Summer avian flu outbreak still a mystery

(The Back Road Photographer / Flickr)
(The Back Road Photographer / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | December 1, 2015

After an avian flu outbreak that led to the extermination of more than seven million birds this summer, Iowa turkey farmers are showing resilience in their recovery.

An outbreak of the virulent H5N2 strain early in the summer forced many Iowa turkey farmers to euthanize their entire flocks, especially in northwest Iowa. With seven months until Thanksgiving, some were worried the outbreak would lead to a shortage in the iconic holiday bird.

In reality the holiday turkey market wasn’t as affected by the outbreak because many of the birds used for Thanksgiving and other holidays had already been harvested and frozen. After quick rebounds by affected farmers and increased output efforts by unaffected farmers, this year’s nationwide turkey production was only down three percent according to The New York Times.

The cause of the outbreak of the virus, which originates in Asia, is still unknown. Some suspect poultry may have picked up the virus from the droppings of migratory birds which are unaffected by the virus. This doesn’t explain, however, why birds at large-scale operations, which undergo strict and frequent biosecurity measures, were hardest hit while smaller backyard operations which allow birds to wander outdoors – likely leading to direct encounters with wild birds – were less affected by the outbreak. The close quarters of birds in large-scale operations may have played a factor as particles carrying the virus passed through ventilation systems, allowing multiple birds to be infected at once.

On The Radio – Several Iowans to attend Paris climate conference

The Paris climate conference, also known as COP 21, begins today and continues through December 11. (Robin Tournadre/Flickr)
The Paris climate conference, or COP 21, begins today and continues through December 11. (Robin Tournadre/Flickr)
November 30, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at Iowans attending the climate conference in Paris which begins today and continues through December 11.

Transcript: Several Iowans to attend Paris climate conference

Several prominent Iowa researchers and policy makers will be at an international climate summit being held in Paris this month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held from November 30 to December 11. There, delegates from 196 nations will seek to reach a legally-binding agreement on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie, University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering Jerry Schnoor, and Dubuque mayor Roy Buol will be among the Iowans present at the conference. Two dozen Mississippi River mayors have met since September to discuss the impacts of climate change on their river economies and the importance of cleaning up the Mississippi. A group of these mayors including mayor Buol will discuss these issues with delegates from seven of the world’s major river basins.

Dr. Schnoor will be reporting on findings from the conference for the American Chemical Society while the University of Iowa’s Andrea Cohen will be representing the Iowa United Nations Association. CGRER will also be providing continuous updates from the conference.

For more info about the Paris climate talks visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

DMU Dean of Global Health calls for environmental action


KC McGinnis | November 27, 2015

For Dr. Yogesh Shah, Associate Dean of Global Health at Des Moines University, human health and environmental care go hand in hand.

Dr. Shah penned a detailed op-ed in The Gazette this week on the importance of a clean environment in the health of patients like the ones he cares for.

“For years I have been telling patients, family and friends to stay healthy by eating well, socializing, learning new things and exercising,” he wrote. “But what I realized is that none of that matters if we aren’t living in a healthy environment with clean air and water.”

In the article Dr. Shah called Iowa’s elected officials and U.S. presidential candidates to promote policies that would lead to higher adoption of clean energy like wind and solar, aiming for these sources to make up at least 50% of Iowa’s energy portfolio by 2030. Utilizing these alternative energy sources is crucial not just for energy independence but for human health.

“Climate change is more than an environmental issue — it is a human health issue and we must take action now to protect the most vulnerable and our common home,” he wrote. “To protect our individual health, we must protect the health of our environment.”

Dr. Shah was among the presenters at this year’s Climate Science Educators Forum, hosted by Des Moines University, where he talked about how climate change has effected disease-carrying insect populations. Dr. Shah has also linked climate change to increased asthma and infectious diseases like malaria.

Editorial calls for more emphasis on land management to reduce carbon emissions

Corn and hay grow on these rolling hills in Clayton County, Iowa (Todd Ehlers/Flickr)
Corn and hay grow on these rolling hills in Clayton County, Iowa (Todd Ehlers/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 25, 2015

An Iowa City writer recently published an editorial in The New York Times outlining ways that Iowa is reducing and will continue to reduce carbon emissions.

Jeff Biggers – a writer-in-residence for the UI’s Office of Sustainability and founder of the Climate Narrative Project – points out efforts Iowa is currently taking to reduce its carbon footprint such as using wind power to generate roughly 30 percent of the state’s electricity needs as well as the WACO school district which soon hopes to generate 90 percent of its electricity from solar.

Biggers also discussed specific ways that an agriculturally-focused state such as Iowa can keep its carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. He points out that land misuse accounts for 30 percent of carbon emissions, a potential talking point for world leaders attending the COP 21 conference which begins later this month.

“Far too few climate change negotiators took notice of an important proposal called the Four Per Thousand Initiative, which France’s Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood and Forestry introduced earlier this year. This proposal simply calls for a voluntary action plan to improve organic matter content and promote soil carbon sequestration in soil though a transition to agro-ecology, agro-forestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management. According to France’s estimates, a “.4 percent annual growth rate for the soil carbon stock would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2.”

Earlier this week, Biggers appeared on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River to discuss soil carbon sequestration and other environmental issues with fellow author Courtney White who recently published Two Percent Solutions for the Planet.

“We’re looking at soil carbon sequestration efforts through regenerative agriculture, through organic farming, through a whole host of activities that are happening now in the rural areas that really give me a lot of hope in terms of the climate change issue.”

UI Rhodes scholar has environmental focus

Jeffrey Ding (Iowa Now/Bill Adams)
Jeffrey Ding (Iowa Now/Bill Adams)
KC McGinnis | November 24, 2015

A University of Iowa student who is passionate about environmental cooperation between the U.S. and China was awarded a prestigious Rhodes scholarship Sunday.

Jeffrey Ding, a UI undergraduate studying economics, political science and Chinese, was one of 32 Americans awarded a Rhodes scholarship out of 869 applicants. Ding, an Iowa City resident, is a 2015 Truman scholar and served as U.S. Foreign Service intern with the U.S. Department of State over the summer. He has been exploring ways to further cooperation between governments as well as effective student activism on environmental sustainability. He serves as the sustainability liaison for the UI student government, where he helped establish a $10,000 student government fund for Green Initiatives. He also helped more Iowa City residents participate in recycling through advocating for an apartment recycling mandate. Traveling to Guangzhou and Shanghai on an international grant, Jeffrey conducted research on the growth of China’s environmental governance in response to protests.

The Rhodes scholarship will give Ding the opportunity to study at Oxford University in England, a prize worth $50,000 for up to three years. He and the rest of the 2016 Rhodes scholarship class will begin his studies at Oxford in October 2016.

On The Radio – Bakken pipeline looms after Keystone XL

North Dakota's Bakken oil field. (A.G. McQuillian/Flickr)
Pump jacks pull oil from the ground in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field. (A.G. McQuillan/Flickr)
November 23, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at the pending Bakken oil pipeline project which would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to oil refineries in southern Illinois. If approved, the project would run through 18 Iowa counties. 

Transcript: Bakken pipeline looms after Keystone XL

President Obama’s historic decision to strike down the Keystone XL pipeline could be undermined by another proposed pipeline running through Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A proposed pipeline starting in North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil fields and running through 18 Iowa counties is getting closer to state approval, with Governor Terry Branstad signaling his approval for the use of eminent domain for pipeline projects in November. Activists and landowners have been at odds with Texas-based Dakota Access, the company proposing the pipeline, for months as they try to establish eminent domain for the pipeline on private land. Most of the pipe would be underground, causing major concerns for soil and water quality as topsoil is removed and compacted during installation.

Unlike Keystone XL, the Bakken pipeline doesn’t need executive approval from President Obama because it doesn’t cross an international border. Instead, the pipeline would need approval from the Iowa Utilities Board, which began public hearings on November 12 with a decision coming in December or January. A Des Moines Register poll found 74 percent of Iowans oppose the use of eminent domain for pipelines.

For more information about the Bakken pipeline, visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Iowa Energy Center program allows North Liberty family to install solar panels

Photo by the Iowa Energy Center
Photo by the Iowa Energy Center
KC McGinnis | November 20, 2015

A loan program through Iowa State University’s Iowa Energy Center allowed a North Liberty family to install solar panels at their home, giving them a surplus of energy and slashing their monthly bill.

According to a report in the Iowa City Press-Citizen North Liberty residents Patrick and Michelle Hughes were able to afford the $31,000 addition of solar panels to their home through a combination of federal and state tax credits and a zero-interest loan from the Iowa Energy Center for 50 percent of the cost of the project. This means that the panels, which have already brought the Hughes family’s energy bills into the negatives (meaning they are actually receiving refunds from their energy company for putting in more energy than they use), should pay themselves off by 2022.

The Iowa Energy Center’s Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program (AERLP) allows any individual or business seeking to add a renewable energy source to receive 50 percent of the total cost of the project (up to $1 million) at a 0% interest rate. This includes installations of biomass, wind power, hydroelectric and solar facilities. While the program is based in Iowa, borrowers do not need to be Iowa citizens. The program helped fund nearly 200 facilities between 1996 and 2012 and continues to be a source of financial assistance for anyone looking to add renewable energy to their homes or businesses.