Cataract Canyon Comes Back to Life

Cataract Canyon Comes Back to Life

February 18, 2024 | Rolling Stone

Damming the Colorado River wiped out a magnificent stretch of rapids for half a century. Now, incredibly, they’re returning — on their own

Brenda Bowen. Professor of Geology & Geophysics | Chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences | Director, Global Change and Sustainability Center

“I cannot emphasize how amazing, and important, it is that Returning Rapids [a small group of river-rafting enthusiasts who consider Cataract Canyon a second home] is convening the science community around this, and bringing in agencies and tribal communities and people from different backgrounds,” says Brenda Bowen, a geoscientist with the University of Utah who’s been coming on Returning Rapids trips since 2019. “It’s already changed the trajectory of the outcomes of this landscape because they’ve brought more attention to it, and they’re helping people organize around it.”

And yet many river rafters, conservationists, and scientists see these lower reaches of Cataract Canyon, for all of their scientific, cultural, and recreational significance, as falling through the cracks of government-agency management, where no precedent seems to exist for who takes responsibility for a reservoir turned returning river. Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, which focuses on restoring the Glen and Grand canyons, says that “many land and water managers treat the emerging landscape as an area that will one day be under water again, even though the data suggests the opposite. This management approach of ‘That’s just where the reservoir used to be, it’s not important’ is so misguided. As the reservoir comes down, what’s emerging has similar qualities to all the popular and cherished parks and monuments in this area, like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, and Grand Canyon.”

A recent environmental impact report by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of dams, implied erroneously that mostly invasive species were returning as Lake Powell’s water level dropped. But Returning Rapids  has brought scientists down Cataract, who find native plants returning, birds returning as shorelines emerge, beavers returning as willows and cottonwoods sprout on those shorelines. In response to a request for comment, the Bureau of Reclamation directed me back to the report with the erroneous implications.

Canyonlands National Park, which manages the river, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA), which manages the reservoir, tell me in a joint statement that the agencies are aware of the landscape emerging in Cataract; staff see it on routine river patrols and receive Returning Rapids’ trip reports. Both agencies “maintain active programs for resource monitoring throughout the park, including monitoring of archaeological sites, monitoring for invasive vegetation species, and monitoring of various plants and wildlife species. As the lake level drops, areas of shoreline are incorporated into the park’s existing science-based monitoring and research programs to understand and respond to the changing lake environment.”

Returning Rapids regularly shares its observations and data collected from scientists on its trips with these and other agency managers, and has invited and brought Canyonlands officials on its science expeditions. Mike DeHoff [a river runner and local from Moab, Utah, has] invited officials from the NRA, but none have yet accepted. Although Returning Rapids recently attained a new degree of credibility in becoming a project under the Glen Canyon Institute, often when DeHoff shares real-time data of changing conditions with agency decision-makers, he says, he’s usually greeted with some iteration of “Wait, who are you guys?”

Read the entire article by Cassidy Randall with photographs by Len Neceferin in

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Where the Wild Things Went During the Pandemic

Where the Wild Things Went During the Pandemic

March 18, 2024

A new study of camera-trap images complicates the idea that all wildlife thrived during the Covid lockdowns.

Austin Green

In the early months of the Covid pandemic, when every bit of news seemed bleak, there was one heartwarming narrative that took hold: With humans stuck in their homes, the world was safe again for wild animals, which could now wander freely through cities, parking lots or fields that once might have been crowded with people.

But a new global study, which used wildlife cameras to track human and animal activity during the Covid lockdowns, suggests that the story was not that simple. Austin Green HBS'16, PHD '22 , currently post-doctoral researcher in the College of Science's Science Research Initiative, is one of the many co-authors and a leader in Utah in the collection of data of wildlife as it intersects with urban environments.

“We went in with a somewhat simplistic notion,” said Cole Burton, a wildlife ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia, who led the research. “You know, humans stop, animals are going to breathe a sigh of relief and move around more naturally. And what we saw was quite different.”

Although humans disappeared from some places during the lockdowns, they surged into others, like parks that remained open when little else was, the researchers found. And there was enormous variability in how wild mammals responded to changes in human behavior. Carnivores and animals living in remote, rural places, for instance, were more active when people faded from the landscape, while the opposite was generally true for large herbivores and urban animals.

The study, which was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution on Monday, deepens and complicates scientists’ understanding of what has been called the “anthropause,” when pandemic lockdowns radically altered human behavior. It also highlights the nuanced ways in which humans affect the lives of wild animals, as well as the need for varied and multifaceted conservation efforts, the authors said.

“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to mitigating the impacts of human activity on wildlife,” said Kaitlyn Gaynor, a wildlife ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia. “Because we see that not all species are responding similarly to people.”

Read the full article by Emily Anthes in the New York Times.

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2024 Wilkes Climate Hackathon

2024 Wilkes Climate HackathoN

On January 26 and 27, the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy held its second annual Climate Solutions Hackathon, with wildland fire as this year’s theme.

The challenge posed to U students of any major was to propose an innovative, data-driven solution in one of five categories: 1) prediction and forecasting; 2) risk mitigation; 3) alert systems and evacuations, 4) community resiliency and rehabilitation, or 5) health hazards.

The hackathon organizers encouraged undergraduate and graduate students to form teams and submit a proposal in a slide deck within 24 hours. During the in-person portion of the event, U faculty from various departments along with local representatives from the US Forest Service engaged the different student teams with feedback and guidance. 

The Wilkes Center also provided a Video Mentoring Space with short, pre-recorded videos of researchers sharing suggested solution pathways.

Ultimately, the Wilkes Center received 17 submissions.  Below are the top three winners.


Team Wildfire Resilience Collective: (from left to right) Elizabeth Williams, Hannah Meier, Tegan Lengyel, Rebecca Senft.

First Place ($3,000)
Wildfire Resilience Collective

Rebecca Senft (Ph.D. graduate student, School of Biological Sciences)
Hannah Meier (Ph.D student, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Tegan Lengyel (Ph.D. graduate student, School of Biological Sciences)
Elizabeth Williams (Undergraduate, biomedical engineering and pediatric clinical health)

Rebecca Senft was noncommittal about the hackathon until a week before. “Then I was like, yeah, I'm going to do it! I'm going to sit down and actually spend this time with my cohort members, and bond, and learn about this problem, and see what I can throw at the wall that will stick.”

Her teammate, Hannah Meier, said she had already been thinking about resilience a lot. “I lived in California during the big 2020 fires and then moved to Oregon and came here from Oregon. So, I'm very familiar with wildfires.”

Team Fire Nest: (from left to right) Suhaani Shelat, Kalina Manova, Navi Brar and Sarah Choe.

Second Place ($2,000)
Fire Nest

Kalina Manova, (Undergraduate, Biomedical Engineering)
Suhaani Shelat (Undergraduate, Mechanical Engineering)
Navi Brar (Undergraduate, Biochemistry)
Sarah Choe (Undergraduate, Computer Science)

They proposed a fire-safe home development company for communities in the Wildland-Urban Interface and other fire-prone areas. Their idea seeks to address the home insurance crisis where many insurers in wildfire-prone areas like California are pulling back coverage or exiting the state entirely.

 Unfortunately, a lot of the fire prone areas are not really fire resistant, just due to poor planning,” said Kalina Manova. “There aren't really many laws that enforce it. Even after a wildfire has burned through an area.”

 Their idea is to increase awareness about fire-resistant homes and provide a low-cost service system to help communities implement fire-safe housing practices.

“Our development company's goal, at the end of the day, is to help communities become more fire resistant and be able to come back easier economically and wiser from natural disasters like fires,” said Sarah Choe.

Team Fire Smart Educational Program: (from left to right) Xuan Hoang, Gaby Karakcheyeva, Brandon Saavedra, Celine Cardena, (Shreesh Srivastava not pictured)

Third Place ($1,000)
Fire Smart Educational Program

Gaby Karakcheyeva (Undergraduate, Biology)
Celine Cardeña (Undergraduate, Sociology & Gender Studies)
Brandon Saavedra (Undergraduate, Architecture)
Xuan Hoang (Undergraduate, Multidisciplinary Design)
Shreesh Srivastava (Undergraduate, Computer Science)


This team focused on creating a K-12 educational program around wildfire.

 “I got like zero wildfire education growing up,” said Gaby Karakcheyeva. “It would be really nice if we could teach people to not start wildfires and teach people to appreciate nature and all that stuff.”

They proposed a citizen-science model for engaging communities to gather data which could be integrated into Utah’s K12 curriculum. They also envision partnerships with the US Forest Service, which currently provides a wildland fire curriculum content, and the local Unified Fire Authority in Utah.  

 We want to be able to educate our future generation on the risk of wildfires and wildlife management,” said Celine Cardeña.

by Ross Chambless


All the hackathon submissions can be read and explored on the Wilkes Center’s Hackathon webpage.

You can also listen to Ross Chambless’ interviews with the winning teams on the Wilkes Center’s Talking Climate podcast.

Deep in the hack.


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Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine

Regional Innovations Engine

University of Utah part of new NSF-funded initiative to ensure regional climate solutions and economic opportunities.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) on Monday announced the University of Utah along with six core academic partners will be part of a multi-institutional enterprise to confront the climate challenges facing the desert Southwest and spur economic development in the region.

The effects of climate change are acutely evident in the American Southwest, from the desertification of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to the record-breaking extreme heat in Arizona and the dwindling supply of the Colorado River reaching Nevada.  

NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine (SWSIE) will use these challenges to catalyze economic opportunity and seeks to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy and bring high-wage industries to the region. Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine unites academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah that are committed to this goal.

SWSIE is among the first proposals selected by the NSF to establish a Regional Innovation Engine, a first-of-its-kind NSF program to create focused research and technology transfer hubs. The NSF will fund SWSIE’s initial development and growth with $15 million over the next two years. The engine can be renewed for up to 10 years with $160 million in funding available for each Regional Engine.

The U of U’s core academic partners in SWSIE are Arizona State University, who serve as the lead partner of the project, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Desert Research Institute, the Water Research Foundation, SciTech Institute and Maricopa Community Colleges. The team includes over 20 senior personnel including faculty from Atmospheric Sciences, Biological Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Communications, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Geography, and Geology and Geophysics.  The College of Science's Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy is also part of the consortium. 


Brenda Bowen.

At the helm of the U leadership team is Brenda Bowen, co-PI on the SWSIE project and co-lead of the community development working group. Bowen is professor of geology and geophysics, chair of department of atmospheric sciences, and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the U.

“We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to grow academic, industry, and community partnerships that unite Utah, Nevada, and Arizona as we innovate sustainable solutions for water, energy, and carbon,” she says. “This is work that needs to happen, and this award will allow us to align our efforts to maximize the positive impacts across the region.” 









Read the entire story by Xoel Cardenas, Sr. Communications Specialist.,Office of the Vice President for Research here.

CO2 changes over past 66 M years

CO2 Atmospheric changes

Carbon dioxide has not been as high as today's concentrations in 14 million years thanks to fossil fuel emissions now warming the planet.


Gabriel Bowen

Today atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest level in at least several million years thanks to widespread combustion of fossil fuels by humans over the past couple centuries.

But where does 419 parts per million (ppm) — the current concentration of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere—fit in Earth’s history?

That’s a question an international community of scientists, featuring key contributions by University of Utah geologists, is sorting out by examining a plethora of markers in the geologic record that offer clues about the contents of ancient atmospheres. Their initial study was published this week in the journal Science, reconstructing CO2 concentrations going back through the Cenozoic, the era that began with the demise dinosaurs and rise of mammals 66 million years ago.

Glaciers contain air bubbles, providing scientists direct evidence of CO2 levels going back 800,000 years, according to U geology professor Gabe Bowen, one of the study’s corresponding authors. But this record does not extend very deep into the geological past.

“Once you lose the ice cores, you lose direct evidence. You no longer have samples of atmospheric gas that you can analyze,” Bowen said. “So you have to rely on indirect evidence, what we call proxies. And those proxies are tough to work with because they are indirect.”

Read the full article by Brian Maffly in @TheU.
Read more about Gabe Bowen, recipient of the College of Science's Excellence in Research award,  and his work with isotopes here.

Read related article "'Call to Action': CO2 Now at Levels Not Seen in 14 Million Years" in Common Dreams.

How Microbes Combat Climate Change

How microbes can combat climate change

Chemist Jessica Swanson works with bacteria that eat methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.


While carbon dioxide gets much of the focus in the climate debate, methane, the main flammable component of natural gas, also drives planetary warming. Molecule for molecule, CH4’s heat-trapping potential is 34 times greater than that of CO2 (on a 100-year time scale) and it’s pouring into the atmosphere from both human and natural sources, posing a significant threat to global climate systems.

Now scientists from around the world are exploring various strategies for removing methane from the atmosphere in the hopes of slowing climate change.

University of Utah chemist Jessica Swanson has retooled her lab to help develop a process that would harness methane-eating bacteria, known as methanotrophs, which naturally break down methane into carbon dioxide and organic compounds. She aims to discover ways to enable methanotrophs to effectively pull methane from the air at low concentrations in next-generation bioreactors.

“I’m hopeful that the more we understand methanotrophs, the more we can also facilitate open-system, nature-based solutions,” Swanson said.

Methane accounts for at least 25% of planetary warming, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The gas is naturally oxidized in the atmosphere resulting in a shorter half-life than CO2, but methane sources are surpassing the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere at a shocking rate—partially due to a positive feedback cycle between warming and natural emissions from wetlands and permafrost. The consequence is rapidly increasing atmospheric methane concentrations that pose a serious risk of near-term warming.

Read the full article by Brian Maffly in @TheU.

You can listen to an interview of Jessica Swanson on Cool Science radio at KPCW.

Wilkes Center Climate Prize Winner

Winner of Wilkes Center Climate Prize


Lumen Bioscience is the inaugural winner of the $1.5 million Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah. The Seattle-based biotech company beat 77 international teams with their proposal to drastically reduce methane emissions from dairy and beef cattle using a patented mixture of enzyme proteins.

Wilkes Center Director William Anderegg (left) and Lumen Bioscience Chief Scientific Officer Jim Roberts

Lumen Bioscience is the inaugural winner of the $1.5 million Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah. The Seattle-based biotech company beat 77 international teams with their proposal to drastically reduce methane emissions from dairy and beef cattle using a patented mixture of enzyme proteins. William Anderegg, director of the U-based Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy, made the announcement at a press conference on Sept. 22, 2023, at the Natural History Museum of Utah. The Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah is one of the largest university-affiliated climate prizes in the world and aims to push through potential breakthroughs with a one-time, unrestricted cash award.

Seven years ago, Lumen scientists discovered how to genetically engineer the edible algae spirulina, a problem that had vexed researchers for decades. Based on the discovery, they built a drug discovery and biomanufacturing platform mainly for developing new, orally delivered biogenic drugs against gastrointestinal (GI) targets that cause human disease. Their winning Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah project extends the approach to target the methane-producing microorganisms in the rumen, a specialized compartment of the cow’s GI tract.

“Our award-winning proposal is a testament to the culture at Lumen, which encourages broad and creative thinking by our highly talented scientists,” said Jim Roberts, Lumen Bioscience chief scientific officer. “CEO Brian Finrow and I founded Lumen on the idea that dramatically improving the cost and scalability of manufacturing protein therapeutics would allow us to address global challenges that are out of the reach of conventional biomanufacturing technologies. The recognition of the Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah is a new and powerful example of this.”

Read the full story by Lisa Potter in @TheU about the September 22, 2023 announcement.

Read more about this story at the Salt Lake Tribune.


Climate-Resilient Western Grid

Gird YOUR Grid


The Western Interconnected Grid, commonly known as “the Western Interconnection,” is one of the two major interconnected power grids in North America.

The "Western Interconnection," as it is called, stretches from the northern edge of British Columbia, Canada to the border of Baja, Mexico, and from the California coast to the Rockies, and serves roughly 80 million people over 1.8 million square miles across two Canadian provinces and fourteen western states in the United States.  It is the backbone of one of the largest regional economic engines in the world.

On September 18th it was announced that  through  $5M funding by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and $3.75M funding by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the University of Utah and University of Calgary will establish and co-lead the U.S.-Canada Center on Climate-Resilient Western Interconnected Grid.

Masood Parvania, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Utah’s John and Marcia Price College of Engineering will co-lead the center along with Hamid Zareipour, professor of Electrical and Software Engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School Engineering.

“Our center is being established at a critical time when the region is experiencing more frequent and severe extreme weather disturbances such as wildfires, heatwaves, drought, and flooding, the impacts of which not only pose threats to human health and the environment but also affect the ability of the western interconnection to continue powering the communities,” says Parvania.

At the University of Utah, the center involves co-principal investigators Valerio Pascucci, professor at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and Kahlert School of Computing, William Andregg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, and Divya Chandrasekhar, associate professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning in the College of Architecture and Planning, among multiple other partners and faculty.

Read the full story from the John & Marcia Price College of Engineering website.

More about this story from Brian Maffly in @TheU

Finalists vie for historic $1.5M Wilkes Climate Prize

Finalists vie for historic $1.5M Wilkes Climate Prize


A protein-rich bean that evades agricultural emissions? Pepto for cows? Connect the ocean to the power grid? Smart windows on every building? Trees that reduce poverty and save the rainforest?


We need bold thinkers with audacious ideas to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Often, the most unconventional projects have the hardest time getting funding. At $1.5 million, the Wilkes Center Climate Prizeat the University of Utah is one of the largest university-affiliate climate awards in the world. The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy in the U’s College of Science will administer the prize, funded by a cross-section of Utah-based organizations and industries. A panel of respected climate leaders reviewed 77 international proposals and identified five projects representing the most innovative ideas to address the impacts of climate change. The winner of the historic prize will be announced on Sept. 22, 2023.

“I applaud the inspiring and innovative ideas of all five finalists,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “This out-of-the-box, entrepreneurial thinking is precisely what the Wilkes Center is designed to foster. I am excited for the winning organization to  use the prize funds to advance meaningful solutions to the problems posed by a changing climate.”

Learn more about the Wilkes Climate Prize finalists! Note that all assertions are from presentations made at the Wilkes Climate Summit in May 2023.

Which project would you vote for? Read summaries of all five.

A Stark Message from Maui

A Stark Message From Maui


Earth’s rapidly changing climate is taking an increasingly heavy toll on landscapes around the world in the form of floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather, drought and wildfire.

^William Anderegg. Banner photo top: The Elkhorn Fire charred more than 20,000 acres in central Idaho’s Payette and Nez Perce-Clearwater national forests on July 30, 2023, burning along 10 miles of the Salmon River and destroying two historic ranch compounds. Credit: Brian Maffly

Also at growing risk are the values of the property where these hazards are projected to worsen, according to a new study by University of Utah scholars. The research team, led by biology professor William Anderegg, attempted, for the first time, to quantify the value of U.S. property at risk in forested areas exposed to increased wildfire and tree mortality associated with climate stresses and beetle infestation.

“As a society, we have this tremendous capacity to deal with and minimize, adapt to and mitigate risk,” said Anderegg, who heads the university’s Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy. “We have insurance policies, we have seat belts in cars and airbags. All of these are to mitigate the risk of getting in a car accident or having a fire burn down your house. But fundamentally, all these tools to mitigate risk are predicated on knowing what the risks are and capturing how those risks might change.”

Climate change is a “game changer,” according to Anderegg, because it promises to elevate threats, yet we don’t know exactly where, when or by how much.

“This is a really clear case of where we need cutting-edge science and tools to tell us what are the risks and how are they possibly or likely to change this century due to climate change,” said Anderegg, who studies forest ecology. “Climate change is going to drive wildfire and disturbance risks up and is already driving them up. Insurers leaving states like California really underscores that.”

Most recently is the devastating wildfire in Maui where not only property has been destroyed but scores of human lives have perished.


To read the full article by Brian Maffly visit @TheU.

Study Finds and TIME magazine also picked up this story.