From the rise of artificial intelligence to the future of water, Arizona State University faculty and students discussed a slew of science topics at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
AAAS is the world’s largest science and technology society, and its annual meeting draws thousands of scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists from around the world.
This year’s meeting was held Feb. 14–17 in Washington, D.C. The 2019 meeting theme, “Science Transcending Boundaries,” explored ways science is bringing together people, ideas, and solutions from across real and artificial borders, disciplines, sectors, ideologies and traditions.
One of the biggest ways ASU research is emblematic of this year’s AAAS meeting theme, is in its transdisciplinary approach to solve pressing world problems — from interplanetary and global scale efforts down to the level of each person, such as new platforms to enable more personalized learning and success of each student.
Faculty and students presented their ideas and results on a range of topics using several science communication formats, including formal presentations, rapid fire talks, organizing sessions and poster sessions. Here are a few highlights from the AAAS meeting.
Exceptional student scholars tackle worldwide issues
Several ASU schools, department and researchers are committed to making a difference to human-caused climate change, known as the Anthropocene epoch. But this is not just an academic exercise — in the Gulf Coast, for example, it is now affecting people in their own backyards. A USGS report estimates that Louisiana, which experiences more coastal wetland loss than all other states in the conterminous United States combined, lost more than 2,006 square miles of land from 1932 to 2016.
“Every hour of every day, an area the size of two football fields goes underwater,” said Charlotte Till, an ASU Fulbright Scholar and graduate research associate in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “There are about 600 million Americans that live in the path of hurricanes. There is about 30 percent of the population that lives directly adjacent to an ocean (within a mile of the ocean). People will need to move if they are losing two football fields of land every hour every day.”
Till gave an AAAS flash talk on how U.S. Gulf Coast residents have grappled with decisions on whether to remain in, or leave, their homes in the wake of hurricanes and the predicted sea level rise with the warming of the world’s oceans.
For the residents she surveyed, their environment meant to them concepts like “home, family and community,” according to Till. “Guess what. They don’t want to go.”
Till will continue her dissertation work this summer to further explore how people living on the front lines of climate change perceive their environment, and their own futures as the risks increase with environmental change in their own backyards.
School of Sustainability researcher Veronica Horvath addressed the future of the American West’s most precious resource, water. Horvath, an Arizona State University Master of Science in sustainability student and Decision Center for a Desert City research assistant, is a first-place awardee of the 2018 Central Arizona Project Award for outstanding water research.
“As a researcher, I am curious to understand how cities address freshwater resources, long-term planning for sustainability and water governance," Horvath said.
At AAAS, she presented on a Decision Center for a Desert City 2018 survey that explores residential perceptions on sustainable water management in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver. The survey focuses on the need for water management changes and support for specific strategies toward sustainability. Although there were many takeaways from the survey, she found interesting that a large portion of residents supported strategies such as wastewater being treated to drinking-water standards.
"It has been an amazing opportunity as a Decision Center for a Desert City research assistant to travel to AAAS on behalf of ASU and a research endeavor that has been years in the making," Horvath said. "Our results suggest that increased engagement to encourage personal responsibility for water issues and knowledge of how to get involved with water sustainability solutions can work on meeting the needs of urban water sustainability at the local level."
A recent publication in Sustainability Science includes the full research team who brought this extensive project to fruition: Abigail Sullivan, Eleanor Rauh, Amber Wutich, Dave White, Kelli Larson, Danielle Chipman and Krista Lawless.
In addition to the land and water, there is also the future of the air we breathe, and how to best mitigate the most dominant greenhouse gas, rising carbon dioxide levels. When it comes to managing carbon dioxide levels in the air, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering graduate student Evvan Morton thinks it may be best to start changing our policy mindset by flipping the conversation.
“It may be better to manage carbon dioxide emissions by treating these emissions as waste," Morton said. "If you thinking of CO2 as waste, you are literally littering the air like we do with garbage on the ground. What would that mean culturally and politically with how we perceive CO2 emissions and the environmental policies that we make?”
Rather than relying on the EPA’s definition of air pollutants and regulatory policy under the Clean Air Act, the EPA may regulate CO2 differently if it is defined as a solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
“Carbon dioxide falls within this definition,” Morton said. “It’s a waste byproduct from combusting fossil fuels. It is also recyclable if captured.”
ASU is at the academic forefront of making carbon-capture technologies viable, and Morton, an engineer by training, wants to begin to link the technologies with changing policy. Along with the sustainable engineering doctoral degree she will earn within the next two years, Morton is studying to earn a graduate-level academic certificate in Responsible Innovation in Science, Engineering and Society from ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.
This new waste management paradigm not only has potential for a cultural shift in the way society thinks of CO2 emissions, but also future climate-change policy.
“What would happen if we say it is illegal to dump CO2 into the air? Our atmosphere is already clogged, so perhaps there is no better way if we are going to get past the 1.5 degree Celsius–[global warming temperature change] allowable target,” said Morton.