University of Iowa administrators discuss sustainability goals, ending coal in power plant

University of Iowa power plant, by Dave Smith, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 31st, 2019

University of Iowa administrators met Thursday to discuss the school’s sustainability goals. This meeting followed months of protests from Iowa City students and community members, including a visit from international climate activist Greta Thunberg. The strikers have called on the university to create a Town-Gown Climate Accord with the city and to end coal burning at the university’s power plant. 

None of the strikers were invited to participate in Thursday’s meeting. Stratis Giannakouros, the director of the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said that this sort of meeting addressing the university’s climate goals is fairly routine. 

The university has committed to ending the burning of coal by 2025, although the strikers are demanding that this change happen much sooner than that, and that the power plant transitions to 100% renewable sources by 2030. 

The university plans on entering into a public-private partnership, or P3, to operate its utilities system. University President Bruce Harreld has stated that the partnership will not alter the plan to stop burning coal by 2025, although some bidders are interested in stopping even earlier, by 2023. 

Senior Vice President of UI Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz told the Daily Iowan that he thought that deadline was realistic, and that many of the finalists for the P3 were drawn to the university specifically because of the desire to get rid of coal. “All of them have said that the first thing they want to do is explore our plans for 2025, and how we can expedite that,” Lehnertz said.

Does October snow contradict climate change theory? Absolutely not.

Julia Poska | October 30, 2019

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Map from Iowa Environmental Mesonet (accessed through Des Moines Register).

Iowans across much of the state awoke Tuesday morning to find a blanket of fresh snow atop vibrant orange and yellow autumn leaves, many still attached to the trees. Parts of east and east central Iowa saw as much as three to four inches, according to the Des Moines Register. 

The National Weather Service  puts the average date of first one-inch snowfall in eastern Iowa in early December.  The unseasonable flurry might have some Iowans questioning how serious Midwestern climate change could really be.

But climate (average temperature and precipitation over several decades) is not the same as weather (daily atmospheric conditions). Years of abnormally high snowfall or abnormally cold weather could have an impact on the averages that create our “climate,” but snow, frost and even “polar vortex” events on their own are products of normal weather variation throughout the year.

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Records show that overall, average annual temperatures in Iowa and most of the world are increasing, despite weather variation. This pushes local 30-year climate averages (shown below for Iowa City) up by small increments over time.

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From U.S. Climate Data


Iowans can still expect snow and cold in coming decades, though the overall frequency and intensity of such events may decline over time. Somewhat milder winters will be followed by much hotter, dryer summers, with an increased number of intense rainstorms added to the mix.

Destructive wildfires erupt across California

AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mel Melcon

Tyler Chalfant | October 29th, 2019

Multiple massive wildfires have raged across California this week, stretching the state’s firefighting resources. Dangerous and destructive fires are becoming increasingly common in the state. 2018 was the worst year for fires on record, and a state-commissioned report found that, under current emission trends, the average burn area will increase by 77% by the end of the century.

Low humidity and heavy winds have created ideal conditions for wildfires to spread. A wildfire twice the size of San Francisco has already destroyed at least 60 homes. Fires in Northern California also caused a blackout on Sunday, cutting off electricity to more than 2.5 million people. On Monday morning, fires broke out near Los Angeles as well. These emergency conditions have exhausted much of the state’s firefighting budget, leaving fewer funds available for preventive measures, such as thinning forests and protecting infrastructure and water supplies.
Wildfires have combined with drought and insect infestations to kill millions of California trees in recent years. These fires also contribute to climate change, as a single fire can release as much carbon as 2.5 million cars would emit in a year. The human toll is growing as well. 93 lives were lost due to California wildfires last year alone. Even after fires are extinguished, it can take communities months or years to recover. The length of “wildfire season” grows longer as well. Today, there are 78 more “fire days” than there were 50 years ago.

Clorox sets new environmental goals

Clorox (Mike Mozart/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| October 28, 2019


Currently, 92% of Clorox’s packaging is recyclable but new goals set by the company will aim to make 100% of their packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025 and reduce half of the virgin plastic and paper-based fiber by 2030. In the United States and Canada, they aim for their buildings to be 100% renewable electricity. To increase transparency, the company has also agreed to publish a list of “restricted substances.”

In 2018, only 4% of corporate sustainability goals were met. To ensure success, Clorox is attaching executive pay to their sustainability targets, meaning executives who reach these goals will receive bonuses. Benno Dorer, chairman and CEO at Clorox said, “As a mission-driven company, it’s important for us to continue integrating ESG [environmental, social and governance] into our overall business strategy.”

2019 hurricane season calmer than recent years, still above average

Tyler Chalfant | October 24th, 2019

When Tropical Storm Nestor made landfall on the Gulf Coast this past weekend, it became the fifth named storm to impact the U.S. mainland this year. There are roughly five weeks left in the 2019 hurricane season, which lasts from June 1st through November 30th. Even though this season has been calmer than in recent years, it has already met the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s requirements for an above average hurricane season.

To be considered above average, a hurricane season must have an Accumulated Cyclone Energy (a summation of the duration and intensity of all named storms in a year) higher than the median value from 1981-2010. The season must also meet two of the three following: at least 13 named storms, seven hurricanes, or three major hurricanes. Nestor was the 14th named storm of the year, and while the Atlantic has only seen five hurricanes this season, three of them have been considered major hurricanes. NOAA’s estimation is that about 45% of years will be above average, but 2019 is the fourth year in a row to meet these requirements, and the seventh to do so since 2010. 

While this season is comparable with recent years, it has been unusual in other ways. Most notably, Hurricane Dorian was nearly stationary as it wreaked havoc on the Bahamas, resulting in at least 61 deaths so far. Hurricane Lorenzo also set the record for the easternmost category 5 storm. 

An early end to El Niño weather patterns caused conditions to be more favorable to hurricanes than predicted this year. Though late-season storms are less common, there is still over a month left, and an average year does see one more hurricane formation after October 21st, which would bring this year up to the thirty-year average of six hurricanes per season.

CGRER member and teammates make surprising discovery on parasitic wasps

A wasp (species unknown) hangs out in a tree (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | October 23, 2019

A recent discovery from the University of Iowa is helping fill-in knowledge gaps about some of the planet’s tiniest inhabitants.

University of Iowa CGRER member and biologist Andrew Forbes and teammates published a paper last month describing an unusual behavior of the “crypt-keeper” wasp. This parasitic species lays its eggs in “crypts,” bubble-like nurseries created in leaves in which other parasitic wasps lay their eggs. The baby crypt-keepers then eat their way through the other baby wasps to emerge from the leaves and into the world.

The study, published in Biology Letters, found that while the vast majority of parasite species are thought to be highly specialized and target just one host species, the crypt-keeper wasp is a parasite to at least six other species that create such “crypts” for their young.

Doctoral student Anna Ward, lead author of the paper, told the New York Times  that this finding helps shed light on important yet often overlooked truths about the ecosystem.

“With climate change, how can we know our true impact if we don’t even know what’s there?” Ward asked. 



Desalination a valuable resource in addressing water scarcity

Photo from TheLeader DotInfo, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 22nd, 2019

As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, countries are relying on desalinating seawater to prevent a crisis. Desalination plants remove salt to make seawater clean and drinkable through a process known as reverse osmosis. 

Scientists predict that the effects of climate change, a growing population, and the depletion of groundwater resources place a quarter of the global population at risk of running out of water in the near future. This risk is especially high in the Middle East and North Africa, where many of the desalination plants are being built. Saudia Arabia, the global leader in desalination, accounts for about one-fifth of all production. 

Other affluent countries, including Australia, China, Spain, and the United States, have begun producing desalinated water in water-stressed areas. However, the cost has been prohibitive to many countries. Researchers are studying how to improve the process to make it more affordable and accessible. 

Desalinated seawater is an important resource, that currently accounts for about one percent of the world’s fresh water. But the process is not without environmental risks, including a brine byproduct that contains toxic treatment chemicals, as well as high amounts of salt. Desalination also requires large amounts of energy, and as a result adds to the burning of fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.