Why is action on climate change more important than ever before?


Kasey Dresser| September 19, 2019

The Iowa Climate Statement 2019: Dangerous Heat Events to Become More Frequent and Severe was released yesterday at press conferences in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

Yesterday, at the Cedar Rapids Press Conference, Dr. Jerry Schnoor was asked what he would say to individuals that do not currently see climate change as a major issue. 

This year’s statement warns Iowans and Midwesterners of sobering extreme heat projections for the region. Based on the most up-to-date scientific sources, the statement makes clear the urgency of preparing for dangerously hot summers in coming decades.  The statement describes some of the sobering impacts of hotter heat waves and more hot days. The 9th annual Iowa Climate Statement was endorsed by a record 216 science faculty, researchers and educators from 38 Iowa colleges and universities.

Check out the full Cedar Rapids Press Conference on our Facebook Page.

Flood Center co-founder Larry Weber serves on Flood Recovery Advisory Board


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Larry Weber, a notable flood expert from the University of Iowa (photo from IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering).

Julia Poska| April 26, 2019

The Flood Recovery Advisory Board, formed by Governor Reynolds to coordinate statewide recovery and rebuilding following this year’s devastating floods, will gain  expertise from Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber can offer valuable experience and insights in several areas related to flooding. He is a former director of IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, conducting research in areas including river hydraulics, hydropower, ice mechanics, water quality and watershed processes.

Weber also conducts research for the UI Public Policy Center and worked with the state legislature in 2013 to implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He and his wife have won several awards for conservation work on their own property.

Recently, he wrote an op-ed about his vision as leader of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $96 million Iowa Watershed Approach. This program addresses factors that contribute to Iowa’s increasing flood risk in nine distinct watersheds, with the ultimate goals of reducing risk, improving water quality and increasing resilience.

In the piece, Weber said he aims to restore natural resiliency through conservation measures like farm ponds, wetlands and terraces. Floodplain restoration is another important piece of his plan.

“We need to allow our rivers room to flood,” he said. “The floodplain is an integral, natural part of the river. They also keep people safe and remove us from the heartbreaking cycle that so many Iowans know all too well: Lose everything to a flood.”

His expertise in all-things-flooding, from hydraulics to conservation to policy, will surely prove valuable as Iowa begins to move forward from this year’s floods and better prepare for  flooding to come.

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Writer Activist Barbara Eckstein


Julia Poska| April 5, 2019

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Barbara Eckstein, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska 2019.

Barbara Eckstein’s environmental interest was a product of place. Her first jobs were in New Orleans, “where class and race and environmental degradation are very present,” she said. “So the need for activism on the behalf of those causes was just very apparent.”

When she came to teach at the University of Iowa, an urban and regional planning professor introduced her to sustainability, which was a useful model for pulling her interests together into her second book, Sustaining New Orleans.

The English professor has since spent her career studying, advocating for and writing about racism, environmentalism and the relationships between the two. She’s also addressing climate change.

Eckstein’s other environmental-literary interest? Mosquitos! Learn more here. 

“Locally, what I saw was on the one hand an interesting, deep commitment in Iowa to Iowa as a political entity…and a distance from the climate change conversations that scientists and others were having at the universities and the colleges in Iowa,” Eckstein said.

Together with various students and colleagues, she has spent years creating the People’s Weather Map, an online collection of stories about extreme weather in every Iowa county  from both the recent and distant past.

The target audience, she said, ranges from the dubious to the concerned: not the alarmed, and not the explicit deniers, who she said have a political stake in denial and remain a significant portion of the U.S. population. Eckstein instead wants to help people understand the complex links between climate change and extreme weather.

The most important audience for climate communication, she said, is “Implicatory Deniers.” These are people who are convinced by climate science but have struggled to adjust their lifestyles accordingly.

“We live this double consciousness, where we fully believe it, but we take plane trips to Bora Bora at the drop of a hat if we can afford it,” she said.

Listen for more of Eckstein’s thoughts on climate denial. 

Narrative can be a powerful tool to sway such people. Eckstein referenced a model in which a human figure stands at the center of several concentric circles, each representing a psychological barrier to personal climate action, starting with “Identity.” An arrow representing stories attempts to pass through the circles.

“As a person who studies and writes about literature and who is a writer, I think ‘Oh my God. What a huge responsibility!’” Eckstein exclaimed.

Readers often identify themselves in stories, she said, but carefully written ones can bend their self-perception. Eckstein hopes the stories told in the People’s Weather Map can help readers think about the places they live in a new light.

“We want the story to be familiar and then not,” she said. “Pull people in with the familiarity, and then turn it so there’s capacity to learn from the story.”

Stories also provide vicarious experience. Readers can learn from the mistakes and decision making of characters instead of making their own mistakes.

But some stories are even more valuable than others.

“I think we need to hear more from those people that we know generally are more vulnerable to a changing climate,” Eckstein said.

Hear Eckstein’s plans for the future of the People’s Weather Map. 

The environmental movement is inherently a social movement, but it has not always been (and still sometimes fails to be) socially oriented and inclusive. She said environmentalists have some racism to live down and must do all they can imagine to heal the rift with those who have faced social injustice.

“We have to just kind of go out there and try to undo it, by being present and listening,” she said. “Not by telling people ‘Here’s our schtick.’”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

CGRER Looks Forward: Statistician Kate Cowles


Julia Poska | March 22, 2019

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Kate Cowles, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Hydrologists can never completely predict when flooding will strike. Conservationists can never be sure how chemical spills will impact fish populations, nor can anyone really foretell how extreme the effects of climate change will be. That’s why environmental researchers need statisticians like Kate Cowles.

“One of the hallmarks of statistical work is assessing realistically how much uncertainty remains,” said the University of Iowa professor of statistics and biostatistics.

Cowles’ was first introduced to environmental statistics when another environmental statistician, her early mentor Dale Zimmerman, called on her expertise in Bayesian statistics. Together they calibrated four methods of measuring water held in snow across the western U.S..

“Indeed I learned an enormous amount from Dale and really got hooked on the environmental and spatial,” she said. and “I’ve pretty much been working in that area ever since.”

Cowles began her career as a piano teacher…how did she get here today? Listen to her describe her fascinating journey.  

Notably, Cowles was director of GEEMaP (Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction), a value-added graduate program funded by the National Science Foundation. Before it ended last summer, GEEMaP brought together faculty and graduate  students in fields like statistics, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, computer science,  geoinformatics and geography.

The problems they discussed and solved exposed students to real-world problems and gave them a strong grounding in statistics and geographic information systems (GIS), Cowles said. Every project promoted interdisciplinary collaboration.

Cowles said a class she teaches on Bayesian statistics, her specialty, also resonates well with engineering students. The Bayesian approach allows users to quantify what they do and do not know and update their understanding as more information comes in. Cowles believes it parallels the way engineers think and lends itself well to engineering problems. She is always excited to advise engineering students and further promote collaboration with statisticians.

“I think that it is crucially important for those two types of data analysts to work together and communicate with each other,” Cowles said.

Because environmental datasets are often measured over both space and time, researchers in fields like agriculture and meteorology must account for spatial correlation. As the first law of geography states, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Hear about a possible application for Cowles and her student’s spatial correlation software.

Calculating that relationship requires complex statistics, but failing to account it properly can lead to faulty conclusions.

“Statistical methods that help us draw the right conclusions for complex data like that are becoming more and more important,” Cowles said.

One of Cowles’ graduate students is developing software that “mops up that spatial correlation,” making things easier for non-statisticians making predictions based on spatial data.

Processing  such enormous datasets is slow work, however. In many cases, engineering methods like machine learning are faster than statistical methods, which Cowles said creates  tension between disciplines.

Listen to Cowles explain how she hopes to speed up complex spatial processing.

Another large part of her work focuses on activating underutilized graphical processing units inside computers to do many simple computations simultaneously, which can speed up the processing of such data.

“Statisticians need to catch up, because engineers and environmental scientists cannot wait for a long time for results of their analyses!” she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch.