UI students report on Canadian tar sands for final projects

Students in the UI's Environmental Justice course created a blog for their final project which focused on the Canadian tar sands (Iowa Tar Sands Project)
The header for the Iowa Tar Sands Project blog (Iowa Tar Sands Project)

Nick Fetty | December 19, 2014

Students in the University of Iowa’s Environmental Justice course have created a blog so they can publicly share their final papers about the Canadian tar sands.

The blog – Iowa Tar Sands Project – features nearly two dozen reports on various aspects of the tar sands industry ranging from environmental impacts to social issues. One student (yours truly) produced a video documentary focusing on energy alternatives including efforts being taken in Iowa and specifically on the University of Iowa campus.

Kyle Vint – a PhD student in Communication Studies – examined how donations to public universities affect research, with specific focus on the tar sands. He highlighted a $6 million donation that the University of Louisville is expected to receive from the the Charles Koch Foundation and Papa John’s CEO,  John Schnatter. Charles Koch and his brother David have also made massive donations to George Mason University ($23 million) and Florida State University ($2.8 million) which some have criticized, citing that it jeopardizes the integrity of objective research and unfairly impacts administrative decisions. Vint points out that the Koch brothers are “are the largest foreign lease holder of lands slated for tar sands development in Canada” and that “[they] are financially invested in the outcomes of major policy decisions concerning tar sands development.”

The Environmental Justice course is taught by visiting professor Dr. Nicholas A. Brown and is offered by the UI’s Department of Geographical and Sustainable Sciences.

Iowa’s biodiesel and wind energy sectors expected to benefit from recently passed tax breaks

Iowa generated 27 percent of its electricity from wind energy last year which ranked highest in the country. (Samir Luther/Flickr)
Iowa generated 27 percent of its electricity from wind energy last year which ranked highest in the country. (Samir Luther/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | December 18, 2014

A $41-billion package of tax breaks passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this week is expected to benefit Iowa’s biodiesel and wind energy industries.

The House passed the legislation (378 to 46) earlier this month with bipartisan support and after the Senate’s approval (76 to 16) it now awaits President Obama’s signature. Congress was unable to agree upon a two-year deal so the Tax Increase Prevention Act will extend 55 different tax credits and extensions through 2015.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – who also serves as chairman for Senate Finance Committee – was critical of Congress for not passing the legislation sooner citing it does not provide “nearly enough time for the important provisions in this package to catalyze growth among businesses or to support families in a meaningful way. It’s not enough time to put a dent in veterans’ unemployment, to start a clean energy project and hire new workers, or to help a student who’s on the fence about whether to enroll in college next semester.”

Both of Iowa’s senator’s – Chuck Grassley (R) and the retiring Tom Harkin (D) – signed the legislation though Grassley also expressed disapproval with its “last minute approach.” With Republicans taking control of the senate for the upcoming session, Grassley said “My only hope is that in the new Congress we can make strides toward putting some certainty back in the tax code.”

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation later this week.

Report finds majority of UI students support action to address climate change

Students from three different courses at the University of Iowa participated in a survey to gauge their understanding of climate change. (Wikimedia)
Students from three different courses at the University of Iowa participated in a survey to gauge their perception of climate change. (Wikimedia)

Nick Fetty | December 16, 2014

A report by a University of Iowa professor found that 94 percent of students surveyed responded “yes” when asked if they believe the science on climate change is strong enough to take action.

Maureen McCue – an adjunct assistant professor with the UI International Programs and coordinator of Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility – surveyed 65 students in three courses: Promoting Health Globally (PHG) [31], Environmental Justice (EJ) [17], and Education in the Third World (ETW) [14] as well as three students from the health physiology lab. Issues regarding climate change were addressed in PHG and EJ while “no specific orientation to climate” was expected for students in ETW and the health physiology lab.

Forty-two students responded that they had been affected by climate change. Many cited similar reasons for how they had been affected: storms/floods/droughts experienced by friend or family [14], indirect experiences (higher priced foods, poorer air quality, observing wild weather fluxes) [8], and awareness about effects of climate change and feeling of being overwhelmed [14].

Respondents were also asked what they feel is an effective way to halt climate change based on six categories: lifestyle (11.8%), more education (27.1%), positive interventions and support (16%), political/legal remedies (16%), social/community action (10%), and nothing (>1%). Students also provided responses such as “we need new sources of energy,” “attitudes need to change”, and “energy providers need to change.”

Dr. McCue concluded that “[w]hile the numbers are small and subject to all the problems of small studies, there were some interesting outcomes,” particularly the overwhelming support that climate change is an issue that must be addressed. However she also noted that there were fewer trends evident among the grad students who responded to the survey.

For more information or to provide comments or critiques about the survey contact Dr. McCue at maureen-mccue@uiowa.edu.

Survey Demographics

  • Females: 43
  • Males: 22


  • Undergrad: 57
  • Grad Student: 8


  • Iowans: 35
  • Not from Iowa: 30 (International: 9)

On the Radio: Agricultural initiative to curb climate change effects

Hay bales along the Maple River near Castana, Iowa (TumblingRun / Flickr)
Hay bales along the Maple River near Castana, Iowa (TumblingRun / Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new initiate to mitigate the effects of climate change on Iowa farmers. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Agriculture and Climate Change

A North American farm group is taking proactive steps to reduce the effects of climate change on agriculture.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The group – Solution from the Land – is supporting the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Initiative. The initiative aims to bring together representatives from industry and academia as well as government and non-government organizations in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change for farmers.

The initiative follows the release of the National Climate Statement which suggests that at its current rate, the effects of climate change will be largely detrimental to crops and livestock over the next 25 years. The initiative aims to help farmers adapt to changes in precipitation and temperature.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, and the National Farmers Union are some of the national organizations which have endorsed the effort.

For more information about the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Initiative, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

source: http://farmfutures.com/story-reducing-climate-change-risk-ag-0-120108; http://www.sfldialogue.net/SFL/press_release_9-23-2014.pdf

UI Climate Narrative Project fellows focus on soil

The fall 2014 Clime Narrative Project fellows. From left, Erica Damman, Jeffrey Ding, Jenna Ladd, and Sarah Nagengast. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
The fall 2014 Climate Narrative Project fellows. From left, Erica Damman, Jeffrey Ding, Jenna Ladd, and Sarah Nagengast. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | December 12, 2014

The fall 2014 fellows with the UI’s Climate Narrative Project presented their work Thursday night in the University Capitol Center in Iowa City.

Through various mediums (film, radio, visual arts and creative writing) the fellows shared the research and interviews they have compiled over the past fourth months. The theme was “Semester in the Soil: Regenerative Agriculture, Urban Farms and Food.”

Jeff Biggers – writer-in-residence for the UI Office of Sustainability – worked with the students throughout the semester and introduced each presenter Thursday night. He mentioned the relationship between climate change and soil conservation stating “we have science coming out of our ears yet we’re doing very little.”

Erica Damman – an artist and researcher in the Interdisciplinary PhD program focusing on Environmental Humanities – presented her project which was entitled “Soil Testimonies.” The project included sped up video of Damman creating a large charcoal drawing of a sow bug, a crustacean that lives beneath the soil. While the video played Damman also had an audio track of her conducting a fictional interview with a sow bug as it told her about life underground. The project integrated humor with lines like “everything down here is eating everything else” but also discussed the impacts of soil tilling for agriculture which destroys the homes of bugs, worms, and other parts of the soil ecosystem. Damman and the bug also discussed the effects of soil deep freezes which has been as deep as 15 nightcrawlers (or roughly 50 inches) during recent winters. The Ohio native concluded her presentation by stating that “[We need] to think of soil as our companion species.”

Jenna Ladd – an undergraduate majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish – presented “Immigrant Seeds and Stories” which examined the availability of garden plots for immigrants in Iowa. She began her presentation by stating that “access to local and healthful food is a right not a privilege.” She then showed a photo slideshow with an audio narrative telling the story of immigrants from Mexico and Africa who came to Iowa as climate refugees because the effects of climate change have hampered their ability to farm and garden in their homelands. She cited data from the American Red Cross which shows that the number of climate refugees in the United States is greater than the number of political refugees. Some of the immigrants lack resources to consume “expensive good food” when coming to Iowa and this has led to an increase in obesity rates for some immigrants.

Actors playing farmers were part of Jeffrey Ding's interactive presentation. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Actors playing farmers were part of Jeffrey Ding’s interactive presentation. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Jeffrey Ding – an undergraduate triple majoring in political science, economics, and Chinese – presented “Dispatches from the Land” which looked at farmers and the future of agriculture in Iowa. He also weaved some humor into his interactive presentation by reminiscing about the days when Hawkeye football was one of the passions in his life instead of “an exercise in mediocrity tolerance.” However most of the presentation was focused on serious issues facing Iowa farmers.  He discussed the UI’s Biomass Fuel Project with specific focus on miscanthus – an Asian perennial tallgrass – which is being grown on plots in Iowa and which he referred to as “the field of the future.” Ding also discussed the importance of soil conservation, citing  that farmers should “leave the land better than you got it.” He looked at the future of agriculture in Iowa citing that a quarter of farmland is owned by people over the age of 75 and that with Johnson County being the second-fastest growing county in the state it has created a rift between rural interests and urban development. He concluded his presentation by stating “before regenerative agriculture can save us, we have to save us.”

Sarah Nagengast – an undergraduate majoring in environmental policy and planning with a minor in geography and a certificate in sustainability – presented a video documentary entitled “Recipes in an Age of Climate Change.” She focused on the importance of food availability as well as proper food disposal. Approximately 40 percent of food is wasted and when this food is dumped in conventional landfills as opposed to being composted it creates environmentally-damaging greenhouse gases. Not only do consumers contribute to the high amount of food wasted in the United States but often times farmers and producers will dispose of crops that they feel doesn’t meet their standard for selling.

The Climate Narrative Project was sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and the Office of Outreach and Engagement in the Office of Executive Vice President and Provost.

Check out The Daily Iowan for additional coverage of the event.

Journal features ISU research on agriculture and climate change

This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)
This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)

Nick Fetty | December 11, 2014

The most recent issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation includes several articles by Iowa State University researchers focused on ways that climate change is affecting agriculture.

Researchers and graduate students in from Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project contributed to most of the articles in the recent issue. The project, known simply as the Sustainable Corn Project, is based at Iowa State University and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 20 reports in the recent journal issue, 14 were authored by researchers with the Sustainable Corn Project.

One of the reports analyzed the effects cover crops have on nitrous oxide emissions, concluding that cover crops increased nitorus oxide levels in 60 percent of published observations. The authors point out that certain variables could have affected the reaction between the cover crops and nitrous oxide emissions including “fertilizer N(itrogen) rate, soil incorporation, and the period of measurement and rainfall.”

The Sustainable Corn Project is a collaboration between 10 Midwestwen land-grant universities: Iowa State University, Lincoln University (MO), Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois,  University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, and University of Wisconsin. Roughly 160 scientists, engineers, educators, and students work with more than 200 farmers on this project.

Natural Christmas trees could be a green alternative this holiday season

A family at a Christmas tree farm (Mass Office of Travel / Flickr)
A family at a local Christmas tree farm (Mass Office of Travel / Flickr)

With the holiday season in full swing, natural Christmas trees grown in Iowa may provide a greener way to deck the halls.

Each year, around 100 Iowa farmers grow various pines, spruces and firs for holiday decor on more than 1,500 acres of farmland, much of which is unsuitable for other crops. Unlike artificial Christmas trees made of plastic and synthetic materials, natural Christmas trees produce minimal waste, can be recycled as mulch, and absorb carbon dioxide while producing oxygen during their lifetime, usually 6 to 12 years before harvest. While artificial trees remain in landfills for centuries after use, natural Christmas trees can be reused as decoration or sunk into fishing ponds to make refuges for fish. They can also be used as sand and soil erosion barriers near river beds.

Iowa tree farmers saw a rebound in tree growth this year, after drought in 2012 killed off crops across the state. Growers must constantly monitor their trees for insects and leaning to ensure proper balance and form. Iowans harvest about 39,500 Christmas trees each year, mostly by selecting and cutting down the trees themselves at the farm. For a list of Christmas tree growers in your area, visit the Iowa Christmas Trees website. City utilities often provide information and services about tree pickup and recycling.