After 3 years, the Flint water crises is still happening


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | November 9, 2017

It has seemed like a while since the Flint water crises has hit news circuits. The small city in Michigan has reached an almost celebrity status as a beacon of misfortune, plagued by lead poisoning, poverty, and, famously, unemployment, as examined in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger and Me.

There are layers to the water crises that are slowly being revealed as time goes on. The public knows this: The water issues started when Flint changed water sources to the Flint River in 2014. The switch was meant to be a temporary one, a sort of placeholder while Flint officials waited to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, a move estimated to save the region millions of dollars.

What followed in the next few years was improper water treatment, corroded pipes, and government inaction, all of it cumulating into what has eventually become a massive nationwide discussion on ethics, the environment, and how the two intertwine.

On October 16th, 2015, the water supply was switched back to the Detroit River, but the level of corrosion in the pipes was still a major concern for Flint citizens, resulting in several declarations of urgency: a state of emergency order from Obama in January of 2016, and an emergency order from the EPA.

Recently, criminal charges have been filed against three Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employees, all of them found guilty of withholding a report on the unsafe levels of lead found in Flint children.

A paper detailing the possible effects of the water crises on fertility is currently being worked on by Daniel Grossman from West Virginia University and David Slusky from the University of Kansas. Both have released their comparisons of birth and miscarriage rates from before and after the water crises, and have found that birth rates in Flint have decreased by 12% while fetal death rates have increased by a staggering 58%.

Flint is a black-majority city with a poverty rate of around 40%, and while this doesn’t at first seem to have an effect on the crises at hand, studies have found that communities of color are hugely more disproportionately affected by lead poisoning and environmental health risks than white communities.

UI scientists and Iowa teachers work together to create 8th grade curriculum


Kasey Dresser & Jenna Ladd | November 3, 2017

Eighth grade teachers from around the state came to the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center for a special kind of professional development last weekend.

The twenty-one participants worked with University of Iowa faculty and graduate students to design new eighth-grade science curriculum as a part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) development. A large step away from traditional rote memorization, NGSS allows students to engage in self-guided inquiry about phenomena occurring in their local environment.

Chelsea Salba is a high school science teacher at Dike-New Hartford. She said, “I love it all because the old way of doing things was ‘know and understand.’ Well, science is not memorizing facts and figures. It never has been. NGSS challenges teachers to make science actually happen in their classrooms. What I mean by that is [the students] are investigating, reading, creating a claim, doing something, getting feedback and then doing it again.”

Ted Neal, clinical associate professor in the College of Education and project lead, explained that eighth grade NGSS curriculum requires education about the natural systems and climate science. During morning and afternoon breakout sessions, teachers were asked to provide feedback about lesson plans related to how and why Iowans have changed the land and how climate change has affected local landscapes. These lesson plans, bundles five and six, are a part of a six bundle curriculum required by NGSS for eighth grade students. CGRER researchers Scott Spak and Charles Stanier developed their content as a part of the College of Education and CGRER’s effort to connect Iowa educators with local climate science in realtime.

Approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, the bulk of the 8th grade NGSS curriculum will be implemented in Iowa schools next semester. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative team has recently developed a free and public online pressbook where Iowa teachers can access course-related climate science data from CGRER researchers, as well as lesson plans and suggestions from other Iowa teachers.

Ted Neal explained, “This whole curriculum is free. Use it how you want, where you want, how you want, we’re just trying to compile this together for school districts in a time when budgeting is so tight.”

The NGSS standards require students of all ages to understand Earth’s systems. Scott Spak, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning, said, “Of the dozens of standards, there are 36 that from kindergarten through high school that are required to be able to understand how the climate system works.”

Spak and his fellow CGRER researchers will provide data that is relevant to learners specifically in the Hawkeye State.

Drew Ayrit is high school teacher from Waco that participated in last weekend’s workshop. He said, “I really believe in the standards because it’s very student-centered, students doing real science, students engaging in discussion based on evidence.”

On The Radio – Economic cost of changing climate is growing


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Members of the the National Guard in Puerto Rico work to clear roads after Hurricane María devastated the island. (Puerto Rico National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 30, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the growing economic consequence of climate change. 

Transcript: Human-induced climate change costs more than the U.S. economy can afford according to a recent report from the Universal Ecological Fund.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Titled, “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” the report found that severe weather intensified by climate change and the health impacts associated with burning fossil fuels have cost the U.S. economy $240 billion per year in the last decade.

The authors point out that the number of extreme weather events resulting in $1 billion or more in damages has increased by 400 percent since the 1980s. Iowa, for example, has endured three floods costing more than $1 billion in the last decade, up three-fold since the 1990s.

If climate change is not curtailed, researchers predict costs associated with severe weather and the health impacts of emitting greenhouse gases will reach $360 billion annually.

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

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

Global temperatures continued to rise in September


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A climate anomalies map from NOAA details significant some climate events during September 2017. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Jenna Ladd | October 20, 2017

Earth’s climate continued to warm during September 2017, setting some alarming records.

September 2017 was the planet’s fourth warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880. The three warmest Septembers were in 2015, 2016 and 2014. This year’s September was especially notable because no El Niño effect was present. El Niño events typically bring warmer weather because they cause the ocean to release warm air into the atmosphere.

Even in the absence of an El Niño effect, temperatures in January through February of this year have made 2017 the second hottest year on the 138-year record kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the top spot? 2016, which was 1.02 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average.

Sweltering temperatures were experienced across the globe. The hottest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere was 109 degrees Fahrenheit on September 27th in Birdsville, Australia. In the northern hemisphere, temperatures soared to 123 degrees Fahrenheit on September 3rd in Mitribah, Kuwait.

Record high temperatures are not without consequences. September 2017 also had the second lowest Antarctic sea ice cover during that month on record. The Arctic sea fared slightly better, coming in at number seven for record low sea ice cover during September.

A concise summery of NOAA and NASA’s September climate report can be found here.

Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


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The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.

Citizen Science Workshop this weekend


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Jenna Ladd| October 17, 2017

A citizen science workshop will be held on Saturday, October 21st at the University of Iowa Memorial Union. Hosted by the UI Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction (GEEMaP) Program, the half-day workshop will provide information about opportunities for Iowa residents to participate in research related to wildlife, water quality, and natural resource management. Dr. Kristine Stepenuck, Extension Assistant Professor of Watershed Science, Policy and Education at the University of Vermont, will be the free event’s keynote speaker.

More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page and the University of Iowa events calendar 

Attendees will be invited to sign up to participate in citizen science projects.

What: Citizen Science Workshop

When: Saturday, October 21, 9:00 am to 12:00 pm

Where: Illinois Room, Iowa Memorial Union, University of Iowa

Cost: Free, open to public

Climate change made California wildfires more severe


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Smoke looms over homes in California during the Solano fire of 2013. (Robert Couse-Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| October 13, 2017

A report published on Thursday in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review stated that human-induced climate change is likely to blame for the nearly two dozen wildfires ripping across northern California.

The wildfires have burned nearly 190,000 acres so far and killed 31 residents. While the source of the initial flames remains unknown, MIT points out that parts of California recently experienced a five-year drought which was “very likely” caused by climate change. The long drought left more than 100 million dead trees in its wake, which added to the amount of fuel available to this week’s wildfires. Couple that with record-setting heat in California this summer, another consequence of a changing climate, and conditions were perfect for fire.

Climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country. Since the 1980’s they’ve become more likely and more severe. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires now last five times as long, occur nearly four times as often and burn an average of six times more land area than they used to.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, recently published a study looking at the impact of human-induced climate change on the size of the area wildfires have burned the western U.S. Referring to climate change, he said, “No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear.”