Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season

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Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.

Overview of the Devastating Derecho that Swept Across Iowa in August

RADAR composite of the August 10, 2020 Derecho.
RADAR composite from the National Weather Service

Justin Glisan | January 18, 2021

Aug. 10, 2020 will go down as a significant weather date in state history. A derecho, which is a convectively (thunderstorm) initiated straight-line windstorm, propagated through Iowa’s central west-to-east corridor. The term “derecho” was coined by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs at the University of Iowa in the late 1800s and is derived from a Spanish word that can be interpreted as “direct” or “straight-ahead.” Formed in the early morning hours in southeast South Dakota, the line of thunderstorms moved across the Nebraska border into Iowa where it significantly strengthened east of Carroll, Iowa, as downbursts formed. Downbursts are key for the formation of low-level, strong straight-line winds; moist air high up in a thunderstorm interacts with surrounding drier air, forcing atmospheric water vapor to evaporate fast. Rapid evaporation cools the air producing a relatively large volume of cold, dense air. These bubbles of dense air drop rapidly, hit the surface and spread out, creating straight-line winds that can produce widespread damage. As the derecho entered central Iowa, the center of the line pushed out creating a bow echo; this feature indicated rapid strengthening as downburst clusters became more numerous. The system expanded north and south as it moved through east-central Iowa where a broadening swath of damage was found in satellite images. The derecho held together for 770 miles and over 14 hours before losing strength as it entered western Ohio.

Damage to crops, grain bins and structures was catastrophic. The derecho also moved over the D3 (Extreme Drought) region in west-central Iowa, producing agricultural damage to already stressed corn and soybeans. USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) data indicated that around 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans across 57 counties may have been impacted by the derecho. Urban areas from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities reported substantial and long-lasting power outages along with severe damage to trees and structures from extremely strong, sustained winds. Recorded wind gusts along the derecho’s path ranged from 58 mph to well over 100 mph; according to the National Weather Service, “maximum recorded wind speeds were around 110 mph over portions of Benton and Linn Counties in eastern Iowa.” A personal weather station in Atkins (Benton County) reported a gust of 126 mph.

U.S. Breaks Record for Annual Number of Climate Disaster Events that Exceed $1 Billion Per Event


Maxwell Bernstein | January 15, 2021

Last year was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, according to NASA. Along with tying the record for the hottest year, the United States had 22 weather/climate disaster events that exceeded $1 billion dollars in damage per event, breaking the previous annual record according to NOAA. Since 1980, the United States had 285 weather and climate disasters with a total cost exceeding $1.875 trillion. 

The previous annual record of 16 events occurred in 2011 and 2017, making 2020 the sixth consecutive year that included at least 10 weather/climate disaster events that exceeded $1 billion per event. These events in 2020 included 1 drought event, 13 severe storm events, 7 tropical cyclone events, and 1 wildfire event. 

In this link, NOAA has created an interactive chart that shows the frequency or cost of different types of weather/climate disaster events that exceed $1 billion in all 50 states. Iowa has seen an increase in the frequency and cost of disaster events that include drought, flooding, freeze, severe storms, tropical cyclones, wildfires, and winter storms. 

Des Moines City Council Approves Transition to 100% Renewable Energy

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Nicole Welle | January 14, 2021

The Des Moines City Council unanimously approved a resolution this week that aims to transition all Des Moines homes and businesses to renewable energy by 2035.

Environmental activists celebrated the resolution, and more than 40 businesses in Des Moines endorsed it. Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who introduced the resolution, said that it was made possible in part by MidAmerican Energy’s investments in renewable energy sources. MidAmerican is working toward the goal of producing all of its power from renewable sources, and it plans to close all of its coal and gas plants once renewable energy transmission and storage technology improves enough to meet demands, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Des Moines has already implemented changes in recent years to become more environmentally friendly, and this resolution will push the city closer to that goal. Frank Cownie has advocated for the city to reduce carbon emissions since becoming Mayor of Des Moines in 2004. He pledged to honor the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump announced the United States’ departure from the climate pact in 2016, and the city passed an ordinance in 2019 that requires large businesses to inventory and submit their greenhouse gas emissions and water use annually. In a statement to the city council, Cownie said that local governments play an important role in promoting sustainability and climate change mitigation. They are often tasked with addressing the impacts of extreme weather events caused by climate change, so steps like these are becoming increasingly important.

By approving the resolution, Des Moines will join over 170 other cities across the country that have already made 100% clean energy commitments. Some council members had previously expressed concern over the cost associated with the goal and resisted pushing for even faster action by leveraging the city’s partnership with MidAmerican Energy. However, by working with MidAmerican and other parties to meet the 2035 goal, Des Moines will likely save energy users money in the long run. Renewable energy projects are also likely to create jobs and attract businesses and residents to the Des Moines area in the future.

ProPublica Maps the Change in the Human Climate Niche

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Maxwell Bernstein | January 13, 2021

This ProPublica article uses maps to highlight changes in the “human climate niche” as climate change advances. This niche includes regions that have been the most suitable for humans to live over the past 6,000 years. ProPublica highlights scenarios for how humans live throughout the United States. 

The article states that an increase in heat and humidity in the southern states will be a reason for a northerly push in the niche. This combination can cause heat stroke or death. ProPublica created maps that show extreme heat and humidity, wildfires, sea level rise, farm crop yields, and economic damages.

“Taken together, some parts of the U.S. will see a number of issues stack on top of one another — heat and humidity may make it harder to work outside, while the ocean continues to claim more coastal land,” ProPublica said. 

Percent of Global Population Experiencing Drought Could Double By The End of The Century

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Thomas Robinson | January 12th, 2020

Scientists have projected that by the end of the 21st century,, the percent of the global population at risk for extreme drought will double compared to current conditions.

In a recent study, researchers at Michigan State University have simulated hydrological conditions expected by the end of the 21st century, and their findings suggest that the number of people at risk for severe drought could increase from 3% between 1976 and 2005, to 8%.  The southern hemisphere, which already faces severe water shortages, such as in South Africa, is expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Unfortunately, the United States is also expected to have increased risks of drought because terrestrial water storage (TWS) will likely decrease in the coming years.

Terrestrial water storage is a measure of water stored in rivers, soils, and other reservoirs that plays an important role in how available water is as a resource. The researchers used recent modelling advancements to include TWS in global hydrological, and land surface models to better analyze how changes to TWS can influence drought conditions across the globe. 

Iowa has suffered from drought conditions over the past two decades, and climate projections suggest that extreme weather, like the Derecho, will become more commonplace.  Extreme weather poses a threat to Iowa’s crops and residents, and in the face of concerning projections, steps should be taken to help mitigate the effects climate change has on Iowans.

Kim Reynolds Pauses Invest in Iowa Act Program for the Second Time

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Nicole Welle | January 11, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Thursday that she is once again pausing the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal that would fund environmental and mental health programs, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

Reynolds originally shelved the proposal late last session after the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted the economy. She said that the program’s one-cent sales tax increase would be ill-advised during a time of economic uncertainty, and she still holds that view. Reynolds has said that she would rather follow up on tax cuts made in 2018 so Iowans can “keep more of their hard-earned money” and cited concerns about the pandemic’s effect on employment and the economy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch previously reported that lawmakers from both parties have opposed the plan, so the Invest in Iowa Act is likely to stall without major revisions if Reynolds ever decides to act on it in the future. Some Republican lawmakers have discussed adjusting tax breaks to create funds for some of the work outlined in the act, but the Invest in Iowa act’s future is unclear.

Reynolds’ original Invest in Iowa proposal would have funded Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and improved the state’s mental health programs, and reductions in income and property taxes would have offset the one-cent sales tax increase. Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved the trust fund in 2010 and hoped that it would help to solve Iowa’s water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff and other pollution. However, it is in desperate need of funding as the sales tax increase required to fund it has never reached the debate floor.

The Invest in Iowa plan would have created $171 million a year for water quality, outdoor recreation, and conservation projects. It also would have allowed counties to shift mental health funding from local property taxes to the sales tax. However, Reynolds did not discuss alternative sources of funding for water quality or conservation projects when she announced that she would pause the program on Thursday, and she said that she is currently looking for alternative sustainable funding for mental health services.

Sales of Environmental and Social Bonds Expected to Increase

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Maxwell Bernstein | January 8, 2021

With the U.S government under full control from the Democratic Party after the Georgia runoff election, sales of corporate bonds that finance environmental projects could be boosted, according to Bloomberg.  

President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal to combat climate change through proposed programs, initiatives, and investments in infrastructure, could boost greater issuance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) bonds.

The sale of ESG-linked bonds almost doubled in 2020 to around $55 billion in sales. The government issuance of these bonds could rise by about a third in 2021. The industries that are expected to issue ESG bonds will likely range from health care to technology.

What Democratic Control of the Senate will Mean for Climate Change

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Nicole Welle | January 7, 2021

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won the final two senate seats after the Georgia runoffs ended yesterday, narrowly securing democrats a senate majority for the first time in six years.

Now that the GOP has lost majority control of the Senate, President-elect Joe Biden will have the opportunity to pass climate change legislation once he takes office. Biden’s included a $2 trillion plan in his climate action pledge, and he hopes to use the funding to accelerate the clean energy transition and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. His ambitious plan would also set targets similar to those already in place in countries like China and the European Union and will likely include tax incentives for clean energy, according to a CNBC article.

If the Senate had remained under republican control, republican senators would have blocked most of Biden’s climate legislation. But even now that democrats hold a majority and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s will have the tie-breaking vote when necessary, passing bold climate legislation could still be a challenge. Some environmentalists worry that enough democrats might prefer more modest bipartisan legislation that new policies will not meet climate activists’ demands or align with other countries’ progressive actions. However, Biden has said that he is dedicated to working with Republican lawmakers to rally bipartisan support of bold climate legislation, and he plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement and reverse many of Trump’s environmental rollbacks as soon as he takes office.

Democrats maintained a majority in the House of Representatives after the 2020 elections, and Joe Biden will take office on January 20th despite efforts by Donald Trump and his supporters to challenge the election results.

Energy Saving Tips for the Winter

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Maxwell Bernstein | January 6, 2021

This winter, Iowans can save money and energy through several tips from the Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE suggests people first conduct home energy audits to find inefficiencies within their places of residence.

do-it-yourself home energy audit can be performed by: 

  • Locate and seal air leaks.
  • Consider ventilation for backdrafts. 
  • Check insulation
  • Inspect heating and cooling equipment.
  • Replace lightbulbs with energy efficient ones or research controls to reduce lighting use. 
  • Check the energy usage of appliances and electronics.
  • Assess energy expenditure and look into a professional home energy audit

When it comes to fall and winter energy-saving tips, the DOE suggests

  • Open curtains on south-facing windows during the day to take advantage from heat from the sun.
  • Cover drafty windows.
  • Reduce temperature when asleep or out of the house.
  • Detect air leaks (here’s how). 
  • Maintain heating systems.
  • Maintain the fireplace and chimney by checking the seal on the flue, and general cleaning and upkeep. 
  • Lower water heating costs by reducing the water heater’s temperature to the warm setting or 120°F. 
  • Use LED’s for holiday lighting and check for the Energy Star certification.