Earth Day in the time of COVID-19: A Message from Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


Jerry Schnoor at Eawag
CGRER Co-Director Jerry Schnoor shares his reflections on the 50th annual Earth Day (contributed photo). 

Jerry Schnoor | April 22, 2020

April 22, 2020, is not just another Earth Day.  It is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day – the one that changed my life forever.  Naive and over my head as student body president at Iowa State-1970, my world was on fire with righteous indignation against a compulsory draft for an unjust War in Vietnam.  At times I actually thought that it would tear the country apart.

The first Earth Day strangely diverted my immediate attention, and the diversion would last a lifetime.  Brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and organized by Denis Hayes as a national Teach-In, Earth Da

 

y spawned immense bipartisan gatherings of 20 million people in the streets for one unifying goal – a healthy Planet Earth.  Earth Day ignited in me a realization that my chemical engineering education from ISU could morph into something green and more fascinating, that is, trying to understand water quality, biodiversity, and the biogeochemistry of Earth’s processes.  Discerning remedies for the massive disruptions that 7.7 billion people and an $80 trillion GWP can inflict on the earth has proven even more challenging.

This year we celebrate Earth Day with digital gatherings due to coronavirus.  It’s not the same, but perhaps the pandemic can teach us some valuable lessons.  Some people were slow to accept the dismal science of a spreading pandemic – they lacked trust in health professionals’ recommendations for social distancing, staying home, and closing businesses, sporting events, churches and social gatherings.  But the flattening curves of Wuhan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Italy, Spain, and New York bear testament to the wisdom of their call.

Our national plan for the pandemic Covid-19 was non-existent, like the Emperor’s new clothes, plain for all to see.  Pandemics are “global disease outbreaks” and they require national plans and concerted global action.  As recently as 2003-2004, WHO mitigated much more rapidly a similar virus, SARS, by careful messaging and international cooperation of 11 labs in 9 different countries.  U.S. and Chinese scientists together developed a vaccine within a year.  Far too little cooperation exists today, both at home and abroad.  Politics and hyper partisanship are disastrous in a time of global need.  We can do better.

Analogies between climate change and our pandemic response are obvious.  We have no national plan for either.  As a young egg-head professor at the University of Iowa, I published my first modeling paper on climate change and its consequences in 1994, many years after others had done so.  It projected (surprisingly accurately) the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today with business-as-usual.  That’s exactly what happened – business as usual.  If you had told me that the U.S. would still not have comprehensive climate change and energy legislation in 2020, I would have told you, “you’re crazy”.

But it’s in the history books.  We have failed to listen to the science and failed to reduce our gargantuan greenhouse gas emissions — the planet cannot take it anymore.  Now it really is a Climate Emergency.  What’s more, we are threatening to extinct 1 million species in the next generation as well – the Biodiversity Crisis.

Coronavirus humbles us all.  How can one not be moved by the sight of doctors, nurses, custodians, and admissions clerks risking their lives for the rest of us?  How can one not weep to see the miles of cars lined-up at food banks because families have nowhere else to turn?  Playing out in the richest country in the world gives great pause.

Yes, we need science-based decision making on coronavirus and on climate change, but we need compassion and understanding as well.  Noted columnist Sarah Van Gelder writes, “Changing hearts and opening minds begins when we listen”.  Imagine the world we want, where everyone is safe and healthy, where the air is clean and the water is pure. Then, let us celebrate the 50th Anniversary of that spontaneous, bipartisan, original Earth Day by speaking from the heart and listening to each other.

Jerry Schnoor is professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Research at the University of Iowa.

 

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking insect ecology with Dr. Andrew Forbes


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Dr. Andrew Forbes, contributed photo.

Julia Poska | February 17, 2020

Today’s installment of the EnvIowa podcast features an interview recorded Feb. 7 with Dr. Andrew Forbes, an evolutionary ecologist at in University of Iowa biology department. Forbes chats about the ecological importance of parasitic insects and shares insights about other creepy crawlies like emerald ash borers and periodical cicadas.

Listen to learn more about his work on insect diversity and speciation.

Listen here!

 

DNR confirms further spread of deer disease through Iowa


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Deer testing positive or chronic wasting disease in Iowa since 2013, via the Iowa DNR. 

Julia Poska | February 14, 2020

Forty-three deer killed by hunters and vehicles in Iowa during the 2019-2020 hunting season tested positive for chronic wasting disease, also known as “zombie deer disease.”

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in Iowa’s wild deer population to 89 since 2013, according to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources press release. That’s a 93% increase in one year.

Chronic wasting disease is a 100% fatal neurological disease found primarily in deer and elk that causes loss of bodily functions. An abnormal protein causes the infection, spread via bodily fluids from deer to deer. Some symptoms include excessive salivation, weight loss, listlessness and drooping ears and head.

The disease is in the same family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease. The Centers for Disease Control reports that there is no conclusive evidence of the disease transferring to humans, but the center recommends avoiding contacts with infected venison.

The Iowa DNR collected samples from about 7,000 deer hunted or killed by cars across the state during the 2019-2020 hunting season. Samples from Woodbury, Winneshiek, Fayette and Decatur counties tested positive for the first time.

Officials have identified chronic wasting disease in wild deer populations in eight counties overall. Deer in several captive populations have tested positive as well (see this interactive map for more information).

For more information on how hunters can help limit the spread of chronic wasting disease, check out this flyer.

AP story showcases tension in Iowa over factory farming


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Large animal feeding operations (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | February 13, 2020

A news story published last week featured an Iowa farmer who illegally built to un-permitted barns containing about 2,400 hogs. State officials were unaware of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for years. 

That farmer and others are fighting in what Associated Press correspondent John Flesher called a “battleground” in Iowa. Questions of pollution and regulation have inspired lawsuits, anti-CAFO alliances and neighborly tensions throughout the state, as animal feeding operations continue to proliferate.

Below are four key takeaways from Flesher’s in-depth report. Read the full-length story on apnews.com.

  1. The federal government relies state data for animal feeding operation data. In many cases, states keep tabs on only the largest operations (in Iowa, a true “CAFO” has a minimum of 1,000 species-variable “animal units” per confinement). The EPA counted about 20,300 CAFOs nationwide in 2018.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 450,000 animal feeding operations–places animals are raised in confinement (of any size)– nationwide.
  2. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered thousands of previously undocumented animal feeding operations in 2017.  Some point to this case as proof of under-regulation, but state regulators said the discoveries indicated a well-functioning system.
  3. Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, especially large livestock operations need permits for discharging waste into waterways. Since such discharges are often unintended, however, state and federal environmental agencies can only mandate permits for operations caught discharging waste. In some cases, farmers have been able to make spill-proofing improvements instead of applying for permits.
  4. Studies show that livestock operations and anaerobically decomposing waste release massive amounts of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Because such emissions are difficult to measure, though, they are unregulated by the Clear Air Act. Studies have additionally correlated these emissions to human health issues such as childhood asthma. Cause/effect is impossible to prove, however.

 

EnvIowa Podcast Revived: Talking human/environment systems with Silvia Secchi


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Dr. Secchi in the CGRER offices. Photo by Julia Poska, Jan. 2020. 

Julia Poska| February 3, 2019

The UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research is excited to announce the revival and reimagination of our EnvIowa podcast. This weekly podcast will feature 10- to 20-minute interviews with Iowa environmental experts, mainly our own member scientists.

While these researchers are certainly well versed in the complicated jargon of their disciplines, our interviews aim to make their ideas accessible to a general audience. Questions focus not only on the research itself, but how the experts believe it can be applied to solve environmental challenges.

Today’s installment features an interview recorded January 28 with Dr. Silvia Secchi, an interdisciplinary economist and geographer at the University of Iowa. Listen to learn more about Dr. Secchi’s fascinating research on human/environmental interactions in the Mississippi River watershed and how agriculture in particular plays a role within the larger system.

Listen here!

 

 

Playboy Tortoise saves species


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Kasey Dresser| January 20, 2019

In the 1960s, giant tortoises from Espanola, a part of the Galapagos Islands, were placed on the endangered species list. In efforts to save the species, Diego, a young adult tortoise was placed into a breeding program. 15 other tortoises took part in the breeding program, but no one committed more to the cause then Diego. The species now has over 2,000 tortoises, about 1,700 of which are descendants of Diego.

Diego weighs 176 pounds and when he’s fully stretched out, stands at five feet tall. Mr. Carrion noted that there are some characteristics that made Diego “special” and more attractive to the opposite sex. As the species continue to procreate, tortoises will continue to look like Diego. A process called the bottleneck effect, where a survivor’s gene dominates the gene pool. While little genetic diversity can leave the species vulnerable to diseases or changes in habitat, Dr. Linda Cayot of the Galapagos Conservancy said that “every species came from a bottleneck.”

Last week, the zoo announced that nearing the 80th year he’s been gone, they will be retiring Diego and returning him to the Espanola islands.

“He’s contributed a large percentage to the lineage that we are returning to Espanola,” Jorge Carrion, the Galapagos National Parks service director, told AFP. “There’s a feeling of happiness to have the possibility of returning that tortoise to his natural state.”

UI research links pesticide and cardiovascular death


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Pyrethroids are commonly found in most household insecticides (via flickr). 

Julia Poska| December 30, 2019

New observational research has found that people with high exposure to common “pyrethroid” insencticides were 56% more likely to die during a study period than others. Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in the exposed.

CGRER member Wei Bao, assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, is an author of the study, published Jan. 30 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Pyrethroid insecticides are used in most household insecticides and some pet products and head-lice shampoos. The study followed a sample of 2,116 adults who took the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2002, representative of the U.S. population as a whole. The researchers noted levels of pyrethroid-associated chemicals in their urine and found death records to determine how many had died by 2015, as well as their cause of death.

While those with higher pyrethroid exposure were more likely to die overall, the highly exposed were three times more likely to suffer cardiovascular deaths than others as well.  Bao said in an Iowa Now feature that the study does not prove that the insecticides are the cause of death, only that death and exposure are correlated.

 

 

Calculate your food’s impact this Thanksgiving


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Thanksgiving dinner (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska| November 27, 2019

As Thanksgiving is a holiday both reflectance AND eating a ton, Americans who are grateful for both the food on their plate and the planet that provided it might be interested in the BBC’s “Climate Change Food Calculator,” published in August.

The food calculator provides estimates of annual greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use for one person’s consumption different food items based on how frequently the user says they eat those foods. Results are based on global averages.

The food calculator does not have information on turkey specifically, but below are results for daily consumption of other foods often shared on Thanksgiving:

  • Potatoes: 16kg greenhouse gases
  • Wine: 114kg greenhouse gases, 5,026 liters of water
  • Bread: 21kg greenhouse gases, 8,995 liters of water
  • Chicken: 497kg greenhouse gases, 33,294 litres of water, 616m² land
  • Beans: 36kg greenhouse gases, 8,888 liters of water
  • Pork: 656kg greenhouse gases, 95,756 liters of water, 926m² land

So enjoy your feast tomorrow, if you are having one, but remember to thank the Earth for the resources it took to get your meal on your plate, too.

Chronic wasting disease confirmed in Iowa


 

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Deer (flickr/roseofredrock)

Kasey Dresser| November 25, 2019

 

Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious disease fatal to deer, elk, and other cervids. Similar to Mad Cow, the disease is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. A contaminated animal will show no symptoms of chronic wasting disease until around 18 months and will die shortly after showing symptoms.

On the Van Buren County Farms in Southeast Iowa, two white-tail deer were confirmed to have contracted chronic wasting disease. The Iowa Department of Agriculture is working to find the contaminant source and contain it.  The farms will be prevented from accepting deer, elk or moose for five years.

Chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in four other Iowa Counties including, Allamakee, Clayton, Dubuque, and Wayne. The disease has also been very prevalent in neighboring states, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Hunters are encouraged to bring their deer to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to have the animals tested for chronic wasting disease.

Complications with selective breeding in dogs


 

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(rudyeleazardubon/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| November 4, 2019

 

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found evidence that artificial dog breeding has affected the animal’s brain.

Artificial dog breeding has been around for centuries, even notably performed by George Washington and the crossbreed of the American foxhound. Selective breeding is done to achieve desired behavioral and physical characteristics. A study at Harvard University set out to find out if the practice has affected their physical characteristics in ways we can’t see. 

Dr. Erin Hecht, the leader of the study, focused on brain structure unrelated to body size or head shape. 62 male and female dogs of 33 different dog species were given MIRS. After the areas of the brains were analyzed, the team created six separate brain network models, each related to a different behavior specialization like hunting, guarding, companionship, etc. An analyzation of the data revealed that brain anatomy has significant variation among the different dog species, likely related to human-applied selection for behavior. 

This study is one of the first related to the complications of selective breeding and Dr. Hecht, and their team, look forward to continuing their research.