How wetlands can help Iowa’s nitrate problem

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 31st, 2019

Nitrates are an ongoing issue in Iowa. Nitrate pollution is a topic we’ve covered extensively, and we’ve often mentioned that there are a few natural ways to reduce this issue, a land feature plentiful in Iowa–wetlands.

The vegetation on wetlands can help absorb nitrates from polluted waters.

Roughly a month ago, the EPA granted Iowa 1.5 million dollars to install wetlands in specific areas.

The grant will go towards the implementation of six watersheds around the Middle Cedar watershed. The project will include efforts to grow pollinators-friendly vegetation.

Each proposed wetland would encompass a relatively small area of land–10 to 12 acres–but the impact of natural nitrate-reducing measures is undeniable.

Environmental destruction could become a war crime

Firefighters control a blaze. Major environmental destruction during conflict–from fire or otherwise–could become a war crime | Photo by Pixabay on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 30th, 2019

Many UN members are pushing for a new addition to the Geneva Convention: make environmental destruction a war crime.

Specifically the types of environmental destruction often wrought during war–poisoning water sources, damaging biodiversity, hurting local flora and fauna. With our now intimate understanding that environmental issues and our quality of life are inexplicably tied, and with many pushing for racial and social justice in tandem with environmental improvements, defending the environment, especially during periods of conflict, is incredibly important.

Some climate damage resulting from damaging wartime acts seem obvious: The atom bomb in Japan; Agent Orange in Vietnam, both acts leading to excessive decreases in natural flora and constant, ever-present radiation.

The chain of effects are sometimes just as direct, if less obvious, with other acts: Saddam Hussein drained Iraq marshland with dikes and dams, effectively increasing the temperature in that area by 9 degrees Fahrenheit and turning much of the marsh into desert.

The open letter, signed by two dozen scientists and directed at international lawmakers, pushes for environmental destruction to be added to the list of unacceptable actions under conflict, an amendment to the Geneva Convention. If taken into effect, it will be unlawful–at a massive scale–to use the environment of country in conflict against itself.

How long will it really take to clean up Iowa water?

Past floods and current agricultural practices aren’t helping nitrate levels

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 23, 2019

A 2018 water quality bill signed by Kim Reynolds outlines methods of reducing Iowa’s nitrate levels in its water by 45% over the next 12 years. But how long will a reduction actually take?

The Iowa Environmental Council estimates that a 45% decrease in nitrate levels could take well over 90 years of cover crop planting and natural reduction strategies to reach.

Nitrate levels in Iowa are startlingly high, with runoff from agriculture polluting rivers and streams that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an environment wildlife can’t survive.

Cover crops, wetlands, and bioreactors are all natural ways to reduce nitrate pollution, but reduction will likely take much longer than projected. If Iowa wants to enter a period of nitrate-free waters, it will take many more years–and, perhaps, some mandatory practices–to reach that milestone.

Building in floodplains will always be risky

The Mississippi has a swath of natural floodplains–ones that we keep flowing into | Photo by Tom Fisk on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 17th, 2019

Flooding risks in cities and towns along the Mississippi are only increasing with time, but this isn’t stopping some cities from continuing development along the river.

St. Louis is just one of the many places building along its floodplain, a move that many climate scientists advise against. A river’s floodplain is naturally occurring land carved out by the river’s swells and recessions, and it often ends up functioning as a buffer zone for floodwater to fill.

Around 41 million Americans live in a 100-year floodplain — areas by major rivers that have a 1% chance of flooding annually. This risk will only increase as extended rainfall becomes more and more prevalent.

Climate change and inclement weather have only increased flooding and water damage in Mississippi towns. Tropical Storm Barry, after manifesting as a hurricane on Saturday, generated rainfall that will channel up along the river, swelling the Mississippi with more water than many of the flood levees that riverside cities have constructed can likely handle.

Flood levees that block potential floodwater are a commonly implemented solution, but levees can break – -as evidenced by the temporary floodwall break in Davenport. Levees also prevent swelling rivers from spilling out into their natural floodplains, forcing the rising waters to the doorsteps of cities without adequate flood protection.

While special FEMA permits are required before cities can develop business or residential areas on floodplains and in high-risk flooding areas, some strongly believe that building in floodplains, even when precautions are taken, is always a bad idea, tempting disaster. Unless strict guidelines emerge that prevent floodplain building entirely, development in these areas will continue — albeit at the risk of becoming victim to an increasing chance of an annual rising of water.

Cold storage struggles to keep up with online food orders

More and more food sales are being made online | Photo by on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 16th, 2019

Online food orders, groceries purchased through Amazon, fruits and vegetables shipped to your door — many people, for various reasons, choose to shop for food online instead of grabbing produce from a local grocery store.

These orders are typically shipped out from warehouses and fulfillment centers. The same holds true for food shipped out to fulfill online orders, with an important difference: food warehouses typically need to be kept cold.

Cold storage centers can be tough to maintain, with internal temperatures averaging around -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Although online grocery sales only account for about 3% of grocery buys overall, that number is expected to steadily rise over the next few years, especially with major grocery chains launching delivery services.

Aversions to preservatives and an increasing demand for natural foods make cold storage more necessary than ever. This shift in food preferences, along with new online grocery store launches and an increasing interest in meal kits, will likely force the US to build about 100 million square feet of new cold storage to keep pace as demand increases over the next five years.

For now, that demand is growing faster than cold storage centers can be built–and the problem is only likely to get worse if builders can’t work fast enough to obtain government permission and construct these buildings. This simply becomes a case of supply needing to rise and meet demand. Online demands are ever-changing — and suppliers have to race to keep up with new waves of customers.

Solar panels in Central Iowa

Photo by Carl Attard on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 11th, 2019

Waukee has started encouraging central Iowans to rely more on the sun.

The first buy-in program in central Iowa gives discounts to interested residents and business owners looking for solar panel installations, an encouraging step towards a more solar-powered future.

Though originally intended for those in the Waukee district, the program has expanded to include everyone in Dallas County.

Solar panels have a high initial installation cost–around $11,000. The discount program can help residents install panels for about 9% less than market price, a reduction that will increase as more and more people join the program.

With panels installed, most customers will save over $1,000 a year in energy costs for their homes.

Currently, a 30% tax cut has been offered by Congress to those that install solar panels onto their homes before the end of 2019–an offer that, in most cases, allows the panels to pay for themselves within five to ten years.

Check out some solar panel details if you’re considering installing them for your home

The timeline of Arctic lead deposits

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 9th, 2019

Embedded in layers of ice, lead deposits in the Arctic can help us track our thousands of years of pollution.

Lead has been closely linked to human expansion for centuries. Its extraction is often linked to silver; highly concentrated deposits of lead in ice cores, when dated, often correspond to periods of industrial development, while lower amounts track to periods of plague, famine, and war.

Lead levels also prove to be an effective way to track overall industrial progress–lead levels increased by roughly 300 percent from the Middle Ages to the 1970s. The element was used in the past for a multitude of things, including piping, smelting, and cosmetics.

Geographical location influences the lead core readings. An ice core in Russia is likely to contain more lead contamination–and, therefore, more information–from Eastern Europe than an ice core in Greenland.

Joseph McConnell, a researcher from the Desert Research institute in Reno, U.S., lead a team of people from multiple scientific and historical backgrounds to scan and decode the lead layers with atmospheric modelling. The project is uniquely multidisciplinary, combining the knowledge and efforts of climate scientists and economic historians, all hoping to learn more about the various ways that we interact with–and influence –our environment.

How bad are fireworks for the environment?

Photo by Peter Spencer on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 3rd, 2018

Fireworks have a long history as tools of celebration and ceremony. First created centuries ago, modern fireworks, at their core, work in much the same way as their ancient counterpoints, filled with a powered mix of sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate.

Per year, fireworks in the US release about 60,340 metric tons of CO2 into the air–about the equivalent of the yearly CO2 production of 12,000 cars. Much of the debris from fireworks fall into the lakes and rivers that they’re launched over.

Fireworks in dense amounts can cause measurable damage: the National Institute of Technology in Jamshedpur, India found that the levels of pollution in their air spiked by up to 27% immediately following a barrage of fireworks released for Diwali, a four-day Hindu festival.

Fireworks still rank relatively low on the scale of overall CO2 producers in the US year to year, with transportation holding the top spot as the source of about 28.9% of all CO2 emissions annually. Though their CO2 emissions may be small compared to other emission sources, other compounds–like toxic metals–hang in the atmosphere for days or weeks after fireworks are released.

Banning certain firework compounds and limiting the use of fireworks is one way to help reduce the environmental impact of these bright bursts of tradition. Fireworks are deeply ingrained in multiple cultures–and getting rid of them completely is unlikely. Whether you’re launching fireworks at home or observing them for the 4th, remember their environmental impact–and be mindful of all the other ways that our celebrations affect our planet’s health.

The various successes of Iowa City recycling

Iowa City unrolled a new recycling program in 2018 | Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Iowa City’s recycling program has proven so successful that workers will continue to collect on the 4th of July, instead of catching up the next day. Collection workers will get holiday pay with this new arrangement.

Iowa City uses single-stream recycling. Residents don’t have to sort through and categorize recyclable goods, and are instead instructed to leave everything in one container, save for a few items that need to be taken to one of the city’s many drop-off centers, like glass or shredded paper.

Recycling rates in the city have jumped by 30% since the implementation of the new recycling program back in December 2018. Larger curbside bins allow collection workers to make fewer stops and trips, reducing the overall carbon footprint of the program. The addition of compost bins campus-wide have also proven to be popular.

There is no national regulation for recycling, and programs are different state to state. Even different towns in Northern Iowa have various approaches to waste management. Some places require residents to separate and sort their recycling, while others take mixed items. The policies can be difficult for people to follow.

Educating people on waste management and making the recycling process easier and more accessible has proved beneficial for Iowa City. So successful, in fact, that collection workers are working weekday holidays to keep the flow from backing up. Overall, it’s a very positive conundrum.

A week-long heatwave is settling over Europe

Paris is among one of the many cities affected by a staggeringly intense heatwave | Photo by Laura Stanley on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 26th, 2019

Multiple countries across Europe have been put on alert as a massive week-long heatwave settles over the continent, with temperatures predicted to reach up to 40 degrees Celsius (roughly 104 degrees Fahrenheit). Humidity spikes that temperature to 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit).

France took a few extra steps to protect their citizens from the oncoming wave, installing more water fountains and keeping pools open late at night. These precautions came about after a deadly 2003 heatwave left an estimated 15,000 people dead.

These cooling measures are meant to assist people who may not have regular access to air conditioning, as many old buildings in European cities aren’t built for central air, and most people rely instead on boxed AC units, if they can afford them. It rarely gets hot enough to warrant a unit, and many smaller businesses survive without it; larger tourist attractions are normally more temperature-controlled.

The heatwave likely comes from hot winds blowing in from the Sahara Desert. Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland are also in the path of the heatwave. School exams have been postponed, and the Women’s World Cup, with games set for almost every night this week in Paris, is continuing forward with the condition that breaks will be given to the players if the temperatures spike too high.

European authorities nation to nation warn their citizens to stay hydrated and to be vigilant and watch for signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion in their friends and family. As these rising temperatures descend over the continent, staying mindful is the best way to keep cool.