Cedar Rapids hopes for an eventual permanent flood plan


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 20th, 2019

In the midst of major flood warnings, Cedar Rapids is determined to meet the rising waters more prepared than ever.

The city has dealt with major flooding before, suffering millions in infrastructure damage during the 2008 flood. This year, after heavy snow brought along predictions of a bad flood season, Cedar Rapids has been doubling down on their flood defenses.

Temporary measures are keeping small crests in the water level away from downtown businesses and residences. The city uses HESCO barriers–a physical blockade originally used to protect soldiers on the front line from bullets during war. The company has been selling their products to cities for flood protection for years.

Cedar Rapids aims to have a permanent flood plan, one that will take years of building and a few hundred million to bring to fruition. But, for now, business owners trust in HESCO, and in the competence of the city leaders who have lived through their fair share of flooding.


Fixing the renewable energy storage problem


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 13th, 2019

Electricity may seem like an intangible force, but, like other resources, it is stored when not in use.

There are currently many different methods of storing unused energy, but renewable sources of energy are more difficult to store than their fossil fuel conterparts. There are ways to store energy generated from the sun, for example, but the thermal method is still a costly one.

Many solar plants use large on-site batteries to store excess energy, but the energy from these batteries generally only provide a few extra hours of electricity for the plant’s respective grid.

Two different research teams–one lead by Sossina Haile at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and one by Ryan O’Hayre in Colorodo School of Mines–have developed lab versions of a more effective fuel cell that could store significantly more energy.

So much renewable energy is going to waste when it’s not stored to its full capacity. That’s why the development of a smaller, more cost-efficient fuel cell is exciting.

The teams warn that their improved fuel cells have only been tested on a small scale in labs, and that more work needs to be done before they can be used. If developed on a larger scale, the cell could make renewable energy cheaper overall.



The pros–and cons–of burning plastic


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 12th, 2019

The fact that plastics are bad for the environment is no surprise; the material generally does not biodegrade and the resulting microplastics are extremely harmful, especially to deep sea life.

The prevalence of plastics in our ecosystem demands a solution; recycling programs exist in most nations, but at most, only about 30% of recyclable plastics actually make it to recycling centers. In an effort to find alternative uses for plastic, some places, the EU included, choose to burn portions of plastic waste to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, despite the advantages of using waste to fuel power grids, burning plastic carries with it some significant risks.

Plastics can be made from a variety of materials, including plant cellulose and salt. Most, however, are byproducts of the coal and oil industry. Though this makes plastic waste a very good source of fuel, the most common method of burning waste can emit low levels of pollutants. Newer methods that heat plastic in the absence of oxygen stand a better chance of producing lower levels of these pollutants.

Waste-to-energy plants often have trouble finding footing, partly because few people want to live by them. But the EU is not planning on shutting down their waste-energy plants any time soon, and with some alterations, plastic may be a dominating new form of fuel.


The environment–and our infrastructure–is interlinked

millennium bridge at night
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 6th, 2019

With conversations about the environment continuing in the wake of climate change and extreme weather patterns, changing the way we use energy and altering our infrastructure is more important than ever. Green infrastructure is one of the keys to unlocking a cleaner, brighter, more eco-friendly future, and many major cities in the US have already started transitioning.

San Francisco, for example, is funding multiple green projects and setting budgets for more. Simple things, like rain gardens and water-permeable pavement, can help reduce flooding and can cut down on other costly flood control methods.

Aside from flood benefits, opening up funding for green infrastructure would prompt policymakers to help fund infrastructure repair, since maintaining the quality of bridges, roads, transportation stations, and buildings is essential for keeping people safe. Some suggested ways to intertwine environmental concerns and infrastructure issues include recycling projects that repurpose old materials to make improvements, such as using rubber tires to reinforce and strengthen roads.

Infrastructure issues are not new in the United States, and as environmental problems become points of discussion, working to repair our roads and buildings while incorporating repurposed materials and eco-friendly structures is a way to ensure a brighter future.

A new substance, “Biochar”, could help the environment

Biochar could help control nitrogen pollution (/source)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 3rd, 2019

Biochar, a kind of catch-all name for a blend of pyrogenic organic material, could be the solution that the agriculture industry is looking for.

“Pyrogenic” means “produced from heat or combustion”, and biochar is a mass of organic, composted material burned (without oxygen–in the absence of it) until a dark, solid, coal-like mass forms.

Doctor Rachel Hestrin, who works in the Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory in California, conducted an experiment where she took a portion of biochar and exposed it, in the lab, to some environmental and elemental changes that it would encounter in nature. She then tested its ability to absorb harmful excess nitrogen by exposing it to ammonia, and found that the biochar almost completely absorbed the ammonia pollution.

This development is exciting, as it indicates that biochar could be a useful and inexpensive protective substance to use for agriculture, and an effective way to reduce overall nitrogen pollution.

The study looks at Ethiopia and the possible improvements that biochar can help their farmers make, as most Ethiopian farmers use manure, straw, and other organic materials to fertilize crops. Manure, unfortunately, releases nitrogen into the air as it breaks down–but biochar could be a great solution for this problem.

Dr. Hestrin sees this material benefiting a wide range of businesses. UN Environment recently released a set of concerns for the environment, and one of the biggest is nitrogen pollution, making this the perfect time to debut a new, helpful solution.




Flood warnings for Cedar Rapids

The flooding of Cedar Rapids in 2008 cost a lot of money and disrupted many more lives | Source

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 27th, 2019

Cedar Rapids could be up for some intense flooding this spring, with the National Weather Service predicting that the Cedar River is about three times more likely than usual to overflow.

This does not come completely as a surprise–after Iowa’s initially mild start to the winter season, snow has been falling in droves, and it’s accumulated fast, causing numerous issues for farmers and drivers alike.

As spring draws nearer, new threats begin to emerge: melting snow.

Cedar Rapids has had over 40 inches of snow this season, twice the average yearly amount. As that snow begins to melt, it will steadily increase the levels of the Cedar River.

With this potential issue looming, projects are being planned and constructed to protect against the potentially devastating waters. A flood wall, a levee and a pump station are all on deck to help control future flood damage before too much infrastructure is lost.

The city still remembers its costly flood from 2008, which was, at the time, the sixth costliest FEMA declaration (a government fund set up to assist in the aftermath of natural disasters). Though the river rose over ten years ago, the effects of that flood are still present in the minds of Cedar Rapids residents, and preparation for this spring is the key to avoiding another disaster.



The fight to limit nutrient pollution in Iowa’s lakes

red wooden lounge chair on brown boardwalk near body of water during daytime
Iowa lakes serve as staple recreational sites, but they may soon disappear | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 26th, 2019

Most Iowan families have spent a summer afternoon or two with packed lunches and swimsuits at the lake. It’s as much a warm-weather tradition as grilling out or going to the county fair. Iowa has a lot of lakes, many of them recreational. Visits to Iowa lakes generate a lot of money for the state, and keeping these environments clean is important, both environmentally and economically.

Unfortunately, harmful algae blooms are driving these lakes under, so to speak. Beaches often have to be closed for cleanup because of these blooms, and the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous from these blooms are significantly contributing to the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

Sources of the pollution include pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals used in agriculture and livestock management. City wastewater treatments can contribute to the blooms as well.

In an attempt to combat these increasing levels of pollution, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental law and Policy Center filed a petition back in November to limit the amount of nutrient pollutants used in agriculture and in other water-oriented activities, with the end goal to reduce these pollutants in Iowa’s lakes and prevent further damage.

On Tuesday, the proposal was rejected.

These groups are still fighting to establish a more regulated way to handle pollutants, fearing the consequences if they don’t–the possibility of our recreational lakes slowly disappearing under a layer of algae blooms.