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 warns to protect those sensitive to firework smoke; dispose safely


Image from Pexels.com

By Julia Shanahan | June 28th, 2019

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources EcoNewsWire warns that drifting smoke from fireworks this Fourth of July can cause breathing problems for some individuals, and that people should be sure to dispose of fireworks safely.

The news release said that when the air is stagnant, fine particles get trapped near the ground and can build to unhealthy levels if there is no breeze. 

“If your family or friends suffer from asthma or respiratory difficulties, it’s important for them to stay upwind, a safe distance from fireworks smoke,” says Brian Hutchins, DNR air quality supervisor, in the news release. “The elderly and children are also vulnerable to higher levels of smoke.”

In 2017, the Fourth of July fire-work show in Des Moines exceeded the EPA’s national standards for fine particle levels. Black powder and metals used to create a firework’s color produce the fine particles after a firework explodes.

The Iowa DNR also warns to never put unsoaked fireworks in the garbage, as they pose a fire/explosion hazard. The DNR recommends to completely submerge fireworks in a bucket of water to soak overnight, and then to wrap the soaked fireworks in plastic wrap or two plastic bags. Dispose of the wrapped fireworks in a household trash or landfill, or contact a local fire department or landfill for additional disposal options.

Additionally, fireworks contain metals that can contaminate water. The Iowa DNR says fireworks should never be detonated near water, because it’s illegal, but also because the impact can kill fish and other surrounding aquatic life. 

Nitrate levels in drinking water linked to increase risks for cancers


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Julia Shanahan | June 20th, 2019

The Environmental Working Group released a study outlining a link between the amount of nitrates someone consumes through tap water to a higher risk of cancer. Nitrate pollution in U.S. drinking water potentially caused 12,594 cases of cancer in a year, according to the study.

The study attributed the large amount of nitrates in drinking water to agricultural runoff that contains fertilizer and manure. The EWG estimates it would cost about $1.5 billion a year in medical costs to treat those cases. Of those 12,594 cases, 54-82 percent are colorectal cancer cases. Additionally, the risk for bladder and ovarian cancers are increased in postmenapausal women.   

The current federal limit for the amount of nitrates legally allowed in drinking water is 10 parts per million, but as outlined in the study, other serious health risks have been linked to nitrate-polluted water that is only one-tenth under the federal limit. Scientists from the EWG estimate that in order for there to be no adverse health risks, the nitrate level in drinking water should be 0.14 milligrams, which is 70 times lower than the EPA’s legal limit.

In Iowa, nitrate pollution remains a threat to tap water and well water in rural and urban cities across the farm state. The Iowa Department of Public Health tested 1,700 private wells and found 19 percent of them were at or above the legal limit for nitrates. In 2014 and 2015, the average nitrate levels in 45 Iowa public water systems were at least 5 milligrams – enough to increase someone’s risk of cancer.

More recently in 2018, the Des Moines River and combined Cedar-Iowa Rivers produced the nitrate equivalent of 56 million people. The total amount of nitrates in Iowa rivers in 2018 was 626 million pounds, and treated in sewer discharge amounted to 123 million people, or as blogger and IIHR Research Engineer Chris Jones compares to the population of Japan.

Noise pollution: a lesser-known hazard


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Noise pollution can cause a myriad of health issues | Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 28th, 2019

When we think of pollutants, we’re inclined to list off things like plastic, coal, and carbon before we even get to noise. But noise pollution is a problem–so much so that LA has launched a soundproofing program, one that, controversially, has left out some poorer neighborhoods.

Hearing loss is one of the most common occupational hazards. A significant portion of US workers are affected by some form of hearing loss, and a smaller portion suffers from tinnitus (a consistent ringing in the ears).

Outside of the workplace, the average citizen is likely to encounter large amounts of noise from traffic. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) reports that traffic density is a huge factor in the levels of noise pollution country to country, with South Korea being one of the most polluted places in this regard.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of noise pollution contributes to higher levels of stress hormones, which in turn cause multiple health complications.

Soundproofing programs, quieter cars, and better workplace safety measures can help reduce the overall effects of noise pollution.

The dangers of coal ash


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Coal ash is a byproduct that can have very harmful effects on the world around it | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 22nd, 2018

Coal ash–a byproduct of burning coal–is a form of pollution often not talked about, but its effects cut deep, especially for families living in ash-contaminated areas.

One such family is paying the price for a deal signed over fifty years ago. The Peelers, who run a ranch in the heart of rural Texas, agreed to sell part of their land to San Miguel Electric Cooperative, a company that proposed a coal mine in the area–an attempt to bring proper electricity to the state’s non-urban population.

Now, years later, heaps of coal ash that have been dumped near their ranch contaminate the Peeler’s land and water, leaving many of their fields barren.

Coal ash has been found to contain many harmful elements, including so-called “heavy metals” like arsenic and mercury. These elements damage wildlife, the natural environment, and humans, leeching into soil and groundwater if not properly taken care of. A new bill in Illinois is urging forward a measure that would require coal plants to better seal off their ash deposits.

The bill may not come to pass. But the threat that coal ash poses to the environment is well-documented–and currently being lived out–by one Southern family fighting for their ranch.

 

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.