On the Radio- Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere


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Heavy air pollution in Tianjin, China (Rich L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 16, 2018

This week’s segment explores a study focused on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Transcript:

Scientists and engineers at Harvard believe they may have found a way to convert carbon dioxide pollution into usable fuel.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Harvard study explains the process to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a very low cost — around one-hundred to two-hundred dollars per ton of carbon dioxide. Researchers told the Atlantic magazine this would be a game-changer, because it could mitigate climate change without requiring a shift in lifestyle or a major change in the energy industry.

In a pilot device, researchers were able to turn the atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuels like gasoline. When burned, this carbon-neutral fuel would return back to the atmosphere without adding new greenhouse gases.

The researchers believe they could implement this on an industrial scale by 2021, the Atlantic reported.

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

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

UI begins new sustainable water graduate program


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The University of Iowa is home to a new graduate program for sustainable water development. (Vkulikov/Wikipedia)

Katelyn Weisbrod | July 5, 2018

The University of Iowa’s new Sustainable Water Development graduate program goes beyond science and engineering to give its “trainees” a holistic understanding of food, energy, and water.

The program is in its first year with a class of 17 students from around the country with a vast array of career goals. Coursework employs several different disciplines, like entrepreneurship and health in addition to science and engineering.

“I’m excited to think that when I’m finished here, I won’t just be an engineer — I’ll be a scientist, a budget expert, and a public health expert. I’ll definitely be better prepared for whatever the world throws at me,” Amina Grant, a student in the program, said to Iowa Now.

The National Science Foundation Research Traineeship awarded a $3 million grant to the UI to start this program in 2016. Program director David Cwiertny believes the multidisciplinary proposal and the opportunities the state provides made Iowa the best choice for the grant.

“The state really does feed the world,” Cwiertny said to Iowa Now. “Iowa is also a leader in wind energy and is dealing with important water quality issues. This makes the state the perfect place for a training program for professionals who want to address water, food, and energy issues.”

Increase in nitrate pollution from Iowa


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The Mississippi River transports nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. (Ken L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | June 27, 2018

A new study from the University of Iowa finds that nitrogen pollution coming from Iowa has increased by close to 50 percent during the year of 2016 when compared to previous annual averages. The pollution from synthetic fertilizer made its way off of farms and into the greater water system. Twenty-three watersheds in Iowa were assessed, all of which drained either into the Mississippi or Missouri River, both of which eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

Excess nitrogen in a water system spurs algae growth. After these algae blooms eventually decompose, bacteria or other small organisms feed on the dead algae and deplete oxygen within the water. This process is known as aquatic hypoxia, or eutrophication, and is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa is not the only state that has problems with runoff, but with 72 percent of Iowa’s land being used for farming, Iowa is a major contributor to the eutrophication process.

The rise in nitrate pollution has occurred despite Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which just marked its five year anniversary earlier this year. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary program which involves 8,000 farmers and focuses on conservation methods such as cover crops and no-till techniques. Mike Naig, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in a Des Moines Register article that he sees outreach and education about the effect that nitrates have on the water system as an essential aspect of improving Iowa’s water quality.

Climate change associated with antibiotic resistance


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E. coli bacteria is a common cause of urinary tract infections and has shown resistance to antibiotics. (National Institute of Health/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2018

The human health impacts of climate change are myriad and include heat-related illnesses and vector borne diseases like Lyme disease. However, a new public health consequence of global warming has recently come to light: antibiotic resistance.

Earlier this week, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reported finding that higher local temperatures and population densities are associated with increased antibiotic resistance of common pathogens. Researchers looked at 1.6 million bacterial specimens which showed resistance to antibiotics from 2013 through 2015 in various geographic locations in the U.S. These specimens included three common and deadly pathogens: Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus. 

They found that a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius increased the bacterias’ resistance to antibiotics by four percent (E. coli), two percent (K. pneumoniae), and three percent (S. aureus). John Brownstein is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s authors. He said to the Scientific American, “Places in the South [of the U.S.] tend to show more resistance than places in the North, and a good chunk of that variability can be explained by temperature.”

Researchers also explored how population density may be related to antibiotic resistance. They found that for every increase of 10,000 people per square mile, antibiotic resistance in that area increased by three to six percent. Prior to this study, most research about antibiotic resistance pointed to the overprescription of antibiotic medication as the primary reason for antibiotic resistance, but now, climate change and population density are known play a part.

The study concludes, “Our findings suggest that, in the presence of climate change and population growth, already dire predictions of the impact of antibiotic resistance on global health may be significant underestimates.”

Species loss varies significantly under different climate change scenarios


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Insects were found to be more susceptible to climate change than other land animals and plants. (Joe Hatfield/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 24, 2018

According to a recent study published in the journal Science, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels rather than 2 degrees Celsius could significantly reduce terrestrial plants and animal species loss.

The study analyzed the geographic habitat ranges of 100,000 land plant and animal species, including insects. Scientists monitored how suitable habitat ranges changed under three climate change scenarios: the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limit goal set by the Paris Climate Accord, a 2 degrees Celsius increase and the 3.2 degrees Celsius increase Earth is expected to experience by 2100 if no further climate action is taken.

They found that if global warming is held at 2 degrees Celsius, 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates will lose more than half of their suitable habitat range. In contrast, if global temperature increase is kept under 1.5 degrees Celsius, just 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates would experience the same fate.

Rachel Warren is an environmental biologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and one of the study’s others. She said to the Los Angeles Times, “All the previous scientific literature looked at 2 degrees as the lower limit because that was what was being discussed at the time.” Warren continued,”The takeaway is that if you could limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the risk to biodiversity is quite small. At 2 degrees it becomes significant, and at 3 degrees almost half the insects and plants would be at risk.”

Of note, the study found that insects were more sensitive a warming climate than vertebrates and plants. For example, the typical insect under the 3 degrees Celsius warming condition would lose 43 percent of its habitat range.

Hymenoptera declared to be the most species rich animal order


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A parasitic wasp pauses on a leaf (Katja S/flickr)

Eden DeWald| May 23rd, 2018

University of Iowa professor Andrew Forbes has been conducting research that may intimidate those who aren’t fans of parasitic wasps. Forbes specializes in studying these wasps that belong to the Hymenoptera order, which also includes insects such as bees and ants.

In a preprint paper, meaning it has not yet been peer reviewed, Forbes asserts that the Hymenoptera order is more species rich than originally thought. Previously, Coleoptera— the beetle order, was thought to be the most speciose. However, Forbes’ specialization in parasitoid wasps allowed him to make the connection that there can be multiple species of parasitic wasps preying upon a single species of insect. Based on this ratio, one species of host insect to many different species of parasitic wasps, it would make sense that Hymenoptera is the most species rich order. The paper concludes that Hymenoptera has perhaps 2.5-3.2 times more species rich than Coleoptera.

Species richness is an important factor in general biodiversity. And although parasitic wasps may sound quite gruesome, they can provide useful services. Parasitic wasps prey on insects that are bothersome to humans such as garden pests like caterpillars, and even mosquitoes.

Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


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Researchers found that drier areas, like this drought-stricken field in Texas, are getting drier in a recent study. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2018

A recent study by NASA, the first of its kind, found that significant amounts of water are shifting around Earth’s surface.

Scientists used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), two satellites, to track gravitational changes made by hydrologic shifts in 34 regions around the world. From 2002 through 2016, they paired this information with satellite precipitation data, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and public reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

In short, researchers found that wetter areas are getting wetter and drier areas are getting drier. Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the study’s authors. He explains, “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

Scientists point to a couple of things to explain freshwater depletion in areas that are getting drier. In Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the world, for example, ground water has been depleted for agricultural purposes. The study also found that groundwater availability changes with periods of drought. From 2007 through 2015, southwestern California lost enough freshwater to fill 400,000 Olympic size swimming pools because the region saw less precipitation and snowpack during that time and had to rely on groundwater more heavily.

Freshwater loss in many regions was attributed to global warming that caused glaciers and ice sheets to melt away. However, Famiglietti said that much more research is needed to determine whether climate change caused the other hydrologic shifts.

GRACE Follow-On, GRACE’s successor, will continue to monitor the movement on water on Earth and is set to launch on May 22nd from Vandenberg Air Force Base California.