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Wedding Outdoors: Top Spots for Mountainside and Forest Nuptials

NAU researchers combine satellite data and modeling to predict climate change

The second of a three-part series on NAU research.

Even nature lovers may sometimes find themselves behind a desk, using advanced technology to better understand study their field. This is the case for Northern Arizona University professor Scott Goetz and assistant professor Christopher Doughty, who use remote sensing and computer modeling combined with ecological data to study ecosystems, especially in the face of climate change.

In 2018, these two researchers collaborated with a team of scientists led by Oswald Schmitz of Yale University and who met at a conference hosted by the Ecological Society of America to discuss the major – but largely unrecognized – role animals play in the carbon cycle.

The resulting discussion, “Animals and the zoogeochemistry of the carbon cycle,” published in Science in early December, describes the potential of remote-sensing technology in ecosystem studies, particularly in quantifying the impact of animals on nutrient cycling.

The discussion reveals that the grazing, predation and movement (among other activities) performed by animals of all types have important effects on the ecological nutrient movement and should therefore be included in ecosystem studies.

“Such zoogeochemical effects are not measured by current remote sensing, nor are they included in carbon cycle models. … This currently limits our ability to accurately calculate carbon budgets and predict future climate change,” the team wrote.

The discussion also suggests that the integration of animal spatial ecology, ecosystem modeling and remote sensing are needed to improve carbon cycle research. This methodology can also be used to predict how animals will react to changing climates and provide methods to preserve biodiversity.

“We don’t really understand how animals impact climate change and that’s important to know,” Doughty said of the discussion. “We want to be able to predict where they’re going to move in the future and put our reserves there. If things warm up, current reserves may be too warm.”

NAU ecological research

Goetz and Doughty have been members of NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, for nearly three years, where they blend the natural world with the technological in their ongoing research of ecosystems and climate change, an integration essential to making a difference in climate change.

“The environmental issues of the day require an engineering solution most of the time,” explained NAU President Rita Cheng.

Goetz specializes in satellite remote sensing, especially in arctic regions and high altitude forests. He is the science lead of NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment to monitor ecosystem change throughout Alaska and Canada.

“What we can map and monitor changes through time with satellites. We’ve had satellite data for decades now, so we can monitor the changes that are taking place,” he said.

Advanced sensors measure Earth’s surface reflectants in all different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just visible light, Goetz said. This data can be used to measure everything from deforestation and degradation to species’ habitat preferences, such as which rainforest species live on different tree levels.

Research assistants of Goetz’s lab, Global Earth Observation & Dynamics of Ecosystem (GEODE), and other field ecologists provide the on-site observations and measurements that supplement Goetz’s research.

Doughty works with modeling programs based on this satellite data, as well as decades of ecological research on how animals interact and behave, to predict future ecosystem changes.

He said these programs can be run on an average personal computer, but require knowledge of advanced computer languages to navigate through the stores of accumulated ecological information required for such predictions.

“A lot of science is looking on a small scale, but with computer modeling and remote sensing, we can scale up to regional and global scales,” Doughty said. “If we’re trying to use these global models, they need to be informed by experts throughout the world.”

Once these models are confirmed, they can be applied anywhere, including Flagstaff.

Teaching research

Maintaining experienced, researching faculty members is integral to the university’s mission.

Cheng said, “Our goal is to create knowledge and pass that knowledge on in the classrooms and the labs to our students.”

Both Goetz and Doughty agreed that continued research makes them better resources for their students. Although the two spend most of their time conducting research, they also teach a few small classes.

“We’re always interested in working with students as researchers,” Doughty said. “We want the students to see the world class science that we do and interact with it.”

Doughty recently worked with undergraduate computer science students to develop AniMap, an app that allows users to pick any region on the planet to see current and extinct species and the ecosystem services they provide. The app is currently available for Android devices and is free to download.

This project was one of the school’s efforts to get students and faculty of different fields to interact and, consequently, do better science, Doughty said.

Goetz has experienced similar developments in his teaching due to his own research and advancements in the technology he uses. He explained that, thanks to Google, satellite imagery data is becoming more accessible and easier to share with others, including his graduate students.

He said about half of his students’ class time focuses on the larger view of Earth observation research, while the other half is hands-on learning with Google Earth Engine. He even brings in other members of his research group to help demonstrate the applications of the remote sensing data.

Doughty explained that many of his colleagues are often looking for students – even undergrads – to assist in lab research of various types and will either offer course credit or payment for these services.

Researching for the future

The research and teachings of faculty like Goetz and Doughty are aimed at preparing humans for the environmental future. Much of that goal depends on informing the public and inspiring students to enter this field.

“Because we are a new department, we want to get out this idea that we are for people that love the outdoors, love the environment, but want to gain these technological skills that are relevant for society in the future,” Doughty said.

Goetz added, “There’s some hope that we can bring about change and address some of the problems we face in terms of environmental change…The ones who will be most impacted by [climate change] can do the most about it.”

Trump says shutdown could last for 'months or even years'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Friday he could keep parts of the government shut down for "months or even years" as he and Democratic leaders failed in a second closed-door meeting to resolve his demand for billions of dollars for a border wall with Mexico. They did agree to a new round of weekend talks between staff members and White House officials.

Trump met in the White House Situation Room with congressional leaders from both parties as the shutdown hit the two-week mark amid an impasse over his wall demands. Democrats emerged from the roughly two-hour meeting, which both sides said was contentious at times, to report little if any progress.

The standoff also prompted economic jitters and anxiety among some in Trump's own party. But he appeared in the Rose Garden to frame the upcoming weekend talks as progress, while making clear he would not reopen the government.

"We won't be opening until it's solved," Trump said. "I don't call it a shutdown. I call it doing what you have to do for the benefit and the safety of our country."

Trump said he could declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, but would first try a "negotiated process." Trump previously described the situation at the border as a "national emergency" before he dispatched active-duty troops in what critics described as a pre-election stunt.

Trump also said the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay would want him to "keep going" and fight for border security. Asked how people would manage without a financial safety net, he declared: "The safety net is going to be having a strong border because we're going to be safe."

Democrats, on the other hand, spoke of families unable to pay bills and called on Trump to reopen the government while negotiations continue. Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, "It's very hard to see how progress will be made unless they open up the government."

Friday's White House meeting with Trump included eight congressional leaders — the top two Democrats and Republicans of both chambers. People familiar with the session described Trump as holding forth at length on a range of subjects but said he made clear he was firm in his demand for $5.6 billion in wall funding and in rejecting the Democrats' request to reopen the government.

Trump confirmed that he privately told Democrats the shutdown could drag on for months or years, though he said he hoped it wouldn't last that long. Said Trump: "I hope it doesn't go on even beyond a few more days."

House Democrats muscled through legislation Thursday night to fund the government but not Trump's proposed wall. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said those measures are non-starters on his side of the Capitol without the president's support.

A variety of strategies are being floated inside and outside the White House, among them trading wall funding for a deal on immigrants brought to the country as young people and now here illegally, or using a national emergency declaration to build the wall. While Trump made clear during his press conference that talk on DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) would have to wait and that he was trying to negotiate with Congress on the wall, the conversations underscored rising Republican anxiety about just how to exit the shutdown.

Seeking to ease concerns, the White House sought to frame the weekend talks as a step forward, as did McConnell, who described plans for a "working group," though people familiar with the meeting said that phrase never actually came up. Trump designated Vice President Mike Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and adviser Jared Kushner to work with a congressional delegation over the weekend. That meeting is set for 11 a.m. today, the White House said.

Some GOP senators up for re-election in 2020 voiced discomfort with the shutdown in recent days, including Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, putting additional pressure on Republicans.

But with staff level talks there is always an open question of whether Trump's aides are fully empowered to negotiate for the president. Earlier this week, he rejected his own administration's offer to accept $2.5 billion for the wall. That proposal was made when Pence and other top officials met at the start of the shutdown with Schumer.

During his free-wheeling session with reporters, Trump also wrongly claimed that he'd never called for the wall to be concrete. Trump did so repeatedly during his campaign, describing a wall of pre-cast concrete sections that would be higher than the walls of many of his rally venues. He repeated that promise just days ago.

"An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!," he tweeted on Dec. 31.

Poll: Immigration among top 2019 concerns

As much of the U.S. government remains shut down over President Donald Trump's insistence on funding for his border wall, nearly half of Americans identify immigration as a top issue for the government to work on this year.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted shortly before the shutdown began finds that both Republicans and Democrats are far more likely to include immigration in their list of top issues facing the country this year compared with a year ago.

Overall, 49 percent mentioned immigration in an open-ended question as one of the top five problems they hoped the government addresses in 2019. By contrast, 27 percent mentioned immigration in December 2017.

Partisan divides on the best solutions remain deep. Republicans continue to be more likely to cite immigration as a top issue than Democrats, an indication of the GOP's greater intensity on the issue. But it's an increasingly important issue to members of both parties.

The poll found that 65 percent of Republicans say immigration is one of the top five problems facing the country, up from 42 percent in 2017. Among Democrats, 37 percent cite immigration as a top issue, compared with just 2 in 10 a year ago.

Roughly two-thirds of those who named immigration as a top priority express little confidence in the government to make progress this year, including a third who say they are "not at all" confident. About a third say they are at least moderately confident in the government to make progress on immigration. This follows a year of intermittent deadlocked negotiations and standoffs between Trump and Democrats in Congress.

Although both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly likely to name immigration-related issues as top priorities for the government, other polls show that their opinions on the issue diverge dramatically. For example, a December poll by CNN found that 78 percent of Republicans and just 8 percent of Democrats supported building a border wall.

And with their party still in control of the White House and the Senate, Republicans are more optimistic about the government making progress on immigration this year. Among those who prioritize immigration, Republicans are more than three times as likely as Democrats to express some confidence that the government will make progress.

The economy remains a top priority for Americans, with 62 percent citing related issues, including mentions of jobs, unemployment, taxes and trade.

Nearly half of Americans also identify health care as one of the top five issues facing the country, unchanged from one year ago. A traditionally Democratic issue, health care is named by Democrats more than Republicans (56 percent versus 43 percent).

There was a sharp rise in environmental and climate issues after a year of wildfires and hurricanes, a change that is largely driven by Democrats. Overall, about a quarter of Americans mention the environment as a top issue. About four in 10 Democrats include the environment as a priority, compared with just 8 percent of Republicans. The share of Democrats naming the environment has grown 11 percentage points since a year ago.

The poll was conducted in December before the stock market gyrations and government shutdown.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be optimistic, but feelings about the country are mixed even within the GOP. Six in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country as a whole, including 79 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans. Among Republicans, that's a slight increase from 33 percent who were dissatisfied with the state of the country in October. Still, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats today to say they're satisfied with the way things are going in the country, 39 percent to 9 percent.

The unhappiness on both sides of the aisle is palpable to John Rossetti, a 47-year-old code enforcement officer in Youngstown, Ohio.

"There's a really different, negative environment," Rossetti said. "Everywhere you go, it's there — just a very negative atmosphere."

Rossetti describes himself as a moderate to conservative Democrat who didn't support Trump in 2016 but was rooting for him to succeed. Now he's disillusioned and pessimistic about the future, and he's not alone. Americans are more likely to think things in the country will get worse in the next year than that they will get better, 42 percent to 32 percent.

More Americans do think 2019 will be a better year for them personally than think it will get worse, 37 percent to 18 percent, but another 45 percent say there won't be much difference.

County asks Williams to create darker skies for telescope location

The top of Volunteer Mountain is rocky with a flat peak and scattered with Ponderosa Pine. The mountain sits underneath the stars and night sky near the I-40 between Bellemont and Williams and is restricted for military use.

Paul Shankland, director of the United States Naval Observatory, said the mountain is likely one of “the top choices” for a future observatory telescope. One of the main questions about the space from the observatory’s perspective is whether the dark skies of Williams are dark enough.

The Coconino Joint Land Use Study, a study from multiple different municipalities in the county, officially set the dark sky strategy recommendation for the city hailed as the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

“Even though they’re not nearly as close as Flagstaff is, their sufficiently close, really bright development could be a real problem for us,” Shankland said.

Williams currently follows county dark sky regulations, but has not updated many of its lighting fixtures for some time, Williams mayor John Moore said. The current discussion is surrounding switching the existing fixtures to LEDs.

“It’s old, old lighting,” Moore said. “The street lights are old. … We’re looking at street lights we’ve probably had for 40 or 50 years, so we want to replace those.”

Williams was not involved during the most recent joint land use  discussions and has not been fully briefed on the county's dark sky goal. The city will meet with the county later this month to brief them on the specifics fn the dark sky goal.

The observatory's plans to build on the location are still in the early stages, Shankland said, but he did mention that people at the observatory are keeping an eye on actions in the county and cities actions to determine the viability of the space.

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan felt that embracing the astronomy community was only a good thing, both for amateur and professional astronomers alike.

"It’s an economic driver," Ryan said. "From the early days through the moon missions into now and what they’re doing."

The spectrum problem

LEDs have made a big impact on dark skies, according to Christian Luginbuhl, a member of the Flagstaff Dark Sky Coalition. Many LEDs utilize white light, which is a combination of all colors on the visible spectrum.

Where that causes a problem, Luginbuhl said, is that blue and green light have a higher impact on dark skies than yellow or red lights do.

“Less people call that light pollution even though blue and green lights the sky two-to-four times more than a yellow light, even though the lighting on the ground is the same,” Luginbuhl said.

A problem with the older, low-pressure sodium bulb is its cost. LEDs have a cheaper price point, and in addition municipalities see LEDs as more cost effective because they last longer and do not need to be replaced as often, Luginbuhl said.

It is not clear at this point which types of new bulbs Williams will decide to utilize, if any.

Astronomical zones

By setting up a telescope, the area around the telescope is affected by creating astronomical zones. Currently telescopes like the Hall telescope at Lowell Observatory and Kaj Strand telescope at the Naval Observatory have these restrictions.

Within a 2.5-mile radius from the telescope the amount of light that can be emitted is heavily restricted. Restrictions for seven miles after that point are restricted less, according to county documents.

Beyond that seven-mile radius, the normal county restrictions stand, which currently allow lighting that is lit less than 2500 lumens unless fully shielded.

Williams is outside of those zones from Volunteer Mountain, but releases a higher amount of light.

Shankland said that Bellemont did not currently concern the observatory, but could if the dark sky regulations are not followed as the area's developments expand.