University of Iowa unveils new water well map


Many Iowans rely on wells for their water | Photo by Pedro Craveiro on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 25th, 2019

Varies research teams at the University of Iowa recently launched an interactive private well map for Iowa residents. Lead by CHEEC (The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination), the Iowa Geological Survey and the UI Hydroinformatics Lab, the Iowa Well Forecasting System–otherwise known as the IWFoS–is a powerful tool for the public.

Users looking to build new wells can use the map to determine the new well site and the quality of the water in that area. By looking at the water quality data of existing wells adjacent to the potential new build, a safe location for a new source of water can be determined.

Thousands of Iowans relay on wells for their water. CHEEC director David Cwiertny estimates that roughly 60% of Iowans rely on groundwater, with about 300,000 Iowans relying on private wells specifically. While recent news about nitrate levels from agricultural fertilizers has been concentrated on Iowa’s rivers, Iowa’s wells suffer from contamination issues too, and the comprehensive data that IWFoS provides is vital for those looking to expand a town’s water resources.

Well forecasts–the details of well water quality and the locations of safe private wells–have been available through the Iowa Geological Survey for years, but these forecasts were generally only available during business hours. IWFoS is accessible 24/7 and uses IGS’s geological info for the well locations, combining this with datasets on well water quality from the Private Well Tracking System that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources manages.

Transparency with our water quality data is one of the best ways to ensure that safe natural resources are available for all Iowans, all the time.

Check out IWFoS.

Waste, water, and nitrates: Iowa’s growing problem


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Iowa’s livestock contributes heavily to our nitrate problem | Photo by John Lambeth on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 18th, 2019

Nitrates are not a new subject for Iowans. We’ve already published a nitrate breakdown that explains the nitrate pollution contributions Iowa makes to the many larger bodies of water our rivers drain into and how nitrate pollution can affect our bodies.

With some new research emerging, it’s become clear that Iowa’s nitrate problem is intricately linked with its status as a heavily agricultural state–our amounts of livestock have a heavy effect on the quality of our water, and the problem may be larger than we realize.

Back in March, Chris Jones, a research engineer from IIHR, broke down what he calls Iowa’s “real population”–a collective census of our state’s population, one that includes more than just its people. By calculating the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and total solid matter excreted by different types of livestock and comparing those values to human waste, he was able to roughly calculate how many people each livestock group accounted for–and the numbers are staggering.

According to this line of logic, pigs in Iowa roughly equal a mind-blowing 83.7 million people. Dairy and beef cattle account for 33.6 million people. Chickens and turkey nearly equal 16 million themselves. Altogether, our livestock theoretically gives Iowa–a relatively small state with less than 4 million humans–an extended population of about 134 million. Recently, Chris Jones applied his research to Iowa’s actual area to determine the concentration of those numbers, and, in the process, updated that overall population to 168 million after some new data from the USDA.

Iowa produces a lot of waste. Livestock-heavy watersheds tend to have higher concentrations of nitrate runoff. We are not a large state, but when we account for our animals, we are one of the most densely populated for our total land area.

Overall, dissecting the effect that agriculture and livestock have on the environment is tricky, because our state relies heavily on our agricultural economy for many, many things. Advancements in green and natural nitrate filters and better methods of waste management seem to be some of the solutions we can work towards to solve our looming nitrate problem.

 

Plants have been quietly going extinct for centuries


pink tiger lily on bloom
Two different reports highlight the immense loss in biodiversity in the past few hundred years | Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 11th, 2019

Environmental changes are impacting our plants, and our shrinking biodiversity is bad news for everyone–according to multiple studies uncovering the loss of a large percentage of our natural world.

A comprehensive UN report released back in May discusses multiple facets of this mass extinction: our accelerating loss of different animal and plant species, our steadily strained biodiversity, the way that our lives hang in balance with a wide variety of plants and animals. Around 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction within the next few hundred years. Multiple factors are at play–including our increased land and water dedication to agriculture, a significant increase in plastic pollution, and unsustainable rates of fishing.

A different report published by researchers at Stockholm University, Kew, and Royal Botanic Gardens detail how over 600 plant species have been confirmed extinct over the past 250 years, a staggering number considering the short window of time in which these extinctions have occurred.

Extinction rates are higher in some locations than in others, with plants of all types at significant risk in Mediterranean climates–anywhere where land-use has changed in any significant way.

The threat of extinction spells disaster for our ecosystem, as many insects and animals depend on a variety of plants to keep them fed and safe. The two reports suggest that–working on a local level upwards–we can eventually reach a point of stabilization and protect many of our remaining plant and animal species, but those that have already left us are never coming back.

 

The University of Iowa launches a program for environmental researchers


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The Office of Sustainability is attempting to help U of I become an environmental research hub | Photos by Lily

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 5th, 2019

The University of Iowa may one day become a center for researchers across the nation to gather and study climate change.

Iowa City is already known for its extensive flood prevention research, as two University of Iowa faculty members–Larry Weber and Witold Krajewski–co-founded the Iowa Flood Center after 2008’s devastating flood. Now, the University wants to expand its research program and become a center for environmental studies nationwide.

The University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and the Environment recently started a database to help them gather names of different scientists and their respective research areas across the U.S., with the intention of creating a center of resources and funding for said scientists to gather and work together on various environmental issues. A program set to be launched in fall will grant about 15 of these scientists funding to join the environmental program at the University.

The office was granted around $300,000 earlier this year to fund research projects like this. While the first year of the program will be relatively small, the Office of Sustainability hopes to expand their reach and fund many more environmental scientists in the future–potentially up to 70 new recipients every year.

This new program will help the University solidify its status as a prime hub for environmental research and studies.

How environmental fluctuations affect our food


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Changing weather patterns have greatly impacted our core crops | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 4th, 2019

Ongoing climate change could drastically alter our relationship with food.

We often imagine our crops and sources of food being struck down by an intense weather event–a drought, a heatwave, an endless spell of rain. But small changes can affect our ecosystem and our crop yeild. In 2016, French wheat farmers were stunned at how much their crop yeild had decreased–all resulting from a few seemingly small seasonal changes in the weather.

Even incrementally warmer temperatures increase the lives of pests that damage and kill crops. Rain leeches soil of its nutrients. Fluctuations in weather patterns have a bigger impact on our food than we would often like to think. Rising levels of carbon dioxide also affect plants, as most staple crops don’t grow well in CO2-rich environments.

Senthold Asseng, a researcher at the University of Florida, used data and modeling to determine the effect that temperature has on crops worldwide. Wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans are the top four staple crops, feeding billions accross every nation. A global temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius impacts all of these core foods, reducing the crop yields of wheat and corn by 6 to 8% and rice and soybean yields by roughly 3%. For a richer nation, these numbers mean little; for poorer areas, decreases like this could lead to extreme food shortages or famine.

Ongoing research into crops and agriculture and how these two link to climate change will help us find alternatives and solutions to continue feeding our nation.

 

The environmental damage of balloons


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Balloon releases are a traditional part of many public events, but the environmental harm outweighs the spectacle | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 29th, 2019

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is home to one of the largest and oldest major races in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Held annually, this event brings in multiple streams of revenue for Indiana, but some of the traditions practiced at the race may be negatively impacting the environment.

Specifically, some controversy surrounds the balloon release: on the morning of the race, thousands of balloons float into the air in a tradition stretching back decades.

Balloons have a strong presence in human history. The first rubber balloons were invented in the early 1800s for hydrogen experiments; latex and mylar varieties came about later, and balloons slowly made their way into the public consciousness. A 2017 study published for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that roughly 30% of the public participated in events with balloon releases.

Released balloons eventually float back down after their helium leaks away. Often, these colorful orbs are snagged on branches and power lines, causing potential blackouts and electrical issues. The same NOAA study noted that thousands of balloon pieces wash up onshore every year. Brightly-colored latex is likely to appear edible to confused animals, who often try to eat the strings and scraps that fall into their environment.

The Indianapolis 500 is not the only public event prone to scrutiny over its decision to release balloons. In 1986, United Way in Cleveland, Ohio attempted to break the world record for the largest balloon release–one previously set by Disneyland. United Way released an estimated 1.5 million balloons into the air, causing a chain of reactions that interfered with a Coast Guard rescue mission and ending, ultimately, in a lawsuit.

Traditions will always be difficult to break, but many activist groups have been lobbying to ban balloons altogether for years now. Though some inconclusive studies are being conducted to determine how biodegradable latex really is, reducing latex and plastic pollution wherever possible is a key way to help our environment.

Noise pollution: a lesser-known hazard


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Noise pollution can cause a myriad of health issues | Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 28th, 2019

When we think of pollutants, we’re inclined to list off things like plastic, coal, and carbon before we even get to noise. But noise pollution is a problem–so much so that LA has launched a soundproofing program, one that, controversially, has left out some poorer neighborhoods.

Hearing loss is one of the most common occupational hazards. A significant portion of US workers are affected by some form of hearing loss, and a smaller portion suffers from tinnitus (a consistent ringing in the ears).

Outside of the workplace, the average citizen is likely to encounter large amounts of noise from traffic. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) reports that traffic density is a huge factor in the levels of noise pollution country to country, with South Korea being one of the most polluted places in this regard.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of noise pollution contributes to higher levels of stress hormones, which in turn cause multiple health complications.

Soundproofing programs, quieter cars, and better workplace safety measures can help reduce the overall effects of noise pollution.

The dangers of coal ash


black charcoals
Coal ash is a byproduct that can have very harmful effects on the world around it | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 22nd, 2018

Coal ash–a byproduct of burning coal–is a form of pollution often not talked about, but its effects cut deep, especially for families living in ash-contaminated areas.

One such family is paying the price for a deal signed over fifty years ago. The Peelers, who run a ranch in the heart of rural Texas, agreed to sell part of their land to San Miguel Electric Cooperative, a company that proposed a coal mine in the area–an attempt to bring proper electricity to the state’s non-urban population.

Now, years later, heaps of coal ash that have been dumped near their ranch contaminate the Peeler’s land and water, leaving many of their fields barren.

Coal ash has been found to contain many harmful elements, including so-called “heavy metals” like arsenic and mercury. These elements damage wildlife, the natural environment, and humans, leeching into soil and groundwater if not properly taken care of. A new bill in Illinois is urging forward a measure that would require coal plants to better seal off their ash deposits.

The bill may not come to pass. But the threat that coal ash poses to the environment is well-documented–and currently being lived out–by one Southern family fighting for their ranch.

 

The delicate balance between carbon and Earthworms


worms eye view of grass
Worms help keep our soil fertile, but they play a much bigger part in our environment | Photo by Christina Pirker on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 21th, 2019

Earthworms are essential to the health of our soil, fertilizing gardens and fields. But their relationship with the earth is complicated–and the link between earthworms and carbon is being continuously investigated by scientists.

North America used to have earthworms. Its native species was wiped out thousands of years ago during an ice age. European settlers brought their own variety to their new home, and the continent has been populated ever since.

Earthworms are simple organisms, but they greatly affect the health of our soil. Some feed on topsoil, while others burrow down, coming up to eat dead leaves on the surface. All varieties help fertilize the ground–but sometimes, if the location isn’t right, earthworm activity does more harm than good.

This is especially true for earthworm activity in North American boreal forests, a network of coniferous (evergreen) trees that normally don’t house these small creatures. As the worms dig down through the soil, they release carbon that’s been packed into the forest floor. Boreal forest floors are essentially carbon sponges, and the spread of earthworms to these previously worm-less regions threatens to release all of that stored carbon, further accelerating our current climate change.

Exactly how these earthworms have spread from their more natural habitat to the evergreen forests of North America is a bit of a mystery, with multiple factors–warmer weather, invasive plants, agricultural practices–at play.

Even as these tiny organisms increase in all the wrong places on our side of the pond, in the UK, topsoil feeders are beginning to disappear, threatening the island’s agriculture. Worms, carbon, and our global food supply are all part of a delicate ecosystem that may slowly be unraveling if we don’t step up to figure out why.

Reducing pollution–at land and at sea


shallow focus photography of black ship
The shipping industry causes more pollution than you might think | Photo by Sascha Hormel on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 15th, 2019

An environmental group recently met to discuss methods of reducing pollution and emissions from an often under-the-radar source: The shipping industry.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an environmental group paving the way for cleaner and greener ocean vessels. Despite the increased use of planes for transport, roughly 90% of global trade is still done by boat.

Currently, pollution from ships accounts for about 3% of global emissions in total, but could balloon to 17% by 2050.

Ship fuel isn’t regulated the same way that most onshore fuels are. Most ships use what’s often referred to as “dirty fuel”, and it produces large amounts of sulfur and carbon into the air. Sulpher is known for contributing to acid rain; the black carbon is often carried by the wind towards the Arctic, where it stains the snow, increasing the amount of heat that snow absorbs and adding another layer to the greenhouse effect.

The group discusses ways of reducing these various emissions during their meeting, avenues of saving the climate that included restricting ships to use fuel with less than 0.5% sulfur content and investing in alternative fuel. While a 3% contribution to global emissions may not seem like much, any reduction in our planet’s pollution is welcome.