Community group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis”

Turning Iowa City into an "ecopolis" includes utilizing local renewable energy sources and constructing environmentally-friendly building (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)
Turning Iowa City into an “ecopolis” includes installing and utilizing local renewable energy sources as well as focusing on locally-grown agriculture (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 20, 2014

A group of community members gathered in downtown Iowa City Tuesday to discuss ways in which Iowa City can become “the first regenerative city of the arts, food, renewable energy, and commerce in the heartland.”

The group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis” through increased renewable energy usage, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and local agriculture initiatives. These efforts would reduce fossil fuel usage between both local commuters and food being transported.

Jeff Biggers – writer in residence for the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability – is a major proponent of the Iowa City ecopolis project. Earlier this month he presented “An Evening at the Ecopolis: Rethinking Iowa City, Regenerating Food, Energy, Trees and the Way We Get Around,” a fictional narrative which “envisions Iowa City full of walkable and vibrant neighborhoods, milkweed to bring back the butterflies, high-tech architecture, easy public transportation, solar power, personal connections to nature and organic urban agriculture.” Biggers also points out that over a century ago, foreign visitors compared Iowa City to St. Omer in France, which has since embraced renewable energy methods and has developed pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Grant Schultz - owner of Versaland farm just outside of Iowa City – was the event’s keynote speaker and said that by May 2016 he hopes 90 percent of Iowa City residents live within 16 block (or one mile) of a community garden plot. On his own farm Schultz practices and teaches sustainable techniques such agroforestry and silvopasture.

Biggers and Schultz both helped to organize Tuesday’s event along with Miriam Alarcón Avila, Rockne Cole, Erica Damman, Mara Kardas-Nelson, and Carla Paciotto.

(Grant Schultz/Facebook)


NASA graphic paints vivid picture of carbon dioxide’s movement through the atmosphere

Screenshot of a NASA simulation of carbon dioxide movements in the atmosphere.
Screenshot of a NASA simulation of carbon dioxide movements in the atmosphere.

A new, high-resolution computer model from NASA offers a stunning view of how carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas released through human activity, moves through Earth’s atmosphere.

The video (below) shows plumes of gas swirling from concentrated sources through the rest of the atmosphere as winds disperse them. What’s interesting to note is the visible differences in distribution between industrialized areas in the northern hemisphere and those further south. Carbon dioxide is emitted mainly through the burning of fossil fuels.

The NASA model is the first to simulate carbon dioxide measurements in such high definition. In addition to ground-based carbon-release measurements, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 in July to make even more detailed, space-based observations. While scientists have plenty of data about the levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere (the gas’s concentration exceeded 400 parts per million across most of the northern hemisphere for the first time in modern history this year), relatively little is known about the paths carbon dioxide takes as moves from source to the atmosphere and to absorption points in forests and oceans.

The visualization was produced by an advanced computer model called GEOS-5, which simulated the behavior of Earth’s atmosphere based on measurements of carbon dioxide and other gases from May 2005 to June 2007.

Increased water consumption in Iowa strains Jordan Aquifer


Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)

Nick Fetty | November 18, 2014

Water demands in Iowa are exceeding the predominate aquifer’s ability to replenish itself and this could have detrimental long term effects on the state’s economy, according to the Des Moines Register.

The Jordan Aquifer – which also supplies water for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin – is the water source for approximately half a million Iowans. Cities such as Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, and Iowa City in particular are drawing water from the aquifer faster than it can replenish itself which means these communities could see restrictions on water usage if proactive efforts to curb water usage are not implemented.

The recent increase in water usage can partially be attributed to Iowa’s biofuel industry which requires large amounts of purified water during the production process. Some older facilities in Iowa use as much as 200 million gallons of water each year. Approximately 15 percent of Iowa’s aquifer demand is for biofuel production.

Last year families and businesses in Iowa used nearly 26 billion gallons of water from the aquifer. This is a 72 percent increase compared to water usage in the 1970s. Again much of the water usage can be attributed to the biofuels industry in Iowa which went into operation in the 1990s.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to hear recommendations about whether immediate action is needed to preserve the aquifer. Concerns for aquifer retention are not unique the Midwest and have also affected the western United States and even the Middle East.

On the Radio: New energy efficiency standards for refrigerators

A woman grabs groceries from her refrigerator. (Illustration: Michelle Tribe / Creative Commons)
A woman grabs groceries from her refrigerator. (Illustration: Michelle Tribe / Creative Commons)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at new standards for refrigerators which could reduce energy consumption by up to 25 percent. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Refrigerator standards

New energy efficiency standards that went into place for refrigerators in September are expected to save customers on utility bills while also reducing their carbon footprint.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Department of Energy estimates that the standards will reduce refrigerator energy consumption by 20 to 25 percent. This is expected to save households up to 200 dollars on electricity bills annually. This is the first update to energy standards for refrigerators since 2001.

Long-term estimates from the Department of Energy show that over the next 30 years the new standards will reduce national energy consumption the equivalent of five percent of total energy used in the U.S. in a single year. It is also estimated to reduce carbon emissions by 344 million tons during the same period.

For more information about the new refrigerator standards and appliance rebates from Iowa utility companies, visit

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

14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference coming to Iowa City

The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will be held Nov. 16 and 17 on the University of Iowa campus. (Photo courtesy UI Office of Sustainability)
The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will be held Nov. 16 and 17 on the University of Iowa campus. (Photo courtesy UI Office of Sustainability)

Nick Fetty | November 14, 2014

The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will take place November 16 and 17 at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus.

The conference’s keynote speaker is Mary Berry who is the daughter of Wendell Berry, an American cultural critic, environmental activist, farmer, novelist, and poet. Ms. Berry is the executive director of the Berry Center, an agriculture-focused foundation based in New Castle, Kentucky.

The event will begin with a reception featuring locally and organically grown food and drink beginning at 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 16. Following the reception will be a screening of the movie Fresh which looks at local and organic food markets in the U.S. Sunday night will conclude with a concert by The Slow Draws Band.

The conference will resume at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, November 17 with breakfast. At 8:30 a.m. Ms. Berry will give her presentation, “Rekindling the Light Within: The Art and Science of Organic Farming.” The rest of the day will consist of “breakout sessions” which will include presentations from United States Department of Agriculture representatives, Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg, and others. Lunch will feature a gourmet meal by award-winning UI Executive Chef Barry Greenberg consisting of locally and organically grown produce, meat, and dairy products.

Officials from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the ISU Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the UI Office of Sustainability worked together to organize this year’s event.

Cost of attendance is $115 ($35 for students) for anyone who has not already preregistered. For more information visit the UI Office of Sustainability website or contact Kathleen Delate at

Visiting professor talks emerald ash borer, tribal basketmaking

Dr. Darren Ranco discussed ways that Maine is preparing for the emerald ash borer during a lecture at the University of Iowa on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | November 13, 2014

Dr. Darren Ranco visited the University of Iowa campus this week and on Wednesday night gave a lecture on the emerald ash borer and how it is affecting Native American basketmakers in his home state of Maine.

Ranco is a member of Penobscot Indian Nation and holds a PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University. He is currently the Chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine and also serves as an associate professor in anthropology. Much of his research focuses on issues of environmental justice for Native American populations. On Wednesday he presented “Wabanaki Diplomacy to Protect the Ash Tree: Sustainability Science and Environmental Justice in Maine” as part of the UI’s Ida. C. Beam lecture series.

He began by discussing the infestation of the emerald ash borer in the United States which was first reported in Michigan in 2002 and has since spread as far west as Colorado and as far east as New Hampshire. In Iowa, the emerald ash borer has been reported in nine counties (Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Cedar, Des Moines, Jasper, Jefferson, Union, and Wapello).

“The upper part of the Midwest here has a pretty high density of ash trees compared to other places so the rate of spread, in terms of creating a large number of bugs because there’s a lot of food they can eat, is also part of the spread dynamic,” he said.

Dr. Darren Ranco discussed the spread of the emerald ash borer since it was first reported in Michigan in 2002. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

The spread of this species, which is native to China, can also largely be attributed to the transportation of fire wood. Public education campaigns have been launched in an effort to fight the dissemination of the bug with much of the focus on prevention as opposed to eradication.

“The biggest thing that makes it really imposible to fight in a conventional forestry way, in terms of eradication, is simply it’s just so hard to detect at low density,” he said. “By the time it’s in a place after three to five years and kills a tree there’s just no response you can have.”

He added that foresters can sometimes catch the bug before it becomes a problem but it is considerably more difficult for landowners and other members of the public to detect it. The bugs themselves do little damage when eating the tree’s leaves however the larvae burrow underneath the tree’s bark which inhibit the tree’s ability to retain necessary nutrients.

Though the emerald ash borer hasn’t made its way to Maine yet, Ranco and his colleagues are working to make sure they are prepared for the bug’s inevitable arrival. For the past five years, Ranco has conducted research using a combination of sustainability science and indigenous research methods to find solutions for tribal basketmakers, landowners, and others who would be affected.

“Maine is a huge forestry state but ash trees are not a central part of our forests. It’s only about four percent of our forests that are ash trees,” he said.

Because of the lack of ash trees specifically in Maine, Ronco said officials with the state’s forestry industry have been slow to respond to the treat of the emerald ash borer. However, Native American tribes in the area often use brown/black ash trees (fraxinus nigra) to construct wood baskets and a loss of ash trees would mean a loss of this cultural tradition as well as a source of income for some. Regardless of the challenges they face, Ranco said he is confident that Mainers will be prepared for the arrival of the emerald ash borer.

“Once the EAB gets there it wont be just a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats lighting their hair on fire, we will actually know what to do.”

For more information about the effort to preserve ash trees in Maine visit:

On the Radio: Clarke University adds environmental studies program

Dubuque, Iowa, home of Clarke University (John Kunze / Flickr)
Dubuque, Iowa, home of Clarke University. (John Kunze / Flickr)
November 10, 2014

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at Clarke University’s new environmental studies program. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Clarke environmental studies

A new environmental studies program at Clarke University in Dubuque aims to prepare students for careers in environmental sciences.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job demand for environmental scientists and specialists is expected to grow 15 percent between 2012 and 2022. To accommodate for this demand, Clarke University will offer students a four-year environmental studies major beginning in the fall of 2015.

The new interdisciplinary major aims to prepare students for a whole range of careers from botanists and ecologists to conservationists and environmental educators.

Last year Clarke University opened its 13-million-dollar Center for Science Inquiry. The three-story facility provides integrated labs and classrooms for various science courses.

For more information about Clarke University’s new environmental studies major, visit

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