Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch. 

The environment–and our infrastructure–is interlinked


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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 6th, 2019

With conversations about the environment continuing in the wake of climate change and extreme weather patterns, changing the way we use energy and altering our infrastructure is more important than ever. Green infrastructure is one of the keys to unlocking a cleaner, brighter, more eco-friendly future, and many major cities in the US have already started transitioning.

San Francisco, for example, is funding multiple green projects and setting budgets for more. Simple things, like rain gardens and water-permeable pavement, can help reduce flooding and can cut down on other costly flood control methods.

Aside from flood benefits, opening up funding for green infrastructure would prompt policymakers to help fund infrastructure repair, since maintaining the quality of bridges, roads, transportation stations, and buildings is essential for keeping people safe. Some suggested ways to intertwine environmental concerns and infrastructure issues include recycling projects that repurpose old materials to make improvements, such as using rubber tires to reinforce and strengthen roads.

Infrastructure issues are not new in the United States, and as environmental problems become points of discussion, working to repair our roads and buildings while incorporating repurposed materials and eco-friendly structures is a way to ensure a brighter future.

A new substance, “Biochar”, could help the environment


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Biochar could help control nitrogen pollution (/source)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 3rd, 2019

Biochar, a kind of catch-all name for a blend of pyrogenic organic material, could be the solution that the agriculture industry is looking for.

“Pyrogenic” means “produced from heat or combustion”, and biochar is a mass of organic, composted material burned (without oxygen–in the absence of it) until a dark, solid, coal-like mass forms.

Doctor Rachel Hestrin, who works in the Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory in California, conducted an experiment where she took a portion of biochar and exposed it, in the lab, to some environmental and elemental changes that it would encounter in nature. She then tested its ability to absorb harmful excess nitrogen by exposing it to ammonia, and found that the biochar almost completely absorbed the ammonia pollution.

This development is exciting, as it indicates that biochar could be a useful and inexpensive protective substance to use for agriculture, and an effective way to reduce overall nitrogen pollution.

The study looks at Ethiopia and the possible improvements that biochar can help their farmers make, as most Ethiopian farmers use manure, straw, and other organic materials to fertilize crops. Manure, unfortunately, releases nitrogen into the air as it breaks down–but biochar could be a great solution for this problem.

Dr. Hestrin sees this material benefiting a wide range of businesses. UN Environment recently released a set of concerns for the environment, and one of the biggest is nitrogen pollution, making this the perfect time to debut a new, helpful solution.

 

 

 

On The Radio- Benefits of GMOs


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On the road, Lesotho (flickr/Steve Lamb)

Kasey Dresser| March 4, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how GMO crops could help African farmers.

Transcript: 

A new study from Iowa State University says genetically modified crops are far more helpful than harmful

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

GMO crops have been studied extensively. Iowa State agronomy researchers recently examined dozens of previous studies to assess the overall safety of genetic modification in plants. 

They determined that GMO crops are not only safe, but that delaying their adoption poses risks for humans and the environment in the developing world. Insect resistant crops could help African farmers battle an emerging invasive pest, the fall armyworm, which has been devastating corn crops in Africa since 2016. But fear has kept insect resistant corn commercially unavailable in all but one African country. 

Study co-author Walter Suza directs the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa Program, which develops digital learning materials for African universities. He hopes the study will help African policymakers embrace GMOs. 

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

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

The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.

 

The Iowa ‘sunshine tax’: What you need to know


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The “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” may not be so sunny (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | February 28, 2019

The so-called “sunshine tax” might have a bright and cheery name, but the proposed fee could put a real damper on private solar power in Iowa.

Described in House Study Bill 185 and Senate Study Bill 1201, the “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” would impose an over $300 annual fee on solar customers — property owners with small-scale solar panel setups who sell excess power back to the grid. The fee would cover the cost of using the electric grid and support Iowa’s energy infrastructure.

Currently, such customers can expect to pay off the high initial cost of solar panel installation in less than 10 years through savings on energy bills and sales of excess power. Cedar Rapids City Councilman Tyler Olson told the designated House subcommittee the fee would extend that period to as much as 20 years, as reported in the Gazette. This would greatly discourage private individuals from investing in home setups, which typically last about 25 years.

Supporters of the fee, including major Iowa utilities like MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, say it is unfair that customers who do not generate their own power absorb the cost of maintaining power infrastructure that is used by solar generators.

“Growth is possible when policies allow all customers to benefit from renewable energy,”  MidAmerican Energy’s president and CEO said in a press release. “Common sense legislation focused on keeping costs low and affordable for everyone provides the best opportunity to grow solar in Iowa.”

Opponents say the fee would only allow solar to grow for large corporations, however, and that it would kill the future of Iowa’s growing solar industry, which largely develops and installs systems for private homes, businesses and farms.

On Tuesday, the Gazette reported that the the bill would soon move forward in the Iowa House, to the full House Commerce Committee. Yesterday, the Iowa Senate held a hearing on their version of the bill, and did the same. There is a push among some legislators to delay the conversation until the Iowa Utilities Board finishes an assessment of compensation for solar energy producers next year.

 

Flood warnings for Cedar Rapids


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The flooding of Cedar Rapids in 2008 cost a lot of money and disrupted many more lives | Source

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 27th, 2019

Cedar Rapids could be up for some intense flooding this spring, with the National Weather Service predicting that the Cedar River is about three times more likely than usual to overflow.

This does not come completely as a surprise–after Iowa’s initially mild start to the winter season, snow has been falling in droves, and it’s accumulated fast, causing numerous issues for farmers and drivers alike.

As spring draws nearer, new threats begin to emerge: melting snow.

Cedar Rapids has had over 40 inches of snow this season, twice the average yearly amount. As that snow begins to melt, it will steadily increase the levels of the Cedar River.

With this potential issue looming, projects are being planned and constructed to protect against the potentially devastating waters. A flood wall, a levee and a pump station are all on deck to help control future flood damage before too much infrastructure is lost.

The city still remembers its costly flood from 2008, which was, at the time, the sixth costliest FEMA declaration (a government fund set up to assist in the aftermath of natural disasters). Though the river rose over ten years ago, the effects of that flood are still present in the minds of Cedar Rapids residents, and preparation for this spring is the key to avoiding another disaster.