Are We Already Past the Point of No Return for Climate Change?


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Nicole Welle | November 16, 2020

A new study found that global temperatures may continue to rise for hundreds of years even after humans completely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Authors of the study, which was published Thursday in the British Journal Scientific Reports, wrote that the only way to stop global warming would be to eliminate human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and find a way to extract huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, according to an article in USA Today.

The scientists used a model to study the effect of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the Earth’s climate from the year 1850 to 2500. They then created projections of global temperatures and sea level rises. The model showed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions at any point in the future will not be enough if it is the only tool humans employ to combat rising temperatures and sea levels.

As the burning of fossil fuels release gases like methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, global temperatures increase. This causes Arctic ice and carbon-containing permafrost to melt, a process that releases even more carbon into the atmosphere and reduces the ability of Earth’s surface to reflect sunlight. Human action triggered these processes, and they will continue to warm the earth unless humans capture carbon in the atmosphere and make the Earth’s surface brighter, according to the study’s authors.

This study was an important thought experiment, but some environmental experts are skeptical about the accuracy of its results. Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann said that the computer model used was too simple and failed to accurately represent large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns that could affect the results.

Regardless of the results’ accuracy, this study still reflects on the importance of finding ways to combat climate change even after global emissions reach net zero. The authors also urge other scientists to follow up and expand on their work.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

New Study Supports Complete Loss of Arctic Sea Ice by 2035


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Nicole Welle | August 13, 2020

A new study used evidence from a warm period around 127,000 years ago to support predictions that the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2035.

An international team of researchers used the UK Net Office’s Hadley Centre climate model to compare arctic sea ice conditions from the last interglacial with present day conditions. The new model allowed researchers to better understand how the Arctic became sea ice-free during the last interglacial and to more accurately create model predictions for the future.

The new climate model involves studying shallow pools of water that form on the surface of sea ice in the spring and early summer called melt ponds. Melt ponds are important because they affect how much sunlight is absorbed by the ice and how much is reflected back into space, according to a Science Daily article. Melt ponds facilitate further sea ice melt by creating surfaces that are less reflective and better suited to absorb sunlight.

Researchers discovered that, during the last interglacial, intense sunshine in the spring created large numbers of melt ponds. Because melt ponds heavily impact the rate at which sea ice melts, they were able to compare that model to current conditions and predict that the Arctic may be ice-free by 2035. Scientists working on the study hope that sea ice processes like melt ponds will be further incorporated into climate models in the future, and they are using their findings to emphasize the importance of achieving a low-carbon world as fast as possible.

UI Researchers Discover a Link Between Atlantic Hurricanes and a Climate System in East Asia


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Nicole Welle | August 10, 2020

University of Iowa researchers may have found a new influence on how tropical storms develop in the Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers identified a connection between a climate system in East Asia and the frequency of tropical storm development in the Atlantic ocean. The study discusses the Rosby wave, an atmospheric phenomenon carried west to east by the East Asian Subtropical Jet Stream (EASJ). The EASJ is an upper-level river of wind, and Rosby waves ride it to the North Atlantic when tropical cyclones are most likely to form. The waves are known to affect wind shear, a key element to tropical storm formation, according to an ENN article.

The researchers analyzed various datasets and observed almost 40 years of Atlantic tropical cyclones during prime formation season. They then connected that information to EASJ activity during that same time period and discovered that a stronger EASJ is associated with fewer Atlantic tropical cyclones, according to Iowa Now.

“When the EASJ is stronger, it can enhance this pattern, which leads to stronger teleconnections and stronger wind shear in the North Atlantic,” said Wei Zhang, a climate scientist at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at UI. “That can suppress Atlantic tropical cyclone formation.”

Researchers hope this new information can become a useful tool for predicting tropical cyclone formation in the Atlantic Ocean in the future.

Researchers Develop a New Method for Capturing Micropastics in Water


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Nicole Welle | July 13, 2020

Researchers at Shinshu University developed a promising new method for removing microplastics from water that involves using acoustics to separate and capture them.

Because microplastics are so small, traditional methods for removing them, like using filters and sieves, have been insufficient in filtering out the majority of microplastics from oceans and rivers. Filters are too big to filter out tiny particles and are prone to clogging, so they need to be regularly cleaned or replaced and are impractical for large-scale use.

Professor Hiroshi Moriwaki and Associate Professor Yoshitake Akiyama at Shinshu University created a device that uses piezo vibrations to collect microplastics and microplastic fibers. By using acoustics at a force and amplitude appropriate for size and compressibility of the microplastics, they found they could successfully collect it in the middle of a three-channel device, according to an ENN article. This device gathers debris in a middle channel while clean water flows out the two side channels.

This process could greatly improve our ability to filter microplastics from oceans and rivers in the future. However, improvements to the device’s draining system and further developments in its ability to capture tiny nanoplastics must occur before it can be implemented worldwide.

Saharan Dust Cloud Reaches Iowa and Affects Air Quality


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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


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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


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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


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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.