A Changing Environment
In December, delegates from 195 nations meeting in Paris hammered out a landmark deal that committed them to lowering carbon emissions in the hopes of addressing the worst effects of climate change. A long time in coming, the deal represents a global shift away from the current reliance on fossil fuels toward zero-carbon sources like wind, solar, and nuclear power.
According to the New York Times, the Paris accord will cut greenhouse emissions only by half of what we would need to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 3.6°F—the point at which the world will be consigned to a future of rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, and more destructive storms.
Clearly, more work needs to be done, and it should come as no surprise that Mawrters are on the job—in the courtroom, in the nonprofit sector, in industry, even in the White House. And on campus, students are benefitting from the generosity of philanthropist Johanna “Nan” Alderfer Harris ’51 (right) and her husband, William Harris (Haverford ’47), whose support helped make the Bi-Co Environmental Studies program a reality.
Nan Harris’ deep commitment to conservation and the environment has fueled her lifelong learning and led her to support many organizations and individuals making a difference in their communities and the world. Now named in her honor, the Johanna Alderfer Harris Program in Environmental Studies was a leap of faith in its infancy but one Harris was happy to make. At its official naming in 2003, Harris’ foresight and generosity were feted with the following words: “Mrs. Harris saw the need and opportunity for such a program and made promise a reality by providing generous support for faculty and for a range of co-curricular program activities. In doing so, Mrs. Harris brought together, in a significant and appropriate way, her love for Bryn Mawr and her passion for the conservation of the natural world.”
“Thirteen years later,” President Cassidy adds, “Nan’s engagement with this program has infused it with the strength of Bi-Co collaboration, with a spirit of intellectual curiosity, with a commitment to keeping up with an ever-changing field, and with a dedication to the highest excellence.”
The seeds Harris planted are still blooming, and her passion is redoubled every day. Just as she hoped, today’s students and faculty work to identify and confront key environmental issues through a blend of disciplines—historical, cultural, economic, political, scientific, and ethical—and her legacy continues to grow with each alumna’s own thoughtful commitment to the environment.
This issue of the Bulletin highlights just a handful of alumnae and students working to address the environmental challenges we face, so write to tell us what you’re doing to help the planet, and we’ll post your stories online. Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mathematics of Climate Change
To celebrate the Mathematics of Sustainability, Victor Donnay and colleagues created a lesson plan for Earth Day 2013. Donnay, who is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Chair in Mathematics and director of Bryn Mawr’s Environmental Studies Program, and his colleagues created this lesson on Arctic sea ice as part of his duties as chair of the advisory committee for Mathematics Awareness Month 2013–The Mathematics of Sustainability. To examine the extent of sea ice in the Arctic and predict future levels, students draw a line that best approximates the data and use this mathematical model to predict when the Arctic will start becoming ice free. The Bulletin thought alumnae might want to try their hand at the lesson:
European Explorers, beginning with Cabot’s 1497 attempt to sail to Asia from England, searched for the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic Ocean along the coast of Canada. (See Figure 1.) The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to complete the journey, though it took from 1903 to 1906. In 1957, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Storis became the first U.S. vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent, a 22,000-mile trek.
The problem is the Arctic Ocean is covered by sea ice pack nearly all the time—the passage is closed. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, global temperature averages have risen overall, causing more of the ice pack to melt in the summer. NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has collected data provided by satellites, over-flights, submarines, and other observations measuring the amount of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean for several decades. The amount of ice is at a minimum in September, the end of summer. Figure 2 shows the September average extent of total Arctic sea ice area in millions of square kilometers by year from 1979 to 2011. Clearly the extent of ice is decreasing.
Melting sea ice provides an example of a positive feedback loop (also called a non-linear feedback). As the ice melts, it leaves more ocean open. Ice is very reflective, giving the Arctic region a high albedo (the fraction of solar energy reflected from the Earth back into space); ice reflects up to 70 percent of the sun’s energy. The ocean is darker, reflecting only 6 percent of the sun’s energy, so as the ice pack retreats, the area’s albedo gets lower. More energy is absorbed by ocean water than by sea ice, increasing the temperature, causing more ice to melt, leading to more open water, creating a positive feedback loop.
- From the data given in Figure 2, how much ice was in the Arctic in September 1988, September 1998, and September 2008. What are the units? What is the overall trend in the amount of sea ice during this time period?
- On Figure 3, draw a straight line that you think best matches the data. Using this line, predict the year when the Arctic will be ice free. (This is when your line crosses the horizontal axis).
- Estimate the slope of the line you drew. What are the units for the slope of your line? (Recall that the slope of a line is the change in y divided by the change in t.)
- The slope gives the rate of change of the amount of ice. According to your calculation, by how much is the amount of ice changing per year?
- Looking at the data, do you think a straight line best matches the data, or would a bent curve be more accurate?
- An ice-free Arctic is a dramatic example of climate change. What do you consider the pros and cons of having an ice-free Arctic? What can you as an individual and we collectively as a community do to minimize climate change?
For the answers, go to: bulletin.brynmawr.edu/climate-math
Do The Right Thing
Isna Marifa Soedjatmoko SJADZALL ’85 (above) was still a child when she first noticed the changes in Jakarta, her home city and the capital of Indonesia. She looked down at a river one day and saw that it was filled with garbage and stagnant water. “It disturbed me,” she remembers. So she decided to do something about it.
In 1982, she left her country and family to study at Bryn Mawr. Soon she met Weecha Crawford ’60, a geology professor who later helped create the College’s environmental studies major. Crawford encouraged Marifa, who uses her middle name professionally, to study science if she wanted to truly help the environment.
“I’m grateful to Weecha because that science background has given me a solid understanding of what goes on and what needs to be done,” she says.
Marifa has spent much of her career tackling the environmental issues Indonesia faces—rainforest threatened by poaching and illegal logging, water pollution, a large population that’s straining its natural resources—through policy-making and capacity-building.
She started her first job in the late 1980s, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development
on natural resource management in Jakarta. Since then she’s served as an environmental advisor for Mobil Oil Indonesia and spent 20 years as an independent environmental consultant.
Through her consulting firm, Marifa helped the Indonesian government review its environmental and social safeguard policies over about eight years, starting in 2004.
“That taught me that environmental work—and any work that requires policy interventions, really—takes a long time to get through,” she says. It’s one of the frustrating things about what she does: spurring people to move from complaining about something to making a change, then watching that change crawl forward.
In 2014, Marifa became vice chair of the Green Climate Fund’s accreditation panel, a United Nations-established initiative focused on increasing financing for developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help the most vulnerable populations adapt to the effects of climate change.
Her panel has already accredited 20 entities from around the world, including Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America.
“What drives me is that I still feel I can contribute something,” she says. “It might not be earth-shattering, but it’s still important.”
She sees the average citizen’s contributions the same way: do what you can, big or small. Work in the financial sector? Think about which types of projects to finance. Government? Make sure your economic growth isn’t putting too much pressure on the environment.
Even if you’re in a job that doesn’t seem to have any connection to the environment, she says, “think of opportunities to do the right thing.”
This summer, SARAH GATES ’16 (left) wandered the city of Philadelphia in search of parking spots. But unlike most city residents, she wasn’t looking for a place to put her car.
Rather, as an intern for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Gates was counting each spot in Center City garages and lots as part of a survey of the city’s parking supply.
“The goal of the survey is to get an idea of occupancy in Center City, to help find out what areas have enough parking, what areas need more, and what areas may have too much,” Gates says. “I started out with a data set of all the parking lots and garages in Philadelphia. Armed with that information, I had to figure out how to conduct site surveys for each one.”
City planners and developers use the data to make decisions about space allocation for new construction projects. Gates explains. “The surveys will also document sites where a parking facility underwent new development in the past five years. These sites reveal positive patterns of development, especially when a building is replacing a surface parking lot.”
For Gates, an environmental studies major, the survey gave her access to a rich set of data to mine for future research. “I want to look at the rates that commuters pay for parking in the city. Some of Philadelphia’s rates are as low as $7.50 per day. The cheap rates keep people driving into the city, even though the environment would be better served if they rode on SEPTA. ”
When Gates was first looking for a summer internship, she wanted to put some newly acquired skills to work. “I knew I wanted to use geographic information system (GIS) software,” she explains. But halfway through her interview, she knew she was onto something bigger. “I felt confident that I would be able to see for myself what it might be like to work as a city planner. I am glad I said yes because now I can see myself really enjoying a job in this work environment.”
After the academic year started up this fall, Gates joined up with CAROLINE COSBY ’17 to transform a Center City parking spot into a temporary public park. As part of Bryn Mawr’s Earth at the Brink series, two BMC professors—Ellen Stroud and Mark Rubin—recruited students to participate in PARKing Day, an annual international event designed to highlight the need for more open space in urban settings. To create the College’s contribution, Stroud, Rubin, and BMC students designed a replica of a Bryn Mawr dorm room that they then set up at 13th and Locust streets in Philadelphia.
Stroud is an associate professor of the Growth and Structure of Cities department and the Johanna Alderfer Harris and William H. Harris, M.D., Chair in Environmental Studies. Rubin is a lecturer in English and the Emily Balch Seminars at Bryn Mawr.
It’s the photos of Earth that do it. When Joanna Underwood ’62 sees them—images captured from space showing a blue planet surrounded by inky dark—she doesn’t think about flying to the moon herself or whether we’ll someday send people to Mars.
Instead she sees how small and fragile Earth is, and how lucky we are to have it.
“It’s a real gift—just something we got,” she says. “And I think it’s up to us to keep it intact and keep it the life-flourishing place it is for future generations.”
Underwood is doing her part to make sure that happens. For more than 40 years, she has run non-profit organizations that are focused on solving and preventing environmental problems.
She came of age just before the environmental movement did and graduated from Bryn Mawr the same year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring—a book often credited with launching environmentalism.
Underwood founded the non-profit INFORM in 1974. Over the next 30 years, it published nearly 100 reports that focused on industries—land developers, strip mines, utilities, chemical plants—that were depleting resources or polluting the environment and identified ways to improve their practices. INFORM’s research inspired the country’s first pollution prevention law (1990) and earned the Environmental Protection Agency’s highest leadership award.
As the decades passed, Underwood found herself drawn more to questions about how to wean the world from its reliance on oil in transportation. To explore the alternatives, she created Energy Vision in 2007 and identified renewable natural gas (RNG), made from organic waste, as the first commercially viable sustainable option. With the ability to power millions of heavy-fuel consuming bus and truck fleets, RNG could be a significant climate change solution.
In 2012, Energy Vision, with the Department of Energy, organized the first national RNG seminar. It has run workshops across the country on turning waste into fuel, and Underwood traveled to Tunisia last year—at the EPA’s request—to introduce the RNG strategy there.
Even after 40 years in the field, Underwood still struggles with impatience. She says: “Change is happening too slowly. We want to see these problems solved. Time is something I think about that’s frustrating. But you keep on going, and it is exciting to see that the work we’re doing gradually adds up.”
“I believe every individual has a role to play,” she adds. It can start with the small things: buying long-lasting lightbulbs and bringing reusable shopping bags to the store. But beyond that, she says people should be “active players” in their communities and in the companies where they work, and they should pay attention to national politics.
“What I’d like to see,” she says, “is every individual looking at the world in those three dimensions: What am I doing? What’s going on in my community or company that I can encourage?
“And then people have to get out and vote.”
Ants work hard,” explains Tess McCabe ’16. “In fact, a single leafcutter colony can consume more than the average cow.”
During her summer internship at Harvard Forest and Black Rock Forest, McCabe got a close-up look at just how hard members of the Formicidae family have to work these days just to survive.
“Our forests are under threat from two different tree-killing blights,” she explains. Wooly adelgid, an invasive insect, is killing off Eastern Hemlocks in the Harvard Forest, while Black Rock Forest is at risk from an outbreak of sudden oak death.
The loss of foundation species such as hemlock and oak is having a dramatic impact on the forests and their fauna—including McCabe’s ant subjects. Working with BMC Assistant Professor of Biology Sydne Record, McCabe researched how these changes in the forest affect the resident ants. “Our forests are changing,” she explains, “and we’re trying to predict how the ant communities, and the skills they offer, will change with them.”
In the field, McCabe poked at logs, overturned rocks, kicked stumps, and crawled through dead leaves to collect nest samples. Back in the lab, she spent her time identifying ants by species and coding them for analysis. “Now I can pick up an ant and just know its genus,” she says, “which is the closest thing to a superpower I’ve ever had. But I have to admit, the coding is my favorite part. Whether it’s in class or for research, it’s really fun to tease a story out of data. I can’t wait to see what stories these ants will tell!”
Meet the Beetles
As one of the researchers on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project—a continent-wide collaborative study of the biosphere—Assistant Professor of Biology Sydne Record is drawing on data from 60+ sites for their research on intra-specific trait variation of ground beetles, small mammals, and plants.
“Beetles are the most diverse group of organisms on the planet and a good indicator taxon for environmental quality,” says Record. “Oftentimes ecologists tend to not focus on variability within a species. But if you think about climate change, variability within a species might be very important in terms of it being resilient to different environmental drivers.”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the NEON project is providing support for a Summer Science student at Bryn Mawr, a two-year post-doctoral fellowship, and other expenses.
What I’m Fighting For
On her single week off from the trial—which she worked on for over a year—she and her husband went diving in Bonaire. They spent every day deep in the sea, gliding past ancient turtles, tiny seahorses, and squishy octopuses.
“I was holding my husband’s hand, getting all teary-eyed in my mask,” Fidler says. “It was exactly the reminder I needed of what I’m fighting for. I think I always wanted to be that person who’s the voice of the voiceless.”
As an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, Fidler has spent her career safeguarding our natural resources. But she’s had no bigger stage than the BP litigation, where she worked on the penalty phase—including examining expert witnesses at trial.
She also took depositions from Coast Guard members, scientists, anthropologists, and toxicologists. “And everything I used—not coming to a discussion from only my perspective, educating myself on a whole new field—is something I learned at Bryn Mawr,” she says.
Her environmental activism has deep roots. It started in her family’s Nebraska home, where the garage overflowed with cans and bottles. Every few months, her mom would drive over half an hour to the closest recycling facility to deposit them. That was in the 1970s, when most people just shoved everything into the nearest trash can. “My mom gave us this sense that we all need to do what we can and that it isn’t hard to make this little difference,” Fidler says. “That always stuck with me.”
At Bryn Mawr, Fidler dreamed of working in human rights law and carried that goal to The George Washington University Law School. But once she began taking environmental law classes and joined the environmental law journal, her focus shifted.
Learning more about environmental devastation around the world “stirred up this passion in me,” she recalls. “It really struck me that environmental rights are human rights.”
On the personal front, Fidler went the extra mile with an eco home renovation that included a rainwater cistern and green roof. But for rest of us, she says the most important thing is to educate ourselves on environmental issues, then do what we can to help: take the bus or ride a bike; eat less meat; stop wasting food; boil pasta with the lid on.
“There are lots of little things you can do that add up,” she says. “And you have to make your voice heard.”
She dreams of teaching physics—a subject she loves for its power “to describe the world around us.” But Carol Bowe ’17 has more on her mind than e = mc2. As a high school student, she was deeply engaged with environmental education activities, and as a high school teacher, she is adamant about continuing that work.
“I would like to provide more than just an education in physics,” she explains. “Most high school students have little to no knowledge about the environment because nobody is teaching them. I want to incorporate sustainability education into my physics lessons, and I think that the two subjects are so closely linked that I can do it.”
This summer, Bowe set out to gain a deeper understanding of environmental issues during a Nashville-based internship with two local non-profits—Radnor to River and Tennessee Parks and Greenways (TennGreen). She explains, “I wasn’t just standing in a classroom talking about the issues, but I was really doing something about them.”
Radnor to River is a grassroots effort to protect a 200-acre piece of land that developers have been eyeing for some years now. Bowe spent much of her summer drumming up attendance at the planning commission meeting slated to review development plans and helping persuade candidates to pledge that they will hold developers to current environmental standards. At the same time, she collaborated with TennGreen colleagues to organize a coalition-building event that brought together disparate environmental groups working along the corridor west of Nashville.
Bowe’s work in Nashville brought her full circle back to one of her greatest interests: “When I came to Bryn Mawr,” she says, “I began focusing on my other passion, physics, and the work I did in high school got put off. This summer brought me back to the cause that I care so deeply about.”
Plus, the experience opened her eyes to the hard work of activism. “There is a lot more to conservation work than I ever knew. So many different people work on the same project, and it can still take a long time to actually complete that project. It takes a lot of patience and dedication to do this work.”
An Early Leader
When an oil embargo crashed America’s car-fueled party in the early 1970s, energy efficiency was a new component to the energy scene, and Maxine Savitz ’58 was working at the National Science Foundation in the energy efficiency area.
Suddenly, oil prices shot up from $3 a barrel to $12. Gas station lines snaked down entire blocks. Americans panicked. But for someone championing energy conservation, “the timing couldn’t have been better,” Savitz says.
Conservation became a solution instead of a we-probably-should. The Nixon administration formed, as Savitz puts it, “a whole alphabet soup of agencies” to address the embargo, and Savitz was invited to join the Department of Energy’s earliest iteration.
She recalls it as an exciting time because “the field was wide open, we had a lot of flexibility, and Congress was very supportive.” As a result, “we could get some very innovative programs going.”
Savitz had no experience with federal policy work, but she says Bryn Mawr had primed her for it. “I knew how to think things through and interact with people from other backgrounds, and I knew how to write well.”
She continued to work with the Department of Energy (which received that name in 1977) until 1983 and also served as the deputy assistant secretary for conservation. In the process, she helped lay the R&D groundwork for major efficiency measures that we still use today: appliance standards, energy-friendly lighting, more efficient refrigerator compressors.
“Things were very inefficient at that time because electricity was very cheap, so we hadn’t needed to worry about it,” she says. “But suddenly we were able to fund these developments.”
Savitz left government work and joined an aerospace company in 1985, which eventually became part of Honeywell. Since retiring as the company’s general manager for technology partnerships in 2002, she has served on numerous science advisory boards, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
As an early leader in the energy efficiency field, she has abundant suggestions for what the rest of us can do to help. She says to look closely at your energy use and think about ways you can save—and if you can’t figure it out yourself, call your utility company and ask for an audit.
She sees energy efficiency as “one of the key ways to address climate change without changing your standard of living. It’s not don’t drive a car,” she adds. “It’s drive a more efficient car. It’s not don’t have a refrigerator with all the bells and whistles. It’s buy the most efficient one you can. You can still have the bells and whistles.”
Paper Versus Plastic?
It’s Friday at 5 p.m., and halfway out of the office, you remember. You forgot to turn off your computer. So what? you tell yourself. It can’t make that much difference to the environment, can it?
This summer, Claire McLeish ’16 got a real-world opportunity to answer that question during her internship with Quantis, a Boston-based environmental impact assessment firm.
Specialists in life-cycle assessment, Quantis examines products from “cradle to grave”—production to disposal—to determine their environmental footprint, including greenhouse gases emitted, energy used, and human health impact. Projects run the gamut from one-time sporting events to multinational corporations.
As McLeish explains, “Impact assessment helps identify how products can be made more efficiently, can help companies improve their processes and be more truthful at marketing. And it can help consumers choose what to buy—paper versus plastic.”
For her biggest project this summer, McLeish worked independently, dealing directly with the client to compile data on “green” actions. “The assignment was to model, research, and calculate the quantitative environmental impact of various activities that people can do to reduce their footprint,” she explains.
Many of those choices aren’t always obvious. “For example, eating a vegetarian meal saves about 12 times more water than shutting off the tap while washing dishes. The production of meat requires large natural resource inputs.”
At summer’s end, McLeish accompanied her Quantis co-workers to the Global Sustainability Summit held in Denver. There, she learned about various sustainability initiatives—especially related to the food system—and networked with experts from nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy as well as corporate executives from the likes of Pepsico.
Impressed by McLeish’s work, Quantis signed her on post-internship as a part-time analyst. This fall, while polishing off her thesis on air pollution and development in China and also finishing her environmental studies senior capstone project with a comprehensive plan for a college composting system, she continued on projects with one of her summer clients.
Her internship gave McLeish invaluable experience that, she says, she’ll be applying to a career in the field of sustainability. It also taught her a few tips about what we can all do to safeguard the environment: turn off holiday lights during the day (energy savings, 2.56 kwh); drink a bottle of water instead of soda (energy savings, 1.9 kwh; emissions savings, 0.86 lbs of CO2 eq; and water savings, 3.17 gallons); turn off the faucet while scrubbing the dishes (energy savings, 0.68 kwh; water savings, 12 gallons).
And the next time you’re rushing out of the office on Friday, be sure to unplug the office equipment. You’ll be saving 0.48kwh in energy consumption.