An economic argument for slowing climate change


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Damages from Hurricane Harvey are estimated to exceed $100 billion. (Jill Carlson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 29, 2017

Human-induced climate change costs more than the U.S. economy can afford according to a recent report from the Universal Ecological Fund.

The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” published recently by the non-profit research organization, found that severe weather intensified by climate change and the health impacts associated with burning fossil fuels have cost the U.S. economy $240 billion per year in the last decade.

Economic losses due to extreme weather have doubled in the last ten years. To illustrate this point, the authors point out that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused an estimated $300 billion in damages, which is double the $145 billion in losses caused by all hurricanes in the last decade.

The press release points out that the number of extreme weather events costing $1 billion or more in damages has increased by 400 percent since the 1980s. Iowa, for example, has endured three floods costing more than $1 billion in the last decade, up three fold since the 1990s.

If climate change is not curtailed, researchers predict annual costs associated with severe weather and the health impacts of greenhouse gases will reach $360 billion.

Sir Robert Watson, coauthor of the report and former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said during a press conference, “Simply, the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the climate continues to change and cost. Thus, transitioning to a low-carbon economy is essential for economic growth and is cheaper than the gigantic costs of inaction.”

Solutions presented for nitrate runoff at Iowa Ideas conference


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Cover crops like rye and clover are alternatives for fall tilling. (Chesapeake Bay Program/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 28, 2017

Experts in fields from agriculture, energy and environment, higher education and healthcare gathered in Cedar Rapids for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference September 21 and 22.

The two day conference was presented as an opportunity “to connect with fellow Iowans and develop solutions for key issues facing our state.”

Dr. Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher and CGRER member proposed one solution that would reduce nitrate runoff in Iowa’s waterways by 10 to 20 percent within one year. The IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering research engineer stated that Iowa farmers should avoid planting crops on flood plains and stop tilling their land in the fall because it makes soil more susceptible to erosion if they want to see a reduction in nutrient runoff.

According to a report in The Gazette, Jones said, “It’s difficult for me to understand why these things continue. If we could do those two things, we would have a 10 to 20 percent reduction in one year.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that there has been a 6 million acre increase in no-till farmland since 1987.

Chris Jones further discusses the science behind nitrate pollution and what it means for Iowa’s natural resources in episode one of Iowa Environmental Focus’ Nitrate Series.

Cooler August slows melting in Arctic


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The orange line indicates a median ice extent from 1981-2010, while the white areas represent current ice cover. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Jenna Ladd | September 27, 2017

The summer melting period has come to an end in the Arctic, and ice cover is at not quite as minimal as scientists had predicted.

Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal minimum extent of 1.79 million square miles on September 13, the eighth lowest of a 38-year satellite record.

The Arctic saw its record minimum ice coverage in 2012 and officials from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) were expecting lows after this summer to near record lows, but there was a twist in the plot. August brought more cloud cover and lower temperatures to the region and slowed melting.

Still, the 2017 ice cover minimum was 610,000 square miles below the minimum average recorded between 1981 and 2010. In an interview with the Guardian, Ted Scambos of NSIDC noted that Arctic ice melt has been linked to heatwaves, floods and extreme winters in many parts of the world.

Scambos said that although there is some variation from year to year, “The Arctic will continue to evolve towards less ice. There’s no dodging that.”

Leaves drop early due to fall drought


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Vibrant fall leaf colors may be missing in some parts of Iowa this year due to drought conditions. (Ashley Webb/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 26, 2017

Tree leaves in Iowa began changing colors and falling to the ground earlier than usual this year due to drought conditions.

Leaf color change has a lot to do with weather conditions, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. Drought Portal reveals that about thirty percent of Iowa is currently seeing abnormally dry conditions and about twenty-five percent of the state is experiencing moderate drought.

Kandyce Weigel is the administrative assistant of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ State Forest Nursery. She told the Des Moines Register, “When they (trees) don’t have enough moisture, they’ll start to go into dormancy. They need moisture and they need cool nights. And usually, the light change — when we have less light as the days get shorter — that cues them to change, too. But that dryness is cuing them to push into dormancy earlier.”

In a typical year, leaves change color in northern Iowa between the last week of September and the second week of October, from the first to third weeks of October in central Iowa and from the second week through the end of October in southern Iowa.

Unfortunately, dry conditions cause leaves to die and fall from trees before they burst into autumn’s hues of red, yellow and orange.

On The Radio – 2016 State of the Climate report brings bad news


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Alpine glaciers retreated worldwide for the 37th year in a row during 2016. (Dru/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 25, 2017

Transcript: Earth’s climate has reached some troubling milestones, according to the 2016 State of the Climate Report that was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society last month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The report, which is produced by top editors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information, described how levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high. The increase from 2015 to 2016 of 3.5 parts per million was the largest jump in one year on modern record.

Rising temperatures brought drought conditions to many parts of the globe. During every month of the year, at least twelve percent of the global area was experiencing drought conditions. More than half of the land south of equator experienced drought conditions during some part of 2016.

2016 also marked the 37th year in a row during which alpine glaciers retreated worldwide.

To read the full State of the Climate Report and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”

ISU Horticulture Research Station celebrates anniversary


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ISU’s Horticulture Research Station provides opportunities for hands-on research for students and faculty. (Iowa State University)
Jenna Ladd| September 22, 2017

Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

The anniversary was marked with a farmer’s market, farm tours, children’s games and a produce washing demonstration on Saturday.

The 235 acre station is home to 80 to 90 research projects each year. Scientists from horticulture, forestry, botany, ecology, plant pathology, entomology and natural resources use the space to study everything from vegetables to honeybees to wasps to swallows. The land bears apples, pumpkins, watermelon, hops, grapes and more.

Ben Pease is a Horticulture Research Associate at Iowa State. He said, “We are able to sell most of what we grow. If it’s part of a research project once it’s done we can sell it or we’re growing stuff to use the land we’re able to sell it,” to Iowa State Daily. Pease added that the station has made over a million dollars selling produce since 2006. Much of the food is sold to ISU’s dining halls, which buys about 5 tons of green peppers each year.

The land, which features a 15 acre lake as well, is located just three miles north of Ames on highway 69.