The Center for the Study of Environmental Change serves as a node for the coordination of educational, research and outreach activities related to the environmental effects of Earth's changing climate. By supporting the study and understanding of these effects in the local and global environment, the Center will promote a more just and sustainable society, in keeping with the Jesuit mission of Le Moyne College.
"Mankind is not living in harmony with the world. Nature has become a mere quarry for the domain, for economic exploitation. And so our house, our body, something in us degrades. Modern civilization has in itself a biodegradable dimension." - Pope Francis (at a Mass in Brazil in 2007)
Environmental issues and problems arise at the interface of complex human and natural systems, and addressing them requires a synergistic combination of scientific, social and cultural knowledge. Addressing these issues and problems also requires scientific, social and cultural skills. The Environmental Science Systems and Environmental Studies major programs at Le Moyne have been designed to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the scientific foundations of environmental science as well as the mechanisms of society.
Climate Change and the Catholic Church
“(In September) a working group of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest scientific institutes in the world, issued a sobering report on the impacts for humankind as a result of the global retreat of mountain glaciers as a result of human activity leading to climate change. In their declaration, the working group calls, “on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses.” They echoed Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 World Day of Peace Message saying, “…if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us.” Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego—a member of the Pontifical Academy since 2004 and a co-chair of the working group said to ClimateWire, “I have never participated in any report in 30 years where the word 'God' is mentioned. I think the Vatican brings that moral authority.” [Independent Catholic News, May 12, 2012]
The Society of Jesus, in particular, has recognized the imperative to address climate change for its social consequences and has advocated action: "The effects of climate change, such as those caused by natural disasters like flooding and droughts, have the greatest negative consequences for those who are the poorest, " said Fr. Jim Stormes (MAR), Secretary for Social and International Ministries for the Jesuit Conference. "And the potential solutions for reducing the changes we are making on the environment have costs associated with them that disproportionally impact those who are least able to take on the additional financial burden. When considering the possibilities to reduce climate change, the Church always tries to bring the voice of the poor to the discussion." [Creighton News Center, April 22, 2009]
Hence, it was unsurprising that Pope Francis evinced a particularly strong interest in the environment, with particular focus on climate change, and the harm it is doing to both the natural and human environments: “(Cardinal) Turkson said the pope was 'compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change,' and the cardinal pointed to the synthesis report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That study, released last November, found climate change is happening and it's almost entirely man's fault. Turkson acknowledged disagreement over the panel's findings but said "for Pope Francis, however, that is not the point." The cardinal said Francis was concerned with affirming "a truth revealed" in Genesis 2:15 on the sacred duty to till and keep the earth. [Reported by Fox News, March 10, 2015]
Numerous faith-based, climate advocacy groups exist, some founded in direct response to the Pope's call for action, but others long predating the current papacy. Prominent among these is the Catholic Climate Covenant, Founded in 2006 and based in Washington, D.C., the Catholic Climate Covenant partners with 20 Catholic organizations across the country to provide climate educational and advocacy resources.
The culmination of this concern was the release by Pope Francis in May 2015 of his encyclical Laudato Si' (link to full text here). Written after consultation with an international panel of climate and environmental scientists, the work presents a clarion call for society to change and reconsider the rampant consumerism that has resulted in climate change and environmental degradation. Of particular concern is the need to protect the Earth in order to protect the poor.
"A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades, this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."
"Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right."
"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now."
"Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction."
"All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur."
The concern over and study of global climate change has pervaded nearly all aspects of environmental research in recent years. CSEC is sponsoring projects that add important new data to our understanding of how the global environment is changing in response to climate change.
Modern climate science is driven largely by computer modeling, in particular, the construction of General Circulation Models (GCMs), which are the basis for predictions of future climate change. While GCMs have become increasingly refined with the ability to handle smaller grid-blocks, they do not readily predict the ecological impacts of climate change. This is because the current state of our understanding of the relationship between ecology and climate change remains rather rudimentary. At its essence, ecology is the study of the relationship between organisms and all elements of their environment, both physical and biological. Hence, a change in the physical environment that alters budding or flowering cycles, food availability, habitat area or nesting behavior, for example, can disrupt the equilibrium state (if it exists) between members of a community. Therefore, a wide variety and large quantity of detailed observations, gathered over a broad spatial range, and over an extended temporal range, will be required to properly document the global impact of climate change on the environment, in general, and ecological systems in particular.
Le Moyne's Environmental Research
At present, much of our research focuses on field and laboratory studies of the processes of soil formation and rates of floral colonization as they apply to the storage of carbon in soil and biomass. We have active study sites for measuring ecological changes due to climate change in Iceland, Costa Rica and the Le Moyne campus. The environmental analysis labs at Le Moyne are equipped with a JEOL JSM-6510LV Scanning Electron Microscope, Bruker D-2 Phaser X-Ray Diffractometer and a LECO TruSpec C/N. Financial support for some of these facilities and activities has been provided by NSF. Published results of this research by Dr. Lawrence Tanner and his students can be found by following the links on his website.
Primary succession and soil development at Skaftafell
The Skaftafellsjökull, near the south coast, is an outlet glacier from the giant Vatnajökull ice cap. Like most of Iceland’s glaciers it has been retreating since the late nineteenth century due to climate change. This recession has gradually exposed the ground that was buried by the ice, allowing the start of the plant colonization and soil formation processes that characterize primary succession. Over the years, students have collected data by making careful measurements of the percentage of the ground surface covered by vegetation, identifying plant species, sampling soils for analysis and measuring the rate of CO2 production by the soil. This work has documented that the vegetation coverage and carbon content of the soil increases with distance from the front of the glacier, which is a proxy for the age of the land surface (Tanner et al., 2013).
One of the lines of research conducted in 2007 was a documentation of the change in the plant species across the glacial foreland, the exposed land area in front of the glacier, from younger ground close to the glacier to older ground farther from the glacier. In 2014, the student team, led by Taylor Glaussen, returned to the same sites studied in 2007 to repeat the species measurements. The comparison of the 2007 and 2014 results established trends in the proportions of different plant types during succession (Glaussen and Tanner, 2019).
Tanner, with students Haley Synan and Mikael Ann Melfi, conducted a detailed study on the Skaftafell foreland in 2019, counting the numbers of individual plants of three woody-stemmed species (birch and willows) to test the controls on their distribution and look for possible interactions between the species. They published the results of their work in 2021 (Synan et al., 2021). Most recently, Tanner returned to Skaftafell in 2022 with students Genevieve Kikukawa and Kaylyn Weits to repeat the measurements of species diversity made by Glaussen in 2014. They are analyzing these data at present.
Vegetation and albedo on the Skeiðarársandur
The Skeiðarársandur is a sandy outwash plain formed by the streams that drain the Skeiðarárjökull, a large outlet glacier located just west of the Skaftafellsjökull. Much of this plain is an expanse of dark sand and gravel, devoid of vegetation, but portions are vegetated, mainly by moss and small shrubs. Tanner, with students Hunter Powell and Megan Vandewarker studied the Skeiðarársandur in 2018 to measure the effect of the vegetation on energy absorption and soil formation. In much of the Arctic, the growth of vegetation creates a landscape that is darker, and therefore absorbs more solar energy. On the Skeiðarársandur, however, they found that the vegetated surface is lighter and more reflective than the barren sand plain and the soil stores more carbon (Tanner and Vandewarker, 2019). This work also might continue in other locations on the south coast in subsequent years.
A different research direction has been initiated by Dr. Donald McCrimmon and Dr. Jason Luscier in the phenology of bird migration in the northeastern U.S. By analyzing historical data sets of arrival dates collected by professional and amateur ornithologists, they and their students are looking for evidence of changes in migration patterns attributable to climate change.