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UNC program will study climate change in Ecuador, receives grant

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UNC students work during a research trip in the North Andean Páramo, a region in the Andes Mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, in 2019. Photo Courtesy of Alyssa LaFaro, UNC Research.

This summer, four UNC undergraduate students will travel to Ecuador alongside Diego Riveros-Iregui, a professor of geography and co-director of the Center for Galapagos Studies, to conduct climate research in the Páramo, a region of the Andes Mountains. 

“We want to understand how current environmental conditions — how current weather, how current changes in rainfall patterns — affect natural emissions of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere,” Riveros-Iregui said. 

The fieldwork will take place over the course of approximately two months and will be performed in conjunction with Universidad San Francisco de Quito. USFQ has been a strategic partner of UNC since 2006, and this project will allow students from the two universities to collaborate in a research setting.  

UNC and USFQ received a grant from the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, covering all living and research expenses for those participating. This funding provides the opportunity for students who would otherwise be unable to afford the hands-on experience of its kind. Currently, the applications for this program are being processed.  

Krista Northup, the director of global partnerships for the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, said this grant focused on creating opportunities for student exchanges between partners in the United States and Latin America.

UNC’s Global Guarantee is the promise that global education is available to every student, which is why Northup and the team at UNC Global knew this grant was exactly the opportunity they were searching for. 

“We knew right away that Diego (Riveros-Iregui) has been fostering opportunities for Carolina students to conduct research in Ecuador,” she said. “He’s been doing that for years, so when we saw this call, it just made sense to connect the dots.” 

She said Riveros-Iregui has been particularly interested in providing global research opportunities for underrepresented undergraduate students, which is part of the appeal for this grant. Northup said she and her team were excited to learn about this grant because they knew it was a chance to expand mobility opportunities. 

The research conducted will focus on the carbon stocks found in the Páramo, attempting to understand how environmental conditions either enhance or reduce these fluxes. 

“Our work gets at quantifying the natural emissions of these fluxes under current conditions so we can have estimates of how rapidly these fluxes are taking place and begin to make predictions as to how those fluxes are going to continue to happen in the future,” he said.

Riveros-Iregui said that Páramo’s environment is unique because it is in the Andes Mountains, which means it has not only tropical elements such as heavy rainfall but also conditions related to its high elevation, such as low temperatures. He said the ability to study on-site in Ecuador provides the opportunity to study an environment only found in a few places worldwide. 

The collaborative aspect of the research also enhances the experience as it brings together different expertise, which is important when analyzing complex issues such as climate change, he said. 

“More and more, the biggest challenges that we deal with in society cross borders — they’re borderless,” Northup said. “It’s really important that we work on the shared challenges with our partners across the world.” 

After completing the fieldwork in Ecuador, UNC students will return to campus and work on data analysis with their Ecuadorian counterparts through a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) course. The data analysis will take place over the fall and spring semesters of the 2023-2024 academic year. 

In the spring of 2024, the four Ecuadorian students will visit UNC for roughly six weeks. They, in tandem with the four UNC students, will present their research findings at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research, a research symposium hosted each spring by UNC. 

The Office for Undergraduate Research is a resource available for undergraduate students looking to get involved with research. 

“I love it when I’m able to help a student get an undergraduate research experience that taps into their passion and helps give them direction for what they want to do in their life," Bob Pleasants, associate director of the Office for Undergraduate Research, said.

The Office of Undergraduate Research can be contacted at our@unc.edu.

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