Tree Hugger: On the road to...

By Abby Volkmann ’13Environment Columnist

A year ago, I took a train from Berlin to Berchtesgaden, Germany, just for the hell of it. I really wanted to ski in the Bavarian Alps, but I had no specific destination in mind or any skiing equipment, and my plans to meet up with two Viennese pals were still vague. I had forgotten to jot down their numbers so I decided to go alone. This adventure would be a journey in itself. I knew my final destination, and nothing else. I wouldn’t plan ahead. Instead, I would be a “wayfinder,” forging my way from the southern most part of Bavaria back home to Berlin. The trip would ultimately broaden my understanding of the world, and that is what inspired me to travel south with no exact itinerary in mind.

I see the same sort of philosophy behind developing technologies and innovations that address twenty-first century challenges. The end goal of meeting these challenges (i.e. the impact of climate change) warrants the hard work it takes to come up with pioneering solutions. For instance, China is facing serious water resource insecurities, and the increasing threat of water scarcity has inspired researchers to invent a sponge-like fabric that can absorb several liters of water from the air. This fabric– which is capable of transforming fog into a potable water resource–could have far-reaching benefits. The fabric could bring water to desert communities as well as benefit the agriculture industry by collecting humidity from the atmosphere and releasing it as water into the soil.

Urban planners are also inventing innovative and integrated ways of making cities more sustainable. In Melbourne, Australia, urban planner Rob Adams established a system that transforms streets into water catchment basins. By planting trees on the city’s roads, water is captured and stored underneath and then used to water those trees in dry seasons. These trees contribute to the city’s natural aesthetic, but also decrease the demand for air conditioning in buildings.

I hope to see more technologies and innovations evolve out of our desire to confront environmental challenges in the same way that mankind’s desire to expand horizons inspired the evolution of our transportation system. We once took horses to reach to neighboring settlements and now use airplanes to visit opposite hemispheres, after all…