Hurricane Harvey worsened by Houston skyline

The buildings of Houston made the floods it experienced last August more intense, a new study found (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 16, 2018

Houston can partially blame the unprecedented flooding it experienced during Hurricane Harvey last year on its skyline. A new study co-authored by Gabriele Villarini, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa, found that Houston’s topography exacerbated Harvey’s rainfall.

Researchers obtained data on rainfall and water discharge in Houston during the storm from various national agencies, and compared it to a computer model that simulated the same storm with a twist. In the model, the city of Houston was replaced with undeveloped farm fields to calculate the built environment’s effect on the storm’s behavior.

The analysis concluded that urban development in the Houston area increased the likelihood of intense fooding 21 times during that particular storm. In other words, if Houston were really an expanse of farmland instead of a city, less rain would have fallen.

“The buildings stop the air from being able to move forward, away from the ocean,” co-author Gabriel Vecchi from Princeton told NPR. “They sort of stop the air in that general area, and the air has nowhere to go but around the buildings, or up.”

Vecchi said when tall buildings push air farther upwards, the amount of atmospheric water vapor that condenses into rain increases. Houston’s skyline not only stalled the storm, but squeezed more rain out of it.




The Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City next week

Organic corn like this one is served popped throughout the conference  (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2018

While University of Iowa students are away for Thanksgiving break next week, Iowa’s organic farmers and advocates with gather in the Iowa Memorial Union for workshops, food and community.

The Iowa Organic Conference begins Sunday, Nov. 18 with a 6pm reception in the IMU ballroom. The following morning, keynote speaker David Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, will speak while attendees eat breakfast at the opening ceremony. His talk, titled Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life, will discuss ways to enhance seemingly hopeless soils.

Attendees can attend workshops throughout the day and visit around 40 vendors in the main lounge. Highlights include workshops led by Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and Iowa journalist Art Cullen, who wrote a series of Pulitzer-winning editorials about Iowa’s water pollution.

Breakfast and lunch are included in the registration fee, and will feature organic fare locally sourced from the Iowa City area. Snacks will be available throughout the day as well.

The event is sponsored by the Iowa State University Organic Program and the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability. Registration is still open for $120.


The benefits of sustainable irrigation

Increased irrigation could help feed billions globally (/stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | November 14th, 2018

Irrigation, a controlled method of watering crops using pipes, canels, and other systems, has long been used to boost harvests and food production. But irrigating crops is an expensive process, and a lack of fresh water and weaker, underfunded infrastructure makes this method often inaccessible to many less developed regions.

Lorenzo Rosa from the University of California, Berkeley is determined to make a case for increased irrigation globally. By biophysically examining cropland across several nations and determining the water consumption of these areas, they were able to deduce that global irrigation could increase by 48%, as there is enough freshwater to contribute an additional 408 cubic km of water per year to different croplands.

Many crops globally are rain-fed, and relying only on rain can be shaky at best. Lorenzo’s team estimates that by increasing global irrigation, the extra water could help grow enough crops to feed an additional 2.8 billion people–and that is certainly a cause worth pressing.

Clothing’s role in sustainability and the environment

We need sustainable business models for fashion now more than ever (/stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | November 13th, 2018

Cheap, mass-produced clothing is an absolutely booming industry, with many significant players in the fast fashion business raking in millions every year. But clothing comes at a cost, and as more brands are making moves towards a sustainable market, these costs become more glaringly obvious.

Fashion produces a lot of waste. About 10% of global carbon emissions come from the fashion industry, and tons of microfibers are released into oceans and other water sources every year from washing clothing made with plastic or otherwise synthetic fibers.

The textile workers that create fast and cheap clothing are almost always underpaid, and frequently work in dangerous conditions.

There are some movements towards more sustainable business models for clothing producers. Everlane’s ReNew, a recently launched clothing line, creates fashionable streetwear, coats, and jackets from recycled plastic. But there’s still a considerable way to go before most companies reach this level of sustainability.

Many sustainable brands are expensive and often inaccessible to many individuals who want to help the environment, but cannot afford anything luxury. For those that wish to do their part in reducing the waste the fashion industry can produce, buying second-hand from consignment or resale shops has always been a great option.

Earth has three moons: Confirmed

This moon is not alone out there (flickr).

Julia Poska| November 9, 2018

They’ll never light up the night sky or pull in the tides, but two additional moons orbit the earth, invisible to the naked eye. A team of Hungarian scientists captured images of them for the first time this year.

The reported the discovery in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society September 1, though the media only picked up the story this week.

According to Universe Today, a moon is defined as “a celestial body that makes an orbit around a planet,” like a “natural satellite.”  The big, round rock commonly known as “the moon” certainly fits this definition, as do the two newly discovered moons, though they look vastly different.

These moons are clouds of tiny dust particles, not solid bodies, according to a recent National Geographic feature. They are each about nine times wider than the Earth’s diameter, and orbit at about the same distance from the planet as our regular moon.

“The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the moon, are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy,” Judit Slíz-Balogh, one of the study’s authors, told National Geographic.

The clouds are so faint that astronomers were unable photograph them until now, with special Polarized lenses on their cameras, though they’ve suspected the moons’ existence since the 1950s. Kazimierz Kordylewski, a Polish astronomer whom the moons have been named after, thought he saw one in 1961, but was unable to prove it.


Iowa explores renewable energy storage

Batteries can make solar arrays productive even after the sun goes down (flickr).

Julia Poska| November 8, 2018

Already a leader in wind energy, Iowa wants to expand its renewable energy portfolio even further. The Iowa Economic Development Authority granted $200,000 to Ideal Energy in Fairfield last month to study “solar plus” systems, solar arrays enhanced with energy storage capacity via batteries.

Without the addition of batteries, these solar grids would only supply power when the sun was shining. The batteries can supply power during outages and at night, and help “shave” energy bills by supplying energy at peak demand hours, when utility costs are highest.

Ideal Energy is currently building a large, 1.1 megawatt solar array with a 1.1 megawatt hour vanadium flow battery for the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. This is the largest solar plus project in the state of Iowa and will cover about a third of the university’s annual energy needs.

Ideal is also installing a somewhat smaller array with a lithium-ion battery at the Agri-Industrial Plastics Company in Fairfield. The battery will provide nighttime power for the company’s 24-hour production lines and save them an estimated $42,000 annually.

With the Iowa Economic Development Authority grant, Ideal will assess and compare the performance, efficiency and maintenance of both systems in partnership with Iowa State University’s Electric Power Research Center. A statewide committee, established by the 2016 Iowa Energy Plan, will evaluate the research to inform future solar plus projects in the state.



Renewable energy capacity in the UK increases

Renewable energy is steadily becoming a major source of power in the UK (/source)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | November 7th, 2018

The capacity of renewable energy in the United Kingdom has now outweighed the country’s capacity of fossil fuels by a small margin.

Renewable sources of energy, like solar- and wind-power, reached a capacity of 41.9 gigawatts between July and September, while non-renewable sources stayed at 41.2 gigawatts.

The UK has been making steady progress towards increasing its use of clean energy and inching away from its previous dependence on fossil fuels,

Fossil fuels often negatively impact the environment. Everything from the extraction of gas and oil to the emissions from its use damage our atmosphere and soil in some way. With clean energy becoming more and more prevalent, hope lies in major countries like the United Kingdom moving away from fossil fuels completely.