Santa Clara University

Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

News & Events


Environmental Studies and Sciences News & Events

  •  Carbon credits can pay for ecological restoration in California

    Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

    Since California passed a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, people have been wondering how well AB32’s financial incentives and penalties would work.

     Now research performed at Santa Clara University confirms that the state’s brand-new carbon credits market can pay back the costs of restoring native forest along California rivers. Carbon credits are earned by people engaging in emissions-reducing activities, like planting trees, and purchased by industries, like power plants, that are emitting more than their share of greenhouse gases. Ecological restoration is a particularly attractive way to earn carbon credits because it not only soaks up carbon dioxide, but also provides wildlife habitat and recreational benefits to humans.  In work funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Climate Change program, Virginia Matzek and colleagues Cedric Puleston and John Gunn found that riverbank forests planted on land owned by public agencies could recoup as much as 109% of the cost of planting, measuring, registering, and verifying the carbon in such a forest after only 20 years of accruing carbon credits.  However, they also found that the credits by themselves were unlikely to persuade farmers on private lands to switch from growing lucrative orchard crops to farming carbon.  


    The findings were published in December in the leading ecological restoration journal, Restoration Ecology ; click here for the abstract. Santa Clara undergraduate students did the field surveys for the study along the Sacramento River in the summer of 2012.  

    Photo of Sacramento River restoration area courtesy Geoff Fricker. Photo of field crew by Virginia Matzek.

  •  ESS and Political Science Alum Aven Satre-Meloy ’13 wins prestigious Rhodes Scholarship

    Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014


    The Department of ESS congratulates Aven Satre Meloy on being selected as one of the 2015 Rhodes Scholarship recipients. Rhodes Scholarships are the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship awards in the world.  Recipients are chosen for outstanding leadership potential, scholarly achievements, character, and

     commitment to others and the common good. They receive funding to study at Oxford University in Great Britain.

    While at SCU, Aven majored in Environmental Studies and Political Science with a minor in International Studies. He worked with the Office of Sustainability , in Associated Student Government, and with One in Four, a sexual assault prevention peer education group.  Aven won a Hackworth Fellowship from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to work on issues of academic integrity. He was awarded the Nobili Medal on graduation .

     Since leaving SCU, Aven has won a Fulbright grant to research and teach in Turkey. He is currently a White House Intern working in the Office of Energy and Climate Change. At Oxford, Aven plans to pursue graduate studies in Geography and the Environment. 


  •  New Assessment of the Uneven Distribution of Environmental Burdens and Benefits for Santa Clara County

    Monday, Oct. 27, 2014

    ESS faculty members Iris Stewart-Frey and Christopher Bacon, together with SCU undergraduate researcher William Burke investigated the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens in Santa Clara County.

    Who lives close to toxic waste sites, freeways, or areas where pesticides are applied, and who has acess to parks and open spaces? Inequalities in the exposure to environmental burdens and access to environmental benefits are an environmental justice concern and have been shown to exist in several urban areas. Although several Superfund sites, many freeways, truck routes, farmlands, and open spaces exist right here in Santa Clara County (SCC), no research to date had investigated how their impacts and benefits are distributed among more and less wealthy neighborhoods, people of different ethnic and racial background, and people of different ages. Documentation of potential inequalites is a first step to address the issues through urban and regional environmental planning. 

    Similar to studies conducted elsewhere, Stewart, Bacon, and Burke assessed the exposure of different populations to a combination of environmental hazards using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is a software that allows for mapping and overlaying several layers of infomation and to conduct spatial analysis. For example, in Figure 1 here, all types of environmental hazards are mapped together. The resulting GIS-based asessments are termed Cumulative Environmental Impact Assessments (CEIA). The new aspect of the Stewart et al. study is that is explicitly incorporates the impact of freeways and transportation and that it takes the beneficial aspects of parks and open spaces into account.

    The results show that social vulnerability, cumulative environmental hazards, and environmental benefits exhibit distinct spatial patterns in SCC. High environmental hazard values are found along freeway and railroad corridors with substantial industrial legacies, as shown in Figure1, while environmental benefit scores are generally higher in the suburban periphery, as shown in Figure 2. Taking all burdens and benefits into account leads to cumulative scores, which are shown in Figure 3.

    Statistical correlations indicate, that socially vulnerable populations in SCC are predominantly hispanic and are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, while white and wealthier populations are more likely to have access to environmental benefits. The results from this study could be used to develop community-based initiatives for neighborhood improvement and environmental-justice-based regional planning and public health policy reform.

    The research was published in the Journal of Applied Geography: Stewart, I. T., Bacon, C. M., & Burke, W. D. (2014). The uneven distribution of environmental burdens and benefits in Silicon Valley's backyard. Applied Geography, 55, 266-277.




  •  Lucy Diekmann awarded USDA postdoctoral grant to study urban agriculture

    Monday, Oct. 27, 2014

    ESS congratulates Lucy Diekmann, who has been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture! Over the next two years, Lucy will be working with Associate Professor Leslie Gray on a study of urban agriculture in Santa Clara County. Lucy is an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from the University of California, Berkeley.

    This research project will produce a comprehensive assessment of the benefits, costs, and challenges associated with Santa Clara County's home gardens, community gardens, urban farms, and farmer's markets. One of the project’s goals is to better understand how the benefits and costs of urban agriculture are distributed across the county, with particular attention to low-income communities.

    In addition, Lucy is working with a national Cooperative Extension group for people interested in local, community, and regional food systems. Through her participation in this group, Lucy aims to foster learning and information sharing among Extension educators involved in urban agriculture and to create research-based educational content for a broad audience.

  •  Ancient sediments point to rising mountains as origin of arid Central Asia

    Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014

     Scientists have long debated the topographic and climatic history of Asia. What were the forces behind the creation of expansive arid regions? How and when did the uplift of Asia’s great mountain ranges occur? While the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau have received much attention in the tectonics and paleoclimate communities, the history of mountain ranges and deserts to the north of Tibet have remained largely overlooked. Hari Mix and his colleagues at Stanford University and Rocky Mountain College set out to examine the evolution of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, Hangay and Altai Mountains. In order to track changes in aridity and uplift over the past 80 million years, the team collected and analyzed the chemistry of hundreds of ancient soil, stream and lake sediment samples.

    Many previous explanations for the origin of an arid Central Asia invoked the uplift of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau over the last 45 million years. By examining the carbon isotope composition of these ancient sediments, the team was able to quantify the productivity of ancient plants, and in turn the amount of ancient rainfall. These data point to the importance of moisture from the west, not Tibet to the south, as the dominant control on the climate of Mongolia. Sediments from central and southern Mongolia document a 50-90% decrease in rainfall over the past 30 million years. The group’s findings, published in this month’s American Journal of Science, suggest that the uplift of Mongolia’s Altai and Hangay Mountains created rain shadows leading to the expansion of the Gobi Desert. Hari hopes to return to Mongolia and Kazakhstan to continue examining the evolution of moisture transport in Asia

    You can find the article at:


  •  ESS welcomes new faculty member Hari Mix

    Monday, Sep. 15, 2014

    Hari comes to us from Stanford University, where he received degrees in Geology (B.S.) Environmental Earth System Science (PhD). Hari reconstructs ancient continental environments analyzing isotopes in soil, river and lake sediments. His research addresses questions involving the topographic evolution of mountain ranges, the role of plants in continental water vapor recycling, and the response of the climate system to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations.


    At SCU, Hari will teach courses in climate science, introductory earth science, and GIS, and conduct research on the topographic and climatic evolution of the Alaska Range, western US and Central Asia. He is establishing a laboratory facility to measure stable isotopes in water, with the intent to study a range of topics in modern climate change and the hydrologic cycle. Hari is passionate about the mountains. His adventures have taken him on numerous expeditions to the high peaks of the greater Himalaya, but he finds himself most at home in California’s High Sierra.


    ESS is delighted to have new assistant professor Hari Mix on board the faculty team!

  •  Virginia Matzek awarded NSF grant to investigate ecological restoration in Australia

    Friday, Aug. 15, 2014

    ESS Assistant Professor Virginia Matzek has won a highly competitive NSF grant to travel to Australia and research how people value ecological restoration projects. Ecological restoration, in addition to its potential benefits to biodiversity, is increasingly called upon to provide benefits to humans, such as halting soil erosion, improving water quality, or removing atmospheric CO2. Globally, Australia is a leader in providing incentives for restoration for the purpose of enhancing or preserving these valuable ecosystem services.

    However, there are many approaches to restoration, and they are not all equal in providing ecosystem services. Moreover, in different regions, people care more deeply about different kinds of benefits—perhaps soil erosion here, perhaps recreational access there. What if the services that scientists and land managers are trying to maximize in a restoration project are not the ones that people value most highly?

    Matzek’s project, a new collaboration with scientists at the Australian Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, seeks to understand if there are mismatches between the services expected from restoration projects and what various groups of stakeholders would prefer. With Marit Kragt (University of Western Australia) and Kerrie Wilson (University of Queensland), she will survey scientists, land managers, policymakers, and the general public in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.


  •  ES majors Nick Leasure and Jack Bird recongnized at 2014 Commencement

    Friday, Jun. 13, 2014

    Graduating seniors Jack Bird and Nick Leasure will be recognized at Santa Clara University's 2014 Commencement.

    The Nobili medal is presented to the male graduate who is judged to be outstanding in academic performance, personal character, school activities, and constructive contribution to the university. This year's winner is Environmental Science and Political Science major, Jack Bird.

    The Peter-Hans Kolvenbach S.J. award is given to graduating seniors who exemplify the ideals of Jesuit education, especially being a whole person of solidarity in the real world and having the courage and faith to build a more just and humane world. This year's winner in Environmental Studies and Economics major, Nicholas Leasure.

    Thank you, Jack and Nick, for your contributions to the community, the Department of Environmental Studies & Sciences, and the University, Congratulations to you both!

  •  2014 Lucky Hinkle Sustainability Award Goes to Kelsey Baker!

    Tuesday, May. 20, 2014



    Established to honor the memory of Lucky Hinkle, longtime University staff member who worked diligently to promote recycling on campus, this award is given to the graduating senior with a declared major in Environmental Science or Environmental Studies who, in the judgment of the ESS faculty, has made the most significant contribution to promoting a culture of sustainability at Santa Clara University and beyond.

    Kelsey Baker is this year's Lucky Hinkle Sustainability Award recipient.

    Kelsey was instrumental in bringing the Think Outside the Bottle campaign to SCU. She worked with Associated Student Government (ASG) to get over 40 donated bottles to product test with ASG student senators.

    Kelsey crafted a pledge so students could voice their passion for SCU to become bottled water free. More than 1,000 students have taken this pledge.

    In recognition of her efforts on our campus, Kelsey attended a conference at the national Think Outside the Bottle headquarters this year.

    Kelsey has been a huge part of OCEANS club and an active member of GREEN club and SCOOPS. She also has volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center.

    According to a classmate who nominated Kelsey for this recognition, Kelsey “embraces and propagates a culture of sustainability and encourages others with a positive attitude and passionate explanations for all of her sustainable behaviors.”

    Perhaps Kelsey’s most lasting effect on the culture of sustainability at SCU and beyond will stem from her efforts to get single-use bottled water eliminated from commencement.

    Thanks to Kelsey, 2014 will be the first SCU commencement without disposable bottled water!

    Kelsey spearheaded this effort which will eliminate the use of over 3,000 bottles over the Undergraduate & Graduate Commencement Weekend in June and Law School Commencement in May.

    Kelsey convinced SCU’s Director of Sustainability, Lindsey Kalkbrenner, that this was an effort worth pursuing. Kelsey even threatened not to "walk" at commencement if plastic single-use bottles were used.

    Kelsey was instrumental in bringing together event planning, dining services, auxiliary services, alumni office, risk management, environmental health and safety, and facilities as stakeholders in this monumental process change for the University's largest event.

    And Kelsey’s efforts will have a huge and lasting effect on SCU’s culture. Every senior will receive a keepsake bottle that has the mission sustainable logo on it!

    As Kelsey leaves SCU and our department, she takes our hearts and our warmest congratulations with her.

  •  Explaining the hungry farmer paradox in Nicaragua's coffee highlands

    Sunday, Mar. 30, 2014


    Most of the world's food insecure people live in marginal rural environments.  A recent study with coffee producers in northern Nicaragua’s highlands helps explain this "hungry farmer paradox." These small-scale farmers experienced an average of three months of seasonal hunger over the year studied. Although cash income helped alleviate food scarcity, households that produced more subsistence crops, especially corn and tree fruits, reported still shorter periods of food scarcity. Meanwhile, farmers that used several commonly promoted environmentally friendly farming practices reported no discernible impacts on seasonal hunger. 

    Researchers, including Chris Bacon (ESS), Bill Sundstrom (Economics), and two recently graduated ESS students Ian Daugherty (now with the United Farmworkers) and Rica Santos (now with the National Council for Science and the Environment), concur with previous studies finding that several factors influence farmer food insecurity, including: (1) annual cycles of precipitation and rising maize prices during the lean months; (2) inter annual droughts and periodic storms; and (3) the long-term inability of coffee harvests and prices to provide sufficient income.

    This work identifies the need for balancing coffee production with food production and improving exchange systems to protect farmers from adverse seasonal price fluctuations. It also considers a participatory initiative that uses fair trade cooperatives to increase rural food access through the re-localization of food distribution networks, sustainable agriculture training, and improved food storage. Although crop loss from coffee leaf rust contributes an additional challenge, these and other integrated strategies hold the potential to reduce threats to food security, livelihoods, and biodiversity.

    Bacon, C. M., Sundstrom, W. A., Flores Gómez, M. E., Ernesto Méndez, V., Santos, R., Goldoftas, B., & Dougherty, I. (2014). Explaining the ‘hungry farmer paradox’: Smallholders and fair trade cooperatives navigate seasonality and change in Nicaragua's corn and coffee markets. Global Environmental Change.