Fertilizer’s legacy: Taking a toll on land and water

ASU part of research that finds massive phosphorus buildup in landscape

April 11, 2016

The world’s total human population has jumped to more than 7.4 billion just this year. Feeding the human species takes a tremendous toll on our natural resources including water, soil and phosphorus — a chemical element in fertilizer essential for food production.

In modern agriculture, fertilizer often leaks into waterways such as rivers, lakes and oceans. The phosphorus (P) in the runoff stimulates algae blooms and then, when algae die and decompose, dead zones develop and fish die off. But much of the "lost" phosphorus doesn't end up in water bodies — large amounts of P also accumulate in the landscape. Until now, scientists have not had a good handle on the magnitude of this accumulation. The River Thames The River Thames in central London, near the tidal limit at Teddington Lock. Photo by Helen Jarvie Download Full Image

For the first time, an international group of scientists, including researchers from Arizona State University, has come up with a way to estimate on a large scale how phosphorus flows through an environment over many decades. By doing so, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how and where phosphorus accumulates.

“After we understand how human activity affects the accumulation of phosphorus in the environment, we can then focus our research efforts on reducing its long-term impact, even on figuring out how to recycle it. This will help secure food and water supplies for future generations,” said James Elser, research scientist with the ASU School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability, and co-author of the study.

The study’s findings appear in today’s issue of Nature Geoscience.

The researchers studied three river basins where food and water security are directly linked to phosphorus. The analysis included the Thames River basin in the United Kingdom, the Maumee River Basin in the Midwestern section of the U.S. and the Yangtze River Basin in China.

Yangtze River

Yangtze River at Qutang Gorge, China., one of three river basins in the study where food and water security are directly linked to phosphorus. Photo by Bo Zhu

The study areas ranged in size from approximately 5,000 to 700,000 square miles. Historical records dating back 70 years were used to measure the human impact on the flows of phosphorus into and out of each catchment through trade, food waste, human waste and agricultural runoff, comparing these flows to losses of P from each river's discharge.  The results showed that massive amounts of phosphorus have accumulated in the landscape — a form of "legacy P" that may affect aquatic ecosystems for decades or even centuries.

The study’s novel analyses illustrate the challenges researchers face in figuring how to manage the storage, exploitation and reactivation of phosphorus that is already present in our environment. 

“Somewhat of a surprise is that in populated landscapes, there is a huge amount of phosphorus in food waste, such as animal bones, and in sewage sludge removed during wastewater treatment,” said Stephen Powers, postdoctoral researcher with Washington State University and lead author of the paper. “Until recently these waste flows have been largely ignored in watershed studies that involve phosphorus.”

Agricultural fields near Maumee River, U.S.A.

Agricultural fields near Maumee River, U.S.A. Photo by Tom Bruulsema

 Of the three sites, only one showed clear improvement over several decades — the Thames River. Powers said the United Kingdom is using less fertilizer to grow food and that both historically and currently, it is a world leader in modern wastewater treatment. By following that nation's lead, Powers said other countries might improve their ability to manage phosphorus. 

Elser and Powers said the next step is to develop strategies that will reduce the impact of this “legacy P.” The pair added that it is important to create new technologies and policies that recycle P for re-use as fertilizer, rather than allowing it to escape and build up in the landscape.  

The research was funded by the NSF Research Coordination Network Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Program (RCN-SEES, award #1230603); the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, the National Basic Research Program of China (973-2015CB150405); the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31330070); and the Washington State University Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO).

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Filling a professional development need for teachers

Sanford Inspire Program receives ASU President’s Award for Innovation

April 11, 2016

The Sanford Inspire Program at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College was honored with a 2016 University President’s Award for Innovation. This award provides formal recognition to ASU faculty and staff whose teamwork made significant contributions to the university and higher education through creation, development and implementation of innovative projects. The innovation may be motivated by factors of social, economic, artistic or intellectual origin. Innovative ASU leaders evaluated submissions and determined winners of the award.

The President’s Award for Innovation was created as one component of the Employee Recognition Program in the mid-1990s. Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College has received the innovation award three times in the last four years: iTeachAZ, 2013; Quest2Teach, 2014; and Redesigning Teacher Professional Development, 2016. Professional development modules are online and free for educators Professional development modules are all online and free for educators. Download Full Image

“It is a huge honor to be selected for this competitive award at an institution that is known for innovation,” said Ryen Borden, executive director of the Sanford Inspire Program. “Earlier this year, ASU was named the nation’s most innovative university by U.S. News and World Report, adding to the depth and meaning of this university-wide recognition.”

The Sanford Inspire Program leverages the resources of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to create on-demand online modules that are research-based professional development for teachers. The modules are available, free of charge, and are currently used in more than 130 individual schools or educator preparation programs in Arizona and across the country. Borden said that teachers and school leaders rate the resources positively, with 93.5 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that the modules are beneficial to teacher practice.

The Sanford Inspire Program was praised by ASU leaders for having clear partners within the college as well as in school districts and nonprofit agencies. Additional aspects of the program that were noted as factors in winning this honor include its broad reach, shown by more than 6,000 teachers who have registered for the online courses; the program’s potential for scale and transferability; and its demonstrated success as a solution to the need for targeted and differentiated professional development for teachers. Borden said that while a lot of professional development is available for teachers, unfortunately, much of it doesn’t work.  The Sanford Inspire Program is unique in its offerings and effectiveness, as documented by teachers and schools.  

Each online module is a 60-minute micro-course and addresses a targeted area of teacher practice. With topics such as “Understanding the Causes of Student Misbehavior” or “Teaching Classroom Procedures,” the collection provides support in common areas of difficulty for novice teachers, according to Borden. The growing collection also addresses topics such as “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy” and “Problem Based Learning” that many experienced teachers will also find valuable.

The Sanford Inspire Program began in 2010 with an initial $18.85 million investment from a private donor. The program received an additional $5.9 million in 2014 to support a new focus of online professional development for teachers. The team gathered input from pre-service teacher candidates, in-service teachers, teacher education faculty and K-12 school leaders. Practitioners provided valuable insight on content and format for the online modules. Over the last two years, the Sanford Inspire team continued to collect, analyze and use feedback from teachers, faculty and school leaders to improve their work. The first module was available online in December 2014.

In addition to being honored by President Crow, the Sanford Inspire Program team was also recognized this month by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College with the college’s annual Innovation Award.

Borden said the team is developing with sustainability and scale in mind. The initial donor investment supported module creation, but over the long term, an unlimited number of teachers can access the resources with very little required beyond server maintenance. Members of the Sanford Inspire Program team are now raising awareness about the resources and building new school and university partnerships. Learn more about the modules: Sanford Inspire Program professional development overview.

In the last two years, the Sanford Inspire Program team had nine research papers accepted by conferences for professional organizations, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Association of Teacher Educators, the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children and the International Society for Technology in Education. They continue to meet with school leaders across Arizona and are working to expand and maintain their program. Educators who are interested in learning more are welcome to attend their upcoming May 10 workshop.

Copy writer, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College