WorldCanvass event to focus on climate solutions


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Jenna Ladd | April 20, 2018

It’s obvious to anyone that follows climate news that climate change is longer a far-off possibility, it is happening now. Dr. Jerry Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, illustrated this point in a recent guest opinion piece for the Press Citizen.

Dr. Schnoor pointed out several ways in which climate change has already taken hold in Iowa. More intense storms are eroding soil into waterways, humidity is on the rise, and floods are likely to be separated by periods of drought. If greenhouse gas emissions are not cut dramatically, all of these effects will become more severe. So, what can Iowans actually do to reverse course? Dr. Schnoor had several recommendations.

He urged individuals to consider limiting their own carbon emissions. At the state level, he stated that Iowa should join the sixteen other states in The Climate Alliance, which is a “proposition that climate and energy leadership promotes good jobs and economic growth.” Iowa is a national leader in wind energy and biofuel usage; the professor argued that joining the alliance obviously aligns with the state’s clean energy accomplishments.

Private sector and industry groups can be a part of the climate solution, too, he said. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development provides innovative ideas for companies looking to curb their emissions. Just recently, international martime shipping companies agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent before 2050.

Climate change policy recommendations must be based in research. Dr. Schnoor invited Iowans to attend a WorldCanvass program on April 25th to hear about the latest scientific research related to climate change and climate-smart policy from several CGRER members. Part of a series of nine recorded discussions focused on topics of international interest, the event is free and open to the public.

What: WorldCanvass Climate Science and the Environment—What’s Next?

When: Wednesday, April 25th from 5:30-7:00 pm

Where: MERGE, 136 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City, Iowa

A catered reception will take place from 5:00-5:30 pm. Dr. Schnoor’s full piece in the Press Citizen can be found here.

Climate change and wild spring weather


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The Greenland block is a high pressure atmospheric block that hangs above Greenland and affects weather moving down to lower latitudes. (flickr/Stig Nygaard)

Jenna Ladd | April 18, 2018

By-in-large, spring weather has been arriving earlier each year in the United States. For instance, the frost-free season was 10 days longer between 1991 and 2011 than it was from 1901 to 1960.

This may come as a shock to Midwesterners, who saw several inches of snow fall this Sunday, April 15th. So what’s going on?

Among some other factors, the Greenland Block has a lot to do with the snowy spring of 2018, according to Dr. David Mechem of the University of Kansas. Mechem, a professor of geography and atmospheric science, explained that there is a persistent atmospheric area of high pressure above Greenland which funnels cold air from the poles straight into the mid-latitudes of North America. He told KCUR that the block was in place throughout February and March and is finally starting to break down, which would bring long-awaited warmer temperatures to the midwest.

Further research is needed to establish exactly what kind of effect climate change has on spring weather, but scientists are noticing some changes. Winter storms (even if they happen in April) have increased in frequency and intensity in the Northern hemisphere since 1950 according to the National Climate Assessment. Nor’easter winter storms plague the eastern U.S. and are caused by the the cold air from the Arctic and warm air from the Atlantic interplaying. This year, that region of the U.S. saw several Nor’easters in very quick succession, which is unusual. A recent study in the journal Nature Communications found that as the Arctic’s climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, winter storms becoming more likely in the eastern U.S.

The good news is that as the Greenland block continues to break down, residents of the mid-latitudes can expect spring to finally arrive. The bad news is that unpredictable spring weather can be expected to continue coming years as the climate continues to change.

“Frost-free” days increase, so does allergy season


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Climate Central’s graph illustrates how the number of frost-free days in Des Moines has increased over time. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd | April 11, 2018

Given that spring snow fell across Iowa this weekend, it may be hard to believe that the frost-free season across the U.S. is actually getting longer.

A recent report found that, on average, the last spring freeze is occurring earlier while the first fall freeze is happening later. Researchers define the frost-free season as the total number of days between the last day of 32 degree Fahrenheit or lower weather in the spring and the first day of 32 degree Fahrenheit weather in the fall.

The lengthening of this season means that pollen-producing plants have a longer growing period. One study in particular found that the growing season for ragweed, a common allergen in the U.S., lengthened by two to four weeks between 1995 and 2009. This data was collected from ten sites from the southern U.S. through Canada. Iowa has added nine days to the average length of its frost-free season from 1986-2015 when compared with the average from 1901-1960.

Not only are allergy-causing plants benefiting from longer growing seasons, but an uptick in atmospheric carbon dioxide also increases pollen counts. Last year was the worst allergy season in recent record and experts expect this year to be similar.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro, an allergist and immunologist from California told CBS news, “A recent study showed that pollen counts are likely to double by the year 2040, so in a little more than 20 years we’re going to see a significant increase [in seasonal allergies].”

Climate Central’s recent report provides an interactive graph that allows users to select a U.S. city and see how the frost-free season’s length there may have changed since 1970.

Warmer temperatures make milkweed toxic for monarchs


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A monarch caterpillar scoots across a common milkweed leaf. (USFWSmidwest/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2018

A recent study published in the journal Ecology uncovered an unexpected consequence of climate change for monarch butterflies.

Researchers from Louisiana State University and University of Michigan set out to understand how warmer temperatures affect the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. The insects, whose population has declined by more than 80 percent in the last decade, lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. After the larvae hatch, they feed on certain species of milkweed, which provide protection to the butterflies. Milkweed plants produce chemicals called cardenolides in their leaf tissues, which are poisonous to most of the monarch’s predators. When monarchs consume the perfect amount of these chemicals as larvae, it sends a signal to larger predators to stay away from them.

However, scientists found that as regional temperatures rise, some species of milkweed plants produce more cardenolides. This poses a threat to the monarchs’ survival. One of the researchers, Dr. Bret Elderd, an associate professor at Louisiana State University, explained, “It’s a Goldilocks situation for monarch butterflies. Too few of these chemicals in the milkweed, and the plant won’t protect monarch caterpillars from being eating. But too high of a concentration of these chemicals can also hurt the monarchs, slowing caterpillar development and decreasing survival.”

One species of milkweed by the Latin name of A. curassavica has naturally high levels of cardenolides in its leaves and is especially sensitive to rising temperatures. Landscapers and environmentalists alike have been planting more of the nonnative plant to save the monarchs, but scientists warn that this plan may have backfired. They are working to spread the word that the native variety of milkweed, A. incarnata, has naturally lower levels of cardeolides and is much less likely to become toxic to monarchs as the climate warms.

The study reads, “It has become increasingly recognized that species interactions, especially interactions between tightly-linked species, need to be considered when trying to understand the full impacts of climate change on ecological dynamics.”

The full report can be found here.

Antarctic ice is shrinking at a concerning rate


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The Antarctic is in greater danger than scientists previously thought (/coolantarctica)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 3rd, 2018

Underwater ice melt from the Antarctic is one of the largest contributors to rising sea levels.

Viewed from above, the Antarctic seems stable and safe, with the ice cap changing little in the past few years. Down near the ocean floor, however, the change is a lot more drastic. Small increases in temperature have melted away the bottom of the ice, sometimes as much as around five meters per year.

Between 2010 and 2016 specifically, around 1,463 km2 of the ice along the ocean floor has melted.

The stability of glaciers and ice formations are often measured with grounding lines–a valuable resource for scientists researching sea-level rise. Grounding lines, in short, indicate where glaciers transition from being grounded in the ocean floor to the levels at which glaciers start to free-float in the water.

The grounding line is more accurately described as a zone, and changes in the grounding line are intrinsically linked with changes in sea levels. As ocean temperatures rise, grounding lines specifically are often melted away, a change that makes icebergs increasingly unstable and susceptible to thinning and calving (when sections of ice break away from the larger mass). All of these changes contribute to sea-level rise and put the ocean and the humans living by it in further danger.

U.S. residents increasingly divided on climate change


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A Gallup graph depicts how opinions about climate change have changed over time in the U.S. (Gallup)

Jenna Ladd | March 29, 2018

A recent poll found that Americans have become even more polarized about climate change in the last year. Gallup completed the poll during the first week of March using a random sample of 1,041 adults in the United States.

While concern about global warming is still at a record high, the difference in opinions between Republicans and Democrats is now more stark. The poll found that 69 percent of Republicans thought that the seriousness of climate change is generally exaggerated in the news, while just four percent of Democrats believed the same thing. Similarly, just over 40 percent of Republicans said that they believe the undisputed fact that nearly all scientists believe that global warming is taking place, while 86 percent on Democrats did.

Gallup hypothesized about the increased polarization in opinion between the parties. They wrote,

“President Donald Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” may have contributed to this widening divide by reversing a number of government actions to address the issue. These included the announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, the removal of climate change from the list of top U.S. national security threats and the elimination of the terms “global warming” and “climate change” from U.S. government websites and lexicons.”

Despite evidence that the number of severe weather-related deaths has risen because of climate change, few members of the Republican party seemed to think that climate change would pose a serious in their lifetime. Just 18 percent said that there was any real risk to them.

This year, Gallup has categorized about 48 percent of U.S. citizens as concerned believers in climate change, which is similar to 2017’s 50 percent figure. About 32 percent have mixed opinions about the existence and cause of climate change, and 19 percent are categorized as climate change skeptics.

Extreme weather costlier than ever in 2017


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Jenna Ladd | March 28, 2018

As the Northern Hemisphere enters warmer seasons where severe weather and flooding are more likely, it is yet to be seen whether 2018 will top 2017 as the most costly year for natural disasters ever.

Since 1980, the yearly average for natural disasters in the U.S. that cause more than $1 billion in damages has been 5.8 events. Last year, the country saw 16 such events, including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought and wildfire. While this number technically ties with 2011, 2017 had more extreme weather as wildfires are tallied by region rather than single events, and last year brought more wildfires costing upwards of $1 billion than ever before.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the total cost of severe weather last year was $306.2 billion. This surpassed the previous record by nearly $100 billion dollars. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused $265.0 billion of 2017’s damages. Researchers figure physical damages to buildings and infrastructure as well as crop damages and losses to business into the total cost.

The midwest U.S. saw at least two severe storms last year that caused more than $1 billion in damages, both of them in mid-June. Flooding associated with storms like these has caused some $13.5 billion in economic losses from 1988 to 2015 in Iowa alone, according to a recent op-ed by Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski. Midwesterners also faced early tornado outbreaks in 2017, which tore across the region in late February and early March. Both events cause more than $1 billion in damages.

The National Centers for Environmental Information point out that increased development in vulnerable areas like coastlines, floodplains and fire-prone areas are causing the increase in billion dollar disasters. Climate change plays a role too. They write,

“Climate change is also paying an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters. Most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall and inland flooding events are most acutely related to the influence of climate change.”