CGRER Looks Forward: Statistician Kate Cowles


Julia Poska | March 22, 2019

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Kate Cowles, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Hydrologists can never completely predict when flooding will strike. Conservationists can never be sure how chemical spills will impact fish populations, nor can anyone really foretell how extreme the effects of climate change will be. That’s why environmental researchers need statisticians like Kate Cowles.

“One of the hallmarks of statistical work is assessing realistically how much uncertainty remains,” said the University of Iowa professor of statistics and biostatistics.

Cowles’ was first introduced to environmental statistics when another environmental statistician, her early mentor Dale Zimmerman, called on her expertise in Bayesian statistics. Together they calibrated four methods of measuring water held in snow across the western U.S..

“Indeed I learned an enormous amount from Dale and really got hooked on the environmental and spatial,” she said. and “I’ve pretty much been working in that area ever since.”

Cowles began her career as a piano teacher…how did she get here today? Listen to her describe her fascinating journey.  

Notably, Cowles was director of GEEMaP (Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction), a value-added graduate program funded by the National Science Foundation. Before it ended last summer, GEEMaP brought together faculty and graduate  students in fields like statistics, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, computer science,  geoinformatics and geography.

The problems they discussed and solved exposed students to real-world problems and gave them a strong grounding in statistics and geographic information systems (GIS), Cowles said. Every project promoted interdisciplinary collaboration.

Cowles said a class she teaches on Bayesian statistics, her specialty, also resonates well with engineering students. The Bayesian approach allows users to quantify what they do and do not know and update their understanding as more information comes in. Cowles believes it parallels the way engineers think and lends itself well to engineering problems. She is always excited to advise engineering students and further promote collaboration with statisticians.

“I think that it is crucially important for those two types of data analysts to work together and communicate with each other,” Cowles said.

Because environmental datasets are often measured over both space and time, researchers in fields like agriculture and meteorology must account for spatial correlation. As the first law of geography states, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Hear about a possible application for Cowles and her student’s spatial correlation software.

Calculating that relationship requires complex statistics, but failing to account it properly can lead to faulty conclusions.

“Statistical methods that help us draw the right conclusions for complex data like that are becoming more and more important,” Cowles said.

One of Cowles’ graduate students is developing software that “mops up that spatial correlation,” making things easier for non-statisticians making predictions based on spatial data.

Processing  such enormous datasets is slow work, however. In many cases, engineering methods like machine learning are faster than statistical methods, which Cowles said creates  tension between disciplines.

Listen to Cowles explain how she hopes to speed up complex spatial processing.

Another large part of her work focuses on activating underutilized graphical processing units inside computers to do many simple computations simultaneously, which can speed up the processing of such data.

“Statisticians need to catch up, because engineers and environmental scientists cannot wait for a long time for results of their analyses!” she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

Water quality researcher/blogger puts fresh perspective on stinking problem


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This map from Chris Jones’ blog relates the “real populations” (based on animal waste) of Iowa watersheds to the human populations other global areas.

The public rarely gets its science straight from the source; we depend largely on the media to distill complicated academic research for us. University of Iowa researcher and adjunct professor Chris Jones is one of a rare breed of scientists who can adeptly communicate science on his own.

Jones has spent his career monitoring and researching the Iowan environment for institutions ranging from Des Moines Water Works to the Iowa Soybean Association. As an IIHR research engineer today he conducts original research and runs a blog where he explores the systems and nuances surrounding Iowa’s degraded water.

Recently, Jones calculated “Iowa’s real population” based on the nitrogen, phosphorus and solid matter in animal waste. He explained that Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce as much waste as 134 people. The map pictured above matches the human populations of global cities and U.S. states to the “real populations” of Iowa’s watersheds.

“Managing the waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem,” he wrote. Weather and plant life cycles create a limited time window to apply it to fields, and hauling and handling it presents other challenges. When nutrients from manure enter waterways, they contribute to harmful algae blooms locally and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In another recent post, Jones used public data to compare the amount of nitrate purchased commercially and produced via manure in each Iowa watershed with the Iowa State University recommended application rate for corn. He found that, on average, Iowa farmers over-apply synthetic nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. The addition of manure brings that surplus to 91 pounds per acre.

Other posts explore historical, social and political angles. Earlier this week, a post called “Ransom” related efforts to protect Lake Eerie in Ohio to the economic reality of farming and agribusiness in Iowa. “Who is getting the outcomes that they want from our policies, and in particular, the old school policies targeting improved water quality?” Jones asked.

Overall, Jones’ blog offers an informative and rather accessible expert perspective on a hugely complex issue. To subscribe yourself, visit here and enter your email at the bottom of the left sidebar.

 

Cedar Rapids hopes for an eventual permanent flood plan


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 20th, 2019

In the midst of major flood warnings, Cedar Rapids is determined to meet the rising waters more prepared than ever.

The city has dealt with major flooding before, suffering millions in infrastructure damage during the 2008 flood. This year, after heavy snow brought along predictions of a bad flood season, Cedar Rapids has been doubling down on their flood defenses.

Temporary measures are keeping small crests in the water level away from downtown businesses and residences. The city uses HESCO barriers–a physical blockade originally used to protect soldiers on the front line from bullets during war. The company has been selling their products to cities for flood protection for years.

Cedar Rapids aims to have a permanent flood plan, one that will take years of building and a few hundred million to bring to fruition. But, for now, business owners trust in HESCO, and in the competence of the city leaders who have lived through their fair share of flooding.

 

Iowa City Youth Climate Strike


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Kasey Dresser| March 19, 2019

On March 15th across the nation, youths gathered to raise awareness for climate change and its effect on our world. In the Ped Mall in Iowa City, over 50 students from Southeast Jr. High gathered to speak to the community about their concerns.

The students came prepared with a bullhorn and took turns sharing their opinions for two hours. They were holding hand made signs and handing out a sheet of climate change facts. While young, the passionate students created quite an audience stating, “the bigger the fuss we make, the more politicians will listen.” Congressman Dave Loesback was present and talked with the students in his office following the event.

From the climate change fact handout:

  • 408 parts per million. The concentration of carbon dioxide (C02) in our atmosphere, as of 2018, is the highest it has been in 3 million years.
  • 800 million people or 11% of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise.
  • Thermometer records kept over the past century and a half show Earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius), and about twice that in parts of the Arctic.
  • We have 11 years to reverse the effects of climate change. We must act now.

On The Radio- Coffee Wake Up Call


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Coffee (kendra k/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| March 18, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how deforestation is affecting coffee production. 

Transcript:

Deforestation and climate change may wipe out coffee worldwide. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent the last 30 years traveling across the world recording the patterns of coffee forests and farms. Sixty percent of coffee species are at risk for extinction due to the effects of climate change and deforestation. Coffee plantations are expected to vanish from the three major coffee producing continents.

Part of Dr. Davis’ research is the development of a barometer to test the biodiversity of forests and risks posed to coffee plants. The most popular coffee bean, arabica, comes from Ethiopia and has been shown to be extremely vulnerable to climate change effects. He reports that the ecosystems are becoming less diverse which mean less food and less shelter for species. 

While there are 124 coffee species, a majority are wild and inaccessible. Dr. Davis and the rest of his team continue their research to find rare coffee plants and new places to farm them. His travels have been directed toward cooler areas. On the teams’ most recent expedition, they found a hillside in Liberia covered in stenophylla, a flowering coffee plant that they are currently testing.

More research will hopefully ensure coffee is available long into the future.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason. 

Flood fallout: statewide disaster proclamation and precaution


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The Iowa Flood Information System as of Thursday night. 

Julia Poska | March 15, 2019

Iowa’s flood season started off with an splash this week. The state saw road closures, city evacuations and one even one collapsed bridge. In wake of major damage from east to west, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statewide disaster proclamation Thursday.

The official proclamation activates the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate disaster response using state resources. It also activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program for qualifying residents; those with household incomes up to twice the federal poverty level have 45 days after the proclamation to apply for up to $5,000 in flood damage repairs.

The proclamation also activated the Disaster Case Management Program in 21 counties. Case managers help those seriously affected by disasters overcome adversity by helping them create a disaster recovery plan and offering guidance, advice and referrals.

Better safe than sorry

The flood season has only just begun and is expected to be brutal this year. Flood insurance takes 30 days from purchase to become active, but flood risk is an all-year hazard, especially in Iowa. It is not too late to protect your household from future floods.

Do you live in a flood plain? Find out here and remember that over 20 percent of flood insurance claims come from properties outside the supposed “high-risk” zone. The average claim is about $30,000: six times more than the maximum granted by the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and with no income requirement.

Be aware of present flood risk as well. Watches are ongoing in much of the state. Be sure to…

  • Avoid driving across even shallowly flooded roads.
  • Keep at least a day’s supply of shelf-stable food and water in your home, especially if you live in a floodplain.
  • Check here for up-to-date road closures.
  • Visit the Iowa Flood Information System for flood alerts and more.

Flood watch continues across Iowa; the latest in your part of the state


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Check the Iowa Flood Information System for current alert statuses. 

Julia Poska | March 14, 2019

While Iowans rejoiced over spring-like weather this week after a long, brutal winter, flooding caused by rapid snowmelt and heavy rains has threatened communities across the state.

Iowa weather services have been reporting higher-than-average risks for major flooding this spring since late February, and many outlooks have only increased within the last week, according to the Des Moines Register. The risk is most pronounced along the Mississippi River, where a Quad Cities survey found the risk of flooding through May to be 95 percent last week. The National Weather Service says flooding in the Quad Cities could break records.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch Wednesday morning that will last until at least this evening across most of the state. In some areas the watch will extend into next week. Below is information on flooding and alerts throughout the state as of this morning.

East

  • Major flood stage was reached in Waterloo, Maquoketa and DeWitt as of Thursday morning. Moderate flood stage was reached in many areas Wednesday, including Kalona, Atkins and Augusta (IFIS).
  • Yesterday, Cedar Rapids expected a “moderate flood stage” when the Cedar River crests early next week. Officials said this should be fairly insignificant for residents. The city had already reached moderate flood stage as of Wednesday night (Gazette/IFIS).
  • An ice jam raised alarm in Ottumwa Wednesday morning, though it only caused minor agricultural flooding (Des Moines Register).

Central

  • Squaw Creek in Ames reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. As of Thursday morning, all areas were at or below moderate levels (IFIS).
  • An ice jam collapsed a bridge in Johnston Wednesday evening. The trail leading to the bridge had been closed prior to the collapse (Des Moines Register).
  • Des Moines Public Works closed parts of George Flagg Parkway and Fleur Avenue. These could remain closed for days (WHOtv).
  • An ice jam in the Raccoon River flooded rural communities in Dallas County (Des Moines Register).

West

  • Western Iowa was hit worst of all. As of Thursday morning, eight communities from north to south were at major flood stage (IFIS).
  • The Boyer River in Hogan and the West Nishnabotna River near Avoca reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. A Red Cross station was set up in Avoca for those displaced from homes (kwbe/IFIS).
  • Underwood in Pottawattamie County lost function of its sewer lift system Wednesday. Residents were asked to stop flushing toilets temporarily (kwbe).
  • Harrison County Emergency Management ordered a partial evacuation of Missouri Valley Wednesday night. As of 9:20pm, 2,600 people were underwater (Des Moines Register).
  • Several roads have been closed as well. Check 511ia.org for current closures. 

Take care around even shallowly flooded areas, especially when driving. Remember that while newly-purchased flood insurance takes 30 days to go into effect (and will therefore not help you this week), Iowa’s flood season has only just begun.

Visit the Iowa Flood Information System to monitor current flood alerts, stream levels and rainfall forecasts for your area.