Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

New projects and collaborations take shape, thanks to IBES seed funds

Each year, IBES awards seed funding in an effort to support projects that embody our focus on the intersection of human needs and the environment.

This year's awardees have been announced, and are as follows:


Beringian Dreams: People, Nature, and the Quest for Arctic Energy 1848-1988

Bathsheba Demuth

At the Bering Strait, northeast Russia and northwest Alaska share a common ecology: rolling tundra and icy mountains divided by the narrow ocean. Every living thing exists without plentiful solar energy, curtailing the productivity evident in temperate climates. Yet between 1848 and 1988, Russians and Americans were drawn north by Beringia’s potential riches, particularly the biotic energy resources available on the region’s lands and seas. These outsiders stayed to make converts, fortunes, and states. Demuth’s current book project chronicles the environmental, political, economic, and cultural revolutions that came in their wake.

The goal of this work is to connect the book’s historical chapters with present context. Doing so will allow the book to address how and in what ways past political and economic choices shape present responses to development and climate change. Because of the divergent ideological and economic pasts on the Russian and American sides of the Bering Strait emerge in a shared ecological context – and one where climate change is particularly acute – this location is a particularly rich test case for understanding the path-dependence of environmental decision making and climate change adaptation.


Developing a better tool for estimating equilibrium sea-level: climate relations

Tim Herbert

This project seeks to find a better way to determine the equilibrium relationship between global temperatures, continental ice volume, and hence sea-level. While constraining this relationship better will not give us the details of sea-level rise on the time scale of the next few decades, it will clarify the long-term consequences for sea level of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at different levels. We can do this by combining global reconstructions of past ocean temperatures, a specialty of the Herbert Lab, with a new way of estimating the past inventories of continental ice (mostly on Antarctica and Greenland today, and, episodically in the past in North America and Northern Europe).



The Transnational History of African Grey Parrots

Nancy Jacobs

Jacobs will write a history of the African Grey Parrot, a social species whose habitat is currently changing rapidly from that of the wild to that of cages in human homes. Jacobs will track stories of the species and individuals through a half dozen habitats defined by time as well as place. The work involves compiling a bibliography of texts on the African Greys through the last several centuries; conducting interviews with pet owners, breeders, scientists, sanctuary managers, wildlife conservationists, and people who live near wild and feral African Greys; and exploring the science of animal cognition about the behavior and capacity of this species and other parrots.



Producing proof-of-concept data using the Brown Platform for Autonomous Remote Sensing

James Kellner

Despite the tremendous potential of remote sensing to revolutionize the biological and environmental sciences, associated high costs and recurring limitations of spatial and temporal resolution have prevented this technology from realizing its promise. The fundamental problem is the absence of measurements at the right scales. This project will deploy the Brown Platform for Autonomous Remote Sensing (BPAR), a powerful suite of technologies housed in an autonomous helicopter, that will increase the spatial and temporal resolution of remote sensing measurements by 1-3 orders of magnitude while simultaneously reducing the cost of acquisition by 1-2 orders of magnitude. Through this work, BPAR will offer ecosystem science a new conceptual understanding by combining two fundamentally novel scales of observation (in space and time). 


Developing novel applications of next generation sequencing and soil sampling to elucidate the controls on symbiotic nitrogen fixation in Brazilian Rainforests

Working group members from IBES: Stephen Porder, Jim Kellner, Joy Winbourne

Working group members from other institutions: John Kress (Smithsonian), Ashley Egan (Smithsonian)

Symbiotic nitrogen fixation (SNF) is a process by which legume species in tropical forests form relationships with bacteria that break down nitrogen into a usable form. This working group seeks to understand this process better by using tools from DNA barcoding and phylogenetics, asking: 1) How do SNF rates vary among legume species? 2) Does legume phylogeny underlie this variation? 3) Do specific species of tropical forest legumes form associations with certain strains of N fixing bacteria? 4) How does the strains of bacterial symbiosis influence the rate of SNF? 5) How does the amount and/or identity of fungal colonization of roots influence the rate of N fixation?


Excavating Ancient Agriculture: the plowed field at Pauli Stincus (Sardinia) 

Peter van Dommelen

This project aims to excavate the remainder of a Punic farmstead  in west central Sardinia, dating to the mid 4th to late 2nd century BC. Geoarchaeological study of the site has brought to light a buried plow soil, dating to the Punic period, and interpreted to be the remains of a garden or cultivated field immediately outside the farm building.  Through detailed geoarchaeological investigation of visible traces in the soil, and with a range of soil chemical and botanical analyses, the broader goal is to gain an insight into past agricultural regimes and agrarian production. The project fits in a newly emerging focus on ancient agricultural practices in Mediterranean archaeology and environmental studies.



Health Effects of Long-Term Climatic Changes

Gregory Wellenius, Joseph Braun, Kate Weinberger, Keith Spangler, Taylor Etzel

Emerging evidence indicates that the health impacts of changes in ambient temperature projected through the end of the century are incompletely understood. Specifically, the majority of existing research has focused on the association between daily temperature and daily morbidity and mortality, while the potential effects on longer timescales have been largely ignored. A better understanding of the potential adverse health effects of a changing climate is necessary to better prepare/adapt to these changing conditions, and to more completely quantify the potential health impacts.

This work will address these knowledge gaps by evaluating the impacts of long-term changes in temperature on human health and well-being across the lifespan. The group will use preterm birth as an indicator of fetal health (the strongest predictor of neonatal mortality) and hospital admissions and deaths as indicators of ill health in adulthood. Specifically, the project will evaluate the association between risk of preterm birth, hospital admissions, and mortality in 200+ US cities with 1) warm and cold season average temperatures 2) intra-seasonal temperature variability, and 3) inter-annual climatic variability. 

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