2020 Year in Review UNC Institute for the environment

This year held challenges that few anticipated and brought untold adversity to so many. We are grateful that our research, education and outreach endeavors could continue in modified capacities. The environmental field sites sustained in-person instruction with stringent public health protocols which kept students and faculty safe. As we near the end of this historic year, we feel fortunate reflecting on the amazing accomplishments of our faculty, students and staff. We thank you for your support that allows us to fulfill our mission.

Please enjoy a few highlights from the year.

Preparing the next generation of energy leaders

The Duke Energy Foundation committed $845,000 to fund programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that promote science and technology education on campus and in communities across the state — preparing the next generation of energy leaders. The multi-year grant is split among programs at the UNC Institute for the Environment, the UNC Morehead Planetarium & Science Center and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Energy Center. At IE, this funding supports our Energy Literacy, Engagement and Action Program (Energy LEAP), a summer science enrichment program for 9th-12th grade students. Read more.

Energy LEAP summer program still meaningful during time of social distancing

In Shutdown, Less Traffic Doesn’t Mean Cleaner Air

As the U.S. economy slowed this spring due to the novel coronavirus, an avenue of inquiry is how air emissions changed. One finding is that while passenger vehicle use decreased dramatically, freight traffic increased in some large cities.

“The demand for goods stayed up,” says Sarav Arunachalam, an environmental scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Grocery stores, Amazon, and Walmart had business. People were still looking for goods to purchase.”

As of early April, the world’s carbon emissions decreased by 17 percent, in part because of a 50 to 80 percent drop in road traffic and 75 percent drop in air traffic emissions in March. Read more.

IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science recognized with a 2020 Best of Green Schools Award from the U.S. Green Building Council

The UNC Institute for the Environment’s Center for Public Engagement with Science (CPES) was recognized this year with the 2020 Best of Green Schools Award for Higher Education for their Outdoor Wonder and Learning (OWL) Initiative at Northside Elementary in Chapel Hill, NC. Principal investigator and project lead, Sarah Yelton, accepted the award at the national Green Schools Conference and Expo Mar. 2-4 in Portland, OR. Read more.

Dubbs recognized by U.S. Dept. of Energy for leadership in clean energy

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recognized nine accomplished women for their achievements and leadership in clean energy as part of the U.S Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) Initiative.

The winners of the 2020 U.S. C3E Awards, who will be honored at the Ninth Annual U.S. C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium, represent a diverse range of women leading in clean energy. Read more.

UNC Institute for the Environment takes actions to advance racial equity

UNC Institute for the Environment Director Mike Piehler shared a statement with faculty, staff, and students outlining the actions the Institute is taking to become a racial learning organization.

“At IE we know that systemic racism has and does pervade both our society and the fields in which we work,” Piehler said. “Becoming a racial learning organization means that as an Institute, we are committed to actively learn about and act to undo barriers to racial equity in our operations and in our scholarship.”

A comprehensive review of every part of the Institute’s operations is underway to identify opportunities and act to increase equity.

The Institute has formed a standing equity and inclusion committee. Piehler will serve on the committee, but it will be led by members of the Institute’s faculty, staff, students, and advisers. Read more.

Reflecting on remarkable career, CMAS Center honors retirement of Adel Hanna

When the air quality modeling community thinks of CMAS (Community Modeling and Analysis System), they instantly think of Adel Hanna. Hanna has been the director of the CMAS Center since 2003. Institute for the Environment Director Michael Piehler announced at the 19th annual CMAS Conference that Hanna will be retiring after nearly two decades at the helm. Rather than gathering at UNC’s Friday Center, which is customary, the event was held virtually via webinars Oct. 26-30 due to public health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more.

IE to guide $2 million flood resilience study

Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian caused billions of dollars in economic losses over the past four years. Six of the 7 largest rainfall events over the last 120 years in North Carolina have occurred in the last 20 years. These natural disasters motivated North Carolina’s policymakers to increase the state’s resilience against flooding from tropical storms and other excessive precipitation events. State legislators approved disaster recovery legislation in 2019, which included funds for the “Strengthening Flood Resilience in Eastern North Carolina” study. Read more.

Giving new life to historic trees

When poor health led to the demise and felling of a giant post oak near Old West two years ago, it would have been easy to think that the tree’s 240-year tenure on Carolina’s campus was over.

But thanks to the Carolina Tree Heritage program, the old oak tree will continue to serve the community for centuries to come.

“When [campus trees] fall down, either due to natural reasons — maybe a big thunderstorm and windstorm — or [felled] because they’re a safety hazard, we take that wood, and we turn it into its next legacy,” said Susan Cohen, the associate director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, which has partnered with Carolina’s Facilities Services along with other groups to launch the program. Read more.

Stories of Innovation: Clean tech interns launch series’ on start-ups and SMEs

Over the summer, interns for the Institute’s Cleantech Program engaged with startups and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to tell their stories of cleantech innovation—digitally. The student interns have been writing whitepapers about cleantech disruption and blog posts which profile the ideas behind these cleantech companies including: Flux Hybrids, Black Cotton, Arbiom, Living Roofs, and more.

Another product of their efforts includes a weekly podcast, “Innovating to a Clean Economy,” now available on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple Podcast and Spotify. The podcast features interviews with innovators who are driving and creating the cleantech economy – from agtech and bluetech to electrification and smart buildings.

All of these series can be found on the newly launched Cleantech Corner. Read more.

UNC Researchers Receive NSF Grant to Study Extreme Weather Events with Interdisciplinary Approach

There’s still one month left of the 2020 hurricane season, and meteorologists are well into the Greek alphabet, with Hurricane Zeta making landfall as a Category 1 storm on October 26 in the Yucatán Peninsula north of Tulum, Mexico. Zeta marks the 26th major storm for the year and the 10th to turn into a hurricane.

Natural hazards are no longer a research topic people take on because they care about them, according to Mike Piehler, director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “At this point, people have to worry about them,” he says. “They are very real and pressing issues.”

That’s why Piehler, along with Carolina Population Center Director Elizabeth Frankenberg and Institute for Marine Science Director Rick Luettich, are leading a new project combining methods, insights, and data from the social sciences, natural sciences, geosciences, and engineering to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies for future storms and flooding.

The project has received a $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Read more.

BenDor named Institute’s distinguished chair of sustainable community design

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was Todd BenDor’s first job choice back in 2007 after finishing graduate school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a Ph.D. in regional planning. Fast forward more than a decade and he is a full professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC, director of the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science and now he is adding the title of Distinguished Chair of Sustainable Community Design with the Institute for the Environment. Read more.

Berke rejoins Institute to lead Center for Resilient Communities and Environment

Research professor Phil Berke recently returned to Chapel Hill and was selected to lead the Institute’s newly launched Center for Resilient Communities and Environment.

“The Institute for the Environment, by its nature, cuts across the campus. We will be doing interdisciplinary research that’s transformational for communities while simultaneously training the next generation of students,” Berke says. “In every project, we will build that in.”

Berke’s vision for the center will be to collaborate with faculty and students from across campus and beyond to engage communities in understanding their vulnerability to natural stressors, particularly in an era of climate change. Read more.

UNC researchers receive grant to study potential benefits of beaver dams

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently received a grant to study the relationship between beaver dams and water quality. The grant, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, totals nearly $600,000. The Institute’s individual portion totals over $100,000.

The project, which is a collaboration with researchers from Georgia State University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Georgia Gwinnett College, will rely on fieldwork and drones. UNC principal investigator Diego Riveros-Iregui, an associate professor of geography, will be leading the fieldwork portion. His team hypothesizes that beaver dams improve water quality in urban streams. Read more.

Pate Scholars discuss study abroad experiences

Recipients of the G. Timothy and Jessica Hope Pate Environmental Science Field Program met with donors Tim Pate, Jessica Pate, and Dr. Greg Gangi over Zoom on October 16, 2020. The scholars shared their study abroad experiences with the Pates and thanked them for their generosity. The participants included Environmental Science majors Hope Gattis and Summer Lanier along with Environmental Health Science majors Noemi Gavino-Lopez and Brianna Chan—all of whom studied abroad in China and Korea. Kathrine Martin, Environmental Science and Computer Science major studied abroad in Thailand. Environment and Science Communication major Sascha Medina studied broad in Galapagos Islands in Ecuador; and Environmental Studies and Public Policy double major Taylor Gosk traveled to Spain, Germany and Denmark.

Piehler named Carolina’s chief sustainability officer

In his new role, Mike Piehler will provide leadership and coordination of broad sustainability efforts on campus, develop a consistent plan to reach short- and long-term goals and serve as chair of the University’s Sustainability Council. He will continue leading the Institute for the Environment and his research endeavors. Read more + listen.

After 18 years as Morehead City Field Site director, Noble passes the helm to Rodriguez

Gathering together for lunch on day one of each semester is Rachel Noble’s tradition. She aims to get to know students from their first day together at the Morehead City Field Site and she said she enjoys seeing many of the students stay in the family of researchers and scientists through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for Marine Sciences (IMS) well beyond the end of their few months together.

As director, Noble spent a lot of her time planning the logistics of classes, housing, field trip programming and other details to run the program smoothly. She also is doing research, working on molecular diagnostics and teaching classes. After nearly two decades, Noble has decided to help Antonio Rodriguez take over as field site director. She will remain on the leadership team as an assistant director along with Joanna Rosman. Read more.

IDEA program for underrepresented students concludes after 8 years, new program funded and in development

The UNC Institute for the Environment hosted its final cohort of six IDEA (Increasing Diversity and Enhancing Academia) students this summer, matching a total of 78 students with geoscience internships between 2012 and 2020. IDEA, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the GEOPATHS program, provided undergraduate students with paid research internships, professional development experiences, and mentorship from UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. Seventy of the total IDEA students identify as part of a group that is underrepresented in the geosciences, defined by NSF as women and people of African American/Black, Hispanic American, Native Pacific Islander (Polynesian or Micronesian), and Native American (American Indian or Alaskan Native) descent.

Although this year’s program has differed slightly due to COVID-19, students were still able to participate in unique and meaningful research experiences, said Megan Hoert Hughes, STEM diversity program manager and environmental health educator with IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science. Read more.

Book Release: “Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 3rd Edition, A History of American Environmental Policy” by Richard N. L. Andrews (’70, ’72)

In a new book released Mar. 17 by Yale University Press, Richard N. L. “Pete” Andrews examines the 50-year history of the modern environmental policy era against the background of the four centuries of American environmental policies that led to it. In this revised and updated third edition, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy delves deeper into the history of the agencies, presidential administrations and policies that shaped the environmental landscape of today.

As Americans this year celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the creation of the U.S. EPA and the beginning of the modern environmental policy era, Andrews details the events and history that led us to our current state, including a chapter on the current presidential administration. Read more. Listen to talk.

IE makes hands-on geoscience learning possible for Northeastern NC’s students and teachers

The UNC Institute for the Environment recently received $319,000 to connect students and teachers in Northeastern North Carolina with field-based geoscience learning opportunities. Geoscience Teaching Outdoors in NC, also known as GET OUT in NC, will take advantage of the region’s unique coastal ecosystem and partnerships with nearby institutions.

“We plan to provide teachers with hands-on experiences in the field, connecting with geoscience research, so they can replicate some of that experience with their students in the classroom,” says Sarah Yelton, environmental education and citizen science program manager for IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science.

The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, will engage with approximately 40 teachers, and by extension 7,200 students, in two cohorts over three years. Yelton says the program will help teachers mentor students and encourage their interest in pursuing careers in fields like water quality, watershed management, geology and renewable energy. Read more.

Thank YOU for a wonderful #GiveUNC!

What an amazing GiveUNC day for the Institute for the Environment! A muted approach respectful to the difficult times we are facing still resulted in more than $338,000 donated ($378K when it was all said and done) and the number of donations (70) far exceeding our extremely strong results from last year of $71,697 and 50 gifts. In addition, our performance within the University was outstanding finishing in fourth place only behind the College of Arts and Sciences, Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Rams Club.

The challenge contributions provided by the board were extremely generous and helped fuel the strong giving and allowed the IE leverage to secure additional donors.

The IE also increased its Facebook likes on GiveUNC to 1235 and Twitter followers to 2575 and still growing! Thanks to everyone who helped fuel IE to an amazing performance which has generated attention throughout the University. Read more.

We hope you enjoyed these highlights.

For a full list of all our news, please visit ie.unc.edu/news.