Almond production comes at a cost to the environment


Each almond requires approximately 1.1 gallons of water to produce. (Harsha K R/Flickr)

Almonds are known for a whole range of health benefits, however production of this popular nut (technically seed) comes at a cost to the environment.

California is the only state in the country that produces almonds on a commercial scale which amounts to 82 percent of the entire world’s almond production. However each almond requires approximately 1.1 gallons of water to produce. Furthermore, 44 percent more land in California is being used for almond farming compared to 10 years ago. This comes on the heels of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.

The massive amount of water being used to produce almonds is being diverted from the Klamath River in northern California which is having adverse affects on salmon populations and creating other ecological problems. The salmon – which are swimming upstream to reach breeding grounds – could succumb to a disease known as gill rot if river levels remain low.

California produces 99 percent of the almonds consumed in the United States. The Golden State also farms 99 percent of the country’s walnuts – which require 4.9 gallons of water per walnut – as well as 98 percent of the county’s pistachios which need three-quarters of a gallon of water for each nut.

Despite the drought, this year California’s almond farmers are expected to see their most productive harvest to date, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Indiana University research examines vegetation for river delta resilience


The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr)
The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr)

Geologists at Indiana University have found that “goldilocks plant growth” – or not too little, not too much vegetation – is most effective at keeping river deltas resilient.

This vegetation can help “slow the flow of water and cause more sediment to be deposited” which helps to prevent rising sea levels from saturating sensitive marshlands. However, when the vegetation is either too tall or too dense it can prevent sentiment from being deposited in the marsh.

In addition to rising sea levels, population growth, pollution, development and erosion have also had detrimental effects on river deltas. Approximately 10 percent of the world’s population live in river delta regions.

William Nardin (a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geological Sciences at IU-Bloomington) and Douglas A. Edmonds (holds the Robert R. Shrock Professorship in Sedimentary Geology and is an assistant professor of geological sciences at IU) authored the report and used computer modeling to simulate 75 scenarios involving different vegetation densities and river flow rates. Edmonds authored a similar report in 2012.

While the researchers concluded that the ideal level of vegetation helps to retain the greatest amount of sentiment, the vegetation had little effect on sentiment levels when faced with unpredictable conditions such as storms and flooding.

The full report was published in the journal Nature Geoscience earlier this month.

Endangered mussel may be making a comeback in the Iowa River


The Higgins' eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was found in the Iowa River during this year's Mussel Blitz. (USFWSmidwest/Flickr)
The Higgins’ eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was found in the Iowa River during this year’s Mussel Blitz. (USFWSmidwest/Flickr)

After a week of scouring along the Iowa River, researchers and volunteers from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources made promising findings regarding Iowa River’s mussel population, a critical indicator of the waterway’s aquatic health.

The experts found 20 different species during the 2014 Mussel Blitz, an annual research project to assess the health and diversity of Iowa’s mussels. Among them was the Higgins’ eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was reintroduced to the river in 2003 by stocking fish with young specimens, at the time just the size of a grain of salt. Researchers found six adult Higgins’ eyes in the Iowa River during the Mussel Blitz, indicating that the species was able to mature in the waterway.

While mussels thrived in Iowa waterways for centuries, most have faced heavy setbacks due to damming, fluctuations in water levels and chemicals in the water. 43% of North America’s 300 mussel species are in danger of extinction, including 78 endangered or threatened species in the Midwest.

Since their primary threats are sedimentation and pollutants, mussels are important to Iowa’s waterways as indicators of aquatic health. Reproducing populations of mussels indicate good water quality and wildlife diversity, and mussels help purify the aquatic system by acting as natural filters. They’re also an important food source for otters, herons and some fish.

Research finds that carbon emissions from power plants are being underestimated


A power plant in Avedøre, Hovedstaden, Denmark. (Martin Nikolaj Bech/Flickr)
A power plant in Avedøre, Hovedstaden, Denmark. (Martin Nikolaj Bech/Flickr)

Scientists from Princeton University and the University of California-Irvine published a report earlier this week which suggests that carbon emission estimates are likely higher than previously estimated.

The study states that all of the world’s power plants will produce an additional 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide during their lifetime which “isn’t taken into account by current schemes to regulate these emissions.” Developing countries such as China and India are constructing new power plants which is dwarfing efforts by the U.S. and European countries to reduce carbon emissions.

The study’s authors Robert Socolow (professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton) and Steven Davis (professor of earth system science at UC-Irvine) developed a system they called “commitment accounting” which “assigns all the future emissions of a facility to the year when it begins working.” This method suggested that fossil fuel-burning power plants built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide over a lifetime, factoring in that the plants operate for at least 40 years.

Prof. Socolow said the “Chinese power plant construction binge” has been going on since 1995. Power plants in China make up 42 percent of committed future emissions. India accounts for 8 percent while the U.S. and Europe combine for 20 percent.

Prof. Davis said that these projected emissions rates are not set in stone and could be lessened with the implementation of carbon capture technology or by retiring plants early.

Research suggests babies born near fracking sites more likely to experience health complications


A natural gas fracking operation in Shreveport, Louisiana. (Daniel Foster/Flickr)
A natural gas fracking operation near Shreveport, Louisiana. (Daniel Foster/Flickr)

The first study to examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing - or fracking – on babies born near wells found that these infants are more likely to experience health risks.

While this study is still preliminary, the researchers found that congenital heart defects were more common for babies born near gas wells in Colorado, the state with the nation’s strictest oil and gas regulations. Babies born to mothers who live within a mile of 125 or more wells experienced a 30 percent increase in congenital heart defects compared to those with no wells within 10 miles. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives back in January.

A separate, non-peer reviewed study found that babies born near gas wells in Pennsylvania were more likely to experience low birth weight which can lead to developmental issues while local authorities in Utah are investigating after a recent spate of stillbirths, likely linked to unsafe levels of air pollution caused by the the gas and oil industry. The air quality in rural parts of Utah was comparable to the amount of exhaust from 100 million automobiles within a year. Infant mortality rates saw a major increase in Utah within four years with two deaths in 2010 compared to 12 in 2013.

The Colorado study was deemed non-conclusive because it did not account for “different types of wells, water quality, mothers’ behavior or genetics.” The American Heart Association has provided funding to conduct a similar study over the next four years.

On the Radio: Climate change puts corn yields at higher risk


Ears of corn ready to be eaten. ( Michael Dorausch/Flickr)
Corn, the United States’ biggest cash crop, is facing threats from multiple fronts. (Michael Dorausch/Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new study which highlights the risks facing Iowa’s corn crops caused by changing environmental conditions. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

 

Transcript: Corn risk

The effects of climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices on corn production spell disaster for more than just farmers.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Corn is the United States’ biggest cash crop, essential to products including meat, cereal, soda and ethanol.
This is why sustainable business consortium Ceres suggests that corn’s entire supply chain should be taking action to address changing environmental conditions.

Ceres recently released a report that provides guidelines for farmers, companies and investors seeking to preserve resources and increase long-term yields.

The study cites pollution from agricultural runoff, along with recent droughts and water shortages across the country that are predicted to increase. Ceres contends that these factors are combining to form a sizeable threat to the corn industry.

For more information about the Ceres study, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218265/study-climate-change-is-a-growing-threat-to-corn-production
http://www.ceres.org/issues/water/agriculture/the-cost-of-corn
http://www.ceres.org/about-us/who-we-are

Cool July temps helped farmers now hoping for more rain


A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

July 2014 ranked as the fifth-coolest July the Hawkeye State as seen in 142 years of record keeping.

These lower than usual temperatures have been beneficial for farmers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects corn production in Iowa to set a record of 2.44 billion bushels, with an average yield of 185 bushels-per-acre. If this per acre number is reached it will beat the previous record of 182 bushels-per-acre set in 2009.

While corn thrives when temperatures are lower than average, it can be detrimental to soy beans. Soy beans require slightly higher temperatures than corn in order for the bean pods to develop. However, the cooler temps have provided a reduction in disease and insect problems for soy bean crops. Soy bean production is also expected to set a record yield of 3.8 billion bushels according to the USDA.

Even though this past June ranked as one of the wettest in the state’s history, a fairly dry July has farmers now hoping for more rain. Despite the lack of rain, it has not hurt water levels on the Mississippi River.

Iowa is expected to retain its spot as the nation’s top corn-producing state. Illinois is right behind Iowa with an expected yield of 2.22 billion bushels followed by Nebraska with 1.51 billion bushels and Minnesota with 1.34 billion.