Smog-producing air pollution declining more slowly


268416998_4edb6382d2_b
Catalytic converters have decreased the amount of carbon monoxide emitted by cars dramatically since they were first introduced in the 1970s. (Chris Keating/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 1, 2018

A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.

The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.

Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”

The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.

This study was funded by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Science Foundation. The full journal article can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lyme disease on the rise


5655990422_c606f6eb10_b
Deer ticks are the most common vectors of lyme disease. (John Flannery/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 27, 2018

Incidents of lyme disease are on the rise thanks to climate change and land use change.

There are about 30,000 cases of lyme disease reported to the Center for Disease Control every year in the U.S., which is up from approximately 10,000 annual reports in the 1990s.

Deer ticks or black-legged ticks that carry lyme disease require a certain number of frost-free days to complete their life cycle. As the climate warms, these ticks are plaguing parts of North America that have not previously been home to them. In recent years, deer ticks have been found as far north as Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, Canada. Cases of lyme disease in Canada rose from 144 cases annually in 2009 to 917 cases annually in 2015.

Land use change is also increasing the prevalence of lyme disease. As urban developments sprawl out into previously forested land, humans live in closer quarters with the lyme disease vectors.

Early symptoms of lyme disease include fever, chills, and a “bulls eye” rash around the tick bite. If the disease is caught early enough, it can be treated with antibiotics. However, as many as 30 percent of people do not develop the bulls eye rash and often mistake the other symptoms for another illness. If left untreated, lyme disease can cause heart palpitations, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and facial palsy, among other symptoms.

The Center for Disease Control is working to educate health care professionals about how to recognize lyme disease in patients and the most effective treatments for it. Scientists from Bard College and Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies have also enrolled 1,000 households in Duchess County, New York in a study testing some new deer tick control methods. The five year study is using bait boxes that apply a small amount of fipronil (found in products like Frontline) to tick-carrying mammals like squirrels and chipmunks and a fungal spray that kills ticks to determine whether the methods are effective in keeping tick populations down.

Tick-borne illnesses are the most likely harmful human health effect for Iowans as a result of  climate change according to the Medical Society Consortium.

Scientists question EPA’s rollback of hazardous pollution regulation


20052567588_8c1a0c1c60_k
It is estimated that 9 of the 12 major sources of pollution in Iowa’s third congressional district will be reclassified under the EPA’s latest rollback. (Bill Dickinson/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 26, 2018

Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.

In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”

Users can view the likelihood that this policy change will affect air quality in their region using the interactive map provided here.

Earth Day Network encourages year-round environmental effort


4408273247_86db163ca2_b
Plastic tangles with ocean vegetation on a beach near San Francisco. (Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2018

It seems that spring in Iowa finally arrived by this Sunday, April 22nd, which also happened to be Earth Day, and many celebrated by spending time outside.

But what was the 48th Earth Day all about, if not only outdoor picnics and joyous winter-is-finally-over selfies? According to the Earth Day Network, the aim for 2018 is to End Plastic Pollution. A noble cause indeed; more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. About fifty percent of that is used just one time and thrown away. Plastic Oceans, a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic use and pollution, estimates that more than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of this plastic ends up in the Pacific Ocean. More than 6,000 pounds of the stuff was removed during an Earth Day clean up on Hong Kong’s beaches this year, and the effort barely made a dent in the local pollution problem.

The Earth Day Network points out that April 22nd has been a day for civic engagement and political activism since 1970, when millions of Americans marched to call attention to the environmental degradation that had been caused by more than a century of unchecked industrial development. With carbon dioxide levels at their highest level in 650,000 years, there is a strong case to live as though every day is Earth Day. Officials from the Earth Day Network have several suggestions for how to do so. From using nontoxic cleaning products to changing vehicle air filters regularly to reading documents online rather than printing them, small changes made by many people can make a big difference.

Individuals interested in learning more about plastic pollution and how to reduce the amount of plastic they consume can also join the End Plastic Pollution campaign. Participants can calculate their own plastic consumption and create a Personal Plastic Plan to reduce consumption and keep track of progress online.

WorldCanvass event to focus on climate solutions


Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 3.43.49 PM

Jenna Ladd | April 20, 2018

It’s obvious to anyone that follows climate news that climate change is longer a far-off possibility, it is happening now. Dr. Jerry Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, illustrated this point in a recent guest opinion piece for the Press Citizen.

Dr. Schnoor pointed out several ways in which climate change has already taken hold in Iowa. More intense storms are eroding soil into waterways, humidity is on the rise, and floods are likely to be separated by periods of drought. If greenhouse gas emissions are not cut dramatically, all of these effects will become more severe. So, what can Iowans actually do to reverse course? Dr. Schnoor had several recommendations.

He urged individuals to consider limiting their own carbon emissions. At the state level, he stated that Iowa should join the sixteen other states in The Climate Alliance, which is a “proposition that climate and energy leadership promotes good jobs and economic growth.” Iowa is a national leader in wind energy and biofuel usage; the professor argued that joining the alliance obviously aligns with the state’s clean energy accomplishments.

Private sector and industry groups can be a part of the climate solution, too, he said. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development provides innovative ideas for companies looking to curb their emissions. Just recently, international martime shipping companies agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent before 2050.

Climate change policy recommendations must be based in research. Dr. Schnoor invited Iowans to attend a WorldCanvass program on April 25th to hear about the latest scientific research related to climate change and climate-smart policy from several CGRER members. Part of a series of nine recorded discussions focused on topics of international interest, the event is free and open to the public.

What: WorldCanvass Climate Science and the Environment—What’s Next?

When: Wednesday, April 25th from 5:30-7:00 pm

Where: MERGE, 136 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City, Iowa

A catered reception will take place from 5:00-5:30 pm. Dr. Schnoor’s full piece in the Press Citizen can be found here.

Important factors in preserving biodiversity on coffee plantations


10033405005_773e14ae7c_b
Black coffee beans begin as red cherry-like fruits on a tree. (Coffee Management Services/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 19, 2018

As final exams loom closer, many students may find themselves relying a little too heavily on coffee to get them by. But what is the relationship between the black midnight oil and biodiversity?

There are two distinct coffee plants that produce the stuff that fills students’ mugs: coffee arabica and coffee robusta. Arabica plants provide fuel for the coffee connoisseur as its flavor is know for being smoother, richer and more nuanced than coffee robusta. The two plants require different growing conditions, too. Arabica does well in areas that are partly shaded by surrounding canopy while robusta grows better in cleared out areas with more sun.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought to determine whether there was a difference in impacts on biodiversity between the two plants. They collected bird species biodiversity data from coffee plantations in Western Gnats, India between 2013 and 2015. Some of the plantations grew arabica coffee while others grew robusta. Those areas producing arabica had roughly 95 percent canopy tree cover, and those areas growing robusta had 80 percent canopy tree cover. Shockingly, however, this had little effect on bird biodiversity. The difference between the number of species each of the areas supported was not significant.

“An encouraging result of the study is that coffee production in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot, can be a win-win for birds and farmer,” said lead author Charlotte Chang to SIERRA magazine.

The story is not the same on a global scale, however. It has become increasingly popular for coffee farmers in South America and other parts of Asia to clear-cut forests around coffee plantations to make harvesting easier and increase plant productivity.

Researchers suggest that coffee consumers take more time to consider in what conditions their cup of joe was grown. If coffee is labeled Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird Friendly, it is likely have had less of a negative impact on land use and biodiversity.

Climate change and wild spring weather


448189871_02e4c5caa3_b
The Greenland block is a high pressure atmospheric block that hangs above Greenland and affects weather moving down to lower latitudes. (flickr/Stig Nygaard)

Jenna Ladd | April 18, 2018

By-in-large, spring weather has been arriving earlier each year in the United States. For instance, the frost-free season was 10 days longer between 1991 and 2011 than it was from 1901 to 1960.

This may come as a shock to Midwesterners, who saw several inches of snow fall this Sunday, April 15th. So what’s going on?

Among some other factors, the Greenland Block has a lot to do with the snowy spring of 2018, according to Dr. David Mechem of the University of Kansas. Mechem, a professor of geography and atmospheric science, explained that there is a persistent atmospheric area of high pressure above Greenland which funnels cold air from the poles straight into the mid-latitudes of North America. He told KCUR that the block was in place throughout February and March and is finally starting to break down, which would bring long-awaited warmer temperatures to the midwest.

Further research is needed to establish exactly what kind of effect climate change has on spring weather, but scientists are noticing some changes. Winter storms (even if they happen in April) have increased in frequency and intensity in the Northern hemisphere since 1950 according to the National Climate Assessment. Nor’easter winter storms plague the eastern U.S. and are caused by the the cold air from the Arctic and warm air from the Atlantic interplaying. This year, that region of the U.S. saw several Nor’easters in very quick succession, which is unusual. A recent study in the journal Nature Communications found that as the Arctic’s climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, winter storms becoming more likely in the eastern U.S.

The good news is that as the Greenland block continues to break down, residents of the mid-latitudes can expect spring to finally arrive. The bad news is that unpredictable spring weather can be expected to continue coming years as the climate continues to change.