Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

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.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


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Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.

Drought Conditions Worsen in Iowa After Another Dry Week


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Nicole Welle | August 31, 2020

Roughly 96% of Iowa is now considered at least abnormally dry as drought conditions worsen across the state.

That is an 8% increase since last week. 61% of Iowa is now in at least moderate drought, with 29% in severe drought and roughly 7% in extreme drought. These could be the driest conditions recorded since the drought of 2012, according to a Siouxland Proud article.

Every county in Iowa is now experiencing drought conditions, but the western part of the state has been hit the hardest. Crops in west-central Iowa are suffering under extreme drought conditions and a recent wave of high temperatures, and crop yields will likely be affected. This comes as an extra blow to farmers who have already experienced crop damage after the derecho swept through earlier this month.

21% of Iowa corn is now in “poor or very poor” condition according to the USDA. There are a few chances of rain across the state in the 10 day forecast, but drought conditions are likely to persist.

Unhealthy Levels of Pollution Spread Across Western U.S. as California Wildfires Burn On


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Nicole Welle | August 24, 2020

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.

Heat Waves Should Be Named And Ranked Says Newly Formed Heat Resilience Group


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Thomas Robinson | August 18th, 2020

The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a recently formed group of experts, is suggesting that heat waves should be named, similarly to how hurricanes are named, and ranked by severity as the first step towards increasing heat wave visibility.

Heat waves were the deadliest weather-related disaster in the US between 1986 and 2019 and were responsible for 4,257 deaths. The next deadliest weather-related disaster in the US was floods responsible for 2,907 deaths over the same time period.  The greatest challenge in making heat waves visible is that they don’t produce the same amount of physical damage that flooding or other severe weather like tornadoes do.  However, by naming and ranking the severity of heat waves the Alliance hopes that communities will be able to better prepare for extreme heat events.

Unfortunately, heat waves are expected to increase in frequency and will be affecting more than 3.5 billion people globally by 2050.  It is also expected that the urban poor and the disadvantaged will weather the worst of the effects caused by heat waves because of community vulnerability.

The Alliance’s formation is timely as just yesterday Death Valley, CA saw the hottest temperature on Earth since at least 1913 according to NPR.  As heat waves become more frequent and more intense, a failure to prepare communities for extreme heat events like the European heat wave of 2003 will result in the loss of human lives.

Drought Conditions Worsen in Western Iowa


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Nicole Welle | July 27, 2020

Western Iowa has been abnormally dry recently, and nearly 40% of the state is now experiencing moderate to severe drought.

7.62% of Iowa is currently in severe drought, and 54% is now considered abnormally dry. Precipitation deficits have been accumulating for the last four to six months, and the continued drought could put crops and livestock at risk. Crops in areas most heavily affected by drought are showing signs of moisture stress, according to an SF article.

“We’re seeing pineapple corn. Corn leaves are rolling, soybean leaves are flipping over. You start to see the lower leaves on the corn firing,” said Iowa climatologist Justin Glisan.

The state has also been experiencing above-average temperatures for the last month. Farmers in areas affected by both drought and high temperatures are likely to see diminished crop yields, and the heat and dryness could be dangerous for livestock.

Specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship are offering a series of webinars starting July 30 that will help farmers plan ahead and manage their drought-stressed crops and livestock. The weekly webinars are meant to answer any questions participants may have, provide weather and drought updates and give updates on shortages and yield estimates.

Arctic Circle Experiences Record Setting Temperatures Over the Weekend


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Thomas Robinson | June 23, 2020

The Arctic Circle likely experienced a record setting temperature of 100 °F over the weekend in Siberia during a historically unusual period of high heat for the region.

The Siberian town of Verkhoyansk measured a temperature of 38 °C (100 °F) on June 20th likely setting a new temperature record for the region.  The high temperature occurs as the Arctic Circle has been experiencing a heat wave that brought temperatures up to 10 °C above average throughout the months of March to May.  Unfortunately, the Copernicus Climate Change Service reports this past May was the warmest May on record, suggesting that more high heat events are likely for the Arctic in the future.

As higher average temperatures become common in the Arctic Circle, the surface albedo, an index that describes how reflective a surface is, will decrease because of snow and ice melt.  As the snow and ice continue to melt, a positive feedback loop is created which heats the Arctic further and will likely make record setting temperatures more common.

Global Heat Health Information Network Promotes New Information Series


Thomas Robinson | June 2nd, 2020

A new informational series has been released by the Global Heat Health Information Network (GHHIN), with input from experts around the world such as CGRER member Professor Gregory Carmichael, to inform decision makers on how to best address high heat events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The series covers a diverse range of topics and highlights current issues facing healthcare workers, as well as individuals who might be facing COVID-19.  Global experts address challenges such as how best to mitigate the influence wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has on how hot workers become, and how vulnerable populations can work to protect themselves from the combined risk COVID-19 and high heat present.

Hot weather is a pressing risk during the pandemic because it can result in a worsening of COVID-19 health outcomes.  As temperatures rise over the summer, communities will need to face the challenges both high heat events and the COVID-19 pandemic introduce. The information provided by the GHHIN hopes to better inform essential decision makers, so that they will have a well researched, scientific reasoning for difficult decisions. 

Dangerous Heat Events Are Becoming More Common


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Thomas Robinson | May 19th, 2020

Extreme heat events that threaten human safety are already occurring contrary to current climate projections, says a recent study

Researchers found that high heat events where the temperature and humidity exceed safe conditions have occurred twice as often since 1979.  These dangerous heat events occur in coastal regions like the Gulf of Mexico and southeastern California but can also occur in areas with heavy irrigation and agriculture.  The most extreme heat events were both localized and short (1-2 hours) but all signs suggest that they will only become more frequent as climate change worsens. 

The key measure in the study was the “wet-bulb temperature”, which describes what the temperature feels like if a person is actively sweating.  A sustained wet-bulb temperature of 95˚F (or a heat index of 160˚F) is the point where the sustained heat becomes deadly, but even temperatures slightly below pose dangers to the elderly or those with complications. 

Iowa is heat prone itself as our state can be extremely humid even before the addition of corn.  The 2019 Iowa Climate Statement emphasized the likelihood of more frequent, and severe heat events for Iowa, and that those events will pose a threat to workers and the elderly.  As the likelihood of dangerous heat events increases, so too does the likelihood that heat becomes a frequent concern for those in Iowa and around the world.

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking climate and contamination with Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


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Jerry Schnoor speaking at the release of the 2019 Iowa Climate Statement (photo by Kasey Dresser). 

Julia Poska |March 2, 2020

This week’s episode of EnvIowa features a discussion with CGRER co-director Dr. Jerry Schnoor. He is, among other things, a professor of civil and environmental engineering with a long career studying climate change, water quality and environmental toxicology. Listen to hear Schnoor discuss the urgency of climate change, his efforts to clean up chemical pollution using plants and why he wants our youth to get angry.