How to curb Iowa flooding according to an agricultural engineer


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Sandbags like these are not an adequate solution to Iowa’s flood problem, Kamyar Enshayan warned (flickr).

Julia Poska| September 21, 2018

In an effort to call Iowa to action, Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, called on his expertise as an environmentalist and agricultural engineer for a Des Moines Register OpEd earlier this week.

Enshayan warned Iowans that flooding will only get worse as the climate changes and gave those upstream three pieces of advice to protect their downstream statesmen.

First, he said we should hand floodplains back to nature. He called for an end to construction and development along riverbanks, arguing that the ecosystem services floodplains provide are more valuable than riverside property.

Natural floodplains improve water quality, provide great wildlife habitat, offer natural flood protection and reduce flood disaster and recovery costs according to the Nature Conservancy. 

Second, we need to make Iowa more “spongy” with sustainable cropping and biodiversity solutions. Enshayan suggested increasing crop diversity in longer rotations to promote healthy soil. Deep-rooted native prairie plants and natural wetland ecosystems will also help contain water.

Finally, he said we must get to the root of the problem and reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. He pointed to methane-emitting landfills and Iowa’s continued dependence on coal as areas for potential improvement.

Enshayan addressed policy makers at the end of the piece, saying they should listen to scientists and engineers like himself to proactively protect people and resources.

“Sand bagging is not enough, not a lasting solution, and does not address upstream problems,” he said.  “Let’s work on lasting solutions.”

 

Soil could hold key to climate adaptation


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A plant begins and ends its life in the soil, which could be the key to climate adaptation (Flickr). 

Julia Poska| September 20, 2018

Climate change models predict decreased crop yields as temperatures rise, but new research from Michigan State University says our soil can save us.

If yields go down, the amount of carbon returned to the soil will too, creating a feedback loop that would only accelerate crop loss.  The study, published in Agriculture and Environmental Letters, found that certain soil management and conservation practices can compensate for crop loss by keeping carbon in the soil.

Practices like cover cropping and conservation tillage, encouraged by the researchers, benefit the environment in other ways as well. Especially in Corn Belt states along the Mississippi River, these practices are encouraged to keep soil nutrients out of the water.

Lead scientist Bruno Basso said soil may be our most important resource for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change in an MSU media release about the study. “The soil that we’ll deal with in 2050 is surely to be different than it is now, so recognizing how to manage it today -along with adaptation strategies for tomorrow — is critical,” he said.

 

Could climate change be behind Hurricane Florence?


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The National Hurricane Center shows the “cone of uncertainty” predicting where Hurricane Florence’s eye might travel.

Julia Poska| September 14th, 2018

North and South Carolina have both issued evacuation warnings in anticipation of a very destructive weekend. The eye of Hurricane Florence is made landfall this afternoon, though her rain bands touched land late Thursday.

As of Thursday morning, Florence’s strongest sustained winds of 105 mph put her in Category 2 classification for wind. As of Friday afternoon, she has downgraded to Category 1.  Forecasters say her storm surge, the swell of water pushed onshore by hurricane winds, will be a Category 4. The National Hurricane Center predicts floods over 9 feet above ground in some areas.

States as far inland as Indiana may receive the tail end of the hurricane, which will most likely have weakened to a less windy but still wet tropical storm or depression by then.

Experts debate whether climate change will increase the frequency and severity of tropical storms and hurricanes in coming years, and whether it already has. It is difficult to separate natural variability from human-induced effects when examining any specific storm, but many of the conditions needed to spawn hurricanes are certainly undergoing change.

To many experts, it seems to many that rising sea levels exacerbate storm surge, that rising sea surface temperatures could add more fuel to storms, and that a warmer, wetter atmosphere increases rainfall.  Just look to 2017’s especially devastating season for evidence that these storms are getting nastier.

Other experts say that climate change will increase wind shear, friction between upper and lower level winds moving in different directions, which could actually stop more hurricanes from forming. Only time will tell which factors

As climate change is variable over the Earth’s surface, models show both increase and decrease of all those different factors in different locations. While climate change will almost certainly impact hurricanes, only time will tell the nature of that impact.

 

U.N. official pushes for faster, better climate efforts


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The United Nations headquarters in New York City (wikimedia.commons).

Julia Poska| September 13th, 2018

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called on global leaders to ramp up their Paris Accord commitments and to do it soon in a speech he gave September 10 at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

“If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us,” he said, as quoted in Al Jazeera.

Guterres pointed to record-breaking temperatures and devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Maria as evidence that climate change is outpacing human efforts to reduce it. He called on leaders outside of national government, like industry leaders and local officials, to take initiative as well.

The U.N Paris Accord, signed by almost 200 countries, aims to keep global temperatures at least 2 degrees Celsius below a pre-industrial baseline by the end of the century.  2020.  As of right now, many countries are not on track to meet these targets. Even if the Accord met its full potential, many critics argue the reductions it outlines would not actually meet the 2 degree mark.

Guterres spoke of the agreement, saying “What we still lack, even after the Paris Agreement, is leadership and the ambition to do what is needed,” as quoted in the New York Times. He asked leaders to step up and meet their Paris Accord promises to show citizens of their countries they “care about the people whose fate they hold in their hands.”

The next U.N climate summit, COP24, will be held in Poland this December. At this summit, world leaders who have heeded Guterres’ warning will have the opportunity to announce plans to increase their fossil fuel emission reduction targets.

Iowa Flood Center resources for a soaking wet state


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This image taken from the Iowa Flood Information System shows the accumulation of rainfall in Iowa during the week leading up to this post.

Julia Poska| September 7, 2018

Citizens of Iowa know that with heavy rainfall comes flooding. The last few weeks of rain have served as a very real reminder around the state.

The Iowa Flood Center is a great source of information on current, forecasted and potential floods. Their Iowa Flood Information System in particular offers tools for researchers, city planners,  and even for concerned or curious private citizens.

At first glance, the IFIS may seem overwhelming. Fortunately for the everyday user, the IFIS homepage includes a tutorial video and links to some of the most universally useful features of the system.  These basic tools can be layered with additional information like rainfall, national parks and zip code boundaries, if users so choose.

The Inundation Maps feature shows current conditions at IFS water sensors . Zoom in on a selected area of the state and click on a blue “USGS” box along the water to view the water level at that sensor. Click “More Info” to view the level over time.  You can play with the slider in the panel to the right to see how higher or lower water levels would affect your community.

The Flood Alerts feature shows flood alerts at different stages, from “action” to “major” across the state. Clicking on the triangular alert symbols pulls up the same information about water level that the Inundation Maps feature does.

The River Communities feature dots the state with purple squares representing communities near rivers. Clicking on each will pull up information about future flood outlook and put a border around the upstream watershed so users can see what may be headed their way.

Use these tools during current and future flood hazards to stay informed, keep safe, or simply marvel at the power of nature and technology.

 

Severe storms hit eastern Iowa Tuesday night


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Shelf clouds, like the one depicted in this photograph from Flickr, rolled across Eastern Iowa during Tuesday night’s storms. 

Julia Poska | August 31, 2018

Severe storms swept through the midwest the evening of Aug. 28, causing flash flooding and wind damage from central Wisconsin through eastern Iowa.

Over 100,000 midwesterners lost power at some point during or after the storm, AccuWeather.com reports.

Within Iowa, the heaviest damage occurred in the Iowa City and Quad Cities areas. Flash floods soaked homes, businesses and even the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, which was drained almost immediately.

As of the morning of Thursday, Aug. 30, the National Weather Service forecasts a chance of more storms every day until Monday. Climate change projections warn Iowans to expect more wet weeks and severe rain events in coming years.

Three tornado warnings sounded across eastern Iowa Tuesday night as well:  southwest of Williamsburg, Iowa County; in Iowa City; and and in De Witt, Clinton County. The National Weather Service reported wind of 83 miles per hour at the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

Tuesday’s storm came less than a week after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Gov. Kim Reynold’s request for funding to help private individuals and businesses recover from severe storms earlier this summer, as reported by the Des Moines Register. FEMA did grant Iowa funding to repair public infrastructure.

 

Border to arid western climate creeps closer to Iowa


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The 100th Meridian, located at 100 degrees west, is shown dividing the United States’ Great Plains. This longitude line has long been considered the border between the arid west and humid east (from Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | August 30, 2018

The divide between America’s dry west and humid east appears to have shifted two degrees east since the 1970’s, according to recent research from Columbia University.

Topography and atmospheric circulation from both coasts create a pattern of increasing aridity from east to west. The 100th meridian, which splits the Dakotas in half and continues south through Texas and into western Mexico, historically separated the United States’ arid and humid climate zones.

The new study, published in the journal Earth Interactions, places the wet and dry dividing line closer to 98 degrees west today. Researcher Richard Seager attributed this in part to rising temperatures in a National Public Radio interview.

The shifting climate has had major implications farms in between the 100th and 98th meridians. Corn requires warmth and humidity, while wheat can grow in more arid conditions, but both crops have suffered where the soil has dried.

Iowa’s westernmost point sits at about 96 degrees. If the western divide were to bring dry conditions another two degrees east, the results would be devastating for Iowa corn growers.

Climate projections for Iowa do anticipate further warming, but they also predict increased humidity rather than aridity (see the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement). Though Iowa is unlikely to dry out anytime soon,  climate change will nonetheless create other serious challenges for agriculture statewide.