This weeks segment looks at the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in Brazil.
Hydropower is one of the world’s leading sources of renewable energy, but in some places it has come at a cost.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
Hydropower accounts for over fourteen percent of all energy globally and about seventy percent of all renewable energy. Although dams help bring power to people, they can also have negative social and environmental consequences.
Researcher Emilio Moran is helping investigate the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in a developing area populated with indigenous communities. The dam is the third-largest in the world, and was built over Brazil’s Xingu (SHIN-GOO) River near the city of Altamira.
The new dams reduced the amount of fish that flow downstream, impacting the fishing yields of villages that rely on the river for their livelihoods. The project took three years to complete, and twenty thousand people were displaced from their homes during that time. Altamira’s population increased by sixty thousand during construction, and the city built hotels and attractions in response. After the dam was completed, however, those sixty thousand workers left, leaving many buildings vacant in their wake.
Hydropower is an important source of power, protecting Brazil from blackouts. It is also much cleaner than coal. But dams are not guaranteed generators of power, and their effectiveness can be altered by rainfall.
Emilio Moran and other researchers are only looking for some accountability, and are pushing for dam developers to mitigate the negative economic and social consequences before building.
Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.
CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department, quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.
“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.
Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.
Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words.
Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.
Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.
“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”
Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.
“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.
Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters.
He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.
Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.
He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.
“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.
Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding.
Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.
Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.
“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”
***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new 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 perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***
This weeks segment looks at new technology for detecting harmful algal blooms.
Scientists may soon be able to detect harmful algal blooms from the sky.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
A team of researchers at the University of Iowa is developing a drone to detect harmful algal blooms in lakes and reservoirs. It will use remote sensing to collect aerial data with special infrared cameras. Currently, water samples are collected to monitor and detect harmful algae and toxins.
The most common toxin-producing algae in Iowa is blue green algae, or cyanobacteria. It can cause rashes, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems for beachgoers. Last summer this toxin contaminated drinking water in Greenfield, Iowa. The drone will hopefully make detecting harmful algal blooms easier and allow monitors to catch them sooner.
This month Iowa City published a data base of the 49,863 trees it maintains. On the interactive website, the trees are assessed on location, size, species and environmental benefit. Residents can engage with the website and search specific neighborhoods to find trees in your area.
A data base of the trees also tracks the environmental impact. Right now, Iowa City trees save $455,600 in energy and $221,000 in air quality. The trees also avoid more than 10 million pounds of carbon pollution and 55 million gallons of stormwater runoff.
If you’re interested to learn about the trees in your neighborhood, the data base can be found here.
Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.
The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.
“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”
Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation.
Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.
Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.
Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.
“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.
He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.
Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change.
Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.
Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.
“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change.
Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.
He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.
“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”
***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run 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 perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***
It’s common knowledge that moths are drawn to light; look up at any street lamp on a summer night and you’ll see for yourself. New research suggests that turning off those lights for just a few hours a night could not only save moths from accidental suicide, but boost local pollination as well.
According to the study, published this week in Ecosphere, nocturnal moths should naturally supplement the work of better-known pollinators like bees and butterflies.
“We know that light pollution significantly alters moth activity and this in turn is disrupting their role as pollinators,” said Darren Evans, supervisor of the study at Newcastle University, in a media release. “Understanding the ecological impact of this artificial light on the ecosystem is vital.”
Because bright lights distract the moths however (some scientists believe this is because they mistake artificial light for moonlight), they spend more time frantically swarming and less feeding on nectar.
Many localities already turn off street lights in the middle of the night to save money on energy. The researchers found that moth-pollinated flowers placed under street lights that turned off for part of the night were pollinated just as well as those pollinated in full darkness. Full-night lighting disrupted the moths’ natural behavior significantly more.
Of the five-point-five million registered Native Americans, about one million of them live on or around reservations dotted throughout the country. Native Americans have long fought against unjust laws, practices, and stereotypes embedded in our society, but climate change poses another risk to many natural resources used by these communities.
In the southwest, heat spikes bring parched terrain, which then fails to properly absorb vast amounts of precipitation leading to flash-flooding. Warmer winters have lengthened the lives of deer ticks and other parasites, leading to a shortage of moose and other game that many Midwestern tribes rely on for food.
When reservation property is damaged and when precious resources dwindle, there is little that most of these communities can do to reverse the negative effects of climate change on their land. Native Americans are already at a significantly higher risk for depression, alcoholism, and unemployment than many other demographics, and a blow to their land and resources will only increase that divide unless they receive the help and tools they need to battle against these changes.