Saharan Dust Cloud Reaches Iowa and Affects Air Quality


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 2, 2020

A giant plume of dust that originated in the Sahara Desert traveled across the Atlantic ocean and into the United States early this week.

The dust cloud first appeared over states in the gulf of Mexico before traveling up into the Midwest. It reached Iowa last weekend, and the EPA issued an air quality forecast for Iowa June 29 placing parts of the state in the “moderate” category. This level of pollution could pose some health risks for a small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution, according to air quality forecasts on AirNow.

The dust plume was part of the Saharan Air Layer, which is a mass of dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert in the summer and moves over the North Atlantic every few days, according to NOAA. The dust caused the air to appear hazy in parts of the Midwest, especially during sunrise and sunset.

When the wind is strong enough, the dust can reach the United States and be concentrated enough to cause air quality issues. However, the extremely dry air can also help suppress hurricane and tropical storm development over the Atlantic Ocean, and minerals in the dust can help replenish nutrients in rainforest soil when it is able to reach the Amazon River Basin.

Drowning of Coastal Marshland in Louisiana is Likely Inevitable


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | May 25th, 2020

Coastal marshes in the Gulf of Mexico have been shown to have tipping points in a new study.  Tipping points, are when coastal marshes are unable to keep up with the rate of sea-level rise and become submerged over time destroying the marsh ecosystem.

Sediment cores were used from the Mississippi Delta to investigate how coastal marshes reacted to changes in their environment over the past 8,500 years.  Researchers found that even a small increase in the rate of sea level rise would result in large areas of coastal marshland becoming submerged.  Researchers found that rates above 3 millimeters per year is the likely threshold for coastal marshes to survive.  Unfortunately, current rates of sea-level rise are beyond that threshold suggesting that the remaining marshes in the Delta will likely drown within the century.

Coastal wetlands, such as marshes, are one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world.  They are extremely productive regions that have significant environmental and economic benefits.  They provide homes for diverse ecosystems that can benefit species diversity which results in robust fisheries.  Coastal wetlands also provide flood protection and erosion control for coastal areas which help to reduce the effect storms have on the coastline.

As coastal wetlands in the Mississippi River Basin are stressed from sea-level rise, they are also inundated with sediment and nutrients flowing from upstream.  Iowa is a major contributor to this issue and even though efforts are underway to alleviate the stress, coastal wetlands will be negatively affected by the state’s agriculture for years to come.

Efforts to Reduce Single-Use Plastics are Put on Hold During the COVID-19 Pandemic


(Via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | May 18, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused states to suspend bans on plastic bags, and some grocery stores are no longer allowing customers to shop using reusable bags due to public health concerns.

States like California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Hawaii, New York, Vermont and Oregon have all moved to ban the use of plastic bags in recent years to reduce plastic waste, but they are being forced to reconsider these bans as COVID-19 has made shopping with reusable bags unsafe. Because the virus can live on surfaces, contaminated reusable bags could become a health risk to store employees and other shoppers who come in contact with them or the surfaces they are placed on, according to an npr article.

Many stores that have not provided customers with lightweight plastic bags for years have had to begin stocking them again. Stores in California are also no longer charging 10 cents per bag as was required by law before the pandemic started, according to an article in The Mercury News.

Much of the personal protective equipment, like gloves, masks and other face and body coverings, required during the pandemic also has plastic components. As more businesses are allowed to reopen, the use of PPE by the public going out for the first time is likely to increase. Many businesses are now requiring customers to wear a face mask before entering, and many of the plastic face coverings used by the public are being discarded improperly.

Public health is a top priority during a pandemic, and these changes were necessary to maintain safe environments for shoppers and store employees. However, the increase in plastic bag use and improperly discarded PPE may take a toll on the environment. According to an article published by Environmental Health News, plastics are toxic to marine animals that ingest them, plastic in landfills can leach harmful chemicals into the groundwater, and plastics floating in the ocean can even serve as transportation for invasive species that disrupt habitats. Plastic production is also responsible for a large percentage of the world’s fossil fuel use.

Lawmakers are hopeful that these rollbacks on regulations regarding single-use plastics will be temporary, but they are unable to establish a timeline due to the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last.

Hurricane Dorian highlights growing vulnerability of islanders


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This map from NOAA shows Dorian passing over the Bahamas, forecasting its trajectory as of 11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 31. 

Julia Poska | September 4, 2019

In recent years, the Caribbean islands have been repeatedly pummeled by unusually intense hurricanes. In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma virtually destroyed Caribbean islands Dominicana and Barbuda. Puerto Rico is still recovering from devastation that same year. 

This week, Hurricane Dorian, the second strongest Atlantic storm on record, hit hard in the Bahamas. An aerial video from NBC reveals widespread flooding and buildings reduced to rubble on Abaco Island.

Once these islands recover, spending billions to do so, they can expect to see more intense storms in the future, as climate change increases the impacts of hurricanes. Though mitigation can be at least partially achieved through social and infrastructural means, many islands lack the financial means to implement them, as well as ample time between storms. 

Evacuation orders protect human life, but accessing transportation by air or water can be expensive, leaving inland shelters as the best option for many. In the Bahamans, 24 shelters were established inland on Abaco and Grand Bahamas Island, with 73,000 residents at risk, according to the Washington Post. The Bahamasair airline offered discounted flights off the island.

As climate change progresses, rising sea levels will make coastal flooding a permanent feature of island life, as well,  reducing inhabitable land and threatening freshwater resources within the islands. Just two degrees of warming would put Bahamian capital island Nassau and many smaller Caribbean islands almost completely underwater (see this map from Climate Central), forcing residents to relocate as “climate refugees.”

 

 

 

Microplastics found in Arctic snow


Image from Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Julia Shanahan | August 15th, 2019

Pieces of microplastic were found in arctic snow just weeks after World Meteorological Organization and Copernicus Climate Change program announced July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded, period.

Microplastics are falling from the sky via atmospheric transfer and are landing in remote places in the Arctic in substantial amounts, according to a study from Science Advances published on August 14. Scientists studied ice floes in Fram Strait, an unpopulated expanse of ocean near Greenland, and compared it to populated European sites. The study showed that the populated areas had a higher concentration of microplastics, but that the amount in remote areas was still high.

According to a report from National Geographic, scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research said the amount of microplastics in the atmosphere could potentially pose a risk to public health.  Temperature fluctuation among other things can cause plastics to break down into smaller fragments, which then produces the microplastics.

These institutes have been studying microplastics in the Arctic region since 2002 and have noticed drastic increases over the years. In the Arctic water column they found 6,000 microplastic particles in every 2.2 pounds of mud. In every 34 ounces of melted sea ice, they found 12,000 particles.

The report from Science Advances projects annual waste production to reach 3.4 billion MT in the next 30 years. Additionally, mismanaged plastic waste could reach 265 million MT by 2060. The report also highlights the fact that microplastics are ubiquitous in almost all ecosystems – freshwater, urban areas, terrestrial areas – because plastic is designed to be durable.

On The Radio- Water quality standards for microcystin


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Iowa River (flickr/resourcesforlife)

Kasey Dresser| August 12, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the Environmental Protection Agency’s new recommendation for keeping lakes clean.

Transcript:

The Environmental Protection Agency is recommending a new water quality standard for microcystin – a bacteria known to create blue-green algae that inhabits many bodies of water in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Iowa does not currently have a water quality standard for microcystin. When this toxic bacteria is ingested in large amounts, it can cause nausea, rashes fatigue and damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. This is especially harmful for children and animals who use lakes and streaks for recreation.

The EPA’s new recommendation is 8 micrograms of microcystin per Liter of water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources does issue swimming advisories if a body of water exceeds a threshold of 20 micrograms per Liter. The body of water would still be open for recreation.

According to the Iowa Environmental Council, if the Iowa DNR were to apply the new EPA standard to bodies of water in the summer of 2018, there would have been 11 more swim advisories, for a total of 17 that summer.

Under the Clean Water Act, a state is required to submit a list of impaired waters from time to time. As of 2016 in Iowa, there are over 50 lakes and stream segments that are impaired to a “total maximum load,” according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Microcystin is created from a photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria, which blooms on warm, sunny days when there are nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Cyanobacteria can quickly multiply, and the bloom is what creates the blue-green algae.

Adverse health effects can occur after direct contact of water, or after inhaltation of water droplets – this can occur from recreational activities like fishing or boating. When the blue-green algae decays, that process consumes oxygen, which could cause a fish kill, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

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

Scientists predict the 2019 Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” to be one the largest


Gulf of Mexico. Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | July 12th, 2019

The 2019 Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” will be the second-largest recorded, scientists from Louisiana State University announced this week.

The “dead zone” – an oxygen-depleted area of water in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nitrogen and phosphorus – will cover 8,717 square-miles as of this summer. Unusually high river discharge from the Mississippi River in May contributed to the growth of the dead zone. Oxygen depletion, or hypoxia, also threatens marine life, including fish, shrimp, and crabs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also predicted the dead zone to reach record-highs. In 2017, the dead zone reached about 8,776 square-feet, as reported by the NOAA.  LSU scientists predict the 2019 hypoxic area to be about the size of New Hampshire.

The NOAA also attributed the growth in the annual dead zone to the record rainfall and flooding that happened in the spring months. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated a total of 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus were carried from the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico in May alone.

Iowa experienced record flooding from the Missouri River in the spring, which contributed to the nutrient runoff in the Mississippi River. Iowa remains a major contributor to the annual Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

Low oxygen levels appeared about 50 years ago when farming intensified in the Midwest, according to the press release from LSU. In the last few decades, there has not been a reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. 

On The Radio- Carbon dioxide’s effect on record high temperatures


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Sunrise (flickr/uditha wickramanayaka)

Kasey Dresser| July 8, 2019

This week’s segment looks at the influence of carbon dioxide on the record high-temperature levels this year. 

Transcript: 

Ocean carbon dioxide levels hit a new record early this month, as it was 84 degrees near the Arctic Ocean.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Temperatures rose to 84 degrees in the northwest of Russian near the entrance of the Arctic Ocean, a rural area in eastern Russia where the average high temperature is around 54 degrees this time of year. 

Many locations around Russia set record high temperatures. This particular heat wave, a manifestation of the arrangement of weather systems and fluctuations in the jet stream, fits into what has been an unusually warm year across the Arctic and most of the mid-latitudes.

In the meantime, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere surpassed 415 parts per million for the first time in recorded history — the highest in at least 800,000 years, and possibly the highest levels in over 3 million years. Carbon dioxide levels have risen by nearly 50 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

These numbers altogether serve as indicators of the damages done by modern civilization to the environment and the contributions humans have made towards climate change.

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

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

Iowa DNR cautions boaters this upcoming Fourth of July


Photo by Ethan Sees on Pexels.com

By Julia Shanahan | June 27th, 2019

Due to record rainfall and Iowa waterbodies being at or above flood levels, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises individuals who plan to take part in Fourth of July festivities on the water to be cautious.

“Don’t overload your [boat],” said DNR boating law administrator Susan Stocker in a news release. “The U.S. Coast Guard, along with manufacturers, determines the capacity of each boat and it is visible on virtually all boats. Watch for objects at or just below the surface. The rain and runoff may have washed logs or other debris into the water or moved previous obstacles to different locations.” 

Iowa set a record for rain and snow the last 12 months, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. State weather experts say a changing climate and higher ocean temperatures from thousands of miles away contributed to Iowa’s increase in precipitation as well, according to a report from the Des Moines Register.

In May, the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities hit the highest level ever recorded – 22.7 feet.

As the hot summer months continue, Iowa can expect higher than average rainfall. Along with climate change, El Nino conditions over the Pacific Ocean is also a contributing factor. This moisture was also a factor in the major flooding that happened in southwest Iowa and Nebraska in March after snowmelt and rainfall.

For Iowans looking for more information about how to stay safe on a boat this Fourth of July, the DNR has boater education resources online.

On The Radio- Decreasing fish populations


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(flickr/nanarab)

Kasey Dresser| May 20, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how fish populations are decreasing as ocean temperatures continue to increase. 

Transcript: 

Overfishing is not the only factor decreasing fish populations.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A study published in the journal, Science, tracked the changes of 235 fish and shellfish populations from 1930 to 2010. Throughout that time, the Earth’s ocean temperatures have increased on average by half a degree Celcius.

Eight percent of the fish and shellfish in the study showed depleting populations. Four percent of the populations increased however, since fish like black sea bass thrive in warm water. As water temperatures continue to increase, those gains will not be sustained.

Christopher Free, a quantitative ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, referred to this trend as the fish and shellfish reaching their heat thresholds. Currently,124 species of fish and shellfish are on route to becoming an unstable food source.

3.2 billion people worldwide rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. These findings are meant to inform local fisheries of the changing populations so they can begin to take these findings into account.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

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