City dwellers rejoice: spring greening comes earlier for urban plants


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The first signs of spring occur earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, new research found (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | February 27, 2020

Vegetation starts turning green earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, but urban plants are less sensitive to unseasonable warmth, new Iowa State University-led research found. The authors attribute the difference to the urban “heat island” effect.

Cities typically have somewhat higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas because materials like asphalt and brick absorb heat more readily than natural landscapes. For example, New York City is about 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding areas in summer, according to NASA’s Climate Kids site.

Researchers found this “heat island” phenomenon causes urban vegetation to perceive the start of spring and begin greening an average of six days earlier than surrounding rural plants.

As climate change progresses, however, plants in both rural and urban areas are responding to unseasonably warm temperatures by beginning growth earlier and earlier over time. Pollinators and last frosts have failed to keep up, which has damaged the early bloomers’ ability to survive and reproduce.

The study found that rural vegetation is more sensitive to early spring weather than urban vegetation, perhaps due to the urban heat island effect as well.

ISU Ph.D. student Ling Meng led the research team, which included CGRER member Yuyu Zhou, an ISU geological and atmospheric scientist, among others. The study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on satellite images from 85 large U.S. cities from 2001 to 2014.

Zhou told the Iowa State News Service that this sort of research can help predict how plants will respond to climate change and urbanization.

EnvIowa Podcast Revived: Talking human/environment systems with Silvia Secchi


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Dr. Secchi in the CGRER offices. Photo by Julia Poska, Jan. 2020. 

Julia Poska| February 3, 2019

The UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research is excited to announce the revival and reimagination of our EnvIowa podcast. This weekly podcast will feature 10- to 20-minute interviews with Iowa environmental experts, mainly our own member scientists.

While these researchers are certainly well versed in the complicated jargon of their disciplines, our interviews aim to make their ideas accessible to a general audience. Questions focus not only on the research itself, but how the experts believe it can be applied to solve environmental challenges.

Today’s installment features an interview recorded January 28 with Dr. Silvia Secchi, an interdisciplinary economist and geographer at the University of Iowa. Listen to learn more about Dr. Secchi’s fascinating research on human/environmental interactions in the Mississippi River watershed and how agriculture in particular plays a role within the larger system.

Listen here!

 

 

Iowa American Water disputing forever chemicals found in Iowa water


 

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The company provided this graphic to prove their results.

 

Kasey Dresser| January 29, 2019

Last week, a study by the Environmental Working Group, found PFAS in more than 40 locations in 31 states. One of those places being the Iowa Quad Cities. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they never biodegrade. They are a man-made substance, used in products like nonstick cookware and other food packaging. Nearly 5,000 different chemicals are associated with the PFAS family but only a few have been studied. Researchers do not know the health effects of drinking water with contamination but they have been linked to certain cancers, liver damage, and low birth weight according to Reuters.

Iowa American Water is currently disputing report’s findings from a drinking sample taken in August in Davenport that revealed high levels of toxic chemicals.

“We want our customers to know that we are doing our job for them and that we are meeting all federal, us, EPA and state standards related to water quality. So they can be confident when they take that tap water and give it to a child or a family member that it is safe,” Lisa Raisen, External Affairs Manager for Iowa American Water, said to KWQC staff.

Researchers to explore Des Moines-area sustainability potential on NSF grant


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Downtown Des Moines and the surrounding six-county area are the subjects of a new research project on urban sustainability (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | January 24, 2020

The National Science Foundation granted a group of mostly Iowa-based interdisciplinary researchers $2.5 million to explore potential scenarios for making greater Des Moines more sustainable.

The Sustainable Cities Research Team –12 researchers from Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and University of Texas at Arlington– received the grant this week. The group’s engineers, environmental scientists, psychologists and others will holistically study food, energy and water systems within a six-county area to develop and analyze “scenarios” for improved sustainability.

An ISU press release said the approach would include analysis of potential for increased local and urban food production as well as building and transportation energy efficiency. The researchers will survey and collaborate with local residents and stakeholders, including farmers and community leaders.

The research effort could inform not only the future of the Des Moines area, but planning and policy in other Midwestern cities, too.

Playboy Tortoise saves species


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Kasey Dresser| January 20, 2019

In the 1960s, giant tortoises from Espanola, a part of the Galapagos Islands, were placed on the endangered species list. In efforts to save the species, Diego, a young adult tortoise was placed into a breeding program. 15 other tortoises took part in the breeding program, but no one committed more to the cause then Diego. The species now has over 2,000 tortoises, about 1,700 of which are descendants of Diego.

Diego weighs 176 pounds and when he’s fully stretched out, stands at five feet tall. Mr. Carrion noted that there are some characteristics that made Diego “special” and more attractive to the opposite sex. As the species continue to procreate, tortoises will continue to look like Diego. A process called the bottleneck effect, where a survivor’s gene dominates the gene pool. While little genetic diversity can leave the species vulnerable to diseases or changes in habitat, Dr. Linda Cayot of the Galapagos Conservancy said that “every species came from a bottleneck.”

Last week, the zoo announced that nearing the 80th year he’s been gone, they will be retiring Diego and returning him to the Espanola islands.

“He’s contributed a large percentage to the lineage that we are returning to Espanola,” Jorge Carrion, the Galapagos National Parks service director, told AFP. “There’s a feeling of happiness to have the possibility of returning that tortoise to his natural state.”

UI enters final year for 2020 sustainability goals


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UI EV vehicle charging station (via a 2018 Office of Sustainability Report. )

Julia Poska | January 1, 2020

In 2010, former University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced the 2020 Vision: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Targets. It laid out out sustainability goals to reach within the next decade, which began today. 

The goals were as follows:

1. Become a Net‐negative Energy Consumer

This goal indicated that the university should consume less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010, despite projected growth. Building energy consumption reports from The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) indicate energy energy consumption growth from 2005 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council, though, provided data indicated that energy consumption was below the baseline, if baseline included projected consumption for new buildings.

2. Green Our Energy Portfolio

The document indicated that the University would consume 40% renewable energy in 2020. Since 2010, the university has increased production of energy through renewable biomass sources like oat hulls and miscanthus grass in the on-campus power plant. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council reported 17% renewable energy in 2017.

3. Decrease Our Production of Waste

This goal indicated that the university would “divert” (meaning recycle or compost” 60% of waste by 2020. The Office of Sustainability has since implemented a “tiny trash” program to encourage recycling and a dorm room composting program. The most recent data, for 2017, indicates a 38% diversion rate.

4. Reduce the Carbon Impact of Transportation

The university aimed to reduce per-capita fossil fuel emissions from campus transportation methods by 10%. A 2018 report to the university’s staff council reported a 14% reduction in per-capita transportation emissions, due in part to the campus’s fleet of electric vehicles and solar charging station.

 

5. Increase Student Opportunities to Learn and Practice Principles of Sustainability

6. Support and Grow Interdisciplinary Research in Sustainability‐focused and Related Areas

7. Develop Partnerships to Advance Collaborative Initiatives, both Academic and Operational

The last three goals provided qualitative measures, more difficult to measure and assess directly. The university undoubtedly provides  sustainability opportunities for students, in both practice and research, and has fostered numerous collaborative initiatives.

Stay tuned over the next 364 days to see whether these goals are fully met.

 

 

New UI research could help fight pollution with microorganisms


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Concrete and other surfaces are often covered in a thin film of pollution and pollution fighting bacteria and fungi (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 20, 2019

As pollutants like particulates, PCB and pesticides filter out of the air, they often accumulate on surfaces like asphalt or building exteriors. When it rains, the pollutants can run off into water sources.

University of Iowa researchers recently published findings in Earth and Space Chemistry, revealing that a variety of bacteria and fungi live within the film of pollution on such surfaces. Some of those microorganisms are able to digest and break down the pollutants.

Researchers Scott Shaw (chemistry) and Timothy Mattes (civil and environmental engineering) intend to sequence the DNA of these organisms in the future. They will then be able to determine which could potentially be cultivated for fighting pollution in other areas, according to Iowa Now.

CGRER, the UI Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination,  the U.S. Department of Defense Army Research Office and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission funded this research.