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.

Iowa City film fest to feature documentary about frac sand mining


A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Caroll Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)

The 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival will take place in downtown Iowa City this weekend and among the films being shown is a documentary that examines the affects that frac sand mining has had on the environment as well as the communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Price of Sand – directed by Minnesota native Jim Tittle – examines the recent boom in mining operations for pure silica. This silica is used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations as well as for manufacturing materials such as glass and toothpaste. The silica acts as a proppant or “a material used in hydraulic rock fracturing in order to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction.” The size and shape of different proponents play “a critical role in keeping fractures open and at the desired conductivity.”

These frac sand mining operations are most common along the “driftless area” – also called the Paleozoic Plateau – which “is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by-passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.” The driftless area includes portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illiniois, and northeast Iowa. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa currently have a “moratorium on mining.”

Proponents of the practice say that frac sand mining provides a valuable resource while creating jobs. Opponents say that it brings increased traffic as well as wear and tear on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to rural areas. Opponents are also concerned about the potential health effects associated with frac sand mining.

The viewing will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday August 22 in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library. It will be followed by discussion from a panel of experts from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

“The size and the shape of silica make it a particularly dangerous substance. It is regulated as a human carcinogen. It causes siliceous, it causes tuberculous, it causes problems with kidney disease. According to studies on siliceous we can get a certain amount, maybe up to three micrograms per cubic meter, and we have no ill health effects but above that level, so if we have agricultural dust as well as dust coming from a sand plant, we may be above that threshold and then we may begin to see the scarring and the progression of disease associated with silica exposure.”

-University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Associate Nursing Professor Crispin Pierce during an interview with Iowa Public Radio on August 21, 2014.

Climate change could lead to increased mosquito, tick populations in Iowa


Environmental advocates warm that mosquito and tick populations in Iowa could increase because of climate change. (naturegirl 78/Flickr)
Environmental advocates warn that mosquito and tick populations in Iowa could increase because of climate change. (naturegirl 78/Flickr)

A report by the National Wildlife Federation released earlier this week finds that climate change could lead to an increase in mosquito and tick populations as well as stronger strains of poison ivy and more green algae blooms.

These effects will likely have a direct impact on the Hawkeye State. Iowa has seen increased amounts of rainfall precipitation and higher humidity levels in recent years, much of which can be attributed to climate change. Cases of West Nile Virus – the mosquito-borne illness that can lead to fevers and even death – have also been on the rise in Iowa in recent years. There were nine cases of West Nile Virus in Iowa in 2011 and by 2013 that number had increased to 44.

Higher temperatures and greater levels of precipitation will also affect other blood-sucking pests such as deer ticks, an insect that can withstand mild winters. More than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year in the U.S.

These climate changes will not only affect insect populations but also plants. Increased carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels is expected to cause poison ivy to spread more easily and also be more potent. Green algae blooms have also been problematic in Iowa and this too is expected to worsen.

To combat these issues, the report calls for a reduction in carbon pollution through more efficient utilization of renewable energy sources as well as the implantation of certain safeguards for wildlife and wildlife habitat.