NSF & Earth Day

The National Science Foundation supports research across all fields of science and engineering, from astronomy to zoology. All of it has a role to play in helping us better understand — and protect — our environment. To celebrate Earth Week, see some examples below!

Credit: William Cooper, NSF

Urine for some innovative water reuse

Butterflies are perhaps the most hardcore recyclers in the animal kingdom. Driven by their love of salt, the insects often drink their own urine. While NSF-funded engineers haven’t resorted to such measures (that we know of), they are finding innovative new ways to recycle wastewater. Cutting-edge projects include generating energy from wastewater, using sound waves to treat dirty water, and reusing almost all water in a dorm.

Bringing mathematics to sea ice research

Credit: NSF

Oceanographers, marine biologists and geologists are the scientists most commonly associated with studying changes in sea ice. But these days, it just might be a mathematician drilling ice cores in the Antarctic. Understanding sea ice and how it behaves could advance research across a wide range of sciences.

The ecosystem inside corals

Credit: Joseph Pollock

Humans are made up of millions of microbes, collectively called our microbiome. These microbial “ecosystems” keep us healthy. It’s the same for corals and other species, ocean scientists are finding.

Credit: Paolo Montagna, LDEO

Understanding what lies deep within reefs will help us protect these imperiled ecosystems, currently under siege by the unusually warm waters of El Niño and coral bleaching.

At left is Corallium rubrum, one of many species of deep-sea coral affected by ocean acidification. Research has shown that increasing levels of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and moving into marine systems are causing the world’s oceans to become more acidic.

Use a mushroom, save a tree

Courtesy Ecovative

New biodegradable packaging material made from mushrooms and agricultural waste is sparing trees and costs one-tenth the energy to manufacture. NSF-funded, New York-based small business Ecovative is making mushroom-fiber materials to replace plywood, particleboard, plastic foam and more. The Swedish retail giant Ikea is considering replacing its plastic packing with Ecovative’s fungi.

Teaching Earth Science teachers

An innovative model of teacher training is helping prepare a new generation of Earth Science educators. With NSF funding, the American Museum of Natural History and New York University teamed up, allowing teacher trainees to benefit from the museum’s world-class informal education expertise and the university’s Urban Teacher Residency program. Graduates of the program commit to teaching for four years in a high-needs school in New York City.

Making good decisions (environmentally speaking)

Credit: Ruth Baranowski/NREL

A research team at Vanderbilt University is trying to build a better understanding of how people voluntarily adopt behaviors that help the environment. The researchers are studying pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) — specifically, whether the adoption of one PEB can serve as a gateway to the adoption of others, and the psychological processes behind that phenomenon.

Pollinator protection

Credit: Karen Levy, Emory University

Remove just one bee species from an ecosystem and the effect is swift and clear: Pollination is less effective, and plants produce significantly fewer seeds. That’s just one conclusion of scientists studying pollinators and what’s happening to these species around the world. NSF-funded biologists are exploring the important role bees, and other pollinators, play in their environment. We’ve learned more about the role of gut microbes in bee health and the African ancestors of American honeybees, providing new insights into bee health.

Outwitting poachers with artificial intelligence

Credit: Rimba team leader

One hundred years ago, there were more than 60,000 tigers in the wild. Today, the number worldwide is estimated at fewer than 3,200. Poaching is one of the main drivers of this precipitous drop. Whether killed for skins, medicine or for trophy hunting, humans have pushed tigers and many other large animal species to near-extinction.

Computer scientists are using artificial intelligence and game theory to design tools that can combat wildlife poaching and illegal logging around the world. Using data on past patrols, evidence of poaching and the topography of the protected area, the tools produce optimal patrol routes for park rangers that can disrupt poachers and maximize scarce resources.