CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor


Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

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Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”


Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.


Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”


Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”


***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run 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. ***

 

Iowa reacts to proposed EPA Clean Water Rule rollback


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Regulation over streams on farmland is in dispute (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 3rd, 2019

The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.

Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.

The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.

In November, Iowa already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. The most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”

As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”

Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.

Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told the Sioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.

Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.

“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”

On The Radio- Climate change and crop production


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This weeks segment looks at how increased temperature and precipitation will affect crop production in the Midwest. 

Transcript:

Increasing temperatures and precipitation will affect crop yields in the Midwest.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Midwest, often referred to as the breadbasket of America, is a major producer of corn, soybeans, and wheat. Rising temperatures and greater precipitation threaten farmer’s livelihoods.  

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Midwestern states are expected to warm up more than any other region in the U.S. Currently, the Iowa average annual 5-day maximum temperature during a heat wave is in the range of ninty to ninty-five degrees Fahrenheit. 

Now U.S. climate scientists are projecting that by mid-century, five-day heat wave temperatures in Iowa will increase by about seven degrees Fahrenheit for the average year and by thirteen degrees Fahrenheit once per decade compared to heat waves in the late twentieth century.  

Higher average temperatures increase the rate of evaporation from soil and plant leaves, leaving the land dry and arid and potentially damaging crop yields. Longer spells of high heat pave the way for droughts. The newly dryer land is then unable to properly soak up water from heavy rainfall, creating more flooding scenarios.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

DNR reports 3% increase in Iowa greenhouse gas emissions


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This pie chart shows 2017 greenhouse emissions in Iowa by sector (from the 2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report). 

Julia Poska | December 28th, 2018

Greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa rose 3 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a new report from the state Department of Natural Resources.  The report accounted for 131 million metric tons of emissions released throughout the state in various sectors including energy, agriculture and solid waste.

The largest sources of increase were waste and industrial processes. Emissions from waste rose 28.62 percent due to increased decomposition of older waste in landfills. Emissions from industrial processes rose 31.73 percent percent, largely due to increased production of ammonia, up over 180 percent from 2016. The only sector to see decrease was natural gas production and distribution, which decreased about 10 percent and accounts for only 1 percent of total emissions.

Agriculture contributes about 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions,  mainly methane and nitrous oxide, which are respectively about 25 and 298 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. These emissions largely come from animal waste and soil management.

Despite this increase, total emissions are down 6 percent from 2008.  The DNR projects that emissions will continue rising through at least 2020, and drop a bit more by 2030.

On The Radio- Ecosystem services


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Flickr/ckocur

Kasey Dresser| December 24, 2018

This weeks segment looks at how the relationship between humans and ecosystems will change with the affects of climate change.

Transcript:

Climate change will alter the relationship between humans and ecosystems. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from nature. Some of these benefits will diminish in coming years, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released in November. 

Some ecosystem services provide resources like food, water and fuel. Iowa’s economy depends heavily on one such service—agriculture. The growing season is starting earlier and becoming wetter, which will impact crop yields.

Other services protect humans from natural dangers such as disease-carrying insects, like mosquitoes and ticks. As northern climates get warmer the ranges of such pests and the diseases they carry are expanding. 

Cultural services include natural provisions for recreation, tourism, aesthetics and spirituality. Climate change will impact sporting seasons and threaten cherished landscapes. 

Changes will vary among regions and ecosystems, making the future hard to predict. Some losses are inevitable, though, and may compromise human industry, livelihood and sustenance. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Climate Assessment predicts water stress on multiple levels for U.S.


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This graphic from the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows groundwater depletion in U.S. aquifers a decade ago. Today, these underground water supplies are even more depleted. 

Julia Poska| November 30, 2018

We already know climate change is having major impacts on rainfall. The 2018 Iowa Climate Statement said the strongest rainfall events of the year may double in intensity by 2025.  Climate change will alter the hydrologic cycle in other ways as well, majorly changing society’s relationship with water.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, controversially released Black Friday, details the forecasted changes to water supplies in the U.S.. It compiles the findings of over 300 experts and has been reviewed by 13 federal agencies, in an effort to inform top decision-makers and common citizens.

More intense rainfall will be met with more intense drought and reduced snowpack, which is bad news for communities that rely on glacial melt for their water supply. These changes are exacerbating water availability issues caused primarily by overuse of groundwater aquifers in much of the U.S..

As higher temperatures create even higher demand for water for drinking and irrigation, this problem will only get worse and worse, which will have major implications for both the food supply and the industrial sector.

The altered hydrologic cycle will impact the quality of our limited quantity of water as well. Rising water temperatures will impact the health of ecosystems, and changes  runoff patterns of pollutants into water will impact human health and pose challenges for water treatment facilities. Sea level rise could also threaten coastal drinking water supplies with the potential intrusion of saltwater flooding.

The report says the biggest water issues for the Midwest are adapting stormwater management systems and managing harmful algae blooms. Iowa is already familiar with floods produced by intense rainfall.  Algae blooms, fueled by nutrient-runoff from farm fields, will be further increased by rising temperatures.

Other water-related challenges detailed in the assessment include the deterioration of water infrastructure and managing water more strategically in the future.

 

The Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City next week


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Organic corn like this one is served popped throughout the conference  (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2018

While University of Iowa students are away for Thanksgiving break next week, Iowa’s organic farmers and advocates with gather in the Iowa Memorial Union for workshops, food and community.

The Iowa Organic Conference begins Sunday, Nov. 18 with a 6pm reception in the IMU ballroom. The following morning, keynote speaker David Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, will speak while attendees eat breakfast at the opening ceremony. His talk, titled Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life, will discuss ways to enhance seemingly hopeless soils.

Attendees can attend workshops throughout the day and visit around 40 vendors in the main lounge. Highlights include workshops led by Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and Iowa journalist Art Cullen, who wrote a series of Pulitzer-winning editorials about Iowa’s water pollution.

Breakfast and lunch are included in the registration fee, and will feature organic fare locally sourced from the Iowa City area. Snacks will be available throughout the day as well.

The event is sponsored by the Iowa State University Organic Program and the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability. Registration is still open for $120.