Scientists question EPA’s rollback of hazardous pollution regulation


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It is estimated that 9 of the 12 major sources of pollution in Iowa’s third congressional district will be reclassified under the EPA’s latest rollback. (Bill Dickinson/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 26, 2018

Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.

In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”

Users can view the likelihood that this policy change will affect air quality in their region using the interactive map provided here.

Earth Day Network encourages year-round environmental effort


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Plastic tangles with ocean vegetation on a beach near San Francisco. (Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2018

It seems that spring in Iowa finally arrived by this Sunday, April 22nd, which also happened to be Earth Day, and many celebrated by spending time outside.

But what was the 48th Earth Day all about, if not only outdoor picnics and joyous winter-is-finally-over selfies? According to the Earth Day Network, the aim for 2018 is to End Plastic Pollution. A noble cause indeed; more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. About fifty percent of that is used just one time and thrown away. Plastic Oceans, a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic use and pollution, estimates that more than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of this plastic ends up in the Pacific Ocean. More than 6,000 pounds of the stuff was removed during an Earth Day clean up on Hong Kong’s beaches this year, and the effort barely made a dent in the local pollution problem.

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.

Climate change and wild spring weather


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The Greenland block is a high pressure atmospheric block that hangs above Greenland and affects weather moving down to lower latitudes. (flickr/Stig Nygaard)

Jenna Ladd | April 18, 2018

By-in-large, spring weather has been arriving earlier each year in the United States. For instance, the frost-free season was 10 days longer between 1991 and 2011 than it was from 1901 to 1960.

This may come as a shock to Midwesterners, who saw several inches of snow fall this Sunday, April 15th. So what’s going on?

Among some other factors, the Greenland Block has a lot to do with the snowy spring of 2018, according to Dr. David Mechem of the University of Kansas. Mechem, a professor of geography and atmospheric science, explained that there is a persistent atmospheric area of high pressure above Greenland which funnels cold air from the poles straight into the mid-latitudes of North America. He told KCUR that the block was in place throughout February and March and is finally starting to break down, which would bring long-awaited warmer temperatures to the midwest.

Further research is needed to establish exactly what kind of effect climate change has on spring weather, but scientists are noticing some changes. Winter storms (even if they happen in April) have increased in frequency and intensity in the Northern hemisphere since 1950 according to the National Climate Assessment. Nor’easter winter storms plague the eastern U.S. and are caused by the the cold air from the Arctic and warm air from the Atlantic interplaying. This year, that region of the U.S. saw several Nor’easters in very quick succession, which is unusual. A recent study in the journal Nature Communications found that as the Arctic’s climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, winter storms becoming more likely in the eastern U.S.

The good news is that as the Greenland block continues to break down, residents of the mid-latitudes can expect spring to finally arrive. The bad news is that unpredictable spring weather can be expected to continue coming years as the climate continues to change.

Mock climate change negotiation set for April 21st


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A mock climate negotiation is coming to Iowa City, challenging participants to keep climate change well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. (MIT technology review)
Jenna Ladd | April 12, 2018

Iowa City area residents have the opportunity to understand what it might be like to be a part of the United Nations climate change negotiations.

On Saturday, April 21,  the public is invited to participate in a World Climate Simulation. Created by Climate Interactive, nearly 900 of these simulations have taken place in 75 countries. The role-playing exercise assigns each participant a delegate position with a nation, interest group or negotiating bloc. During the mock international climate change negotiating meeting, participants are tasked with negotiating climate policy that would keep climate change below 2˚C over preindustrial temperatures. Meanwhile, the event facilitator, acting as a UN leader, uses the C-ROADS interactive computer model to demonstrate the climate implications of any number of climate policy proposals. The C-ROADS simulation is based on current climate change science.

Climate Interactive details the learning outcomes of the activity. They write, “During the event participants must face the climate science, engage in the drama and tensions of global politics, test their ambitions against a climate-modeling tool used by actual climate negotiators, and then reflect on how the experience challenges their assumptions about climate action.”

Iowa City’s simulation will take place from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at the Iowa City Public Library on April 21st. Interested parties are encouraged to sign up as soon as possible. More information about this event and the link to register can be found here.

“Frost-free” days increase, so does allergy season


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Climate Central’s graph illustrates how the number of frost-free days in Des Moines has increased over time. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd | April 11, 2018

Given that spring snow fell across Iowa this weekend, it may be hard to believe that the frost-free season across the U.S. is actually getting longer.

A recent report found that, on average, the last spring freeze is occurring earlier while the first fall freeze is happening later. Researchers define the frost-free season as the total number of days between the last day of 32 degree Fahrenheit or lower weather in the spring and the first day of 32 degree Fahrenheit weather in the fall.

The lengthening of this season means that pollen-producing plants have a longer growing period. One study in particular found that the growing season for ragweed, a common allergen in the U.S., lengthened by two to four weeks between 1995 and 2009. This data was collected from ten sites from the southern U.S. through Canada. Iowa has added nine days to the average length of its frost-free season from 1986-2015 when compared with the average from 1901-1960.

Not only are allergy-causing plants benefiting from longer growing seasons, but an uptick in atmospheric carbon dioxide also increases pollen counts. Last year was the worst allergy season in recent record and experts expect this year to be similar.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro, an allergist and immunologist from California told CBS news, “A recent study showed that pollen counts are likely to double by the year 2040, so in a little more than 20 years we’re going to see a significant increase [in seasonal allergies].”

Climate Central’s recent report provides an interactive graph that allows users to select a U.S. city and see how the frost-free season’s length there may have changed since 1970.

Warmer temperatures make milkweed toxic for monarchs


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A monarch caterpillar scoots across a common milkweed leaf. (USFWSmidwest/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2018

A recent study published in the journal Ecology uncovered an unexpected consequence of climate change for monarch butterflies.

Researchers from Louisiana State University and University of Michigan set out to understand how warmer temperatures affect the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. The insects, whose population has declined by more than 80 percent in the last decade, lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. After the larvae hatch, they feed on certain species of milkweed, which provide protection to the butterflies. Milkweed plants produce chemicals called cardenolides in their leaf tissues, which are poisonous to most of the monarch’s predators. When monarchs consume the perfect amount of these chemicals as larvae, it sends a signal to larger predators to stay away from them.

However, scientists found that as regional temperatures rise, some species of milkweed plants produce more cardenolides. This poses a threat to the monarchs’ survival. One of the researchers, Dr. Bret Elderd, an associate professor at Louisiana State University, explained, “It’s a Goldilocks situation for monarch butterflies. Too few of these chemicals in the milkweed, and the plant won’t protect monarch caterpillars from being eating. But too high of a concentration of these chemicals can also hurt the monarchs, slowing caterpillar development and decreasing survival.”

One species of milkweed by the Latin name of A. curassavica has naturally high levels of cardenolides in its leaves and is especially sensitive to rising temperatures. Landscapers and environmentalists alike have been planting more of the nonnative plant to save the monarchs, but scientists warn that this plan may have backfired. They are working to spread the word that the native variety of milkweed, A. incarnata, has naturally lower levels of cardeolides and is much less likely to become toxic to monarchs as the climate warms.

The study reads, “It has become increasingly recognized that species interactions, especially interactions between tightly-linked species, need to be considered when trying to understand the full impacts of climate change on ecological dynamics.”

The full report can be found here.

Carbon dioxide makes food less nutritious


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Less nutritious crops could pose health problems for many people worldwide who rely heavily on rice as their main food source. (Rob Bertholf/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 5, 2018

The changing climate is forcing farmers to adapt, but how do rising greenhouse gas levels impact the food on our dinner plates?

A Harvard School of Public Health study looked at how more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects nutrient levels in six primary food crops: wheat, rice, field peas, soybeans, corn and sorghum. The researchers split plants of the same crop up between two groups. The first group was cultivated in an environment with between 363 and 386 parts per million carbon dioxide (CO2). This was the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the time of the study, in 2014. The second group of plants grew up in an environment with between 546 to 586 parts per million of the greenhouse gas in the air. This is roughly the concentration of CO2 expected to be in Earth’s atmosphere within fifty years.

When it was time, the scientists harvested the crops and measured levels of key nutrients in them. They looked specifically at zinc, protein and iron. The study found that plants grown in environments with higher concentrations of CO2 were less nutritious than their counterparts. Wheat, rice and soybeans were all found to have lower levels of zinc, protein and iron in the higher CO2 conditions.

Animal products are the primary source of protein for most people in the U.S., but people in other parts of the world rely heavily on rice and wheat as their main protein providers. These foods are naturally low in protein and further deficiency could be devastating. One study in the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that these projected impacts could cause an additional 150 million people worldwide to be protein deficient by 2050. Protein deficiency can cause low birth weight and other health problems that stunt growth and development.