On The Radio- Coffee Wake Up Call


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Coffee (kendra k/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| March 18, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how deforestation is affecting coffee production. 

Transcript:

Deforestation and climate change may wipe out coffee worldwide. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent the last 30 years traveling across the world recording the patterns of coffee forests and farms. Sixty percent of coffee species are at risk for extinction due to the effects of climate change and deforestation. Coffee plantations are expected to vanish from the three major coffee producing continents.

Part of Dr. Davis’ research is the development of a barometer to test the biodiversity of forests and risks posed to coffee plants. The most popular coffee bean, arabica, comes from Ethiopia and has been shown to be extremely vulnerable to climate change effects. He reports that the ecosystems are becoming less diverse which mean less food and less shelter for species. 

While there are 124 coffee species, a majority are wild and inaccessible. Dr. Davis and the rest of his team continue their research to find rare coffee plants and new places to farm them. His travels have been directed toward cooler areas. On the teams’ most recent expedition, they found a hillside in Liberia covered in stenophylla, a flowering coffee plant that they are currently testing.

More research will hopefully ensure coffee is available long into the future.

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

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

Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch. 

The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Electrical and computer engineer Ananya Sen Gupta


Julia Poska | February 22, 2019

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Ananya Sen Gupta, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Ananya Sen Gupta’s entire career may have looked very different had she not serendipitously stopped to pet a colleague’s dog one day as a postdoctoral researcher in Massachusetts. The dog’s owner connected Sen Gupta with a marine chemist who was seeking a data scientist like her to make sense of unknown compounds in the 2010 BP oil spill.

“In his signature way of awesome honesty, he said, ’You are perfect for the job because you don’t understand chemistry at all!’” she recalled.

Sen Gupta successfully “fingerprinted” that spill, and has been looking at the environment as a data problem ever since. Today, as anassistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa, she still lends her computational skills to environmental efforts.


Hear Sen Gupta describe her work in kid-friendly terms. 

Sen Gupta helps a colleague in environmental engineering analyze harmful pollutants in the air and studies the spread of disease-causing pathogens with an environmental health professor. With two physicists, she’s developing algorithms to find high energy events in the Earth’s radiation belts and identifying patterns of particles in the Martian ionosphere.

“I think of myself more as an applied mathematician, honestly,” she said.

While her collaborators see the data through the specific knowledge of their fields, Sen Gupta only learns what she must to develop useful tools. To identify the problem and understand the data, she listens to the experts and takes detailed notes, which she later translates into her own language: mathematics.

She is then able to build algorithms that identify patterns in the datasets, which are far too large for manual processing. Because she does not know what her algorithms should find, they are essentially free from the confirmation bias field experts might carry. Thus, Sen Gupta’s objectivity can add great credibility to a researcher’s findings;  recall the marine chemist’s excitement at finding a chemistry novice all those years ago.

“Sometimes not knowing is a good thing, because it leads to discovery,” she said.

Listen to Sen Gupta’s metaphor comparing mathematics to a verbal language. 

Environmental pollutants and pathogens tend to have complex boundaries that are difficult to define mathematically. Sen Gupta said applying existing models and equations correctly is a skill in itself, but the nature of environmental research lets her work from scratch, too.

“What inevitably happens is when apply something existing to a new problem, it starts well, and then it hits a ceiling,” she said. “To crack that ceiling I have to invent something.”

She makes the majority of her code for those inventions open source, encouraging further discovery from others who can directly use her algorithms.

Though today she is busy teaching and conducting defense-related research on underwater sonar, Sen Gupta said if she could clone herself, she would devote more time to environmental issues, perhaps those related to climate change.

Since she cannot solve every problem on her own, though, she calls for more interaction between other data scientists and environmental researchers.

Learn how a seemingly aimless conversation about coffee and tea came to inform Sen Gupta’s environmental research.

As she sees it, there is unlimited potential for what problems computer engineering can help solve. But such collaborations cannot occur unless experts in vastly different fields come together.

“I would hope that, not just me, but all the data scientists on campus and all the environmental scientists on campus would basically get together in a local coffeeshop, in some happy hour, just sit down and chat about their pet peeves and hopes and dreams,” Sen Gupta said. “Because that would just lead to so much new science.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running 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. ***

Dubuque to hold water quality summit next week


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Screenshot from the event’s promotional flyer. 

Julia Poska | February 21, 2019

The 11th Annual Dubuque Area Watershed Symposium will be Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 3 to 9pm. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required to attend.

Subtitled “The True Value of Clean Water”, the event will focus on Iowa’s water quality concerns and current efforts to resolve them.  One of the first items on the agenda will be a presentation on the City of Dubuque’s recent Iowa Partners for Conservation Grant: $326,712 to be put towards engaging local farmers and helping them become leaders in efforts to reduce flooding and improve water quality in the Catfish Creek Watershed.

Other presentations will cover conservation practices, land-use practices, soil health, and water quality.

Later in the evening, keynote speakers Michael Schueller, director of environmental operations the State Hygienic Lab, and Larry Webber, IIHR research engineer and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, will share their knowledge and ideas about Iowa water quality.

The organizers want to hear from non-experts, too, and will hold a roundtable discussion on drafting the Dubuque County Conservation Strategic Plan, as well as encourage questions after the keynotes.

For more information visit the City of Dubuque’s official website.

 

 

 

On The Radio- Microplastic pollution affecting aquatic organisms


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Plastic washed up on a beach shore (Neil Brown/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| February 11, 2019

This weeks segment looks at developing research on the effects of microplastic pollution.

Transcript:

Scientists are still researching the dangerous effects of microplastic pollution. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

A microplastic is defined as any piece of plastic measuring five millimeters in size or smaller. Every year 400 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. A significant percentage of the plastic becomes litter and can take hundreds of years to decompose. Humans and other species can absorb plastic chemicals and aquatic organisms can absorb these small pieces of plastic into their skin.

Dr. Natalia Ivleva and her team from the Technical University of Munich Institute of Hydochemistry recently wrote a summary report of the technology they are using to test the effects of micro plastic on species. 

When scientists began to notice plastic entering the environment they used optical methods to observe damage. 

More recently scientists began utilizing heat analysis paired with gas chromatography. These methods helps determine the quantity and type of plastic but struggle to determine the size of the particles. 

Using new methods researchers at the Munich Institute were able to confirm plastic in the digestive tracts of water fleas and that mussels digest small particles of plastic under their shells.

Over the next several decades, plastic pollution is predicted to increase. At the end of her report Dr Ivelva emphasized the importance of plastic recycling in the new year. 

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

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

Soil conservation demonstrations extended after early success


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Water that washes off of farm fields poses major challenges for water quality in Iowa (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 7, 2019

Last week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a three year extension and $2 million of extra state funding for three innovative projects promoting soil conservation and water quality on farms.

These projects  are part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which partially funds 65 water quality projects around the state. This initiative is part of the larger Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, an effort to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farm fields into waterways.

The Taylor County Water Quality Initiative, one of the three extended projects, identifies specific areas on farms that could benefit from alternative practices like land retirement or drainage management. Over 60 farmers have so far used the program to reduce nutrient runoff while maintaining or increasing profitability.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative engages partners like the Iowa Seed Association to encourage cover cropping: growing alternative crops on otherwise bare soil during the off season. Cover crops hold soil in place and can help with weed management and soil compaction issues. Some seed companies say this initiative has increased cover cropping among their clients from less than 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The Central Iowa Watershed Management Authority Project has so far installed five wetlands, five saturated buffers and two bioreactors on farms. Saturated buffers use strips of wetland to filter nutrients from drainage water, and bioreactors use organic carbon sources, like wood chips, for denitrification. Both are expensive and difficult for most farmers to install without assistance.

Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects like these are funded by both state and private money, as well as in-kind donations. Other active projects target entire watersheds and demonstrate methods for improving urban water quality.