Roadside prairie: little strips of sustainability


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Native prairie plants are hardy and beautiful (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

Over the past 200 years, Iowa’s once ubiquitous prairies have been almost totally edged out by farmland and urbanization. Only a fraction of one percent of what used to be remains. It is unlikely that Iowa’s prairies will ever be restored to their full former glory, but some counties are regenerating slivers of native prairie along county roadsides.

The practice, called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, cannot reestablish the value of Iowa’s lost prairies, but it does help humans and nature coexist little more sustainably. The strips of prairie:

  • Create habitat for species like pollinators, birds and small mammals
  • Trap pollutants and sediments that would otherwise contaminate water and soil, like motor oil and road salt, while remaining tough enough to withstand harm
  • Promote soil health and reduce flooding by incorporating air and organic matter into the soil structure
  • Give drivers a glimpse at the state’s historic beauty

Counties aim to manage these areas sustainably with minimal use of pesticides, strategically timed mowing and burning. These efforts are funded through the Living Roadway Trust Fund and supported by the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center. Over 100,000 acres have been planted since the start of the program in 2009.

To learn more about what this program has accomplished and see some pretty flowers, check out this online presentation from the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

 

 

From humid air to clean water: new innovation in sustainability


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Cacti inspired a recent study on water condensation, with potential implications for water-stressed areas around the world (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 10, 2019

Ohio State University researchers believe clean drinking water can be harnessed from nighttime air, when water is more prone to condensing. They have been developing methods for capture with the aid of some unusual experts: desert lifeforms.

The pointy tips and sharp spines on cacti collect water from nighttime fog and funnel it town to the plants roots. Desert grasses do the same with pointed blades.  Beetles collect water on their backs, which feature water-repellant and water-attracting spots that push the water towards the bugs’ mouths. These features help the plants and insects survive in harsh, low-water conditions.

The researchers, led by Bharat Bhushan, professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, have been experimenting with materials, shapes and textures using 3D printed models in foggy enclosures. They have already determined that conical shapes and grooved textures are efficient water collection methods and hope to test prototypes in deserts outside the lab as they continue to develop designs. They published their findings so far in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in late December.

The final products of their work could have implications for water-scarce areas, where strife over clean water will only worsen with climate change. Water captured by such devices could supplement the drinking water supplies of private homes or whole communities.

“Water supply is a critically important issue, especially for people of the most arid parts of the world,” Bhushan said in a Science Daily report. “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”

On The Radio- Ecosystem services


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Flickr/ckocur

Kasey Dresser| December 24, 2018

This weeks segment looks at how the relationship between humans and ecosystems will change with the affects of climate change.

Transcript:

Climate change will alter the relationship between humans and ecosystems. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from nature. Some of these benefits will diminish in coming years, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released in November. 

Some ecosystem services provide resources like food, water and fuel. Iowa’s economy depends heavily on one such service—agriculture. The growing season is starting earlier and becoming wetter, which will impact crop yields.

Other services protect humans from natural dangers such as disease-carrying insects, like mosquitoes and ticks. As northern climates get warmer the ranges of such pests and the diseases they carry are expanding. 

Cultural services include natural provisions for recreation, tourism, aesthetics and spirituality. Climate change will impact sporting seasons and threaten cherished landscapes. 

Changes will vary among regions and ecosystems, making the future hard to predict. Some losses are inevitable, though, and may compromise human industry, livelihood and sustenance. 

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

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

On The Radio- Adapting to the inevitability of climate change


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Oil Capital in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (flickr/Wolfgang Schlegl)

Kasey Dresser| December 17, 2018

This weeks segment looks at methods to adapt to climate change laid out in the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

Transcript:

Adaptation is crucial for dealing with climate change, but it is not always done well. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped immediately, the Earth would still face decades of warming from gases already in the air. The Fourth National Climate Assessment discusses effective strategies for adapting to inevitable climate change. Here are three key things for communities to consider. 

ONE- Proactive planning works better than reacting to issues as they arise. Projections for an area’s future, which may differ greatly from present conditions, can help inform approaches.  

TWO- Dramatic issues like sea level rise and heat waves are certainly scary, but vulnerable communities cannot focus all their resources on adapting to one hazard.  It is important to consider a breadth of potential impacts and implement a range of strategies. 

THREE- Risk communication can keep residents informed, influence the decisions they make today,  and help them prepare for the future. It is important to communicate about what is anticipated every step of the way. 

For more information about climate change adaptation, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

On The Radio- Benefits of passive building design


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Green roof (picture taken off the Sears Tower in Chicago, IL)

Kasey Dresser| December 3, 2018

This weeks segment looks at how implementing passive design can improve energy efficiency. 

Passive design can improve energy efficiency on a warming planet.

As climate change heats up Iowa, how will people stay cool without increasing energy demand? The answer may lie in something called passive design. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Scientists project Iowa heatwaves to become, on average, 7 degrees hotter by mid-century, according the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment.  About once per decade, a heatwave 13 degrees hotter may occur. 

In such events, people rely heavily on cooling systems. In many cases, this means cranking up the air conditioning, and therefore increasing utility bills and our dependence on fossil fuels.

Passive design techniques include how the building is oriented, window placement, roofing material, tree shading and more. All help maintain comfortable temperatures year round by letting sunlight in and shading it out at the appropriate times.  Tightly sealed insulation minimizes the exchange of air with the outdoors.

Passively designed buildings reduce energy demand and are more comfortable environments to live and work in.

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

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

Reduce food waste at your Thanksgiving feast


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Give thanks for your food by making sure it’s eaten or disposed of responsibly (flickr).

Julia Poska | November 22, 2018

Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of food produced and sold in the U.S. goes to waste, according to varying estimates. Some is cooked but uneaten. Some goes rotten in the fridge. Some never makes it off the grocery shelf, and some never even makes it off the farm field.

Food waste is not only a disservice to the hungry, but a disservice to the planet, too. All food, from carrots to highly-processed cookies, is organic matter, which requires oxygen to decompose properly. In a densely compacted landfill, food waste decomposes anaerobically, without oxygen, and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The considerable water and energy resources used to produce food are wasted as well when food goes in the landfill. Nearly 250 gallons of water go into just two 15 oz cans of corn. Over 2,000 gallons of water go into just two pounds of poultry, which includes the water used to grow food for the birds.

Be conscious of food waste this Thanksgiving by following these three tips.

1. Pace yourself

On a day reserved for overeating, it can be tempting to load up your plate with several servings at once. While eating is the best way to reduce food waste, when you eventually reach your limit, what is left on your plate will most likely go in the trash. Take only what you are certain you will eat, and go back for more as many times as you need. When you finish, your plate will be clear and leftovers will be prime for saving.

2. Actually eat your leftovers

If you anticipate having leftovers, be sure to account for them when shopping at the grocery store. You won’t need to buy as much food the weekend if Thanksgiving dinner will be making a reprise. If you still have more leftover than you think you will need, send it home with guests or even share it with pets. You can also freeze individual portions in airtight containers or bags to be eaten for weeks after the holiday.

3. Give scraps new life

Most food waste can be composted! See dos and don’ts here. If the host does not keep a compost bin or use a pickup service, someone else in attendance may be willing to take scraps home in a garbage bag or large container. Check with your city’s waste management department to see if they accept cooking oil for recycling (especially if you are frying a turkey!), which can be used to create biofuel.

 

 

Iowa explores renewable energy storage


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Batteries can make solar arrays productive even after the sun goes down (flickr).

Julia Poska| November 8, 2018

Already a leader in wind energy, Iowa wants to expand its renewable energy portfolio even further. The Iowa Economic Development Authority granted $200,000 to Ideal Energy in Fairfield last month to study “solar plus” systems, solar arrays enhanced with energy storage capacity via batteries.

Without the addition of batteries, these solar grids would only supply power when the sun was shining. The batteries can supply power during outages and at night, and help “shave” energy bills by supplying energy at peak demand hours, when utility costs are highest.

Ideal Energy is currently building a large, 1.1 megawatt solar array with a 1.1 megawatt hour vanadium flow battery for the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. This is the largest solar plus project in the state of Iowa and will cover about a third of the university’s annual energy needs.

Ideal is also installing a somewhat smaller array with a lithium-ion battery at the Agri-Industrial Plastics Company in Fairfield. The battery will provide nighttime power for the company’s 24-hour production lines and save them an estimated $42,000 annually.

With the Iowa Economic Development Authority grant, Ideal will assess and compare the performance, efficiency and maintenance of both systems in partnership with Iowa State University’s Electric Power Research Center. A statewide committee, established by the 2016 Iowa Energy Plan, will evaluate the research to inform future solar plus projects in the state.