Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor, geology

What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges in furthering sustainability at an institution like UB?

We’re a commuter campus. A UB Green employee estimated ~10 years ago that UB faculty, staff, and students drive 100 million miles each year on their commutes to and from campus. That’s farther than the distance from Earth to Sun! UB therefore faces a huge, exciting, and important challenge to reduce our collective fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation.

We’re a research campus, and research is energy intensive. Here’s one example: In my lab alone, we have three fume hoods, which we love because they keep us safe. These fume hoods are pumping conditioned air, which takes a lot of energy to make, back outside at all times. A single 6’ fume hood with the sash open 12” consumes as much energy per year as three average American homes. How many fume hoods are on campus? How much energy do they consume? In my lab, we make it a habit to shut the fume hood sashes when we’re not working in them, which, according to “Shut the Sash” campaigns at campuses throughout the US, saves UB $3,000 per fume hood each year! Changing habits is difficult, but imagine how much money and energy we’d save if all researchers on campus made it a habit to shut their fume hood sashes.

How could UB improve its sustainability efforts?

One of the major barriers to reducing fossil fuel consumption is convenience: it’s convenient to hop in our cars to drive to campus, it’s convenient to use a paper cup instead of a reusable mug. But everything we consume has a cost: greenhouse gas emissions. UB can dramatically improve sustainability efforts by making it convenient for UB students, faculty, and staff to choose carbon-free options. We will choose to bike to campus if that’s the faster, safer, easier option. We will choose to use a reusable mug if it’s easier and less expensive than using a paper one (or if paper mugs just aren’t provided!). UB can reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions by making carbon-neutral options convenient compared to carbon-emitting options. We’ll meet this challenge best if it becomes a priority for all levels of UB: from students to faculty & staff to administration.

One important issue that UB can address is access to campus. UB is generally a bike- and pedestrian-friendly campus. Yet, it’s difficult to get to campus safely and efficiently by foot or by bike from sites off campus. UB could make it much easier and safer to get to campus by bike or by foot, by working with surrounding communities to improve bike paths and bike lanes, and install safe crossings at roads and over highways, and install bike-activated traffic lights. Two big barriers that keep people from commuting by foot or by bike are convenience and perceived risk. By making the pedestrian/cycle commute easier and safer, UB will invite many more people to use their commutes as an efficient, inexpensive, and healthy way to get to campus.

What kinds of sustainability related research/projects are you pursuing at UB?

I’m a geologist, and my research focuses on past climate, mainly in the Arctic and East Asia. The goal of my research is to better understand how the climate system works, so that we can understand and more accurately predict future changes. We get to do field work in some beautiful places. I’m working on a project with UB Geology Professors Jason Briner and Bea Csatho and several other colleagues to reconstruct snowfall on Greenland during the past 10,000 years, which will help understand the past behavior of the Greenland Ice Sheet. I’m also really excited to study climate here in our backyard, and have started a project to study the ancient history of lake effect snowfall events in Western New York, which will help us know whether we might expect more or fewer “snowpocalypse” storms in the future.

How are students involved in your sustainability work?

I have the great pleasure of working with an extremely talented group of graduate and undergraduate students. They do field work in remote parts of the Arctic with me, they work in our lab to process the samples that we bring back from the field, and they analyze results, give presentations to our colleagues, and write papers. The passion, ingenuity, and hope that students bring to my work are inspiring.

What is the one thing that you do in your personal life to further sustainability?

We bike everywhere we can, rain or shine, including to campus! We use our big orange Burley trailer to haul kids, groceries, and even sometimes paint from the hardware store.

Regarding sustainability, what do you believe is the most pressing issue in our world today?

Climate change is hands down the biggest scientific experiment that humans have ever conducted, and the biggest challenge that humans face today. The climate science community has unequivocally stated that the longer we wait to act, the more severe the consequences become.