Wayfinding: Young Geographers Unearth Clue to Climate Change in the Andes

Photo of researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Photo of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate geographers Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle
UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate geographers Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for three undergraduate geographers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In 2019, Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle traveled to Ecuador with Professor Diego Riveros-Iregui and a diverse team of students, mostly undergrads. Their query: what is causing elevated CO2 emissions in the high mountains of the Andes?

Supported by funds from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Undergraduates, Schneider, Herrera, and Raisle went on to publish their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. Their key finding was that CO2 sheds more rapidly from streams at altitudes above 4,000m in the Andes Mountains than from waterways at lower elevation in the Amazon Basin. Emissions from high elevation streams are also greater than in the soils nearby.

Photo of the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
The páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research

This is a breakthrough finding, since for thousands of years, high-altitude ecosystems have been important accumulation sites for organic carbon. According to Jun Liang, Ph.D. of UNC-Chapel Hill, “Mountain streams are a critical part of the global carbon cycle, because they connect terrestrial and aquatic environments and have a higher proportion of stream water in direct contact with surrounding soils.”  

Schneider, Herrera, and Raisle focused on the high‐altitude tropical grasslands, known as  páramos, that are characterized by “high solar radiation, high precipitation, and low temperature. Páramos exhibit some of the world’s highest ecosystem carbon stocks per unit area. They may also be one source of CO2 releases to the atmosphere due to climate change. Little else has been known about the specific sources of CO2 from these areas. The trio of young researchers set about finding out more.

Photo of researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research

Among other findings, a 4‐m waterfall along the channel accounted for up to 35 percent of the total release of CO2 along a 250‐m length of stream. All in all, the students found, “[our] findings represent a first step in understanding ecosystem carbon cycling at the interface of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in high‐altitude, tropical, headwater catchments.”

“They had the perfect collective traits that you look for in student researchers — attention to detail, perseverance and curiosity — and they complemented each other really well,” said Professor Riveros-Iregui, Bowman. 

“I’m so proud of us,” said Herrera, who is majoring in geography and environmental studies. “We all put in so much work and had our own struggles in the field, but it paid off. I came through this experience being much more confident in my own resilience.”

Adapted from Jun Liang’s 8-10-20  article for UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Geography and Schneider et al article. For a film showing the students onsite, follow this link.

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Member Profile: Trang VoPham — Understanding the Spatial Context of Cancer

Photo of Trang VoPham
Trang VoPham

Medical geographer Trang VoPham appreciates “the seamlessness between the disciplines” of geography and epidemiology, particularly in the application of geospatial methods, including GIS, to charting and confronting public health risks.

VoPham, who simultaneously pursued a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a masters degree in geospatial methods, now conducts research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Her focus is understanding the influence of environmental factors associated with place or location on the incidence of disease in humans. On any given day, VoPham might find herself mapping measures of air pollution, analyzing demographic data across census tracts, or reading the latest publications on cancer. 

Much of her recent research has been aimed at uncovering environmental factors associated with liver cancer. In the United States, VoPham notes that a high proportion of liver cancers are unexplained. Aflatoxins produced by different fungi are known to be important environmental causes of liver cancer in some parts of the world but there is an emerging awareness that chronic exposure to air pollution may also result in elevated risk. 

Because cancers result from complex interactions of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors, VoPham’s work is highly interdisciplinary. For example, in a study funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, she is working with investigators with expertise in geospatial science, environmental epidemiology, and health psychology to provide participants with their own air pollution sensors and an associated smartphone app that visualizes air quality in their vicinity. 

During the study, the research group will provide participants with information about harmful health effects of air pollution and offer them general strategies and specific cues for reducing their exposures. In doing so, the research group aims to empower people with information to take control of their own health and then assess whether they act on that information.

When asked about the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for her own research, VoPham didn’t hesitate: “The COVID crisis has been a clear reminder to me of health disparities and the importance of addressing them in my work,” regardless of whether they are associated with geography, race/ethnicity, or some other factor.

Screenshot of Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
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Down from the Shelf: Accommodating Color Palettes for All

Photo of Trang VoPham
Trang VoPham

Medical geographer Trang VoPham appreciates “the seamlessness between the disciplines” of geography and epidemiology, particularly in the application of geospatial methods, including GIS, to charting and confronting public health risks.

VoPham, who simultaneously pursued a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a masters degree in geospatial methods, now conducts research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Her focus is understanding the influence of environmental factors associated with place or location on the incidence of disease in humans. On any given day, VoPham might find herself mapping measures of air pollution, analyzing demographic data across census tracts, or reading the latest publications on cancer. 

Much of her recent research has been aimed at uncovering environmental factors associated with liver cancer. In the United States, VoPham notes that a high proportion of liver cancers are unexplained. Aflatoxins produced by different fungi are known to be important environmental causes of liver cancer in some parts of the world but there is an emerging awareness that chronic exposure to air pollution may also result in elevated risk. 

Because cancers result from complex interactions of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors, VoPham’s work is highly interdisciplinary. For example, in a study funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, she is working with investigators with expertise in geospatial science, environmental epidemiology, and health psychology to provide participants with their own air pollution sensors and an associated smartphone app that visualizes air quality in their vicinity. 

During the study, the research group will provide participants with information about harmful health effects of air pollution and offer them general strategies and specific cues for reducing their exposures. In doing so, the research group aims to empower people with information to take control of their own health and then assess whether they act on that information.

When asked about the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for her own research, VoPham didn’t hesitate: “The COVID crisis has been a clear reminder to me of health disparities and the importance of addressing them in my work,” regardless of whether they are associated with geography, race/ethnicity, or some other factor.

Screenshot of Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
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Wayfinding: In the Philippines, Local Knowledge Makes a Global Impact

Photo of researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Photo of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate geographers Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle
UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate geographers Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for three undergraduate geographers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In 2019, Chloe Schneider, Maribel Herrera, and Megan Raisle traveled to Ecuador with Professor Diego Riveros-Iregui and a diverse team of students, mostly undergrads. Their query: what is causing elevated CO2 emissions in the high mountains of the Andes?

Supported by funds from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Undergraduates, Schneider, Herrera, and Raisle went on to publish their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. Their key finding was that CO2 sheds more rapidly from streams at altitudes above 4,000m in the Andes Mountains than from waterways at lower elevation in the Amazon Basin. Emissions from high elevation streams are also greater than in the soils nearby.

Photo of the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
The páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research

This is a breakthrough finding, since for thousands of years, high-altitude ecosystems have been important accumulation sites for organic carbon. According to Jun Liang, Ph.D. of UNC-Chapel Hill, “Mountain streams are a critical part of the global carbon cycle, because they connect terrestrial and aquatic environments and have a higher proportion of stream water in direct contact with surrounding soils.”  

Schneider, Herrera, and Raisle focused on the high‐altitude tropical grasslands, known as  páramos, that are characterized by “high solar radiation, high precipitation, and low temperature. Páramos exhibit some of the world’s highest ecosystem carbon stocks per unit area. They may also be one source of CO2 releases to the atmosphere due to climate change. Little else has been known about the specific sources of CO2 from these areas. The trio of young researchers set about finding out more.

Photo of researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research
Researchers in the páramo by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC Research

Among other findings, a 4‐m waterfall along the channel accounted for up to 35 percent of the total release of CO2 along a 250‐m length of stream. All in all, the students found, “[our] findings represent a first step in understanding ecosystem carbon cycling at the interface of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in high‐altitude, tropical, headwater catchments.”

“They had the perfect collective traits that you look for in student researchers — attention to detail, perseverance and curiosity — and they complemented each other really well,” said Professor Riveros-Iregui, Bowman. 

“I’m so proud of us,” said Herrera, who is majoring in geography and environmental studies. “We all put in so much work and had our own struggles in the field, but it paid off. I came through this experience being much more confident in my own resilience.”

Adapted from Jun Liang’s 8-10-20  article for UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Geography and Schneider et al article. For a film showing the students onsite, follow this link.

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On the Map: The Wry Smile of Sable Island

Photo of Trang VoPham
Trang VoPham

Medical geographer Trang VoPham appreciates “the seamlessness between the disciplines” of geography and epidemiology, particularly in the application of geospatial methods, including GIS, to charting and confronting public health risks.

VoPham, who simultaneously pursued a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a masters degree in geospatial methods, now conducts research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Her focus is understanding the influence of environmental factors associated with place or location on the incidence of disease in humans. On any given day, VoPham might find herself mapping measures of air pollution, analyzing demographic data across census tracts, or reading the latest publications on cancer. 

Much of her recent research has been aimed at uncovering environmental factors associated with liver cancer. In the United States, VoPham notes that a high proportion of liver cancers are unexplained. Aflatoxins produced by different fungi are known to be important environmental causes of liver cancer in some parts of the world but there is an emerging awareness that chronic exposure to air pollution may also result in elevated risk. 

Because cancers result from complex interactions of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors, VoPham’s work is highly interdisciplinary. For example, in a study funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, she is working with investigators with expertise in geospatial science, environmental epidemiology, and health psychology to provide participants with their own air pollution sensors and an associated smartphone app that visualizes air quality in their vicinity. 

During the study, the research group will provide participants with information about harmful health effects of air pollution and offer them general strategies and specific cues for reducing their exposures. In doing so, the research group aims to empower people with information to take control of their own health and then assess whether they act on that information.

When asked about the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for her own research, VoPham didn’t hesitate: “The COVID crisis has been a clear reminder to me of health disparities and the importance of addressing them in my work,” regardless of whether they are associated with geography, race/ethnicity, or some other factor.

Screenshot of Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
Plume Labs tool used by Trang VoPham
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