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.

More LED lighting means lower utility bills for livestock farmers

Nick Fetty | September 16, 2014
Livestock farmers are saving money on utility bills by equipping facilities with LED lighting. (Benny Mazur/Flickr)
Hog farmers are saving money on utility bills by equipping facilities with LED lighting. (Benny Mazur/Flickr)

The increased popularity of energy efficient LED (light emitting diodes) lighting has moved to the farm and livestock farmers are saving on utility bills by embracing this trend.

Hog farmers in Iowa have been particularly quick to adopt the new technology. Washington, Iowa-based Sitler’s Supplies has sold more than 10,000 LED fixture and bulb sets in the past 18 months. This is to help accommodate the utility demands of livestock operations which can have up to 600 lights running for more than 16 hours per day.

A 2010 Oklahoma State University study found that cows produced six percent more milk when raised near LED lighting compared to fluorescent lighting. However a University of Florida scientist claims that the evidence is inconclusive and that “[t]he wavelength of light you get and the whiteness from LED should not have an influence.” This was again debated in a 2014 article from LEDs Magazine which suggests LED lighting will “substantially increase the production of eggs, meat, and other protein sources, while dramatically reducing energy use and other input costs.”

Governmental and private entities have also embraced LED lighting in recent years although at $50-60 per fixture the technology is not yet affordable for some farmers. An LED bulb can have a lifespan of about 80,000 hours which is more than double than of a compact florescent.

Iowa farmers have also been proactive in utilizing other energy efficiency measures such as solar panels, geothermal, and methane gas recovery.

Iowa State grad named to Agricultural Research Service Science Hall of Fame

Nick Fetty | September 11, 2014
Jerry L. Hatfield is the Director for the ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. (USDA)
Jerry L. Hatfield is the Director for the ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. (USDA)

Jerry L. Hatfield – the director of the ARS (Agricultural Research Service) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa – will be among four scientists inducted into the Agricultural Research Service Science Hall of Fame.

Hatfield earned a PhD in Agricultural Climatology and Statistics at Iowa State University in 1975. He also holds degrees from the University of Kentucky (M.S. ’72) as well as Kansas State University (B.S. ’71). He served as a biometeorologist on the faculty at the University of California-Davis from 1975 through 1983 then was with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Lubbock, Texas from 1983 through 1989. He has been at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames (formerly called the National Soil Tilth Laboratory) since 1989.

Dr. Hatfield’s main research has examined interactions among the components of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum and its relation to air, water, and soil quality. Other research has focused on how farm practices affect water quality as well as the impact that climate change has had on agriculture. Recently he co-authored the book Climate Change in the Midwest: A Synthesis Report for the National Climate Assessment which was published last month.

Three other scientists join the 2014 Hall of Fame class including Perry B. Cregan, a researcher at the ARS Soybean Genomics and Improvement Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland; Hyun S. Lillehoj, a molecular biologist at the ARS Animal Biosciences and Biotechnology Laboratory also in Beltsville; and Ross M. Welch, a retired plant physiologist for the ARS Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research Unit in Ithaca, New York. To qualify for induction into the Hall of Fame, nominees must be retired or eligible to retire.

Dubuque and other communities improve infrastructure for future natural disasters

Nick Fetty | September 8, 2014
Following the Flood of 1965 (pictured) the city erected a floodwall. (Wikimedia)
Following the Flood of 1965 (pictured) the city of Dubuque erected a floodwall. (Wikimedia)

Heavy rains and flash flooding has caused Dubuque to be declared a presidential disaster area on six different occasions in the last 16 years and climate change is expected to continue contributing to these problems. Dubuque and other cities across the country are attempting to be better prepared for future disastrous events through more efficient infrastructure, however local governments have been struggling to fund these projects.

Dubuque’s Bee Branch Watershed Flood Mitigation Project aims to protect part of the “city’s most developed areas where over 50% of Dubuque residents either live or work.” The $179 million project is divided into 12 phases and is expected to begin as early as fall 2015 and be completed by 2016.  The Iowa Flood Mitigation Board awarded the city of Dubuque $98.5 million for the project in December 2013. The money was awarded in the form of state sales tax increment financing which will be spread across 20 years. The City has raised an additional $30 million but still needs nearly $50 million more to cover the entire cost of the project.

The project will both reduce the volume and slow the rate of stormwater in the upper watershed, provide safer conveyance of stormwater in flood-conducive areas, and protect the City’s wastewater treatment plant from stormwater. Additionally, the project will expand upon the area’s trail system and connect Dubuque with East Dubuque on the Wisconsin side.

Aspects of climate change have contributed to natural disasters from California to Florida to New York. Along with Dubuque, local governments in Norfolk (Virginia), Miami Beach (Florida), and New York City have also built infrastructure designed to withstand natural disasters in those regions.

On the Radio: Algae blooms present hazards in Iowa waters

A blue-green algae bloom along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, late June 2014. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue-green algae bloom along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, late June 2014. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a type of hazardous algae that’s become increasingly common in Iowa waterways. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.


Transcript: Algae

As the summer comes to an end, late season beach-goers are advised to take extra precaution as algae blooms in Iowa lakes can be at peak levels.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hot August temperatures coupled with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Iowa waterways provides the ideal breeding ground for algae. Certain forms of blue green algae can contain toxins that are harmful to humans and have even been known to kill dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Blue green algae are generally visible on the surface and can give the water a consistency similar to paint. The Iowa Department of Public Health advises any persons to immediately wash algae off themselves or pets that come in contact with it.

So far this summer, Saylorville Lake and Lake Red Rock, both in central Iowa, have reported high levels of blue green algae, and at least six other state-operated beaches across the state have seen high enough algae levels that swimming was not recommended.

For more information about blue green algae, visit

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

Mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus bites Iowa

Nick Fetty | September 4, 2014
Infected mosquitoes can transmit the Chikungunya virus to humans (Gustavo Fernando Durán/Flickr)
Infected mosquitoes can transmit the Chikungunya virus to humans. (Gustavo Fernando Durán/Flickr)

The Iowa Department of Public Health has reported the state’s first case of the Chikungunya (pronunciation: chik-en-gun-ye) virus, which is spread by infected mosquitoes.

A central Iowa man was diagnosed with the virus after a recent trip to the Caribbean. The man’s name and hometown were not made public but he is between the ages of 18 and 40. Health officials said the man was not hospitalized and is recovering. Common symptoms of the Chikungunya virus include fever as well as joint pain. Headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, and rashes may also occur. While the virus generally isn’t fatal, scientists have recently taken the first steps in developing a vaccine.

Before this most recent case, Iowa was one of just six states without any reported cases. Nearly 700 cases of Chikungunya have been reported in the United States so far this year. The majority of those cases reported were people returning from areas in the Caribbean and South America.

The Chikungunya virus was first reported in Tanzania in the 1950s. The virus was mostly contained in Africa and Asia for more than half a century before the first reported case in the Americas was found on a Caribbean island in late 2013. The “first locally acquired case” was reported in Florida on July 17 of this year.

Iowa health officials caution that September and October are the most active months for mosquitoes carrying the potentially lethal West Nile virus of which seven cases have been reported this year.

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