CGRER member and teammates make surprising discovery on parasitic wasps


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A wasp (species unknown) hangs out in a tree (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | October 23, 2019

A recent discovery from the University of Iowa is helping fill-in knowledge gaps about some of the planet’s tiniest inhabitants.

University of Iowa CGRER member and biologist Andrew Forbes and teammates published a paper last month describing an unusual behavior of the “crypt-keeper” wasp. This parasitic species lays its eggs in “crypts,” bubble-like nurseries created in leaves in which other parasitic wasps lay their eggs. The baby crypt-keepers then eat their way through the other baby wasps to emerge from the leaves and into the world.

The study, published in Biology Letters, found that while the vast majority of parasite species are thought to be highly specialized and target just one host species, the crypt-keeper wasp is a parasite to at least six other species that create such “crypts” for their young.

Doctoral student Anna Ward, lead author of the paper, told the New York Times  that this finding helps shed light on important yet often overlooked truths about the ecosystem.

“With climate change, how can we know our true impact if we don’t even know what’s there?” Ward asked. 

 

 

Desalination a valuable resource in addressing water scarcity


Photo from TheLeader DotInfo, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 22nd, 2019

As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, countries are relying on desalinating seawater to prevent a crisis. Desalination plants remove salt to make seawater clean and drinkable through a process known as reverse osmosis. 

Scientists predict that the effects of climate change, a growing population, and the depletion of groundwater resources place a quarter of the global population at risk of running out of water in the near future. This risk is especially high in the Middle East and North Africa, where many of the desalination plants are being built. Saudia Arabia, the global leader in desalination, accounts for about one-fifth of all production. 

Other affluent countries, including Australia, China, Spain, and the United States, have begun producing desalinated water in water-stressed areas. However, the cost has been prohibitive to many countries. Researchers are studying how to improve the process to make it more affordable and accessible. 

Desalinated seawater is an important resource, that currently accounts for about one percent of the world’s fresh water. But the process is not without environmental risks, including a brine byproduct that contains toxic treatment chemicals, as well as high amounts of salt. Desalination also requires large amounts of energy, and as a result adds to the burning of fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Midwest agriculture sector hit by climate change


By Julia Shanahan | October 18th, 2019

The FED central bank released a report this week reviewing the economic strength of various sectors and regions and concluded the agriculture industry is still not doing well economically — a lot of which can be attributed to climate change.

The report said that adverse weather effects has impacted farming conditions, market prices, and has disrupted trade. The Midwest has been hit particularly hard, and the FED reported that midwest sources have concerns about the outcome of this year’s harvest. Iowa experienced heavy flooding in the spring, which damaged grain and farmland. Because Iowa also experienced a period of dry weather over the summer months, some farmers were able to bounce back.

This summer, economic experts at the USDA issued a report that said increasing crop losses will drive up the prices of crop insurance, with climate change being a leading factor in crop loss. There are several government cost-share programs that work to mitigate risk in agriculture, and the average annual cost of these programs amounts to $12 billion using data from the last decade. As severe weather becomes more frequent, the amount of federal dollars is expected to increase.

The report says that all anticipated climate scenarios are expected to lower yields of corn, soybeans, and wheat — but yield volatility is not always impacted by severe weather. In a scenario that greenhouse gas emissions increase at a high rate, the cost of today’s Federal Crop Insurance Program is expected to increase 22 percent.

Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

UI offers free lead testing kits to state residents


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Faucet from Creative Commons. 

Julia Poska | October 16, 2019

Iowa residents can improve their drinking water and support environmental research by participating in the University of Iowa’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative through Oct. 26.

The program offers free lead testing kits to Iowa residents outside of Johnson County. The UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering; and Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination are leading the initiative to collect information for a new database of lead levels in drinking water across Iowa.

Because lead, especially toxic to children, was once used commonly in household products, it may still be present in aging household plumbing across the state.

Interested households can email get-the-lead-out@uiowa.edu  to request and receive three bottles (and instructions) for collecting tap water samples.  After sending samples back to the university for testing, they will receive their results, an explanation and suggestions for improvement (such as adding a filter to the faucet).

Johnson County residents can contact any DNR-certified testing lab, such as the State Hygienic Laboratory, to acquire testing kits.

 

 

Federal flooding buyouts more available in wealthier areas


Flooded Home
Photo by Chris Sirrine, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 15th, 2019

A federal program that buys and demolishes homes in flood-prone areas has been disproportionately implemented in counties with higher incomes and higher populations, a recent study found. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought more than 43,000 homes since 1989 in an effort to make communities less vulnerable to flooding. Though this study raises concerns that the program isn’t helping the areas most at risk. 

The number of Americans with flood insurance has been declining in recent years, while flood-prone areas in coastal states have the highest rates of construction, as the frequency of flooding events increases. The buyout program allows homeowners to relocate further inland, rather than continuously rebuilding after a storm, in a process known as managed retreat. 

Homeowners can’t apply for the buyouts themselves, and FEMA doesn’t determine who can participate. That decision is left to local officials. One explanation for the wealth disparity offered by the study’s authors was that wealthier and more populous jurisdictions may be more likely to have the staff and expertise required to successfully apply for federal funds. Within the counties that receive more funding, poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be demolished.

Another paper, published last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, also highlighted inefficiencies in the FEMA buyout program. The NRDC found that wait times averaging five years for FEMA to complete a project contribute to inequity in the program, as many give up waiting and rebuild instead. 

EPA announced a ​new proposal to update the Lead and Copper Rule


 

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Irrigation (flickr/UTDNR)

 

Kasey Dresser| October 14, 2019

After nearly 30 years of a stagnant Lead and Copper Rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to update the regulation. The new regulations are aimed to increase lead identification, sampling, and strengthen treatment by increasing the number of hours a service provider needs to notify a customer that their water is contaminated with lead.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists have expressed concern that the new regulation allows communities more to time to replace the lead service lines, indicating these regulations may be weaker than the previous. The new proposal also establishes a lower “trigger level” of lead to 10 parts per billion from 15 parts per billion. The main counterargument is health experts have never established that any level of lead can be sustainable. “Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable,” the NRDC said in a statement.

The last major lead pipe exposure in Iowa outbreak was December 2016. More than 6,000 Iowans were exposed to contaminated water for over six months. The issue brought up major incongruency in the method to solve the problem between University of Iowa engineers or Iowa Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources.