It’s Invasive Species Awareness Month!


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Familiarize yourself with invasive Garlic Mustard, pictured here,  so you can pull it when you see it (flickr). 

Julia Poska| May 10, 2019

Invasive species often travel across continents via human transportation vessels and the cargo they carry. These species often have no natural predators in their new homes, so their populations explode. The native species that the invaders in turn prey upon are not adapted to defend themselves against these new predators, giving the invasive species an advantage over the native predators that now must share their prey.  The result is a devastating chain reaction that can ripple through entire ecosystems.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds declared May Invasive Species Awareness Month to encourage the public and private sectors to join forces and amp up the fight against ecosystem invaders. Invasive species in Iowa harm agriculture and seriously degrade state parks, which are a source of tourism revenue.

One of Iowa’s most problematic invasive pests is the Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle from east Asia that has killed millions of ash trees across the country in the last 17 years. Another common offender is Garlic Mustard, a tasty herb which is spreading rapidly through Iowan woodlands and crowding out native plant species. A full guide to problematic invasive plant species found in Iowa’s woodlands can be found here.

Gardeners will be familiar with many invasive bugs and weeds, like the Japanese Beetle, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and bull thistles. These pests and others can pose real threats to Iowa farmers, and many are tracked by the Iowa State Ag Extension Office.

How can you help?

  • Do not buy or sell firewood from outside your county. Firewood can contain and spread invasive insects like the Emerald Ash Borer.
  • Scrub shoes and clean clothes before and after trips outdoors to avoid spreading seeds, especially when visiting public lands.
  • Remove invasive plants where you recognize them. Some groups and parks host volunteer days to pull invasive species.

Northeast Iowa streams, springs and wells test positive for disease-causing microbes


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E. coli bacteria, which was found in its pathogenic form in northeast Iowa waters (flickr).

Julia Poska| May 3, 2019

Luther College biologists have found disease-causing bacteria and parasites in Winneshiek County water, in some cases at disease-causing concentrations, according to Iowa Public Radio.

Over half of the 48 surface water samples Jodi Enos-Berlage and Eric Baack took at streams and springs tested positive for cryptosporidium, a parasitic protist that can cause digestive distress for weeks. Half of the 22 private wells tested showed cryptosporidium, too, but at significantly lower levels, the researchers said.

Twenty percent of the surface waters tested positive for the Shiga toxin, as well, which is produced by the pathogenic strain of E. coli. At some sites, the concentration of the toxin in just one cup of water would be high enough to cause fever and digestive distress if consumed.

The biologists also tested for indicators of human and animal feces, which could have carried those pathogens into the water via farm runoff or aging septic systems. Baack told IPR he was surprised to find low-level  fecal contamination widespread in surface waters.  The researchers found less fecal contamination in wells.

 

 

 

Disastrous forecast realized in Davenport flood


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Davenport flooding in 2011 (flickr).

Julia Poska|May 2, 2019

The Quad Cities have been preparing since the National Weather Service reported earlier this year a 95 percent chance of pronounced flooding in the area through May. As of Tuesday, their temporary barriers had been in place for 48 days. This week, their preparations proved insufficient.

Tuesday afternoon, Mississippi River floodwaters suddenly rushed into Davenport when HESCO Barriers — military grade defense boxes used to make temporary walls — succumbed to the force of the water. Officials saw early signs, the Quad City Times and Dispatch-Argus reported, and began urging people in some areas to evacuate when the temporary levees began breaking around 3:30 pm. The HESCO barriers had never been tested in waters above 21.5 feet, but as of 4:30 pm the Mississippi was at 21.87 feet, heading quickly to the expected 22.4 foot crest.

Not everyone received or took seriously the evacuation warnings, and many had to be rescued by boat after the fact. Once the water came rushing in, there was little time to take action. No serious injuries were reported.

The Weather Channel reported that floodwater began to recede Wednesday morning, and that at their peak levels surpassed 6 feet in some areas. A new expected crest of 22.7 feet is expected later today, which could surpass the 22.6 foot record set in 1993.

Scott County officials and Gov. Kim Reynolds are hoping President Trump’s earlier disaster declaration for western Iowa will extend into the Quad Cities area, local media reported.

 

 

Flood Center co-founder Larry Weber serves on Flood Recovery Advisory Board


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Larry Weber, a notable flood expert from the University of Iowa (photo from IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering).

Julia Poska| April 26, 2019

The Flood Recovery Advisory Board, formed by Governor Reynolds to coordinate statewide recovery and rebuilding following this year’s devastating floods, will gain  expertise from Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber can offer valuable experience and insights in several areas related to flooding. He is a former director of IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, conducting research in areas including river hydraulics, hydropower, ice mechanics, water quality and watershed processes.

Weber also conducts research for the UI Public Policy Center and worked with the state legislature in 2013 to implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He and his wife have won several awards for conservation work on their own property.

Recently, he wrote an op-ed about his vision as leader of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $96 million Iowa Watershed Approach. This program addresses factors that contribute to Iowa’s increasing flood risk in nine distinct watersheds, with the ultimate goals of reducing risk, improving water quality and increasing resilience.

In the piece, Weber said he aims to restore natural resiliency through conservation measures like farm ponds, wetlands and terraces. Floodplain restoration is another important piece of his plan.

“We need to allow our rivers room to flood,” he said. “The floodplain is an integral, natural part of the river. They also keep people safe and remove us from the heartbreaking cycle that so many Iowans know all too well: Lose everything to a flood.”

His expertise in all-things-flooding, from hydraulics to conservation to policy, will surely prove valuable as Iowa begins to move forward from this year’s floods and better prepare for  flooding to come.

 

 

 

New report reveals prevalence of well contamination in Iowa


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Click here to explore new findings on well contamination from the Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council. 

Julia Poska| April 25, 2019

If you own a private well in Iowa, it’s likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria, nitrates or both, according to a new report from the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group.

“Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them,” the report’s primary author, economic analyst Anne Schechinger said in a press release.

The report was released yesterday as an interactive map, using dots in three colors to indicate the relative levels of contamination between counties based on state testing from 2002 to 2017. Because the EPA does not require testing for private wells, the vast majority of Iowa’s private wells are never tested. Only 55,000 of Iowa’s estimated 290,000 wells were tested during the study period.

Over 40 percent of those wells contained fecal coliform bacteria, considered unsafe in any amount. Twelve percent had nitrate levels above the EPA’s 10 parts per million safety standard. Twenty-two percent had nitrate levels above 5 ppm, which recent studies have linked to increased risk of numerous health problems, according to the report. The average nitrate level rose to 5.7 ppm over the years of study.

Over that entire period, eight counties tested fewer than 10 wells, meaning this report tells an incomplete story. Findings indicate that those counties, which appear the cleanest on the map, may actually be among the most at risk.  Only one-third of wells were tested more than once. Those that were tested repeatedly often showed continued contamination, indicating lack of action.

 

Beware “greenwashing” this Earth Day


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Watch out! Consumerism can be made to appear “green” (flickr). 

Julia Poska| April 22, 2019

“Earth Day deals to save money and help the planet,” one headline reads. “10 products that will help you buy less this Earth Day,” says another. Other articles advertise “clean” beauty products or “green” technology.

Don’t fall for it; buying anything, especially anything you don’t need, ultimately contributes to fossil fuel emissions, resource consumption and the planet’s pervasive trash problem.

“Greenwashing” occurs when an institution puts more resources and effort into marketing itself as eco-friendly than it does actually minimizing its environmental impact. This doesn’t only happen on Earth Day, of course. Many companies, public figures and organizations  feature “sustainability missions” on their websites year long,  making vague claims about their “zero-waste journey” or “environmental stewardship,” with little concrete information about the implementation or outcomes of such initiatives.

Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter for Mother Jones, wrote today that she “hates” Earth Day, mostly because it has devolved from a day of protest and activism to a day when anyone can claim to care. Every April, her inbox floods with PR pitches promoting  Earth Day news from companies that she knows are less-than-sustainable 364 days of the year.

“Earth Day provides a fine opportunity to showcase how [a company’s] generally negligible corporate gestures demonstrate their commitment to ‘going green,'” she said.

Reducing consumption by fully utilizing what we already own or sharing with others is far better for the planet than consuming new products, even if those products are well-intended.  So think critically about the messages you come across. Use up all your shampoo before you invest in that more natural version, buy a used shirt instead of a brand new “organic” tee and forego using a straw at all over buying a metal one.

And if you want to absolutely minimize your carbon footprint today, Quartz writer Ephrat Livni makes the case for “sitting perfectly still” at home with the lights and air conditioning turned off, so that “ever-so-briefly you are not contributing to climate change.”

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, 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 perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***