Disastrous forecast realized in Davenport flood


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Davenport flooding in 2011 (flickr).

Julia Poska|May 2, 2019

The Quad Cities have been preparing since the National Weather Service reported earlier this year a 95 percent chance of pronounced flooding in the area through May. As of Tuesday, their temporary barriers had been in place for 48 days. This week, their preparations proved insufficient.

Tuesday afternoon, Mississippi River floodwaters suddenly rushed into Davenport when HESCO Barriers — military grade defense boxes used to make temporary walls — succumbed to the force of the water. Officials saw early signs, the Quad City Times and Dispatch-Argus reported, and began urging people in some areas to evacuate when the temporary levees began breaking around 3:30 pm. The HESCO barriers had never been tested in waters above 21.5 feet, but as of 4:30 pm the Mississippi was at 21.87 feet, heading quickly to the expected 22.4 foot crest.

Not everyone received or took seriously the evacuation warnings, and many had to be rescued by boat after the fact. Once the water came rushing in, there was little time to take action. No serious injuries were reported.

The Weather Channel reported that floodwater began to recede Wednesday morning, and that at their peak levels surpassed 6 feet in some areas. A new expected crest of 22.7 feet is expected later today, which could surpass the 22.6 foot record set in 1993.

Scott County officials and Gov. Kim Reynolds are hoping President Trump’s earlier disaster declaration for western Iowa will extend into the Quad Cities area, local media reported.

 

 

Thwaites: Antarctica’s tipping point


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Glacier collapse could lead to a global disaster | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 30th, 2019

McMurdo, a small group of buildings in the Antarctic meant solely as a pass-through for scientists of different fields, sits 800 miles away from a glacier roughly the size of Florida. This glacier–dubbed the “Thwaites”–is difficult to reach and difficult to study, but this enormous formation of ice could have dire consequences for our civilization should it collapse in our oceans.

Thwaites’ wedge shape and its massive size make it something to be contended with. In 2008, when Sridhar Anandakrishnan and five others from Penn State journeyed to the glacier, they found that it was losing ice at an alarming rate. The ongoing losses from Thwaites already accounts for a global sea level rise of roughly 4%. Thwaites is likely a support glacier, a “cork in a wine bottle“, meaning that its total collapse could lead to more glacier disaster, forcing us to contend with rising oceans that we may not be prepared to deal with.

Sridhar’s team, a year after their initial exploration, returned to the glacier to begin measuring its base, some 4,000 feet below the water. By drilling boreholes in the icy ground and setting off explosive charges, the team could read the seismic waves generated by the charge as it reverberated off of the glacier bed. Though much information has been gathered about Thwaites, there is still no solid explanation for its accelerated rate of collapse.

Thwaites could completely collapse in as soon as a century, especially since its loss of ice may be unstoppable. In the meantime, scientists are risking life and limb in the antarctic’s bitter cold, trying to uncover the mystery of this ticking time bomb.

 

On The Radio- Preparing for flood season


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Photo from the 2008 June floods (christina rutz/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 29, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how towns along the Mississippi are preparing for flood season. 

Transcript: 

As flood season begins, mayors of towns along the Mississippi prepare for potential disaster. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

It’s not easy maintaining a city or town along the Mississippi. The river—one of the largest in the world—is especially susceptible to floods during spring, when rain and melting snow cause the water levels to rise significantly.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative is a collection of 88 mayors spanning 10 states that work together to find solutions for flooding. They’ve been setting safety measures in place for this coming flood season, one that’s predicted to be especially disastrous.  

In late March, the group talked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out some preventative measures. Previously, they gathered in Washington DC to work out a nearly eight billion dollar deal to help reinforce existing infrastructure. Midwestern states have sustained billions in flood damages just this year, and supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods have hit St. Louis on three different occasions since 2011.

These previously rare weather events have been happening more and more frequently, and the coalition is amping up their defenses to beat back the oncoming waves. 

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org. 

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

CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Writer Activist Barbara Eckstein


Julia Poska| April 5, 2019

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Barbara Eckstein, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska 2019.

Barbara Eckstein’s environmental interest was a product of place. Her first jobs were in New Orleans, “where class and race and environmental degradation are very present,” she said. “So the need for activism on the behalf of those causes was just very apparent.”

When she came to teach at the University of Iowa, an urban and regional planning professor introduced her to sustainability, which was a useful model for pulling her interests together into her second book, Sustaining New Orleans.

The English professor has since spent her career studying, advocating for and writing about racism, environmentalism and the relationships between the two. She’s also addressing climate change.

Eckstein’s other environmental-literary interest? Mosquitos! Learn more here. 

“Locally, what I saw was on the one hand an interesting, deep commitment in Iowa to Iowa as a political entity…and a distance from the climate change conversations that scientists and others were having at the universities and the colleges in Iowa,” Eckstein said.

Together with various students and colleagues, she has spent years creating the People’s Weather Map, an online collection of stories about extreme weather in every Iowa county  from both the recent and distant past.

The target audience, she said, ranges from the dubious to the concerned: not the alarmed, and not the explicit deniers, who she said have a political stake in denial and remain a significant portion of the U.S. population. Eckstein instead wants to help people understand the complex links between climate change and extreme weather.

The most important audience for climate communication, she said, is “Implicatory Deniers.” These are people who are convinced by climate science but have struggled to adjust their lifestyles accordingly.

“We live this double consciousness, where we fully believe it, but we take plane trips to Bora Bora at the drop of a hat if we can afford it,” she said.

Listen for more of Eckstein’s thoughts on climate denial. 

Narrative can be a powerful tool to sway such people. Eckstein referenced a model in which a human figure stands at the center of several concentric circles, each representing a psychological barrier to personal climate action, starting with “Identity.” An arrow representing stories attempts to pass through the circles.

“As a person who studies and writes about literature and who is a writer, I think ‘Oh my God. What a huge responsibility!’” Eckstein exclaimed.

Readers often identify themselves in stories, she said, but carefully written ones can bend their self-perception. Eckstein hopes the stories told in the People’s Weather Map can help readers think about the places they live in a new light.

“We want the story to be familiar and then not,” she said. “Pull people in with the familiarity, and then turn it so there’s capacity to learn from the story.”

Stories also provide vicarious experience. Readers can learn from the mistakes and decision making of characters instead of making their own mistakes.

But some stories are even more valuable than others.

“I think we need to hear more from those people that we know generally are more vulnerable to a changing climate,” Eckstein said.

Hear Eckstein’s plans for the future of the People’s Weather Map. 

The environmental movement is inherently a social movement, but it has not always been (and still sometimes fails to be) socially oriented and inclusive. She said environmentalists have some racism to live down and must do all they can imagine to heal the rift with those who have faced social injustice.

“We have to just kind of go out there and try to undo it, by being present and listening,” she said. “Not by telling people ‘Here’s our schtick.’”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

Iowa can count water contamination among flood damage


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Flooding in Red Oak Iowa March 14 (via Jo Naylor on flickr). 

Julia Poska| March 28, 2019

Last weekend, President Trump approved Iowa’s $1.6 billion disaster declaration, to help cover flood damage to homes, businesses, farms and levees. Not accounted for is the cost of degraded water, now an issue in Iowa and across the Midwest.

The Gazette reported Monday that eight manure lagoons had overflowed in western Iowa. State Department of Natural Resources officials told the paper that conditions in the east had neared similar levels.  Manure overflow can harm aquatic life and contaminate water for drinking and recreation.

Manure spread onto fields also enters waterways when those fields flood, when snow melts and when it rains. One Buena Vista county feedlot operator may face DNR enforcement after spreading manure during three rainy days in March, the Gazette reported.

Unless a special waiver is granted, farmers cannot legally apply manure on snow covered ground December 21 through March. Farmers are anxious to get manure out of storage, and weather permitting, will be able to apply in coming days.

Manure, pesticides sewage and fuel in flood water could contaminate the 1.1 million private wells in 300 flooded counties in 10 states, as approximated by the National Ground Water Association. The Des Moines Register shared Tuesday an Associated Press report on risk to well water in the rural Midwest.

The risk of water seeping into wells heightens when water sits stagnant for days or weeks, as it has done since the floods. Liesa Lehmann of the Wisconsin DNR, told the AP that well owners should assume their water is contaminated if flood water sits nearby. She said to look out for changes in color, smell or taste.

Once flooding recedes, Lehman said, owners should hire professionals to pump out, disinfect and re-test wells.

 

 

 

 

On The Radio- Crops increasing, biodiversity decreasing


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Corn fields (flickr/ Tom)

Kasey Dresser| March 25, 2019

This weeks segment looks at decreasing biodiversity in crops around the world. 

Transcript:

The number of crops grown around the world has increased, yet crop biodiversity has declined. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Species richness, the number of unique species present in a defined area, often represents true biodiversity poorly. It discounts species evenness, which measures the relative proportion of each species’ population in the whole community. 

Even though 156 crops are grown globally — up from the mid-20th century — overall biodiversity is low because just four types of crops cover about 50 percent of cropland. A new study from the University of Toronto found that corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans dominate industrial agriculture around the world despite differences in climate and culture.

This impacts the affordability and availability of culturally significant foods in certain areas and leaves the global food supply increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases. 

Increasing crop variety will make our food supply more resilient to pests and potentially reduce hunger.

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

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