With an eye toward ensuring the world’s natural resources are sustained for the future, UNT researchers are creating solutions to combat climate change, biodiversity concerns and air pollution.
By Trista Moxley
Photography by Ahna Hubnik and Michael Clements
When environmental anthropologist Courtney Cecale moved to Dallas in August 2020 from the Peruvian Andes where she had been studying glaciers and climate change, she experienced her first triple-digit summer in North Texas. She couldn’t stop thinking about how heat might influence peoples’ everyday lives.
“I saw on the dash on my car that it was 116 with the heat index, and I didn’t know how people lived here,” she says.
With a long history of studying human-environment relationships, Cecale who joined UNT in 2020 as assistant professor, turned her curiosity into the North Texas Heat Research Project, a study looking at how extreme temperatures affect the social aspects of our lives, including living, working and playing. After gathering experiences from North Texans through surveys and interviews, she and her team will recruit residents to serve as citizen scientists to measure temperature data in their neighborhoods — data that she hopes can be used to inform policy and decisions made by local governments to better the lives of North Texans.
Since modern recordkeeping began in 1880, the earth’s average surface temperature has risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, with 2016 and 2020 tying for the warmest years on record, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The heat has increased the average temperature of the ocean, as well as melting billions of tons of ice from glaciers.
While steps can be taken to help reduce or reverse the damage, they will be expensive and difficult. Suggestions like restoring natural spaces, utilizing clean energy and finding sustainable production methods for food and other products face a multitude of obstacles. But like Cecale, UNT researchers across disciplines are tackling these challenges head on to find cheaper, more sustainable and effective solutions to protect our environment.
“It is important to study climate change because the effects are not located in an imaginary future. They are already here. They will continue to worsen, and more people will die if we do not strategize our efforts wisely,” she says. “I genuinely believe that we are imaginative, clever and creative enough to solve problems like climate change.”
Professor Shengqian Ma is collaborating with Northern Illinois University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory on a prototype low-cost system for capturing carbon dioxide waste from manufacturing emissions and cleanly converting it into ethanol.
The prototype will intercept carbon dioxide before it’s emitted into the atmosphere and convert it back to fuel. Ma says it’s possible they might even be able to capture more carbon dioxide from the environment than has been emitted through manufacturing processes. Ideally, they would use renewable solar and wind energy to then convert carbon dioxide into ethanol.
“Our long-term vision is for a cleaner and sustainable planet,” Ma says.
Calvin Henard, an assistant professor of biological sciences and a researcher at UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute, is working to convert methane to bioplastics, biofuels and other valuable products normally derived from petroleum using microbiology.
“Methanotrophic bacteria are the only organisms that are able to use atmospheric methane. They eat about 10% to 15% of methane in the atmosphere,” Henard says.
Through this research, Henard learned that some methanotrophs consume carbon dioxide in addition to methane, and he speculates that these bacteria are consuming methane and carbon dioxide in the soil.
“Our goal is to simultaneously utilize and mitigate greenhouse gases in a single, sustainable process,” he says. “It’s a dual route to help the planet and achieve a sustainable bioeconomy.
Heat from climate change also can affect the diversity of plants, animals and insects, as well as how different species interact with humans. According to Conservation International, bee territories for bumblebee migrations have shrunk by around 200 miles in North America and Europe over the past 110 years due to climate change.
“Without these pollinators, it would be a much different world,” says Elinor Lichtenberg, assistant professor of ecology. “There would be a lot fewer flowers, and our fruits, vegetables and nuts are heavily dependent on insect pollination.”
In her lab, as part of UNT’s Advanced Environmental Research Institute, Lichtenberg studies the behavior of pollinators, primarily wild bees. In addition to studying how grazing practices impact pollinators, she’s researching what other flower visitors bees use as sources of social information.
Andrew Gregory, assistant professor of biological sciences, is examining a possible malaria outbreak in birds in Chile, which could lead to a better understanding of the effects of global warming on disease transmission. As climate change moves colder temperatures higher in the Chilean mountainside, bird populations are being affected with more contact with mosquitoes. This not only offers opportunities to see how wildlife disease can restructure with climate change, but also how it affects other populations, including humans, who interact with birds.
He traveled to Chile in January as part of the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation program with a group of students who are chosen from universities across the country to study the impacts of malaria and climate change on biodiversity.
“We have a unique opportunity to study a novel landscape where birds are being exposed to a new threat brought about by climate change,” Gregory says.
Lu Liang, assistant professor of geography and the environment, is using citizen scientists to help test if there is a correlation between urban heat and air pollution. Through her project, she’s deploying a low-cost sensor network throughout Denton County to obtain granular measurements of heat and air pollution, particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less — tiny particles of pollution that are detrimental to human health when inhaled. The data will then be available to researchers and citizens through an online open access map that shows air quality changes wherever the sensors are installed. Temperature information will be gained through other sources.
“We are trying to understand exactly what’s happening in our city and how to better, more accurately measure exposure to heat and pollution,” Liang says.
Alexandra Ponette-González, associate professor of geography and the environment, is studying the particles in the air that are transported from the atmosphere to the surface of the earth in precipitation. Every time it rains, millions of tiny particles hitchhike on the falling water droplets. This water contains a large and diverse community of organisms such as bacteria, fungi and even tardigrades along with non-living particles like dust, soot, microplastics and radioactive material. What’s in our rainwater can have major implications for how ecosystems work, from economic impacts on agricultural crop yields to environmental effects of pollutants.
“We’re improving our understanding of how changes in air quality due to urban pollution, increasing wildfires and dust storms affect the ecosystems we depend on for clean air, water and well-being,” Ponette-González says. “We’re also interested in ways and contexts in which vegetation can mitigate urban environmental problems, including air pollution and climate warming.”