On March 15th across the nation, youths gathered to raise awareness for climate change and its effect on our world. In the Ped Mall in Iowa City, over 50 students from Southeast Jr. High gathered to speak to the community about their concerns.
The students came prepared with a bullhorn and took turns sharing their opinions for two hours. They were holding hand made signs and handing out a sheet of climate change facts. While young, the passionate students created quite an audience stating, “the bigger the fuss we make, the more politicians will listen.” Congressman Dave Loesback was present and talked with the students in his office following the event.
From the climate change fact handout:
408 parts per million. The concentration of carbon dioxide (C02) in our atmosphere, as of 2018, is the highest it has been in 3 million years.
800 million people or 11% of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise.
Thermometer records kept over the past century and a half show Earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius), and about twice that in parts of the Arctic.
We have 11 years to reverse the effects of climate change. We must act now.
This weeks segment looks at how deforestation is affecting coffee production.
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.
This weeks segment looks at The Green New Deal, a bill for clean transportation.
The newly proposed Green New Deal gives some framework for a future of clean transportation.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
The Green New Deal, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, may not end up passing, but the deal serves as a blueprint for potential environmental policies to follow. Some interesting broad goals for the future include high-speed rail and zero-emission public transportation.
The Green New deal also brings up concerns with transportation access. Many low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately from poor transportation infrastructure and vehicle-related pollution.
The deal focuses on public policy, but will likely need private investors backing it to meet its many lofty goals.
Even if the deal does not come to pass, it’s sparked a conversation in Washington and the country about the desperate need for clean, affordable, and accessible transportation.
This weeks segment looks at how GMO crops could help African farmers.
A new study from Iowa State University says genetically modified crops are far more helpful than harmful
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
GMO crops have been studied extensively. Iowa State agronomy researchers recently examined dozens of previous studies to assess the overall safety of genetic modification in plants.
They determined that GMO crops are not only safe, but that delaying their adoption poses risks for humans and the environment in the developing world. Insect resistant crops could help African farmers battle an emerging invasive pest, the fall armyworm, which has been devastating corn crops in Africa since 2016. But fear has kept insect resistant corn commercially unavailable in all but one African country.
Study co-author Walter Suza directs the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa Program, which develops digital learning materials for African universities. He hopes the study will help African policymakers embrace GMOs.
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.
This weeks segment looks at new methods of creating dog food with less of an environmental impact.
A potential new insect based dog food could help the planet.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
Meat production has been linked to increasing emissions of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This is the reason many environmental activists choose a vegetarian or vegan diet but humans aren’t the only mammals reliant on meat.
Pets are estimated to eat twenty percent of the meat produced world wide. A pet food manufacturer in the United Kingdom, Yora,has introduced black solider flies as a protein substitute. Along with less emissions into the atmosphere, the black solider fly based dog food is cheaper to produce and requires less land and water.
At the Royal Veterinary College, pet diet expert Aarti Kathrani confirmed that soldier flies could meet a canine’s nutritional needs. She told the BBC,“insects can be a very useful source of protein. More studies are needed to show how much of these nutrients can actually be absorbed by a dog’s body- but some studies suggest that insects can provide nutrients for dogs.”
Yora is not the only pet food manufacturer to use flies in their recipe but other manufacturers typically use only a small amount. Yora is currently planning to transition forty percent of their products to majority fly protein.
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. ***