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Gregg Howe: Spartan research addresses 5 big climate change questions

As the planet experiences the effects of climate change, questions arise about the future of our planet and daily life in general. Many of the major challenges related to a changing climate and their impact on society have Michigan State University Spartans working on solutions.

A group of MSU scientists and researchers studying critical areas explain how their research addresses five big questions about a changing climate.

If solar panels reduce our energy dependance on fossil fuels, why doesn’t everyone have solar panels on their homes?

“We have a lot of solar potential in the U.S., but many people don’t have $15,000 to $20,000 to pay up front to install a solar panel on their roof,” says Annick Anctil, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, who studies the performance and environmental benefits of solar panels. “If people could see how much money they would save, I think that would help. But, being able to forecast the savings and value of solar energy is still missing.”

One researcher working to make solar panel technology more ubiquitous is Richard Lunt, the Johansen Crosby Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in the MSU College of Engineering and College of Natural Science. Lunt has created transparent solar panels that look like ordinary windows but use ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths outside the visible spectrum to generate electricity. Some of these panels were installed last summer above the entrance to MSU’s Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building. The panels should generate enough electricity to help light the atrium inside the entrance.  

While roof solar panels have the potential to power 40% of the country, Lunt’s transparent photovoltaic panels have the potential to double that. By combining both regular solar panels and Lunt’s panels, these technologies together could power the entire country’s electrical power needs.

“Living more sustainably is a topic that has been near and dear to me my entire life,” Lunt says. “Finding solutions that have the most potential to make the biggest impact. You can offset about two-thirds of the carbon dioxide generated from all the power we consume by using, or converting to, solar and battery power alone.”  

If trees and plants can absorb the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then why don’t we just plant more? Aren't increased temperatures and carbon dioxide good for plants?

Trees play an important role in Earth’s carbon cycle and estimating how much carbon dioxide trees are taking in is one of the biggest uncertainties in climate change research. MSU’s Kyla Dahlin is using data collected from satellites and airplanes to estimate how much carbon dioxide gets absorbed by different types of trees.

These technologies are making data available that hadn’t been possible previously and could be a game changer for measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests across the globe.  

“With climate change, there isn’t a perfect road map for what to plant now because what has grown in an area historically might not be the best choice now,” says Dahlin, an assistant professor in the College of Social Science. “I would recommend planting something that will be there in 100 years considering location, climate, potential disease and insects. The longer a tree can stay healthy, happy and appreciated, the more carbon it will take up.”

Gregg Howe, a professor in the College of Natural Science and with the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, focuses on making plants healthier by boosting their natural defenses. He studies a plant defense hormone called jasmonate, which acts like our body’s immune system and helps defend plants against insects munching on their leaves.

”We found that as temperatures increase, insects become more voracious and ate almost all the leaves off tomato plants overnight,” Howe says. “Surprisingly, one negative effect of increased jasmonate levels inside plants is that it causes the plant to close their pores or stomata, causing the plants to overheat. We’re working to find a way to protect the plant from insects and keep it from overheating.”

One year there is a flood and the next year there is a drought. How big of a problem is water availability? 

Yadu Pokhrel, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, uses climate and hydrological models to assess and predict how the total water available on land would change under different climate change scenarios (low, medium and high carbon emissions). After running 80 simulations, Pokhrel found by the end of the 21st century, two-thirds of the planet’s land will see a large decrease in water availability.

“This includes places that already deal with water availability issues, drought and places that have never experienced it before,” Pokhrel says. “Climate change will continue to increase the number of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought around the world. The level of concern should be high.”  

How can coastal erosion be detected and prevented?

MSU’s Ethan Theuerkauf is training residents in six of Michigan’s coastal communities to be citizen scientists who can fly drones and capture images of coastal areas before and after significant storm events. The goal is to develop a historical record to help residents and city managers plan and prepare for the effects of future climate change in their area. Most areas have collected six to 12 months of data for the project and Theuerkauf and his team are already analyzing the differences in the lake levels and erosion in different areas. While Theuerkauf’s research is focused on Michigan, other scientists have been using drones to monitor the shorelines across the U.S. and in other countries.

“We want to know how the coastlines are changing but we can’t physically be at all of these places at once,” says Theuerkauf, an assistant professor in the College of Social Science. “With this project, we can document these changes and build a network of data that can be shared with other communities so that the residents and city managers  can make the best decisions for their community.”

Can geoengineering cool the planet? 

Phoebe Zarnetske, an associate professor in the College of Natural Science, is part of an international team of scientists in the Climate Intervention Biology working group, which looks at the potential consequences for ecology if geoengineering were to be implemented to temporarily cool Earth’s surface.

Geoengineering consists of multiple methods for either reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the amount of solar radiation that is reflected off the Earth’s surface into the atmosphere. One idea is Stratospheric Aerosol Intervention, or SAI, where sulfates would be injected into the atmosphere to block some of the sun’s solar radiation similar to the way volcanic eruptions cool the planet.

“SAI could cool Earth’s surface if we continue to reduce our emissions, but there are many unintended consequences that would have large impacts on ecology and ecosystem services, including uneven cooling, changes in precipitation, reductions in ozone and associated increases in surface UV and continued ocean acidification,” Zarnetske says. “Although climate scientists have been researching geoengineering scenarios for decades, the potential impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems are unknown.”

By Emilie Lorditch. This story was originally published on MSUToday.