On The Radio- Praire can aid farming


8249371837_e4f0cd347d_o.jpg
(flickr/L Fischer)

Kasey Dresser| May 13, 2019

This weeks segment looks at a study from Iowa State researching prairie strips on farm fields.

Transcript:

New research will test the impacts of prairie strips on farm fields over time.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Planting strips of native prairie on farms can limit erosion and provide habitat for wildlife, but how much time passes before those benefits take hold? Will the benefits remain if that land is re-planted with corn or soy?

Iowa State University researchers received an over $700,000 grant to study those questions over the next three years. To do it, they’ll plant some existing row crop areas in Iowa and Missouri with prairie plants, and vice versa.

The researchers will use buried tea bags to measure biological activity in the soil. Bags that decay more quickly indicate higher, healthier rates of decomposition. They will also create and test a computer model of statewide topsoil depth to understand how prairie strips affect erosion in surrounding areas.

Most fields have spots that produce low yields and might do better as prairie. Researchers will also weigh lost crop revenue against the economic benefits of converting those areas to prairie.

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

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

A different look at glyphosate


shallow focus photography of white boneset flower
Glyphosate, found in most weed-killers, is not cancer-causing, EPA finds | Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 1st, 2019

UPDATE: We find it important to mention that though glyphosate has been found to not contribute to cancer by the EPA, some independent groups have their doubts about the safety of this chemical, and it’s true that we are not fully aware of what long-term exposure to glyphosate does. The article has been revised accordingly.

Cancer is scary, carcinogens scarier. The uncertainty behind many common carcinogens and chemicals–what leads to cancer after prolonged exposure and what doesn’t–is certainly stressful, which is why extensive studies into different suspected cancer-causing chemicals is essential.

Sometimes, before concrete evidence can be found, suspected carcinogens spark widespread panic. Glyphosate is one such suspected carcinogen. A common chemical found in RoundUp weedkiller, the ingredient has been linked to alleged negative health effects for years. Glyphosate works by blocking enzymes in certain plants, effectively regulating weeds that would otherwise leech crops of their nutrients.

Recently, Monsanto, the conglomerate that produces RoundUp, was hit with several lawsuits, including one from a customer who had used the weedkiller for decades–and claimed that his cancer diagnoses was a result of long-term exposure to the glyphosate in the product. The federal jury overseeing the case ruled in the man’s favor. Monsanto has, so far, appealed all of the lawsuit rulings.

Glyphosate touches more than just weeds in lawns–it’s the most-used herbicide in US agriculture. It also may not be as dangerous as we thought: studies from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that glysophate is not, in fact, a carcinogen. They say that there is not much evidence linking glyphosate exposure to the development of cancer cells, and the EU, following thousands of peer-review studies, has long sanctioned glyphosate herbicides as safe for general use.

Of course, glyphosate–and weedkiller in general–should not be ingested in any way, and basic caution is recommended when handling the product. While the risk of developing cancer from spraying away a cluster of dandelions from a front-porch garden may be slim to none, the health effects of larger, long-term glysophate exposure is still up for debate.

 

 

On The Radio- Preparing for flood season


2629707266_af3f219dbf_o.jpg
Photo from the 2008 June floods (christina rutz/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 29, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how towns along the Mississippi are preparing for flood season. 

Transcript: 

As flood season begins, mayors of towns along the Mississippi prepare for potential disaster. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

It’s not easy maintaining a city or town along the Mississippi. The river—one of the largest in the world—is especially susceptible to floods during spring, when rain and melting snow cause the water levels to rise significantly.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative is a collection of 88 mayors spanning 10 states that work together to find solutions for flooding. They’ve been setting safety measures in place for this coming flood season, one that’s predicted to be especially disastrous.  

In late March, the group talked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out some preventative measures. Previously, they gathered in Washington DC to work out a nearly eight billion dollar deal to help reinforce existing infrastructure. Midwestern states have sustained billions in flood damages just this year, and supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods have hit St. Louis on three different occasions since 2011.

These previously rare weather events have been happening more and more frequently, and the coalition is amping up their defenses to beat back the oncoming waves. 

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org. 

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

CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

stone_photo_cropped
Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a 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 perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

On The Radio- BP Oil


8625568816_4d4a06ec0c_o.jpg
Photo taken on April 3rd 2013 in Mauritania near Tiguent Parc-National-Diawling (jbdodane/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 8, 2019

This weeks segment looks at BP’s place in the coming decades with rising demands for renewable energy.

Transcript:

BP Oil and Gas has made energy demand predictions about the future—but are they accurate?

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

After the massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast in 2010, BP became known globally in a decidedly negative light.

Almost a decade later, and with settlement payments still being paid out, the energy company has thrown its weight behind renewable energy. BP outlines in its annual energy outlook that the planet could run on mostly renewable sources by 2040.

There is a small detail that some environmentalists find troubling, however; the BP report also lists an estimated rising global demand for energy well into the 2040s, while other scientific reports estimate that global demand will taper off and even out by the 2030s.

A rising global demand for energy is a given, as underdeveloped countries begin working on their infrastructure and making improvements for their citizens. But overestimating how much energy will be needed globally in the future could allow oil companies to continue selling more fossil fuels, even as renewable energy use grows.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

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

On The Radio- Endangered Insects


135555544_20947c31fe_o.jpg
contrabandbayou/flickr

Kasey Dresser| April 1, 2019

This weeks segment is not an April fools joke; bugs could disappear within the next century.

Transcript:

At their current extinction rate, insects could completely disappear within a century. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Insects are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, reptiles, and birds. One in three species is endangered, and the world’s total mass of insects has been dropping 2.5 percent annually, according to a new scientific review. 

It’s well known that losing bees will reduce pollination for some of our favorite fruits and nuts, but devastated insect populations will leave other critters hungry as well. Insectivores and their predators will starve if insects disappear. 

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences analyzed 73 previous studies to assess the state of global insect populations and determine the cause of decline. 

They believe intensive agriculture is the main driver. Wildland is increasingly converted to farmland, and new pesticides like neonicotinoids seem to “sterilize” the soil, killing larvae before they can move to safety, one researcher told the Guardian News.

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 can count water contamination among flood damage


46681522854_6095df4cc9_z.jpg
Flooding in Red Oak Iowa March 14 (via Jo Naylor on flickr). 

Julia Poska| March 28, 2019

Last weekend, President Trump approved Iowa’s $1.6 billion disaster declaration, to help cover flood damage to homes, businesses, farms and levees. Not accounted for is the cost of degraded water, now an issue in Iowa and across the Midwest.

The Gazette reported Monday that eight manure lagoons had overflowed in western Iowa. State Department of Natural Resources officials told the paper that conditions in the east had neared similar levels.  Manure overflow can harm aquatic life and contaminate water for drinking and recreation.

Manure spread onto fields also enters waterways when those fields flood, when snow melts and when it rains. One Buena Vista county feedlot operator may face DNR enforcement after spreading manure during three rainy days in March, the Gazette reported.

Unless a special waiver is granted, farmers cannot legally apply manure on snow covered ground December 21 through March. Farmers are anxious to get manure out of storage, and weather permitting, will be able to apply in coming days.

Manure, pesticides sewage and fuel in flood water could contaminate the 1.1 million private wells in 300 flooded counties in 10 states, as approximated by the National Ground Water Association. The Des Moines Register shared Tuesday an Associated Press report on risk to well water in the rural Midwest.

The risk of water seeping into wells heightens when water sits stagnant for days or weeks, as it has done since the floods. Liesa Lehmann of the Wisconsin DNR, told the AP that well owners should assume their water is contaminated if flood water sits nearby. She said to look out for changes in color, smell or taste.

Once flooding recedes, Lehman said, owners should hire professionals to pump out, disinfect and re-test wells.