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Summer 2011
In this Issue of Spheres

Skating Towards the Puck

A Big UNHbrella for Geosciences Education

Solar Probe Plus

Catching a Share of River Herring

Hands Across the Water

News and Notes
Faculty, Staff and Student News
From the Director

Institute for the Study of Earth,
Oceans, and Space

EOS Director: Harlan Spence
Editor: David Sims
Designer: Kristi Donahue
Circulation: Laurie Pinciak

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"The gap in agricultural research interests between the two countries could have hindered the research exchange and collaboration during the last decade."



















“…fortunately, our Chinese colleagues have been getting more interested in our broader studies, and the Chinese government finally decided to not only think about crop yield but impacts on environmental safety as well."

Summer 2011

Hands Across the Water
UNH and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences enter into a joint research agreement that could eventually help China address severe environmental degradation and increase sustainable food production

CHANGSHENG LI of the Complex Systems Research Center (CSRC) has been at UNH since 1992 working exclusively on creating a powerful, one-of-a-kind mathematical ecosystem model that is today used worldwide to improve agricultural practices and help curb global warming, among other things.

The DeNitrification-DeComposition (DNDC) model Li and colleagues have crafted can precisely simulate greenhouse gas emissions across a variety of terrestrial ecosystems, under any climatic condition, anywhere in the world – including China, which today has its own customized DNDC model.

During the ceremony in the headquarters of CAAS on June 7, the delegations finalize the agreement establishing the CAAS-UNH Joint Laboratory. Two officials from the US Embassy in Beijing took part in the meeting. Photo by Dr. Hu Li, CAAS. 

But despite his work over the years with China, which has used the DNDC model largely in efforts to increase agricultural production, until just recently Li has had to mostly stand on the sidelines as his homeland’s environmental problems grew in direct proportion to China’s remarkable economic success and industrial growth.

That changed in a small but meaningful way on June 7 when Li, CSRC’s Steve Frolking and Scott Ollinger, and dean of the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture Tom Brady formalized an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences to form a joint research laboratory to promote international research in agricultural development and the environment. The agreement represents a strong commitment on UNH’s part to promoting sustainable food production both in the U.S. and in China.

With a Memorandum of Understanding having been signed in March at UNH, the recent visit to the CAAS Institute for Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning (IARRP) in Beijing was to inaugurate the lab and conduct discussions about the initial research agenda.

The CAAS-UNH Joint Laboratory for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research will conduct academic exchanges and science and technology research. The initial focus will continue to revolve around the DNDC model, and new data will be gathered and synthesized to expand the model’s capabilities for China’s specific needs.

But as the collaboration strengthens, the research will broaden to other areas, particularly in agronomy – plant breeding, dairy science and livestock, genomics applications in agriculture – but also additional topics of common interest and relevance to the Joint Lab mission of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

“At this particular time, when China has risen to the status of a major world power, it is of great advantage to our students and faculty and well as the Chinese to be able to work together on problems related to better understanding the biogeochemistry of agricultural settings during this period of rapid climate change,” says COLSA’s Brady. “And the establishment of this joint laboratory is absolutely in line with UNH’s strategic plan, with its emphasis on internationalizing the university.”

  dr li
  Changsheng Li.
Photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photo Services.

For the last ten years Li has been the only researcher from UNH to work jointly with CAAS, which is roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. This is largely due to the fact that Chinese agricultural studies have long been focused only on crop yield – an understandable emphasis considering it is a nation of 1.3 billion people. Meanwhile, U.S. agricultural researchers have shifted their interests to a broader scope of ecosystem services, including local and global environmental issues.

“The gap in agricultural research interests between the two countries could have hindered the research exchange and collaboration during the last decade,” Li postulates. He adds, “But fortunately, our Chinese colleagues have been getting more interested in our broader studies, and since their agricultural practices have caused severe environmental pollution, the Chinese government finally decided to not only think about crop yield but impacts on environmental safety as well. That’s a big change that has occurred only in the last few years, and this has caused a new demand for research into how the Chinese can assess their agricultural activities for impacts on water, air pollution and global warming.”

A new era of engaged research collaboration

Li, who was exiled from his homeland for voicing public support for the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy uprising while he was working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been able to return to China periodically to help educate Chinese researchers on how the DNDC model might improve their rapidly growing environmental problems. Now, through the joint agreement, a much more engaged and meaningful research collaboration can commence.

According to Li, because of the historical focus on crop yield, Chinese agricultural researchers have had limited understanding of how large-scale agricultural activities such as China’s could affect global change.

“But over time, through reading literature published worldwide they learned of some of the things happening in U.S., and at UNH in particular,” says Li referring to the DNDC model that can calculate greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities and simulate the nutrient release from croplands to rivers, lakes, and streams – a very severe problem in China that leads to eutrophication and pollution.

During the most recent discussions in Beijing, the Chinese scientists made it clear they wanted to gradually expand the collaboration to areas beyond the DNDC’s focus, such as new crop types, organic farming, dairy farming, etc.

Notes Ollinger, “For UNH it will be great to broaden the effort beyond the DNDC model to do basic agricultural research with COLSA – crop yields, breeding, drought tolerance, genetics, genomics, sustainable agriculture, etcetera. CAAS has an entire institute devoted to this, so there's great potential for synergistic collaboration."

Ollinger adds that one of the most important aspects of the joint effort will be student exchange, “particularly with respect to Chinese agricultural practices and sustainable agriculture. The experience would be eye-opening for U.S. students to see farming practices over there, it was for me.”

And, says Frolking, over time Chinese students will get exposure to the process of scaling data from the local-regional level up to national and global levels – a key and critical component of the DNDC work.

“It has been Chengsheng’s sense that there are not a lot of scientists in China who are synthesizing data and scaling those up to put a bigger picture together,” Frolking says. “And, because of that, students are not being trained in this critical work. But I believe there’s an understanding on the part of our Chinese colleagues that they need that, and this joint agreement will, of course, address that as well.”

Taken in the hinterland of the Loess Plateau in the northern part of Shaanxi Province where the CAAS-UNH delegation visited an experimental station focusing on semi-arid agriculture, from left to right are Bingcheng Xu (deputy director of Ansai Agricultural Research Station of CERN (Chinese Ecology Research Network), Runsheng Yin (professor of agricultural economy, Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University), Scott Ollinger, Steve Frolking, Tom Brady, Changsheng Li, and Puqing Zhao (staff of International Exchange Office, Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University).
Photo courtesy of Changsheng Li.

While Chinese researchers are indeed collecting huge data sets around the country, scaling that data up in the context of global climate change and deriving potential mitigation strategies to, for example, maximize crop yields while at the same time effectively managing and protecting water, soil, and air resources is currently not part of the scientific methodology.

“And that’s our goal,” notes Li, “we’ll use the DNDC model to link to their database and apply it to the national and global scale. By doing this we’ll be able to figure out what happens at a large scale and determine what the consequences are and what possible approaches we might take to correct a problem.”

According to Li, Chinese scientists have extremely good laboratory instruments at their disposal but are in need of new ideas and scientific methodologies to match their state-of-the-art hardware. “In a few years they will produce a huge amount of information from these sophisticated tools, and at that point they will need some kind of help to integrate their field observations and extrapolate that data to regional and national scales,” he says.

He notes further that it requires a tremendous amount of data collection and infrastructure building to be able to scale regional data up to the global level. For the DNDC model, for example, CSRC’s Frolking has spent many years collecting regional climate, soil, and crop management data and getting those in the correct format to be incorporated into the DNDC model.

Although it’s a virtual lab at the moment, the CAAS-UNH Joint Laboratory for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research will eventually be housed in a new building at the Institute for Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning. The lab will coordinate joint projects and prepare joint proposals to foreign agencies or international organizations to secure funding. Funding will be sought from agencies such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Of the nascent and hopeful collaborative effort Frolking says, “This provides a good opportunity for UNH but it’s not a simple one – it can be complex working with scientists in China, it’s more complicated than, say, doing similar work with people in Vermont. But if you’re thinking about global sustainable agriculture, Vermont, or New Hampshire, won’t have a huge impact on the planet, China will.”

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.