Environmental Resilience

By Ann Connors, Development Director

This article originally appeared in the winter/spring 2018 issue of The Twig, our 24-page member newsletter. To read more from this issue, click here. To become a member and receive The Twig in the mail, become a member.

Ellen Ketterson; courtesy photo

As part of its Grand Challenges Program, IU Bloomington recently launched the Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI) to study social and ecological responses to ongoing changes in Indiana’s environment. Over the next five years, the interdisciplinary team of nearly 100 world-class researchers will provide the natural and social sciences research to develop recommendations and actionable tools for agriculture, industry, infrastructure, public health, and safety.

Leading this initiative is Ellen Ketterson, a globally acclaimed biologist, IU Distinguished Professor, longtime Sycamore member, and bird expert. During the recent public launch of the ERI, Ellen explained the urgency of the situation and the effects that have already impacted Indiana:

  • In the last seven years, extreme weather events have cost the state $6 billion.
  • Heavy rain events have increased 37% over the last 50 years, adding considerable volatility to crop yields and overall production.
  • Temperatures across Indiana are projected to rise by about 4 degrees by midcentury, jeopardizing nearly $6 billion generated by corn and soybean production each year.
  • The Great Lakes are projected to rise as much as 7 degrees by 2050 and 12 degrees by 2100, reducing water quality, causing more algae blooms, and harming fish populations.
  • Shorter, less intense winters have contributed to a 430% increase in documented cases of Lyme disease since 2001 in the U.S.

“Making ourselves more resilient in the face of environmental change means protecting ourselves from invasive species, conserving plants and animals that sustain us, defending ourselves from weather disasters, and creating more livable cities,” Ellen explains. Some people will be skeptical of scientists’ capacity to provide real-world solutions. For the ERI to communicate effectively with the public, they must:

  1. find out how people, businesses, and governments currently think about the environment;
  2. determine the validity of science-based theories and potential tools; and
  3. communicate what works in easy-to-understand and creative ways, so that everyone can take action.

One pilot project will partner with local stakeholders to inventory baseline social and environmental conditions for the Lower Wabash, and the waters that feed into it. Part of that watershed is the 9,000-acre Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes 1,100 acres owned by Sycamore and managed by the Refuge. Key deliverables include more short-term efforts to reduce pollution while improving wildlife habitats, and tools for farmers and land managers to improve habitat and public engagement while assessing the economic impacts on the land.

A key goal of the ERI is to help city planners, city councils, mayors, and the private sector assess their readiness for environmental change. They will face challenging topics to help plan for future scenarios, such as: sheltering the elderly during heat waves, reducing the consequences of more frequent natural disasters, minimizing carbon emissions, incentivizing green roofs and community gardens, encouraging the construction and public use of hiking trails, and providing habitat corridors for wildlife.

A recent study in the journal Science states that as temperatures continue to rise, the midwest could be hit with the type of agricultural losses last seen in the 1930s. And studies show that Indiana harbors some of the most polluted water, land, and air in the country. Amid these realities, how do we stay positive?

Take it from Ellen: “I think Sycamore represents the best of planning for the future, and its success is its own best testimony. Our understanding of the environment is often ‘placebased.’ That is, it is nested in locations we call home, e.g. writings of Scott Russell Sanders. And protecting our homes is part of our being. So I actually think local land trusts are the best protection for the environment. And as the acres donated to Sycamore grow, I think the evidence for that point of view grows every day. Indiana was a leader in setting land aside for state parks. Now Indiana citizens are returning private land to the public trust. Yet another reason to be optimistic.”