Julia Poska | January 25, 2019
Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.
The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.
“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”
Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation.
Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.
Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.
Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.
“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.
He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.
Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change.
Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.
Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.
“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change.
Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.
He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.
“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”
***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run 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. ***