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Affiliate Spotlight: Amy Townsend-Small

We recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Amy Townsend-Small about her community-engaged research, teaching, and service in the Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Townsend-Small is a Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Geosciences at University of Cincinnati College of Arts & Sciences.

Asking Tough Questions about Climate Change

Dr. Townsend-Small is a climate scientist who researches the impact of humans on the global carbon cycle. She has been conducting groundbreaking research in environmental sciences since the beginning of her career. She received her BA at Skidmore College and graduated magna cum laude in Biology and Environmental Studies, then went on to earn her PhD from University of Texas Austin in Marine Sciences.

Townsend-Small’s dissertation project investigated carbon cycling and its relationship with climate in the Amazon river headwaters of Peru. She found that deforestation in Brazil and climate warming is causing a decrease in carbon export from the Andes mountains to the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean. Then, as a post doctoral fellow in Earth System Sciences at UC Irvine, she conducted research on urban greenhouse gas and water budgets in Los Angeles.

Dr. Townsend-Small joined University of Cincinnati in 2010 as a joint hire in the Geology and Geography departments. Her current research explores the sources and fluxes of a major greenhouse gas, methane.

Inspiring Change in Environmental Policy

Dr. Townsend-Small conducted her first research on methane as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Irvine. She took measurements of methane from landfills, cattle, wastewater treatment plants, and natural gas wells. Most of the methane that she measured in polluted air above Los Angeles had a chemical signature of natural gas. Hence, her research concluded that natural gas was the largest source of methane emissions in LA.

According to Townsend-Small, this research changed her career trajectory.

Community-Engaged Water Sampling in Eastern Ohio

Just as the first hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells were being drilled in Ohio, Dr. Townsend-Small started her faculty position at the University of Cincinnati. These fracking wells joined an Ohio landscape already studded with numerous oil and gas wells dating back to the 1860s.

Townsend-Small teamed with concerned locals in Carroll County, Ohio, to sample groundwater wells in their region. The purpose was to determine the relationship between contaminated groundwater and fracking. The research team sampled 23 wells three or four times a year from 2012 to 2015. They measured methane concentration, stable isotope composition of methane, indicators of fracking fluid contamination (pH and conductivity), and radiocarbon age on selected samples with high methane concentration.

The results showed that groundwater in some areas had high levels of naturally occurring methane, suggesting that fracking may result in groundwater contamination. As a result of this groundbreaking research, the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) awarded Dr. Townsend-Small the Science and Community Award.

2018 Green Cincinnati Plan

In 2017 and 2018, Dr. Townsend-Small worked with her Environmental Studies capstone students on the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan. They attended every community meeting and organized a campus community meeting at UC to give input on the plan. Her students helped write the entire plan and calculate greenhouse gas emissions reductions for each component of the plan. They also partnered with UC Forward to developed a sustainable transportation plan to reduce single-car drivership in Uptown and with the City of Cincinnati Office of Environment and Sustainability to implement personal changes to reduce environmental and energy footprint.

Currently, Townsend-Small is working on the waste aspect of the Green Cincinnati Plan now in progress, which involved working with City Council and the City of Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability on waste diversion options.

Current Work to Bring Change

Dr. Townsend-Small has also led a nationwide study to quantify emissions from abandoned wells. She then worked with EPA to include these sources in the national greenhouse gas inventory and with U.S. Congress to help draft a bill to clean them up. Currently, she is serving on the board of an environmental nonprofit working on oil and gas industry clean up and well plugging.

Along with her collaborators and students, Dr. Townsend-Small has published over 40 articles and raised over $2 million in research funding. Her current research focuses on atmospheric methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain and climate change feedbacks. She continues to conduct community-engaged research geared toward environmental justice and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Additionally, Townsend-Small is now working with diplomats in the U.S. and other countries to help support policies grounded in science to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, has the goal of limiting global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Each country party to the agreement must submit a plan for climate action called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and all the countries meet every year at Conferences of the Parties (COPs). Every 5 years, each country strengthens their NDC with the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and to “net-zero” by 2050. Dr. Townsend-Small is contributing to diplomats’ efforts to strengthen NDCs and to support COP27 (Egypt) and COP28 (United Arab Emirates).

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