newspaper articles from the Utah Digital Newspapers project as well as from other archives across the state.

Read the story about the exhibit on @theU.

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Thumping Thermometer

Thumping Thermometer

Old Faithful

While the crowds swarm around Old Faithful to wait for its next eruption, a little pool just north of Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser is quietly showing off its own unique activity, also at more-or-less regular showtimes. Instead of erupting in a towering geyser, though, Doublet Pool cranks up the bass every 20 to 30 minutes by thumping. The water vibrates and the ground shakes.

Doublet Pool’s regular thumping is more than just an interesting tourist attraction. A new study led by University of Utah researchers shows that the interval between episodes of thumping reflects the amount of energy heating the pool at the bottom, as well as in indication of how much heat is being lost through the surface. Doublet Pool, the authors found, is Yellowstone’s thumping thermometer.

“By studying Doublet Pool, we are hoping to gain knowledge on the dynamic hydrothermal processes that can potentially be applied to understand what controls geyser eruptions,” said Fan-Chi Lin, an associate professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the U and a study co-author, “and also less predictable and more hazardous hydrothermal explosions.”

The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Not exactly like a geyser
Doublet Pool is, as the name implies, a pair of hydrothermal pools connected by a small neck. It would fit comfortably in one half of a tennis court. It’s situated on Geyser Hill in Yellowstone National Park, across the Firehole River from the hotels, visitor centers and parking lots that surround Old Faithful.

Fan-Chi Lin

“We knew Doublet Pool thumps every 20-30 minutes,” Lin said, “but there was not much previous knowledge on what controls the variation. In fact, I don’t think many people actually realize the thumping interval varies. People pay more attention to geysers.”

The thumping, Lin said, which lasts about 10 minutes, is caused by bubbles in the plumbing system that feeds water, heated by a magma system beneath Yellowstone, to Doublet Pool. When those bubbles of water vapor reach the cool upper reaches of the hydrothermal conduit, they collapse suddenly. Thump.

A similar process happens in geysers and excites “hydrothermal tremor,” Lin said, but occurs deeper in the hydrothermal system, at depths of about 30-60 ft and ends with the geyser releasing pressure through a narrow opening as an eruption. Doublet Pool does not have a plumbing structure that enables pressure accumulation and hence no eruption occurs. Also, scientific instruments placed in and around the pool aren’t at any risk for being regularly blown out.

So, to better understand how hydrothermal systems work, Lin and his colleagues, including Cheng-Nan Liu, Jamie Farrell and Sin-Mei Wu from the U and collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley and Yellowstone National Park, set up instruments called geophones around Doublet Pool in seven deployments between 2015 and 2021. In winter 2021 and spring 2022, with the permission of the National Park Service, they lowered temperature and water-level sensors into the pool itself. Then they watched, waited and listened.

Like blowing on a pot of pasta
The researchers focused on the silence interval, or the time between periods of thumping. They found that the silence interval varied both year-to-year and also hour-to-hour or day-to-day. Their results suggest that different processes of adding or removing heat to the hydrothermal system are behind the variation.

In November 2016, the silence interval was around 30 minutes. But by September 2018, that interval had been cut in half to around 13 minutes, and by November 2021, the interval was back up to around 20 minutes.

What else was happening on Geyser Hill during those same times? On September 15, 2018, Ear Spring, which is 200 feet (60 m) northwest of Doublet Pool, erupted for the first time since 1957. After the eruption, the water in Doublet Pool boiled.

Yellowstone’s hydrothermal system is like an Instant Pot, building up heat and pressure leading up to eruptions of geysers and other features. The unusual behavior of Ear Spring, Doublet Pool and other features suggests that in 2018 the heat under Geyser Hill may have been turned up more than usual. By 2021, like an Instant Pot on Natural Release, that heat and pressure had subsided and the silence interval at Doublet Pool had recovered.

Thermal "thumping" at Doublet Pool.

The researchers also noticed that silence intervals varied from day to day, and even hour to hour. When they compared the weather conditions with the silence intervals, they found that wind speed over the pools was correlated with the silence interval. When wind speed was higher, the interval was longer. Nature was blowing over the top of Doublet Pool, cooling it off.

The team is still working to understand how the blowing wind at the surface of the pool impacts the heat at the bottom, but it’s clear that the wind removes heat energy from the water, just like blowing over a hot drink–or a pot of pasta about to boil over—cools it off.

Doublet Pool

“Right now, we are treating the pool as one whole system, which means energy taken away from the surface makes it harder for the system to accumulate enough energy to thump,” Lin said. “One possibility is that the pool is actively convecting so the cooling near the surface can affect the bottom of the pool in a relatively short time scale.”

Heat inputs and outputs
Using principles of heat transfer, the authors calculated the amount of heat and the heating rate needed to initiate thumping at Doublet Pool. Think again about blowing on a pot of pasta. You can prevent boiling over if you are removing heat (through blowing) at the same rate the heat is entering the pot.

“And as we know how to calculate the heat being removed from the wind,” Lin said, “we can estimate the heating rate at the base.”

The heating rate for Doublet Pool works out to around 3-7 megawatts of energy. For comparison, Lin said, it would take about 100 household furnaces burning at the same time to heat up Doublet Pool enough to thump. (This is also equivalent to more than $5,000 worth of energy daily, which highlights the potential of geothermal energy.)

Knowing that heating rate, scientists can use the silence interval as a measurement of how much heat is coming into the pool, since more heat means a shorter interval.

“A better understanding of the energy budget,” Lin said, “will also improve our understanding of how much energy from the Yellowstone volcano is released through these hydrothermal features.”

By Paul Gabrielsen, originally published @theU.

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Weekend Effect

Weekend Effect

Austin Green

Adult female mule deer stares directly at a trail camera

Odocoileus hemionus, aka mule deer.

Puma concolor, aka cougar.

Along wild-to-urban gradients and especially within less developed areas, human recreation can affect wildlife behavior, especially during peaks in human recreational activity.

In a new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour large-scale citizen science camera trapping helped assess whether periodic increases in human recreational activity elicit behavioral responses across multiple mammal species in northern Utah.

Says lead author of the paper, Austin Green, PhD, “we assessed whether increases in human recreational activity during the weekend affected mammalian activity patterns at the community-wide and species-specific level.” The team headed up by Green, a postdoctoral researcher in the Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the U’s College of Science, found little evidence supporting the presence of time-specific, or temporal effect behavioral changes in response to increases in human recreational activity during the weekend, known as the “weekend effect.”

Only elk, Cervus canadensis, and rock squirrel, Otospermophilus variegatus, significantly altered temporal activity patterns during the weekend. “People significantly alter periodical activity during the weekend,” according to the study, “with more activity occurring in midday and less activity occurring in the early evening. This leads to consistent decreases in human-wildlife temporal overlap.”

Instructor of the Human Wildlife Coexistence stream in the SRI, Green is currently working with undergraduates in the field and in the lab located in the Crocker Science Center. Green’s research is focused on the Wasatch Front, a “functional landscape” that combines both human use and conservation. “One way in which mammals avoid the human ‘super-predator,’” says Green, “is by altering their behavior”: how they use both space and time; adjust their interaction with other species; and vary where they feed, sleep and reproduce.

Green’s group uses large-scale fieldwork in both natural and urbanized landscapes; performs data analytics; identifies wildlife in photos using artificial intelligence; and promotes citizen science education and engagement. In this study, says Green, “we were able to show that by altering the time of day that humans recreate, we can reduce the negative impacts of increased recreational activity on wildlife behavior.”

by David Pace, images by Wasatch Wildlife Watch.


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Saving Great Salt Lake

Saving Great Salt Lake

William Anderegg

The Great Salt Lake can be saved. This is how we do it.

Decisions to bring more water to the Great Salt Lake need to be based on the best available science and data. That’s why last fall, at the request of our university presidents and Utah’s policymakers, we launched a new kind of partnership called the Great Salt Lake Strike Team.

This team is a joint effort between Utah’s research universities — the University of Utah and Utah State University — and state agencies. Our goal is to provide data and answers to key questions needed for saving the Great Salt Lake. The effort aims to be impartial, data-driven and rapid.

On Feb. 8, we’re sharing our key findings in a policy assessment report. We’re focused on answering crucial questions. How did we get here? What are our options going forward?

Our report’s key findings are both stark and hopeful. The lake is currently sliding toward catastrophe. While a long-term drought and climate warming are exacerbating the stress, human water use is the largest driver of low lake levels. Fortunately, we have many policy levers that can help return the lake to healthy levels.

Brian Steed

The report provides a policy assessment and “scorecards” for some of the most-discussed options for bringing more water to the lake. We’ve synthesized the benefits, costs and trade-offs of these options. Also important, our report provides science-based scenarios for refilling the lake to certain target levels and the additional water required for each scenario.

While we do not advocate for any specific policies, we have four concrete recommendations that will help clarify and guide efforts to save the lake:

First, the state should set a target lake level range, based on the matrix developed by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands and a timeline to reach that lake level. Once a target and timeline have been set, annual evaluations of progress and recalibrations will be important.

Second, wet years will be crucial to helping refill the lake. Wet years — like 2023 is turning out to be — are the time to increase conservation and ensure that conserved water makes it to the lake.

Finally, further in-depth policy analyses can guide specific actions. Research on existing and potential policies, building on expertise around the state and our strike team, will be important for informing data-driven decisions in the next few years.

This “strike team” partnership has been incredibly productive. It represents the land-grant and flagship universities working together, collaborating with state agencies, to serve our great state. It leverages our complementary strengths in water modeling, water policy, climate, hydrology and air quality.

We firmly believe the Great Salt Lake can be saved. Refilling the lake to levels that ensure Utahns’ health and prosperity will require state leadership, research university technical expertise, and individual and collective action.

The next several years are a crucial window to turn the tide, though success requires us to remember that this is a marathon and not just a sprint. As a state, we have the know-how, science, innovation, problem-solving spirit and leadership to rise to the challenge.

William Anderegg is the director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy and an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah. His research focuses on water resources, drought, climate change and forests.

Brian Steed is the executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University. He’s previously overseen the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.


By Brian Steed and William Anderegg, originally published @DeseretNews.


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Magnesium Pollution?

Magnesium Pollution?

Salt Lake City, Utah

Research helps explain Salt Lake City's persistent air quality problems.

The 2.4 million people who live along Utah’s Wasatch Front experience some of the most severe winter particulate matter air pollution in the nation. Now, analysis of measurements taken during National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research flights in 2017 indicates that emissions from a single source, a magnesium refinery, may be responsible for a significant fraction of the fine particles that form  the dense winter brown clouds that hang over Salt Lake City.

The finding was published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Lead author Carrie Womack, a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder working at NOAA, said analysis of airborne measurements directly from the plume rising from the US Magnesium refinery during a 2017 winter air pollution study in Utah found that emissions of chlorine and bromine, known as halogenated compounds, were significant contributors to the persistent winter brown clouds.

Carrie Womack

“I was struck by the complexity of chemical reactions in the atmosphere,” said U professor John Lin, of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and a co-author of the study. “Changes in the chemical ingredients of the atmosphere could lead to unexpected outcomes through inter-linked chemical pathways.”

US Magnesium, the largest magnesium producer in North America, extracts the metal from the brine of the Great Salt Lake, at a plant upwind of Salt Lake City.

Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. Particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to health, affecting both lungs and your heart.

“Understanding what causes this PM2.5 formation is the first step in reducing it,” Womack said. “One aspect of our study was characterizing known point sources in the area.”

John Lin

The Utah Division of Air Quality requires reporting of particulate precursors, such as chlorine and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are then shared with the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, NOAA’s measurements also identified significant emissions of bromine, a reactive chemical that is not required to be reported. Modeling demonstrated that the chlorine and bromine emitted by the refinery were responsible for 10 – 25% of regional PM2.5 during winter pollution episodes.

“Our measurements of chlorine and nitrogen oxides agree with what the facility reports to regulators,” Womack said. “But what we found suggests that bromine industrial emissions may deserve a closer look.”

Pollution control regulations and cleaner technologies adopted since the 1970s have steadily improved air quality in the US. Yet some valleys in the Intermountain West still experience high levels of PM2.5 during winter. In Utah’s urban Salt Lake Valley, wintertime levels of PM2.5 exceed national air quality standards an average of 18 days per year. The majority of exceedances occur in December, January and early February during a period when strong, multi-day inversions known as persistent cold air pools develop that trap pollution close to the surface.

These exceedances have been specifically associated with adverse health effects in the region, including a 42% higher rate of emergency room visits for asthma during the latter stages of air pollution events from 2003-2008, according to one study.

Prior to the NOAA study, the chemical composition of PM2.5 in northern Utah, and how it forms, had received considerably less attention than in other regions of the nation despite the severity of the problem in Utah.

“We could see during our research flights in 2017 that the air around the plant was unlike anything we had sampled previously due to the high chlorine emissions,” said NOAA scientist Steven Brown, who led the field campaign. “We were surprised that it had such a large effect on winter PM2.5 across the entire region.”

“Close to the plant, we didn’t even need to check the instruments to know we were flying through the plume,” Womack added. “We could smell it. It smelled like bleach!”

The dominant contributor to regional particulate matter is ammonium nitrate, which is responsible for up to 70% of fine particulate mass during inversion periods and 40% outside of inversions. Ammonium nitrate is a secondary pollutant formed by reactions between ammonia, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The NOAA model demonstrated that halogen emissions from US Magnesium speed up the conversion of NOx and VOCs to ammonium nitrate particulate matter.

Researchers have shared their findings with Utah officials, who had sought NOAA’s help in understanding their poor winter air quality. A previous paper by Womack in 2019 documented other sources of winter smog.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is currently conducting a study to identify sources of ammonia.

While the new paper is based on measurements taken in 2017, Womack said emissions of chlorine, which accompany the unreported emissions of bromine, have not shown any sign of significant decline in the last five years.

Researchers from the University of Utah, the University of Toronto, the University of Washington, and the U.S. EPA also participated in the study.

Find the full study here.

By Theo Stein, originally published @theU.



Collaboration of the Cited

Collaboration of the Cited

The cover of Philosophical Transactions, 1665.

Philosophical Transactions, 1665.

Biology’s ‘highly cited’ researchers collaborate in forest science.

The first scientific journal, still in print, was launched in 1665 by the Royal Society in London, but peer review and the ubiquitous citations we’ve come to expect in research documents are a relatively recent innovation. According to the Broad Institute, it began as late as the mid-1970s.

To distinguish high-level “influencers” in research, Clarivate, a company that provides insights and analytics to accelerate the pace of innovation, annually announces the most “highly cited” researchers. This year, three of those are located at the University of Utah, and all of them are based in the College of Science: Peter Stang (chemistry), John Sperry (biology) and William “Bill” Anderegg (biology).

Sperry and Anderegg have worked closely together, publishing multiple papers over the course of about six years in the areas of plant hydrology and forest stress. Their research is an auspicious example of how, in the tradition of peer-reviewed research, scientists routinely stand on the shoulders of others to move forward human understanding of life sciences. This is, of course, especially critical during an era when global warming demands that we have innovative solutions now.

Vascular health and function

When Sperry started working on plant hydro-vascular systems and their failure by cavitation more than forty years ago, he was one of only a small handful of people who knew it was an important topic. “Scientifically, the field was a goldmine,” said Sperry, “wide open with no competition. Once I’d developed a simple method for measuring cavitation in plant xylem as a grad student, I was off to the races.”

Sperry’s acknowledgment as a highly cited researcher would suggest he ran that race well before retiring in 2019. “I’ve always been thankful to Utah biology for going out on a limb with my hire,” he reports. “Once at Utah, the discoveries about cavitation and its consequences for plant ecology and evolution steadily drew more attention and the field grew.”


Sperry holding a custom rotor.

“Once at Utah, the discoveries about cavitation and its consequences for plant ecology and evolution steadily drew more attention and the field grew.”


New method developments by his lab helped acquire larger data sets on how plant form and function have evolved. Sperry custom designed centrifuge rotors to quickly expose the vascular system of plants to a known negative pressure. This in turn allowed him to create the kinds of vulnerability curves, which improve prediction of plant water use and to help move his research toward macro applications in forests to predict plant responses to climate change.

Demonstrating the linkage between the physics of water transport and the physiological regulation of plant gas exchange and photosynthesis via stomata was key to better understanding how plants respond to environmental change. This is because transport physics is easier to measure and model than the physiology underlying stomatal behavior. “I always knew that vascular health and function had to be at least as important to plants as it is to animals, and so it has proven to be.”

Scaling up through computation

While necessity is the mother of invention—as in Sperry’s early centrifuge–computational power, one could argue, is the mother of scaling up research impacts. As a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Mel Tyree at the University of Vermont, Sperry learned early on the utility of blending theoretical modeling with empirical work. “Decades of weather parameters can [now] be converted into continuous half-hourly predictions of photosynthesis, transpiration, xylem pressures and so forth in a matter of hours,” he explains of how big data revolutionized his work. “In my case, modeling converts the measured cavitation response. . .. This paved the way for improved predictions of responses to climate change. The utility of this approach has gradually become appreciated . . . hence the number of citations.”

It is no coincidence that Sperry and Anderegg who both share a research interest in plant hydraulics are cited frequently. But while Sperry’s work focused on physiological fundamentals, Anderegg’s ongoing forest research is more wide-ranging and focuses on ecological consequences at often large scales. Said Sperry of his colleague, “his measurements helped explain the drought-induced mortality he had observed in the field. … What Bill has done, in spades, is to realize the potential of plant hydraulics for improving large-scale (landscape to globe) understanding of forest health.”

He continues to watch with interest Anderegg’s research which he said, “stimulated the leap from vascular physiology at the whole-plant scale to the forest as a whole and into a future of climate change. He played a key role in identifying how to model the trade-off between transpiration and photosynthesis, which was crucial for bridging the gap between vascular health and photosynthetic health.”

For Anderegg, who first met Sperry when he was a graduate student studying cavitation in Colorado aspens, the feeling of admiration is mutual. While attending a major conference in the field, Anderegg remembers an artistic set of wooden branches—a “mentor tree.” There, “young scientists anonymously wrote the name of someone who had changed their career. John’s name was all over the tree and was the most frequent name by far.”

Sperry would agree with Anderegg when the latter explains how “climate change is already having major impacts on our landscapes, forests, and communities, and thus scientific research to help us understand, mitigate, and adapt to climate change is growing rapidly.” As director of the new Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy housed in the College of Science, Anderegg is at the forefront of trying to understand more fully the western United States’ forest environments calling it “a global hotspot for climate impacts.” His aim both within the Wilkes Center and without is “to make our research in this region useful, timely, and relevant.”

“John’s work in the field of plant water transport was seminal and at the vanguard of the field,” said Anderegg, “So it’s not a surprise at all to me that it continues to be widely cited even after his retirement.”

The defining issues of our age

At the helm of the Wilkes Center, Anderegg is keen to collaborate with stakeholders and multiple partners to analyze and innovate on climate solutions. The Center’s intention is to inform policy in key areas of water resources, climate extremes, and nature-based climate solutions. Funded by a $20 million gift from Clay and Marie Wilkes, the Center illuminates climate impacts on local communities, economies, ecosystems, and human health in Utah and around the globe while developing key tools to mitigate, adapt, and manage climate impacts.

The directorship is a natural one for Anderegg whose principal query is driven by concerns that drought, insects, and wildfire may devastate forests in the coming decades. “We study how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedback,” he writes. “This research spans a broad array of spatial scales from xylem cells to ecosystems and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests around the world.”


William “Bill” Anderegg

“We study how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedback”


A recent paper of his in Science presents a climate risk analysis of the Earth’s forests in the 21 century. Before that publication, his team not only determined that more people are suffering from pollen-related allergies and that people who do have these allergies are suffering longer pollen seasons than they used to but that the causes, while wide-ranging, are mainly because of climate change. The Wilkes Center aims to scale up such societally relevant research, provide tools for stakeholders to make decisions and leverage science and education to inform public policy.

Accumulating citations in scientific, peer-reviewed journals leading to warm accolades of being one of an elite group of the “highly-cited” is not just about giving credit where credit is due. Instead, citations are signs of momentum, the importance of a given field of study, and robust collaboration. They are mechanisms for the leveraging of data and interpretation of that data. And, like the exhilarating high-volume transport upwards of water through xylem in trillions of trees across the earth, citations help link together the scientific literature and let scientists stand on the shoulders of giants to tackle society’s greatest challenges.


by David Pace, first published in the School of Biological Sciences

Art & Air Quality

Art & Air Quality

Wendy Wischer

Public art piece finds common ground in the fight for air quality.

UTA Trax cars zip from University hills to west-side valleys, past schools, shops and churches. Carrying more than just passengers, these cars hold research-grade air quality sensors. They catalog things we can’t see—ozone, the valley’s main summertime polluter, and PM 2.5, the particulate matter that blankets our wintertime, turning Salt Lake City into a snow globe of ash. Soon they’ll carry something else: segments of public art piece In Search of Blue Sky, decorating  Trax car interiors and the sides of public buses. The installation seeks both to raise community awareness of the air quality data and embed it with personal meaning. “Just putting data out there doesn’t move people, doesn’t change people,” says Wendy Wischer, the project’s artist. “Artwork can pull at emotions, and to act, we need to be moved emotionally.”

Wischer was first approached by John Lin several years ago when the sensors were installed. Both faculty at the University of Utah, Wischer teaches Sculpture Intermedia in the College of Fine Arts and Lin is a professor of Atmospheric Sciences. They received funding through the university’s Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), described on its website as “an interdisciplinary hub catalyzing research on global [climate] change and sustainability.” Creative Writing Ph.D. candidate Lindsey Webb from the College of Humanities became their student collaborator, who collaborated with Wischer and Lin to write the text.

John Lin

“The more we care about each other [and] the more we feel connected to each other, the more we’re going to take action that supports a healthier environment for everybody.”

Wischer boasts a long resume of environmental art installations, having collaborated with geologists and engineers in the past. Her work explores boundaries and the places where art and science collide. Art brings a different perspective and problem-solving process to climate issues, one Wischer believes may help us navigate their complexity. “I often am seeking connecting threads between disparate ideas,” she says. “We need the disciplinary expertise, but we also need to think about … incorporating those skill sets in different ways.”

The In Search of Blue Sky panels will be a pop of color in the cityscape, each one boasting a short poem or phrase on a serene, blue-sky backdrop. Wispy cirrus clouds seen in fair weather drift lazily from one panel to the next. Webb’s words are simple, yet poetic meditations on the air around us, its beauty and degradation. In Search of Blue Sky’s simplicity may be its strongest asset—in the chaos of traffic, billboards and advertisements, it’s a breath of fresh air. It evokes a longing for that simplicity, just out of memory.

A QR code or URL lets passersby with a smartphone instantly access both the project’s website and the data collected in real-time by the Wasatch Environmental Observatory (WEO), perhaps even captured by the train car they’re sitting in. Wischer says, “I hope that this curiosity sparks conversations and that people will take further action, whether that’s riding more public transportation … [or] voting in ways that support certain policies and programs.” The data is meant for everyone. But, says Wischer, most people don’t know it exists. The campaign is accessible and bilingual (both the signage and website are in English and Spanish), and she hopes it will inspire people to learn and care more about the issue, inciting action in whatever form that might take.

Interior signage for buses and trains.

Air quality has been a pressing issue in Salt Lake City for a long time, though little has been done on the state and city levels to address it. One notable takeaway from the data is the inequitable distribution of hazardous air quality. Although everyone is affected, communities on the west side and lower-income areas suffer the most as the negative health effects of air pollution compound with other structural inequalities. As in all climate fights, our greatest weapon comes in community; our strongest allies are each other. Wischer wants the art of In Search of Blue Sky to remind us that we all have a stake in the fight. “The more we care about each other [and] the more we feel connected to each other, the more we’re going to take action that supports a healthier environment for everybody,” she says

“I often am seeking connecting threads between disparate ideas.”

Wischer believes that the biggest victories in the climate fight often come from local, grassroots efforts. “There are a number of different solutions that might be available,” she says, “but we can’t even get there if we don’t have conversations. We have to have common ground to understand why this is important and why we should care about a neighborhood that’s affected differently than our own.” One solution is public transportation, the vessel for In Search of Blue Sky. Wischer notes that the messages inside the Trax cars are different from those outside—they’re messages of thanks. “We’re always saying ‘oh, you should do this, you should do that.’ Rarely do we say ‘thank you’ for actually doing it,” says Wischer.

Our air is precious. When it’s abundant, we hardly notice it. After three short minutes without it, we die. In Search of Blue Sky reminds us what we’re fighting for; it reminds us that we’re all in this together.

Utah Transit Authority Bus Advertising

In Search of Blue Sky will run on UTA buses and Trax cars through the month of January, when Salt Lake’s winter inversion is at its worst. To learn more about the project, visit

By . Originally published @SLUG Magazine, photos by .


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GSL Meteorite

GSL Meteorite

The impact site.

On the morning of Aug. 13, 2022, a loud boom was heard across the Salt Lake Valley. As it turned out, it was the sound of a falling meteorite that eventually landed in the salt flats west of Salt Lake City.

“I was just getting up, I was in my driveway, I heard a loud sonic boom and then some rumbling, kind of like thunder after that,” said Dr. James Karner, a research professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “I actually thought that could be what a meteorite sounds like when it breaks through the atmosphere.”

Karner’s suspicions were confirmed when the ski resort Snowbasin released video footage of a fireball falling through the sky.

“The relative rarity of an event like this — the only other witnessed fall ever in Utah was in 1950,” Karner said. “Before this meteor hit, there had only been 26 meteorites ever found in Utah.”

The meteorite was found in the salt flats by a meteorite hunter from Nevada named Sonny Clary. Clary then agreed to donate a slice of the meteorite to the University of Utah in order to have it studied further, as well as named by The Meteoritical Society.

James Karner

“If you’re the first finder of a meteorite, apparently, you’re very keen on getting your name in the archives,” Karner said. “In order to have a meteorite named, you have to have an institution classify it, just figure out what kind of meteorite it is and write up a little report then propose a name for it, so he agreed to let the University of Utah do that.”

Karner, as the U’s resident meteoriticist, is head of the team tasked with the analysis. “There’s not a lot of people that study meteorites here like at Arizona State or Portland State,” Karner said. “But [Clary] said, ‘I think, Utah, it’d be good for you to have this meteorite since it’s such a community event.’”

So, the process of analyzing and naming the meteorite began.

“The goal of meteoritics is to understand the origins of the solar system,” said Dr. Benjamin Bromley, professor of Physics and Astronomy. “These samples that people find are billions of years old, and many of them were formed as rocks at the beginning of the solar system, as all the solids came together.”

Bromley said the analysis of such samples could contain clues for how Earth and other planets in the solar system were formed.

“These are, in some sense, failed planets because they’re just little bits of debris,” he said. “They’re composed of pretty primordial stuff in many cases. So I think they’re really beautiful and really informative with the clues they have for understanding our solar system.”

Benjamin Bromley

The first step was to determine the composition of the sample. “Most meteorites are called stony meteorites, and they come from asteroids,” Karner said.

To explain this, he had a sample of another meteorite, separate from the one found in the salt flats, and pointed to little silver specks within the sample. “Those are little grains of iron-nickel metal. Those are unique to meteorites because all the iron has been oxidized on the surface of the Earth, but in space, you can get iron-nickel metal, and that tells you you have a meteorite.”

He explained the amount of metal in meteorites could vary from little specks in the stone to a meteorite that was an entire chunk of iron. The meteorite that fell in Utah is known as a high iron chondrite, meaning that, like most meteorites, it is a stony type that came from an asteroid, but with a high amount of iron in its composition.

Once the meteorite was classified, more information could be determined regarding its origin. Karner described how sometimes asteroids divert from their original orbits into elliptical ones, which pass much closer to Earth.

“Asteroids that have gotten knocked out of their regular circular orbit, and now they’re in this Earth-crossing orbit,” he said. “So sometimes we get lucky, we get pieces that break off that little sub-asteroid and come to Earth as meteorites.”

This origin is fairly common as far as meteorites go, but according to Bromley, the high iron quantity reveals something rare about the rock. He said because of the process in which asteroids are formed, known as differentiation, the metals in them sink to the center and the lighter materials rise to the top.

The Great Salt Lake Meteorite.

“So a heavy metal object like this undoubtedly didn’t come from the surface of some asteroid,” he said. “It likely came from a deeper impact that kind of ripped out the interior of something closer to the center of the object.”

The next step is getting the meteorite officially named by The Meteoritical Society. Karner’s proposed name is The Great Salt Lake Meteorite.

“Meteorites are named for usually the closest geographic place name,” Karner said. “I think Great Salt Lake would be cool since they found this near the Salt Lake, and there’s probably pieces that went into the Salt Lake.”

Aside from the science of it all, Karner also stressed how unique of an opportunity this is for the U and the broader community.

“There’s a lot of rock hounds in Utah, people that think they found meteorites, but they’re super rare,” he said. “More rare than diamonds and gold and anything you can think of. Even more rare than that is to see a fireball, hear the explosion and then find the rock that came with it.”

Bromley said he feels U students should care about and take a genuine interest in this science.

“This is studying our origins; this is studying where the Earth came from,” he said. “This is contributing to the body of knowledge for how habitable planets form and that’s extremely important towards understanding what other planets may be out around nearby stars.”

Even limited to Earth, Bromley believes this science has serious application and implications.

“It also speaks to the importance of our own planet and nurturing our planet,” he said. “I view this as a contribution to our own home, understanding it and caring for it.”

Story by Caelan Roberts, first published @ The Daily Utah Chronicle.

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Stolen Ivory

Stolen Ivory

Isotope data strengthens suspicions of ivory stockpile theft.

In January 2019, a seizure of 3.3 tons of ivory in Uganda turned up something surprising: markings on some of the tusks suggested that they may have been taken from a stockpile of ivory kept, it was thought, strictly under lock and key by the government of Burundi.

A new study from University of Utah distinguished professor Thure Cerling and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses carbon isotope science to show that the marked tusks were more than 30 years old and somehow had found their way from the guarded government stockpile into the hands of illegal ivory traders. The results suggest that governments that maintain ivory stockpiles may want to take a closer look at their inventory.

Thure Cerling

“Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory, it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.”

Ivory’s isotope signatures

Cerling is a pioneer in the use of isotopes to answer questions about physical and biological processes. “Isotopes” of a given element refer to atoms of the element that vary in their number of neutrons, and thus vary oh-so-slightly in mass. A carbon-14 isotope has one more neutron than carbon-13, for example.

Some isotopes are stable and some are unstable. Unstable isotopes decay into other isotopes or elements through radioactive decay. Since the rate of decay is known for unstable isotopes, we can use the amounts present in a sample to determine ages. That’s how carbon dating works—it uses the rate of decay of unstable carbon-14 to determine the age of organic matter.

Sam Wasser

Around a decade ago, Cerling attended a presentation at the U by Sam Wasser of the University of Washington, who was studying the genetics of wildlife and using those tools to investigate the date and place of wildlife poaching. Cerling, recognizing that his expertise in isotope science might be able to add useful information, began an ongoing collaboration with Wasser.

In 2016, Cerling, Wasser and colleagues published a study that addressed a key question in the ivory trade: how old is the ivory seized by governments? Some traders have claimed their ivory is old, taken before 1976, and thus exempt from sales bans. And with the average size of ivory seizures more than 2.5 tons, researchers, governments and conservationists wonder how much of the ivory is recent and how much is coming from criminal stockpiles—or is stolen from one of several ivory stockpiles held by the governments of some countries in Africa.

“Governments keep their stockpiles for multiple reasons,” Wasser says. “They hope to sell the ivory for revenue, sometimes to support conservation efforts. However, they can only sell ivory from elephants that died of natural causes or were culled because they were problem animals. They can’t sell seized ivory because they don’t know it came from the country.”

With the combination of Cerling’s isotope data and Wasser’s genetic data, the 2016 study found that more than 90% of seized ivory was from elephants that had been killed less than three years before. It was a sobering result, showing active and well-developed poaching and export networks. The study seemed to show that little ivory from government stockpiles had ended up on the black market.

Marked tusks

But the 2019 seizure of ivory in Uganda showed something concerning. Some of the tusks sported markings that looked suspiciously like the markings that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, uses to inventory stockpiled ivory.

Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory,” Cerling says, “it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.  We were asked to date samples from this, and three other recent ivory seizures, to see if some samples could possibly be from older stockpiles.”

To determine the ivory’s age, the researchers collected small samples from the tusks and analyzed them for the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in each sample. They were looking specifically for the amount of “bomb carbon” in the tusks. Between 1945 and 1963, nuclear weapons testing doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, so anything living that’s consumed carbon since then—including you—has a measurable carbon-14 signature. The amount of carbon-14 in a sample of ivory that hasn’t yet radioactively decayed can tell scientists when the ivory stopped growing, or when the elephant died.

Paula Kahumbu

The method takes some calibration, using samples from organisms living in the same area. Some of the samples came from schoolchildren in Kenya, through a program called “Kids and Goats for Elephants.” Because most families in rural Kenya keep goats the program, run by Cerling and Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, engages children in collecting hair samples from goats for isotopic analysis. The isotope data is useful for many applications, including fighting elephant poaching and, in this case, calibrating the bomb carbon decay rate for more accurate dating of ivory.

A consequential result

The researchers analyzed ivory from four seizures in Angola, Hong Kong, Singapore and Uganda. Genetic data ensured that they weren’t sampling two tusks from the same individual. The results of analysis from the Angola, Hong Kong and Singapore seizures were as expected – the results showed ages mostly around three years after the death of the elephant, with no tusks having been taken more than 10 years previous.

But the Uganda seizure, with the inventory markings on the tusks, showed something very different. Nine of the 11 tusks tested had been taken more than 30 years before, with the dates of death ranging between 1985 and 1988. Those dates are consistent with the age of ivory in the stockpile of the government of Burundi, which was inventoried and stored in sealed containers in 1989.

“My suspicions were affirmed,” Wasser says. “The bigger surprise was how near to 1989 the elephants were killed.” At the time Burundi assembled its stockpile, a condition of joining CITES, which assists governments in managing ivory reserves, was that the ivory to be stockpiled was old. The results suggest that that wasn’t the case, Wasser says, which would have violated conditions for Burundi to join CITES.

“The hope is that CITES will request the stockpile to be re-inventoried,” Wasser says, “including aging randomly selected tusks and secure the remaining stocks.”

Find the full study here.


by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.