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.

Iowa legislature considers bill to encourage efficiency in rental units


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Older rental properties are often prone to inefficiencies leading to wasted resources and high utility costs (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | February 25, 2020

A bill proposed this month in the Iowa House of Representatives would increase transparency around energy efficiency and utility costs in rental units.

The bill, HSB 635, states that landlords of properties containing at least 12 units would need to disclose average utility costs in writing to prospective tenants, prior to issuing a lease.

Properties with low rent are often older and may have structural issues–like leaky windows or dripping pipes— which can lead to wasted resources and higher utility bills for tenants.  The Iowa Environmental Council is encouraging support of the bill, saying it would create incentives for more efficient rental properties.

 

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking "forever chemicals" with Dr. David Cwiertny


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Dr. David Cwiertny, photo taken by Tyler Chalfant

Tyler Chalfant | February 24th, 2020

Today’s episode features an interview recorded Feb. 19th with Dr. David Cwiertny, an environmental chemist in the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, and Director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC). Cwiertny talks about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, explaining how they can still enter our water years after they’ve been phased out of production, and how even minuscule amounts can pose a risk.

Listen here!

Measuring the carbon footprint of your booze


Photo by Ryan Harvey, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | February 21st, 2020

While heavy drinking is known to harm human health, it’s also hurting the planet. Between farming, production, packaging, and distribution, there are a number of ways in which getting your favorite booze is consuming valuable resources and emitting carbon. A 2008 study conducted by New Belgium Brewing Company found that one six-pack of their beer emits about the same amount of carbon as driving a car eight miles.

According to Tom Cumberlege, Associate Director of corporate carbon measuring company Carbon Trust, a general rule of thumb is: the higher the alcoholic content of a drink, the higher the carbon footprint per liter. However, the larger serving sizes of beer and wine, for instance, can increase their overall footprint to make them less environmentally-friendly than liquor. Packaging alone amounts to 40% of beer’s total carbon footprint, while distribution amounts to 14% and refrigeration for 9%.

The New York Times recently explored ways to reduce the environmental footprint of alcohol consumption. Buying locally, or at least domestically, is one way to reduce transportation costs. Choice of container also matters, as the production of aluminum cans emits less than that of glass bottles, and aluminum is more frequently recycled. Manufacturing the bottle accounts for 33% of a bottle of wine’s emissions, and a 2011 study found that boxes reduce the overall carbon footprint from wine by 40%.

Major flooding on Mississippi River likely again this spring


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Most of the Iowa/Mississippi River boundary can expect to see moderate flooding this spring (via NWS). 

Julia Poska | February 20, 2020

Iowa communities along the Mississippi River will most likely see major flooding this spring.

A National Weather Service flood outlook released last week shows an over 50% chance of extensive inundation all along the state’s eastern boundary. Probability of moderate flooding is at 95% in most areas. Western Iowa faces lower, but still significant risk.

Heavy precipitation in 2019, still-saturated soils and heavy snowpack to the north contribute to the elevated flood risk.

Radio Iowa reported that Gov. Kim Reynolds said official are coordinating with local emergency management teams. Reynolds said the Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water already to make room for melted snow to the north.

Last summer’s Mississippi River flooding was the longest in recorded history, lasting nearly 200 days. A coalition of river city mayors estimated damage to be over $2 billion along the length of the river.

You can find 2020 flood outlook data at specific Iowa sites using the interactive feature at this NWS page. 

IFP says governor's tax proposal doesn't live up to voter's wishes to fund IWILL


Photo by Joshua Mayer, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | February 18th, 2020

A decade after Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund (IWILL), Governor Kim Reynolds has proposed a sales tax increase to fund the program. The fund requires three-eighths of a cent from a sales tax increase to be set aside as a permanent and protected source of funding dedicated towards conserving and improving the state’s water quality, farmland, and natural wildlife habitats, and providing opportunities for recreation. Critics say that the governor’s plan provides much less funding than was promised. 

Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project say that the new proposal would provide $82 million for environmental conservation and restoration programs, which should be $200 million based on what was passed in 2010. Another criticism is that the sales-tax increase has been paired with an income-tax decrease that favors the wealthy and results in a net loss in state tax revenue.


A report from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found that the plan also excludes digital goods and services, resulting in a loss of $31 million for the fund. The new formula also transfers existing funds, rather than relying on new funding sources for new programs. It also gets rid of much of the outdoor recreation funding approved in 2010 amendment. You can read the full report here.

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking insect ecology with Dr. Andrew Forbes


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Dr. Andrew Forbes, contributed photo.

Julia Poska | February 17, 2020

Today’s installment of the EnvIowa podcast features an interview recorded Feb. 7 with Dr. Andrew Forbes, an evolutionary ecologist at in University of Iowa biology department. Forbes chats about the ecological importance of parasitic insects and shares insights about other creepy crawlies like emerald ash borers and periodical cicadas.

Listen to learn more about his work on insect diversity and speciation.

Listen here!