Report outlines economic benefits of clean water in Iowa


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Trees are reflected in a clear Iowa pond. (Richard Hermann/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2018

A recent report from Iowa State University argues that removing nutrient pollution from Iowa’s water would provide economic benefits for the state.

Economists with ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) first summarize the cost of nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waterways. They write that forty-nine public water systems treat water for nitrate pollution either by using nitrate removal equipment or blending the water; these systems serve more than 10 percent of Iowa citizens. The report estimates that Iowa’s public water systems have paid $1.8 million to treat nitrate in the water since 2000.

Smaller communities and rural areas are disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of polluted water. Many small town public water systems do not have the resources to purchase costly nitrate removal equipment and as a result, may not be able to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality regulations. Private wells go largely unregulated, so consumers are responsible for picking up the water treatment costs. Findings suggest that as many as a quarter of Iowa’s wells have unsafe nitrate levels in them.

The report also comments on the lost revenue from water recreation income for the state. The number of beaches and waterways under advisory or closed each summer because of harmful algae blooms, which are fed by nitrate, continues to grow. Economists estimate that improving water quality in Iowa’s lakes by meeting Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals would increase recreational benefits for all Iowans by $30 million per year.

Iowa Legislators recently passed a bill that will allocate $282 million to water quality improvement projects in the state over the next 12 years. Critics recognize, however, that scientists with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have estimated that it will cost billions of dollars to adequately remove nutrient runoff from waterways in Iowa.

To read CARD’s full report, click here.

Scientists set off for discoveries in Antarctica


 

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New ecosystems in Antarctica can provide valuable evidence for climate change research (stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 20th 2018

A group of British scientists are due to set off soon to explore one of the largest icebergs discovered yet in Antarctica.

Led by the British Antarctic Survey and marine biologist Dr. Katrin Linse, the exploration will take researchers and field workers to the Larson C ice shelf on the Antarctic peninsula–and the findings might uncover vital new information about how the ecosystem of that region responds to climate change.

The team is racing to reach the newly formed iceberg before light changes the ecosystem underneath.

Melting ice from the Arctic and Antarctic regions are vastly speeding up the already rising sea levels. Researching the Antarctic is difficult, but when ice sheets split to form smaller icebergs, as with Larson C, biologists and other scientists are presented with a unique opportunity to explore the waters underneath the ice.

The group hopes their findings will provide more valuable information about climate change and its effects globally.

Link between climate change and conflict questioned


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The relationship between climate change and conflict has been studied in Kenya more than many other nations. (Viktor Dobai/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 15, 2018

It has been accepted in many scientific communities that climate change can lead to civil unrest and violence, but a recent editorial in the Journal Nature tells readers not to be so sure.

The editorial’s authors did a literature review of 124 studies which assessed the link between climate change and war or civil unrest. They claim to have found three kinds of sampling biases among the studies. First, researchers overwhelmingly looked at regions where violence was already happening or had happened recently. Second, they noted that the studies primarily included countries in Africa and left out other nations that have been severely impacted by climate change. Finally, the mostly-white, Western researchers usually chose to study countries that were easily accessible to them and where the locals spoke English; think countries like Kenya.

Tobias Ide studies peace and war at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research and is one of the paper’s authors. He said to The Atlantic, “If we only look at places where violence is, can we learn anything about peaceful adaptation to climate change? And if we only look at those places where there is violence, do we tend to see a link because we are only focusing on the places where there is violence in the first place?”

Solomon Hsiang has been openly critical of the paper’s claims. Hsiang’s 2013 findings showed that for every standard deviation change in precipitation or temperature, the likelihood that an area will experience civil unrest rises by 14 percent. The University of California Berkeley economist and public policy professor said in an email to The Atlantic, “Studying conflict-prone regions isn’t a problem, it’s what you would expect. Nobody is studying Ebola outbreaks by studying why Ebola is not breaking out in cafés in Sydney today, we study what happened in West Africa when there was an actual event.”

Either way, the paper draws attention to the myriad opportunities for study of climate change and conflict in countries outside of Africa and the Middle East. Ide said, “I was a bit surprised that even within American studies, there’s not really a focus on Latin America, basically. You can be concerned about Iraq, Syria, or India because of geopolitical relevance—but why not look for [climate-related conflict] in Mexico, or Honduras, or Brazil? Because that would have much sharper consequences for the United States.”

Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


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Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.

On The Radio- Testing for bacteria in drinking water


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Cold Drinking Water (linda dillard/ flickr)

Kasey Dresser | February 12, 2018

This week’s segment looks at a new invention from the University of Bath that tests for bacteria in drinking water. 

Transcript:

A breakthrough invention at the University of Bath could help millions stay safe from polluted drinking water.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers in Bath, England have developed a device that can determine dangerous levels of bacteria in drinking water. The small invention resembles a square slip of paper, and was inspired by litmus paper— used to measure the acidity levels of water.

The new device uses a microbial fuel cell, embedded in a patch of ink on the paper, to detect bacteria in drinking water. The fuel cell emits a constant electric signal, which changes when it comes in contact with bacteria in water.

The next step for researchers is to find a way to use that small change in the electric current to inform the user about the water’s pollution levels.

According to the World Health Organization, 423 million people globally drink from unprotected wells and springs, and an estimated 159 million people drink from lakes, ponds, rivers. Many of these population have no access to analytic tools, and have no way to measure the safety of their drinking water.

The paper, once fully produced, is estimated to cost around a dollar per slip.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered


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Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Women more likely to be affected by and act on climate change


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Women and children are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses that are becoming more common due to climate change. (Janet Mailbag/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 8, 2018

During a recent speech at Georgetown University, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out that women are disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide.

Research from several sources back up this claim. Discussing global desertification due to drought and intense heat waves, Clinton said, “I would say that particularly for women…they will bear the brunt of looking for the food, looking for the firewood, looking for the place to migrate to when all of the grass is finally gone.”

The gendered effects of climate change extend beyond communities in developing nations, however. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Fund point out that two-thirds of those jobs lost after Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans were lost by women. Job creation during the rebuilding periods following natural disasters are primarily in the construction industry and go almost exclusively to men. As a result, 83 percent of single mothers were not able to return to New Orleans following the hurricane.

The changing climate poses unique risks to women’s health as well. Increasingly frequent and intense heat waves can cause low birth weights among pregnant women. Women are also fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. Researchers link this to insufficient access to information and warnings as well as a difference in women’s ability to cope with such events.

As Clinton put it, women “bear the brunt” of a changing climate. Perhaps that’s why women in political positions of power are more likely than their male counterparts to sign off on treaties that combat climate change.

Perrin Ireland is a science reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. She said, “Women play critical roles in our communities, and our voices must be heard for climate action. In order to have a resilient future, for the thriving of our communities, women must have a seat at the table.”