The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded a University of Iowa professor $1.3 million in funding to study atmospheric and climate impacts of wildfires.
Jun Wang, UI Professor of Biochemical and Chemical Engineering, will lead the three-year $540,000 study with co-investor Fangqun Yu, a researcher and professor at the University of Albany. The study will focus on the aerosol composition and temperature in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere (UTLS) using measurements from a sensor aboard the International Space Station called the Stratospheric Aerosole and Gas Experiment III or SAGE III.
Severe wildfires throughout 2021 have set annual records for land burned, especially in the western United States and Australia. The huge plumes of black carbon aerosols into the UTLS, concentrating approximately six to 18 miles into the atmosphere. Concerns have arisen of the warming effect that could arise from the fires.
Alongside the SAGE III project, Wang will lead another NASA funded four-year study to develop the first map of fire combustion efficiency from space. The study was granted $800,000 and will be in collaboration with Arlindo da Silva, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.
After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires. These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.
One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen. Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017. Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products.
Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires. Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.
More than 600 individual fires and some of the largest wildfire complexes in California’s history are still burning after thousands of lightning strikes triggered them last week.
Unhealthy levels of pollution have been reported across the state in the last few days. The large number of individual fires and the size of the fire complexes has caused an unusually high amount of of smoke to enter the atmosphere, and the smoke has spread across parts of the western United States and the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric testing showed that Northern California had the worst air quality in the world on August 19.
Extremely hot and dry conditions in California could cause the smoke to stay in the air longer. The black carbon particulates in the air will cause health problems for humans and animals as they enter the lungs and bloodstream, and they play a role in global warming, according to an article published by NASA. The National Weather Service issued a poor air quality alert for California’s Central Valley until the fires are extinguished.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California warned that the 16 wildfires that have burned 320,000 acres of his state’s land and displaced 32,000 people will become more common and severe as the effects of climate change begin to take hold.
At least 13,000 firefighters are battling the blazes in the 100-plus degree heat, dealing with hard-to-predict winds fueling the fires.
In a news conference Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported, Brown said the state would spend as much money as needed to contain the blaze, but as wildfires continue to plague California in the coming years, finding the resources to deal with the destruction will become difficult.
“People are doing everything they can, but nature is very powerful and we’re not on the side of nature,” Brown said. “We’re fighting nature with the amount of material we’re putting in the environment, and that material traps heat. And the heat fosters fires.”
This weeks segment looks at how Google was able to reuse more than 100% of the energy they consumed in 2017.
Google has become one of the biggest corporate buyers of renewable energy.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
The massive company planned to get 100% of their energy from renewable sources in 2017. At the end of the year, they exceeded that goal.
Google currently holds contracts to buy 3 gigawatts of renewable energy from a wind farm specifically built to power the corporation’s offices and satellite locations globally. The purchase is the largest investment in renewable energy by a corporation to date, making Google a top customer of green energy.
For 2017, the company ended up investing in and generating more green energy than it consumed, a cycle that keeps a steady supply of energy on hand. Google’s Senior Vice President Urs Holzle explained that they were working on over 25 green energy projects around the globe.
Other large companies are following in Google’s footsteps by investing in renewable sources.
For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org. From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone
This weeks segment looks at the EPA’s reevaluation of America’s fuel efficiency standards.
The EPA is reevaluating the national fuel efficiency standard for American automakers.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
As a result of the Clean Air Act, auto manufacturers have been required to increase the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. One third of states are required to operate under California’s strict emissions standards and the remaining two thirds operate under a less strict standard.
The Obama administration set a target goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025. EPA director, Scott Pruitt is currently proposing a new lesser national standard. This proposition has evoked debate from all sides.
California officials have announced they are not ready to drop their stricter standards. Financial advisors are worried weakening fuel economy would affect the U.S.’ stature in the auto industry. Automakers are worried they may not meet the Clean Air Act’s goal.
Other politicians are concerned that if only one third of states are required to follow the California standard that might result in less fuel efficient cars being released in the remaining states.
At this point no changes have been made but the discussion continues.
This weeks segment looks at the negative impacts of increasing plastic pollutants in our environment.
Plastic entering our environment is a growing concern!
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
Plastic pollution is a serious problem. Microplastics are plastic pieces less than 5mm in diameter. They are present in almost every form of water, from lakes to rivers to our tapwater supply. Floating trash, largely composed of single-use plastic, has formed large masses on the ocean.
Plastics don’t break down the way most organic material does. Plastic photogrades, meaning it simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over time. At the smallest levels, plastic particles on a nanoscale begin to change, and more easily move through its surrounding environments into surface water, groundwater, or soil.
Single-use plastics found in packaging are some of the largest contributors to plastic pollution. Consumers can help solve the problem by repurposing plastic themselves and cutting some plastics out of their life, such as single-use straws and utensils.
For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.
From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.
The Earth Day Network points out that April 22nd has been a day for civic engagement and political activism since 1970, when millions of Americans marched to call attention to the environmental degradation that had been caused by more than a century of unchecked industrial development. With carbon dioxide levels at their highest level in 650,000 years, there is a strong case to live as though every day is Earth Day. Officials from the Earth Day Network have several suggestions for how to do so. From using nontoxic cleaning products to changing vehicle air filters regularly to reading documents online rather than printing them, small changes made by many people can make a big difference.
Individuals interested in learning more about plastic pollution and how to reduce the amount of plastic they consume can also join the End Plastic Pollution campaign. Participants can calculate their own plastic consumption and create a Personal Plastic Plan to reduce consumption and keep track of progress online.
This weeks segment looks at how agriculture affects nitrogen oxide emissions in California.
Agriculture is a large emitter of nitrogen oxide gases in California.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
Over the last few years California has been working to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide gases released in the air. Policy makers began by focusing on reducing the use of cars, trucks, and buses which are currently believed to be the largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions. New research has also shown that fertilizers with nitrogen can be a large factor.
Excess amounts of nitrogen oxide can produce toxic smog and acid rain. Ecologist Maya Almaraz and her team at University of California, Davis used a plane attached with a chemiluminescence analyzer to detect the nitrogen oxide in the air. They flew over the entire state of California collecting data. The area with the most nitrogen oxide pollution was the Central Valley’s agricultural region.
According to this test and several others, croplands contribute anywhere from 20- 51 percent of the nitrogen oxide levels in the air. Almaraz warns that increasing temperatures will only increase nitrogen oxide emissions unless there are steps to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use.
More than seventy percent of hops, which give some beers their bitter flavor, are produced in Washington state, specifically in the Yakima Basin. NOAA National Centers for Environment Information reports that in 2015, that area of Washington faced severe drought conditions from June through August. In fact, hop’s whole growing season in Washington that year was uncommonly warm. The state still managed to produce nearly 60 million pounds of hops, but yields for certain varieties of the grain were much lower than expected. The warmer weather in that region is expected to continue hurting hop production, specifically European varieties that are grown there.
Brewing beer also requires great quantities of water. Drought conditions in many parts of California have made beer production difficult and costly. For taste, brewers prefer to use river and lake water, but as river flows reduce and reservoirs run dry, many breweries have had to switch to groundwater. Groundwater is typically mineral-rich and can give beer a funny taste. Some brewers have likened it to “brewing with Alka-Seltzer.”
In 2015, top breweries released a statement detailing the way climate change affects production,
“Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer that grows primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250% over the past decade. Clean water resources, another key ingredient, are also becoming scarcer in the West as a result of climate-related droughts and reduced snow pack.”