U.S. drought levels at record low levels

After years of widespread, intense drought, the US is experiencing its smallest drought footprint since 2000. (NASA Earth Observatory)
Jake Slobe | May 10, 2017

After years of intense, record-setting drought, the U.S. is now experiencing its lowest level of drought in the 17 years since the U.S. Drought Monitor began its weekly updates.

Less than 5 percent of the U.S. was in some stage of drought as of May 4, the most recent update, compared to the 65 percent in drought in September 2012.

The last time drought levels across the country were this low was in July 2010, when 8 percent of the U.S. was in drought after which came a remarkable period of deep, damaging drought that led to billions in crop and livestock losses, spurred major water restrictions, and helped fuel terrible wildfires.

The ups and downs in drought levels could be linked to some of Earth’s natural climate cycles that can usher in relatively wet and dry periods. But climate change is likely to play a role as higher temperatures lead to increased evaporation and therefore worse drought conditions.

The epicenters of drought were in the central and southern Plains states from 2011 to 2013 and in California from 2012 to this winter. At the peak of its drought, more than half of California was experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest category of drought. At the end of September 2011, more than 85 percent of Texas was in this category as well.

Both droughts were fueled by a combination of dry weather and repeated, sizzling heat waves. The exceptional heat that blanketed much of the central and eastern portions of the country in 2012 boosted it to the hottest year on record for the U.S., while California experienced back-to-back record-hot years during its drought.

That heat is the clearest link between climate change and droughts, as rising global temperatures fueled by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere tilt the odds in favor of record heat.

Studies have pointed to the role of climate change-fueled heat in California’s drought, and droughts in the future, no matter where they happen in the U.S., are likely to be more intense than those of today because temperatures will be higher on average.


On The Radio – Neonicotinoids found in University of Iowa drinking water

activate charcoal
Activated carbon filters were shown to effectively remove neonic insecticides from drinking water. (Minnesota Department of Health)
Jake Slobe | May 8, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses the recent study that found neonicotinoids in UI drinking water.

Transcript: A recent study by University of Iowa Researchers and the U.S. Geological Survey found neonicotinoids, a specific class of pesticides, in tap water for the first time ever.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers compared tap water samples from the University of Iowa drinking water supply to samples of Iowa City municipal tap water. Water samples from both sources were tested for three primary types of neonicotinoids. The study found that the University of Iowa filtration system removed almost none of the neonicotinoids, while the City of Iowa City’s treatment plant successfully removed between 85 and 100 percent of each pesticide.

Dr. Gregory LeFevre is a University of Iowa environmental engineer and one of the study’s authors.

“Due to the proliferation of neonicotinoids in the environment and their chemical properties, we are not terribly surprise to find that they were present in drinking water. Most water treatment plants are designed to remove particles and pathogens like ecoli, but not trace pesticides. We were, however, more surprised by and encouraged to see how effective granular active carbon appeared to be at removing neonics from water.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a limit for neonicotinoid levels in drinking water. Neonics became widely used by farmers in the early 1990s. The pesticides are still very popular, despite mounting research that suggests they are lethal to bees and other helpful insect species. The study’s authors argue that more research is called for to assess neonicotinoid exposure on a larger scale.

For more information about the study or to read it in its entirety, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.


Study finds that flood patterns are changing across the U.S.

The threat of moderate flooding is generally increasing in the northern U.S. and decreasing in the southern U.S. (American Geophysical Union.)
Jake Slobe | May 3, 2017

The risk of flooding is changing by region throughout the United States and two of the reasons could be shifting rainfall patterns and changes in groundwater.

University of Iowa engineers, in a new study, have determined that the threat of flooding is growing in the northern half of the U.S. while declining in the southern half. The American Southwest and West are experiencing decreasing flood risk.

UI engineers Gabriele Villarini and Louise Slater compiled water-height information from 2,042 stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. They then compared the data to satellite information gathered over more than a dozen years by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment mission showing the amount of water stored in the ground.

The study found that northern sections of the country have an increased amount of water stored in the ground and are at increased risk for minor and moderate flooding. Meanwhile, flood risk is decreasing in the southern portions of the U.S., where stored water has declined.

Why some sections of the nation are getting more, or less, rainfall is not entirely clear. The researchers say one cause could be the redistribution of rains as the regional climate changes.

The researchers hope their findings can change how flood patterns are discussed. In the past, flood risk trends have typically been discussed using stream flow, or the amount of water flowing per unit time. The UI study views flood risk through the lens of how it may affect people and property and aligns the results with National Weather Service terminology understood by the general public.

On The Radio – Chicago public buildings to switch to renewable energy


Jake Slobe | May 1, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses Chicago’s plan to convert its public buildings electricity use to 100% renewable energy by 2025.

Transcript: Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last month a plan to convert all of the city’s public buildings’ electricity use to 100% renewable energy by 2025.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The plan will consist of transitioning more than 900 government buildings in Chicago to renewable energy. Once implemented, Chicago will be the largest major city in America to have a 100% clean energy mandate for its public buildings.

Together, Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges, Chicago Park District fieldhouses and buildings owned by the city and the Chicago Housing Authority consume 8 percent of all the electricity used in Chicago, according to city officials. Last year, that amounted to nearly 1.8 billion kilowatt hours — enough to power 295,000 Chicago homes.

The 900 government buildings will accomplish the shift through a variety of including purchasing “renewable energy credits,” buying utility-supplied renewable energy through the Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard, and by installing solar panels or windmills on city buildings and public property.

The City Colleges have installed solar panels on the roofs of Richard J. Daley College and the Dawson Technical Institute. Those installations alone have generated more than $16,000 in energy savings.

To learn more about Chicago’s plan, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

New Trump executive orders will take aim at protected public lands, offshore drilling bans

National park sites without active wells, but where drilling could take place in the future. (National Parks Conservation Association)
Jake Slobe | April 26, 2017

After moving last month against Barack Obama’s efforts to limit fossil fuel exploration and combat climate change, President Trump will complete his effort to overturn environmental policy this week by signing two executive orders to expand offshore drilling and roll back conservation of public lands.

Today, Trump will sign an executive order directing his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, to review national monuments designated by previous presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, aiming to roll back the borders of protected lands and open them to drilling, mining, and logging.

President Trump is then expected to follow up on Friday with another executive order that will aim to open up protected waters in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans to offshore drilling. If signed, the order would eliminate the Obama administration’s plan that would have put those waters off limits to drilling through 2022. Friday’s order is also expected to call for the lifting of a permanent ban on drilling in an area including many of those same waters — a measure Obama issued in December 2016 in a last-ditch effort to protect his environmental legacy.

These moves, according to the Trump administration, will begin to fulfill a central campaign promise to unleash a wave of new oil and gas drilling and create thousands of jobs in energy.

The reality is much more complicated say experts in the law, policy, and economics of energy. Legal experts say it will still be a heavy lift for the Trump administration to change the current laws. The orders are unlikely to lead to job creation in the near future or significant new energy development.

On The Radio – Huge crowds attend March for Science rallies in Iowa and worldwide

Hundreds of scientists and supporters gathered at the Pentacrest for the March for Science in Iowa City on Saturday. The march was one of more than 500 others in communities around the nation.
Jake Slobe | April 24, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses the March for Science rallies that took place worldwide on Saturday, April 22.

Transcript: On April 22, scientists and science advocates flooded the streets of over 500 cities around the globe to show their support for scientific research and evidence-based policy.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Following in the footsteps of the Women’s March on Washington, the March for Science was the biggest public demonstration against the Trump administration’s budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and more.

Since February, the momentum behind the March for Science grew quickly, with many organizations offering support. Over 100 science organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science supported the March for Science.

The initiative started as a scientists’ march on Washington, D.C., but has since spread to cities across the U.S. and the world.

Organizers of the march have recently announced they plan to transition from organizing marches to creating a global organization focused on science education, outreach, and advocacy.

To learn more about the march, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Budget bill defunding ISU’s Leopold Center goes to Branstad


Jake Slobe | April 19, 2017

The Iowa Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to a budget bill that would zero out funding and dismantle Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable AgricultureSenate File 510 is now headed to Gov. Terry Branstad’s office.

The Legislature’s agriculture budget for 2018 directs $38.8 million to state programs through the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Regents. That’s a reduction of about $4.3 million from the 2016 budget year.

Republican lawmakers said getting rid of the Leopold Center was part of difficult decisions necessitated by a tight budget and lagging revenue. They said other priorities took precedence.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, offered an amendment that would have kept the program open, but it was voted down by the House’s Republican majority.

Rep. Scott Ourth, D-Ackworth, also criticized a reduction in funding to the state’s Resource Enhancement And Protection program, which supports projects that enhance and protect the state’s natural and cultural resources. State money to that program will be reduced from $16 million this year to $12 million next year.

The budget bill represents a piece of the state’s broader $7.24 billion general fund budget. Lawmakers have begun finalizing multiple pieces of that budget, clearing the way for them to adjourn the session.

Republican leaders of the subcommittee said they had to cut the budget, and that K-12 education was the priority.

The move to defund  Leopold Center was one that caught many in the agricultural community off guard when proposed last week.

“This is a real blow to farmers,” said Aaron Heley Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union and a member of the board of directors at the Leopold Center.

“A lot of people felt that the mission for sustainable agriculture that they (the Leopold Center) undertook, that they have completed that mission,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, according to the Associated Press.

That couldn’t be further from the truth, said Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council and a former legislator who helped write the law establishing the Leopold Center 30 years ago.

“I’m not sure people realize how valuable the Leopold Center is,” Rosenberg said.


Other advoactes of the center pointed out that the Leopold Center leverages significant federal research dollars and that it looks at items such as water quality.

The Des Moines Register had an opinion piece written by Jerry DeWitt, Iowa View contributor, about how most of the brunt from defunding the Leopold Center will fall on farmers.

“The continued support of the Leopold Center will better arm thousands of farmers as they struggle to protect water quality. Let’s make sure we fully understand the long-term ramifications of sending our farmers to the table with an empty hand. ”


Warm Gulf of Mexico Waters could cause more spring storms

Sea surface temperature difference from average. (WeatherBell.com)
Jake Slobe | April 17, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses the abnormally warm temperature of the Gulf of Mexico this winter and the potential effect on springtime storms.

Gulf of Mexico waters have been exceptionally warm, which could mean explosive springtime storms.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

 This winter, the average sea surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico never fell below 73 degrees for the first time on record.  Water temperatures at the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and near South Florida are on fire. The warm waters caused historically warm winter in the southern United States and could fuel intense thunderstorms in the spring throughout the southern and central U.S. While this relationship is far from absolute, scientists have found that when the Gulf of Mexico tends to be warmer than normal, there is more energy for severe storms and tornadoes to form than when the Gulf is cooler.

A study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in December found that the warmer the Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures, the more hail and tornadoes occur during March through May over the southern U.S.

The implications of the warm water for hurricane season are less clear. Warmer than normal water temperatures can make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense, but wind shear and atmospheric moisture levels often play more important roles in hurricane formation.

To learn more about the warm water temperatures and their effects, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

CGRER’s future threatened


Today, CGRER Co-Directors Jerry Schnoor and Greg Carmichael released a statement about a budget proposal from the Iowa General Assembly that funds CGRER:

Dear CGRER members,

Yesterday, we learned that a budget proposal from the Iowa General Assembly sunsets funding the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) and the Iowa Energy Center on July 1, 2022.

This would effectively eliminate the work of CGRER; which supports $225,000 in environmental research grants to Iowa universities and colleges throughout the state each year; garners approximately $20 million for Iowa in new external research grants; and supports graduate students traveling to important research sites and presenting their findings at leading conferences.  CGRER researchers continue to make major discoveries that add to the fund of knowledge, create jobs, and help improve and protect human health and the environment.  We hope the Iowa General Assembly will reconsider this decision in order to continue to serve the economic and environmental interests of the state.

With so much at stake, we are reaching out to interested parties to encourage them to communicate with their state legislators about the value of the state’s investment in environmental research.

We urge you to contact your state senator and state representative TODAY to share your concerns. 

You can call your legislators at the Capitol. The Senate switchboard number is 515-281-3371, and the House switchboard number is 515-281-3221. You can also find your legislators and their emails at https://www.legis.iowa.gov/

Let us know if you have any questions.

Thank you for your support!

Jerry Schnoor
Greg Carmichael
Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research

Integrating art and science: Climate Narrative Project explores new ways to communicate environmental issues

Jeff Biggers introduces the Fellows that took part in the Spring 2015 Climate Narrative Project. (Photo by Bethany Nelson)
Jake Slobe | April 12, 2017

In this episode of EnvIowa, we talk with Jeff Biggers, writer in residence at the University of Iowa and Natalie Himmel, an English and International Studies Major at the University of Iowa about the Climate Narrative Project.

The Climate Narrative Project, launched in 2014, is a special media arts initiative through the UI Office of Sustainability designed to train a new generation of climate storytellers. The project reaches across many academic disciplines using theatre, film, creative writing, spoken word poetry, yoga, and dance to grapple with how stories can change the way we view climate and spur action.

Over the past three years, Climate Narrative fellows have produced a wide variety of art projects including short films, theatrical monologs, and creative writing pieces. The projects center around localized themes related to climate change. Past themes have included the role of water and the Iowa River, soil carbon sequestration and prairie restoration, local food and regenerative agriculture, and climate migration.

This semester the project will focus on exploring ways in which we can live in regenerative cities in an age of climate change.

Since its inception, the Climate Narrative Project has brought in a wide range of undergraduates and grad students from many Colleges and departments including the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Education, College of Engineering, College of Public Health, Tippie College of Business and Graduate College.

The Climate Narrative Project serves as a partner for the Yale Climate Connections nationally syndicated public radio program. In 2014, Yale featured the Climate Narrative Project: Climate As Local Narrative.

To learn more about the fellows and see the Climate Narrative Project outlines, discussions, and an archived research from previous projects visit https://sustainability.uiowa.edu/initiatives/climate-narrative-project/.

EnvIowa is available on iTunes and Soundcloud and a complete archive of previous episodes can be found here.