Study: Tornado season striking ‘tornado alley’ earlier than in previous decades

Nick Fetty | September 18, 2014
An F1 tornado near Secor, Illinois in 2004. (Jim/Flickr)
An F1 tornado near Secor, Illinois in 2004. (Jim/Flickr)

A new study by the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University found that peak tornado seasons are occurring about two weeks earlier in parts of ‘tornado alley’ compared to six decades ago.

The study examined tornado activity in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and northern Texas from 1954 through 2009. Current peak tornado activity generally occurs from early May to early July. The study found that the peak of the tornado season in the 1950s occurred an average of seven days later in the year compared to now. When the data from Nebraska is removed the difference is nearly two weeks.

The researchers hope to use their findings to better prepare for future tornadoes, however, they are left scratching their heads as to what is causing this shift. Record keeping for tornadoes in the United States did not begin until the 1950s and because of this scientists are unable to study longer term trends of tornado activity.

The shift in the timing of the tornadoes can be attributed various factors such as the land’s topography as well as climate and it is difficult to pinpoint a single cause. Climate change  has also been named as a possible contributing factor, as meteorologist Greg Carbin points out: “If winters are not as cold, or if spring times are warmer, the location of the jet stream is most likely displaced north of where it has been in the past.”

Although not included in the study, portions of Iowa are often considered part of ‘tornado alley.’ A 2012 list compiled by ranked Iowa sixth in the nation based on tornadic activity. According to data from, there were approximately 2603 tornadoes resulting in 85 fatalities in Iowa between 1950 and 2013.

On the Radio: Global warming could lead to food crisis

KC McGinnis | September 15, 2014
A vegetable delivery from an Iowa community supported agriculture group. (Chanzi/Flickr)
A vegetable delivery from an Iowa community supported agriculture group. (Chanzi/Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new study which suggests global warming greatly increases the odds of a global food crisis in coming decades. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.


Transcript: Food Crisis – Maggie St. Clair

New research from Stanford University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggests that climate change has greatly increased the odds of a crisis in global food production.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, titled “Getting caught with our plants down,” is meant to serve as a warning to institutions affected by fluctuation in food prices.

The study’s authors allow that the prospect of a major slowdown of corn and wheat production in the next few decades is low. However, they say that the chances of such of an event multiply by twenty times when global warming is factored in.

In this model, the trend of increasing food production would continue, but the rate of increase would drop substantially. This change would clash with global food demand, which is expected to keep rising.

For more information on the new study, visit

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

Study: Conversion of forests to cropland linked to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Nick Fetty | September 12, 2014
A Yale University study suggests that converting forests into cropland is having a net cooling effect on the earth's atmosphere. (/Flickr)
Farmland near the Loess Hills in western Iowa. (CroDigTap/Flickr)

A study from Yale University suggests that the conversion of forests into cropland over a 150-year period has caused “a net cooling effect on global temperatures.

The report, published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Nadine Unger, found a reduction in the quantity of biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) released into the earth’s atmosphere. These compounds “control the atmospheric distribution of many short-lived climate pollutants, such as tropospheric ozone, methane, and aerosol particles.”

Unger used computer modeling to calculate a 30 percent decline in BVOC emissions between 1850 and 2000 – much of which was attributed to the conversion of forested areas into crop land – and a .18 degree Fahrenheit (.1 degree Celsius) reduction in global temperatures. During roughly this same period the amount of land worldwide being used for crops increased from 14 percent to 37 percent.

This reduction in global temperatures is dwarfed by the 1.08 degree Fahrenheit (.6 degree Celsius) increase caused by carbon emissions. Also, Unger was sure to point out “that the findings do not suggest that increased forest loss provides climate change benefits, but rather underscore the complexity of climate change and the multitude of factors involved.”

According to the Iowa Data Center, there were approximately 30,800,000 acres of farmland in Iowa in 2013.

Poll finds widespread support for alternative energy among Midwest voters

A solar panel array (Maryland GovPics/Flickr)
A solar panel array (Maryland GovPics/Flickr)

Voters spoke out in broad support of energy efficiency and alternative energy sources during a recent round of polls across the Midwest.

The bipartisan poll was conducted earlier this summer to gauge attitudes toward various energy issues, and included interviews with around 2,500 voters from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Among them, 95% supported increasing energy efficiency, while strong majorities supported increasing the uses of solar (91%) and wind energy (87%) in their states. Only 55% supported increasing coal use, while biomass had the lowest support (50%). Biomass also had the highest number of “Don’t Know/Not Applicable” answers, at 37%, implying some confusion around the energy source.

Attitudes toward solar, wind and natural gas remained about the same from 2010 to 2014, while support for nuclear energy dropped. Support for coal held at 55% over the last four years. However, over 80% of voters wanted to move toward cleaner sources of energy rather than increase coal use. They also viewed renewable energy production as a bigger contributor to their economy than coal mining.

Voters also voiced their opinion on potential policy issues. With the understanding that switching to alternative energy sources may cost more in the short term, 81% were willing to pay an additional $1 per month for energy, and 69% were willing to pay $4 more. They also supported energy measures like the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, announced earlier this year.

For the complete report, click here.


Iowa farm hosting Bio-Renewables Field Day

Iowa State agronomy researcher Emily Heaton (left, red shirt) introduces congressional staffers to biomass crop miscanthus. (CenUSA Bioenergy/Flickr)
Iowa State agronomy researcher Emily Heaton (left, red shirt) introduces congressional staffers to biomass crop miscanthus. (CenUSA Bioenergy/Flickr)

A tall perennial grass called miscanthus may be the future of bioenergy in Iowa, and an upcoming event is highlighting its unique potential.

Iowa State University assistant professor of agronmy Emily Heaton and Iowa City landowner Dan Black will speak at a field day and seminar on Wednesday, September 10, to discuss their findings regarding miscanthus, which is currently being explored as a potential biomass crop in experimental fields.

The event will take place at the University of Iowa miscanthus test plot and is hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, the second in a series of four field days that will cover innovations in Iowa agriculture. The event includes a meal prepared by Johnson County Cattlemen and features Ben Anderson, power plant manager at the University of Iowa, who will talk about how miscanthus could be used in the UI power plant’s solid fuel boilers.

Researchers working with a non-invasive hybrid of miscanthus have so far observed a high success rate in surviving Iowa winters, which is necessary for it to reach peak production in its third year. This means the plant could play a major role in Iowa agriculture as a source of biomass that can be converted into energy. It can grow alongside existing crops and in sections of fields that usually produce lower yields for corn, meaning it could also help reduce runoff and preserve water quality.

RSVPs are being accepted until September 5 by calling (515) 294-8912 or by emailing For more information, visit

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

Nick Fetty | August 27, 2014
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.