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.

University of Iowa unveils new water well map

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

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

group of pink pigs on cage
Iowa’s livestock contributes heavily to our nitrate problem | Photo by John Lambeth on

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

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

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.