Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


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Researchers found that drier areas, like this drought-stricken field in Texas, are getting drier in a recent study. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2018

A recent study by NASA, the first of its kind, found that significant amounts of water are shifting around Earth’s surface.

Scientists used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), two satellites, to track gravitational changes made by hydrologic shifts in 34 regions around the world. From 2002 through 2016, they paired this information with satellite precipitation data, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and public reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

In short, researchers found that wetter areas are getting wetter and drier areas are getting drier. Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the study’s authors. He explains, “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

Scientists point to a couple of things to explain freshwater depletion in areas that are getting drier. In Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the world, for example, ground water has been depleted for agricultural purposes. The study also found that groundwater availability changes with periods of drought. From 2007 through 2015, southwestern California lost enough freshwater to fill 400,000 Olympic size swimming pools because the region saw less precipitation and snowpack during that time and had to rely on groundwater more heavily.

Freshwater loss in many regions was attributed to global warming that caused glaciers and ice sheets to melt away. However, Famiglietti said that much more research is needed to determine whether climate change caused the other hydrologic shifts.

GRACE Follow-On, GRACE’s successor, will continue to monitor the movement on water on Earth and is set to launch on May 22nd from Vandenberg Air Force Base California.

Heavy rainfall events more common nationwide


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This map illustrates the percent increase in heaviest precipitation events from 1958 through 2016. (Climate Central)

Jenna Ladd | May 11, 2018

As the climate continues to warm, many U.S. cities are experiencing heavy rainfall more frequently.

Research and news organization, Climate Central, examined the number of days per calendar year that each of 244 sites nationwide experienced 0.25, 0.50, 1, and 2 inches of precipitation from 1950 through 2017. The report found that incidents of heavy rain events are increasing in frequency in all regions of the U.S. In Des Moines, the number of days per year where the city experienced two or more inches of precipitation has increased by about seven percent since 1950.

For each 1°F of global warming, Earth’s atmosphere becomes four percent more saturated with water. This makes more moisture available to condense and fall down as precipitation. As a result, extreme floods are more likely to happen now than they were in the past. According to NOAA, 29 flood disasters that cost more than $1 billion each have happened since 1980. In Iowa alone, floods have caused more than $18 billion in damages in the last thirty years. That puts us in fourth place nationwide for the number of floods experienced since 1988.

The northeastern United States has seen a 55 percent increase in heavy precipitation events from 1958 through 2016, the sharpest increase in the nation, according to the report. The midwest follows close behind, with a 42 percent increase in heavy precipitation events.

Users can determine whether incidents of heavy rainfall have increased in Dubuque, Mason City, Ottumwa, Sioux City, and Waterloo by using Climate Central’s interactive map.

Iowa Flood Information System predicts economic damages of flooding


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The Mississippi River in Dubuque is one of many in the state that is threatening to flood this spring. (Lesley G/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 10, 2018

Flooding has cost Iowa communities more than $18 billion in the last thirty years, and as the Mississippi and Cedar Rivers continue to swell this spring, Iowans may wonder how much they can expect to pay out on flood disasters in the future.

In recent years, scholars at the Iowa Flood Center have been working to predict just that. HAZUS, developed by the the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides predictions of the economic impact various magnitudes and types of natural disasters might have across the United States. During 2017, Research Engineer and Assistant Professor Ibrahim Demir and graduate research assistant Enes Yildirim, combined HAZUS’ information on demographics, buildings and structural content with data from the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS).

As a result, IFIS now offers flood loss and economic damage estimations for twelve communities in the state. These include Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls,  Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Independence, Kalona, Monticello, Ottumwa, Rock Rapids, Rock Valley, and Waterloo. HAZUS’ model makes it possible for users to not only view the overall economic damages to a community but also how much in damages individual buildings can be expected to accrue.

Iowa Flood Center researchers are working to expand this predictive model to other parts of the state. For now, users can use the following guide to learn more about the financial consequences of flooding in any of the aforementioned communities.

First, users must visit Iowa Flood Information System website, then:

  1. Hover their cursor over the “Flood Maps” tab and find their community under the “Flood Map Scenarios for Communities” button.
  2. After clicking on the “Damage Estimate” button, users can toggle the “Flood Map Controller” to model different scenarios.

Residents evacuated due to flooding in Western Montana


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The Clark Fork River runs through the center of Missoula, carrying water down from the mountains. (Frank Fujimoto/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2018

Sixty homes in Missoula, Montana were mandatorily evacuated due to flooding on Tuesday.

Heavy precipitation during early May and recent snowmelt from nearby mountains mixed to send rivers and streams in several parts of Western Montana flowing out of their banks. The Clark Fork River is a main artery running through the middle of Missoula and is the site of the most severe flooding. 1,300 homes along the river were encouraged to prepare for a possible evacuation.

Ken Parks is the Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services deputy coordinator. He said to the Associated Press, “If you live anywhere near a stream or waterway in western Montana you need to be prepared to leave your home. This is going to come earlier than we expected. We’re trying to get out ahead of this thing and get the message out that this could be a very dangerous situation.”

From 1955 to 2016, snowpack on mountains in the Western United States declined by an average of 23 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, Western Montana has really only seen the beginning of this spring’s snowmelt, according to authorities from the National Weather Service. Some parts of the local mountain range are expected produce 55 additional inches of snowmelt through the spring and summer. The Clark Fork River is expected to reach higher levels than it has since 1981 this year.

On The Radio- 2,500 chemicals sites at risk for floods


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Sites at risk for high and moderate flooding 

Kasey Dresser | April 16, 2018

This weeks segment looks at chemical sites across the U.S. that are located in flood risk areas.

 

Transcript:

Twenty five hundred toxic chemical sites in the U.S. are located in areas with high risk for flooding. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Last year the Climate Science Special report predicted a higher flood risk going into 2018. The heightened risk is from heavy rainfall and rising sea levels that lead to coastal floods and potential hurricanes. As of now, fourteen hundred toxic chemical sites are at high risk and eleven hundred are at moderate risk of flooding. 

Last year, Hurricane Harvey released hazardous pollutants at more than 40 sites. In 2012 Tropical Storm Debby destroyed a chemical plant in White Springs, Florida that produced phosphates to be used in fertilizer. Flooding from the tropical storm overflowed the Suwanee River destroying the algae and duckweed growth and caused the oxygen levels in the lakes and rivers to plummet. Record-breaking rains in May of last year overflowed storage ponds of sodium hydroxide sending the contaminant into the Alabama River.

Currently federal law and most state governments do not require a flood risk plan for toxic chemical sites. More needs to be done to protect our waterways from natural disasters.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

On The Radio- A decade since the 2008 flood


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Cedar Rapids

Kasey Dresser | April 9, 2018

This week’s segment looks at statistics from 10 years ago when Iowa experienced the 6th largest FEMA disaster in the U.S. 

Transcript:

This year marks a decade since the historic Iowa Floods of 2008.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Most of the flooding started in early June, finally receding in July. Thousands of Iowans were left displaced and jobless from the rising waters. The banks of the Mississippi, the Cedar, the Iowa, and the Wapsipinicon Rivers all overflowed. Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and the University of Iowa were among the worst affected in Eastern Iowa. Recovery has taken nearly a decade. 

At its peak, the Cedar River was around 20 feet above flood stage. In Cedar Rapids alone, around 10,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes. The estimated financial assistance received by Iowans as a result of the 2008 floods totaled $848 million. This was the  6th largest FEMA disaster declaration in the U.S.. 

The Iowa Flood Center, established as a result of the 2008 floods, has been working diligently with many communities to make them more resilient to the impact of future flooding. The Flood Center is the only facility of its kind in the nation, dedicated to helping Iowans better prepare for more flooding.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone. 

Extreme weather costlier than ever in 2017


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Jenna Ladd | March 28, 2018

As the Northern Hemisphere enters warmer seasons where severe weather and flooding are more likely, it is yet to be seen whether 2018 will top 2017 as the most costly year for natural disasters ever.

Since 1980, the yearly average for natural disasters in the U.S. that cause more than $1 billion in damages has been 5.8 events. Last year, the country saw 16 such events, including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought and wildfire. While this number technically ties with 2011, 2017 had more extreme weather as wildfires are tallied by region rather than single events, and last year brought more wildfires costing upwards of $1 billion than ever before.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the total cost of severe weather last year was $306.2 billion. This surpassed the previous record by nearly $100 billion dollars. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused $265.0 billion of 2017’s damages. Researchers figure physical damages to buildings and infrastructure as well as crop damages and losses to business into the total cost.

The midwest U.S. saw at least two severe storms last year that caused more than $1 billion in damages, both of them in mid-June. Flooding associated with storms like these has caused some $13.5 billion in economic losses from 1988 to 2015 in Iowa alone, according to a recent op-ed by Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski. Midwesterners also faced early tornado outbreaks in 2017, which tore across the region in late February and early March. Both events cause more than $1 billion in damages.

The National Centers for Environmental Information point out that increased development in vulnerable areas like coastlines, floodplains and fire-prone areas are causing the increase in billion dollar disasters. Climate change plays a role too. They write,

“Climate change is also paying an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters. Most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall and inland flooding events are most acutely related to the influence of climate change.”