PEI Awards $840,000 for Innovative Research, Teaching, and Mentorship in Water and the Environment

Molly Sharlach for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

The Princeton Environmental Institute has awarded a total of $840,000 to support seven original research projects which will become the nucleus of a new Grand Challenges cooperative focused on environmental issues associated with physical, chemical, and biological aspects of oceans and freshwater systems. This newly launched Water and the Environment Challenge recognizes the vital role that water plays in virtually all aspects of the environmental sciences as well as the global importance of water as a resource.

Through this initiative, PEI aims to encourage research, teaching, and mentorship that will advance solutions to issues of water and the environment, encourage faculty development, increase Princeton’s institutional capabilities, and enhance the undergraduate experience. The Water Challenge is one of several long-term research and teaching cooperatives supported by PEI as part of the Grand Challenges program—a campus-wide initiative established in 2007 to address complex global environmental challenges including scientific, technological, and policy dimensions.

Additional information about the newly awarded projects is provided below:

Adsorption of emerging organic contaminants on clay surfaces

Ian Bourg, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute, and Satish Myneni, professor of geosciences, will investigate how organic contaminants adhere to clay surfaces. Organic contaminants such as pesticides, antibiotics, and flame-retardants are of critical environmental concern. The affinity of these chemicals for clay-rich soils impacts their persistence in the environment and thus their long-term effects on water quality. This project will combine molecular dynamics simulations with laboratory adsorption experiments and chemical modeling to improve understanding of how different organic contaminants interact with clay surfaces in a variety of environmental conditions.

Effects of El Niño rainfall patterns on the population dynamics of a tropical forest bird

Christina Riehl, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will assess the effects of climate variation on the survival and reproductive success of the Greater Ani, an insect-eating bird of Central and South America. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an irregular fluctuation in Pacific Ocean surface temperatures that impacts rainfall patterns in Central America: El Niño phases lead to sunny, dry conditions, while La Niña phases produce cooler, rainier weather. Understanding the consequences of El Niño for water resources, agriculture, and wildlife will be critical as the climate warms. This research will fill a gap in knowledge on the effects of ENSO on tropical wildlife through the collection of field data on the relationships between rainfall, vegetation, and insect abundance, which will be integrated with long-term population monitoring data.

Southern Ocean observations and modeling

Jorge Sarmiento, George H. Magee Professor of Geosciences and Geological Engineering, directs the multi-institutional Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) program. SOCCOM seeks to advance understanding of the harsh and remote ocean around Antarctica by combining high-resolution modeling with biogeochemical measurements from autonomous robotic sensors. This award will allow the Sarmiento group to build on the success of its undergraduate research and mentoring program, which was established through a previous Grand Challenges grant. Students will explore the relationships between fishes and ocean climate, the effects of ocean circulation patterns on variability in carbon uptake, and other topics. The Sarmiento group will also enhance the laboratory modules of an introductory undergraduate course on ocean, atmosphere, and climate.

Coral nitrogen isotopes as a recorder of natural and human-driven changes in the nutrient conditions of oceanic surface waters

Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, will lead a project to investigate changes in ocean nutrient cycling by measuring the ratios of nitrogen isotopes in coral skeleton-protected organic matter from the reefs around the island of Bermuda in the western subtropical North Atlantic. These studies, made possible by an ongoing collaboration with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will yield vital information about human impacts on ocean nutrient cycling, both in the present and as much as 500 years into the past.

Diffusiophoresis for control of particles in water systems

Howard Stone, Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will explore the fluid dynamics phenomenon known as diffusiophoresis and its environmental implications. Diffusiophoresis refers to the transport through fluids of particles—bacteria, bits of soil, or other suspended solids—where the movement of the particles is mediated by gradients in the concentrations of salt molecules, whose charges generate local electric fields. The Stone group will enlist undergraduate researchers to study the influence of diffusiophoresis on clogging in settings such as salt marshes or water purification systems, and how the introduction of carbon dioxide bubbles may help to remove suspended solids in wastewater treatment processes.

Experimental tests of drought and deluge in African rangelands

Corina Tarnita and Robert Pringle, both assistant professors of ecology and evolutionary biology, will test predictions about the self-organization of vegetation into regular patterns in response to water limitation. Climate change is expected to have major impacts on precipitation patterns, thus reshaping ecosystems and significantly influencing the availability of water for agriculture. Aerial monitoring of vegetation patterns in arid rangelands has been proposed as an early warning system for detecting ecosystems on the verge of collapse. This project will experimentally assess the viability of such a monitoring approach, as well as extend it to explore the effects of termite mounds on vegetation robustness. Ultimately, it will produce a novel mechanistic model of plant-water dynamics relevant for climate change predictions.

Control of microbial nitrous oxide production in coastal waters

Bess Ward, William J. Sinclair Professor and chair of geosciences, will lead field- and laboratory-based research to analyze nitrogen transformations in Chesapeake Bay. Estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay experience seasonal influxes of nitrogen from agricultural fertilizer runoff. Microorganisms transform fixed nitrogen through denitrification, producing dinitrogen gas, which is harmless, along with nitrous oxide, which is an ozone-destroying agent and a potent greenhouse gas. The ratio of dinitrogen to nitrous oxide production is highly variable, and environmental factors that impact this ratio are not well understood. These investigations will help to improve understanding of nitrous oxide production in estuarine ecosystems, informing global models of nitrous oxide flux as well as efforts to assess changes related to global warming.