Des Moines Water Works Calls For Water Conservation In Face of Drought


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Thomas Robinson | September 1st, 2020

Des Moines Water Works is struggling with low water levels and poor water quality leading to calls for water conservation.

Des Moines Water Works, is asking city residents to change their lawn watering schedules to help alleviate high water demand and an abnormally low supply.  The utility is asking that customers who live at even-numbered addresses water their lawns on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while odd numbered addresses water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Residents are also asked to water before 10 am or after 5 pm to avoid water evaporation from their lawns. 

Iowa is facing serious drought conditions across most of the state which has resulted in low river levels in many of Iowa’s waterways.  Des Moines Water Works uses two rivers, the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, as the primary source for the city’s water.  Low river levels on the Raccoon river are making it difficult to pump water into the city’s treatment plant. To address the issue, flashboards were installed near the Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant to raise the river level.

Under normal conditions, the water utility would be able to draw from the Des Moines River as well to meet water demands. Unfortunately, the Des Moines River is currently suffering from a toxic algal bloom that has limited the amount of water drawn from that river.  Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) can contaminate waters with toxins, like microcystins, which can cause vomiting, stomach pain, and even pneumonia.

Drought Conditions Worsen in Iowa After Another Dry Week


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Nicole Welle | August 31, 2020

Roughly 96% of Iowa is now considered at least abnormally dry as drought conditions worsen across the state.

That is an 8% increase since last week. 61% of Iowa is now in at least moderate drought, with 29% in severe drought and roughly 7% in extreme drought. These could be the driest conditions recorded since the drought of 2012, according to a Siouxland Proud article.

Every county in Iowa is now experiencing drought conditions, but the western part of the state has been hit the hardest. Crops in west-central Iowa are suffering under extreme drought conditions and a recent wave of high temperatures, and crop yields will likely be affected. This comes as an extra blow to farmers who have already experienced crop damage after the derecho swept through earlier this month.

21% of Iowa corn is now in “poor or very poor” condition according to the USDA. There are a few chances of rain across the state in the 10 day forecast, but drought conditions are likely to persist.

New Research Improves Early Warning of Destructive Megastorms


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Nicole Welle | August 20, 2020

New scientific research will make it easier to predict the path of devastating megastorms and enable communities to better prepare for flooding.

Mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) are megastorms that affect communities all over the world. They can be bigger than the size of England and travel over 600 miles over a period of anywhere from a few hours to two days. They often cause major damage to infrastructure and livestock, and severe flooding triggered by these storms can threaten human lives. In the Sahel region of Africa, MCSs have tripled in frequency since the 1980s due to global warming, according to an article published by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH).

Until now, it was difficult to predict the path of MCSs. However, a new study conducted by the UKCEH found that land surface conditions affect the direction and intensity of megastorms after they form.

“It is well known that heat provides thunderstorms with great energy, but it was commonly thought that once they are moving, they were not affected by the state of the ground over which they travelled. However, we found that drier soils increased the intensity of an MCS mid-storm, affecting the amount of rainfall they release and also where they travel. Conversely, we found storms were often weakened over moister soils,” said lead author Dr. Cornelia Klein of UKCEH.

This new information has allowed scientists to develop online tools to forecast the path and strength of approaching storms – a breakthrough that will increase warning times for affected communities. It may also enable better decision making by town planners and farmers at the center of MCS hotspots and increase the resiliency of their economies.

Heat Waves Should Be Named And Ranked Says Newly Formed Heat Resilience Group


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Thomas Robinson | August 18th, 2020

The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a recently formed group of experts, is suggesting that heat waves should be named, similarly to how hurricanes are named, and ranked by severity as the first step towards increasing heat wave visibility.

Heat waves were the deadliest weather-related disaster in the US between 1986 and 2019 and were responsible for 4,257 deaths. The next deadliest weather-related disaster in the US was floods responsible for 2,907 deaths over the same time period.  The greatest challenge in making heat waves visible is that they don’t produce the same amount of physical damage that flooding or other severe weather like tornadoes do.  However, by naming and ranking the severity of heat waves the Alliance hopes that communities will be able to better prepare for extreme heat events.

Unfortunately, heat waves are expected to increase in frequency and will be affecting more than 3.5 billion people globally by 2050.  It is also expected that the urban poor and the disadvantaged will weather the worst of the effects caused by heat waves because of community vulnerability.

The Alliance’s formation is timely as just yesterday Death Valley, CA saw the hottest temperature on Earth since at least 1913 according to NPR.  As heat waves become more frequent and more intense, a failure to prepare communities for extreme heat events like the European heat wave of 2003 will result in the loss of human lives.

Cedar Rapids and Surrounding Communities Still in Shambles a Week after Derecho Hits Iowa


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Nicole Welle | August 17, 2020

Cedar Rapids residents are still facing extensive property damage and power outages after last week’s derecho tore through Iowa.

A storm system with hurricane-force winds left a path of destruction through Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities on August 10th. A week later, thousands are still without power and the community is dealing with damage to structures, power lines, vehicles and trees. A Cedar Rapids city arborist estimates that Cedar Rapids lost half of its tree canopy in the storm and, while Alliant Energy vowed to restore power to all customers by Tuesday, it could still be a few days before power is returned to 100% of the population.

The storm also had a large agricultural toll. Up to 43 percent of Iowa’s corn and soybean crop were damaged as high winds flattened millions of acres of crops. With agricultural and property damage combined, the derecho could be responsible for a multi-billion-dollar economic cost said Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight for the reinsurer Anon.

Gov. Kim Reynolds mobilized the Iowa National Guard Thursday to assist the recovery effort and committed to applying for a federal disaster declaration this week. President Trump and Vice President Pence are ready to approve, and this would provide financial assistance to homeowners and cover repairs for infrastructure, according to the Washington Post.

Local non-profits and volunteers from surrounding communities continue to help provide food and aid for those affected by the storm and assist in the cleanup process.

UI Researchers Discover a Link Between Atlantic Hurricanes and a Climate System in East Asia


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Nicole Welle | August 10, 2020

University of Iowa researchers may have found a new influence on how tropical storms develop in the Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers identified a connection between a climate system in East Asia and the frequency of tropical storm development in the Atlantic ocean. The study discusses the Rosby wave, an atmospheric phenomenon carried west to east by the East Asian Subtropical Jet Stream (EASJ). The EASJ is an upper-level river of wind, and Rosby waves ride it to the North Atlantic when tropical cyclones are most likely to form. The waves are known to affect wind shear, a key element to tropical storm formation, according to an ENN article.

The researchers analyzed various datasets and observed almost 40 years of Atlantic tropical cyclones during prime formation season. They then connected that information to EASJ activity during that same time period and discovered that a stronger EASJ is associated with fewer Atlantic tropical cyclones, according to Iowa Now.

“When the EASJ is stronger, it can enhance this pattern, which leads to stronger teleconnections and stronger wind shear in the North Atlantic,” said Wei Zhang, a climate scientist at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at UI. “That can suppress Atlantic tropical cyclone formation.”

Researchers hope this new information can become a useful tool for predicting tropical cyclone formation in the Atlantic Ocean in the future.

US Reaches Ten Billion-Dollar Disaster Mark Earlier Than Any Year Prior


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Thomas Robinson | July 28th, 2020

As of July 8th, the US has already experienced ten weather and climate disasters where the losses exceed one billion dollars.

Billion-dollar disasters are weather or climate events that result in losses reaching, or exceeding, one billion dollars in damage costs.  In a concerning trend, the past five consecutive years have all had ten or more billion-dollar events averaging almost fourteen severe events per year.  There have been ten billion-dollar disasters so far in 2020 occurring earlier than any other year prior.   

Climate projections suggest that severe storms will increase in both frequency and intensity supporting the need for increased disaster relief funding to address the prevalence of expensive disaster clean-up.  Surprisingly, the storms responsible for almost half of the billion-dollar disasters since 1980 have been severe thunderstorms rather than hurricanes or floods.

Iowa has recently been involved in the billion-dollar disaster figure with the 2019 Missouri river floods which caused around $1.6 billion in damages.  As weather patterns become more severe, the likelihood storms reach the billion-dollar mark will increase making events like the 2019 floods more common events for Iowans.

Drought Conditions Worsen in Western Iowa


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Nicole Welle | July 27, 2020

Western Iowa has been abnormally dry recently, and nearly 40% of the state is now experiencing moderate to severe drought.

7.62% of Iowa is currently in severe drought, and 54% is now considered abnormally dry. Precipitation deficits have been accumulating for the last four to six months, and the continued drought could put crops and livestock at risk. Crops in areas most heavily affected by drought are showing signs of moisture stress, according to an SF article.

“We’re seeing pineapple corn. Corn leaves are rolling, soybean leaves are flipping over. You start to see the lower leaves on the corn firing,” said Iowa climatologist Justin Glisan.

The state has also been experiencing above-average temperatures for the last month. Farmers in areas affected by both drought and high temperatures are likely to see diminished crop yields, and the heat and dryness could be dangerous for livestock.

Specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship are offering a series of webinars starting July 30 that will help farmers plan ahead and manage their drought-stressed crops and livestock. The weekly webinars are meant to answer any questions participants may have, provide weather and drought updates and give updates on shortages and yield estimates.

Widespread Dicamba Injury Observed Across Iowa in 2020


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Thomas Robinson | July 21st, 2020

An Iowa State University scientist says that 2020’s crop injury from dicamba exposure has been the most widespread since the pesticide’s introduction in the 1960s.

A recent blog post by Iowa State University professor Bob Hartzler describes the likely reasons behind the unusually high amounts of dicamba damage seen in 2020.  Agronomists across Iowa have observed extensive dicamba damage to non-resistant soybeans which can compromise the crop entirely. Dicamba is a commonly applied pesticide that is increasingly used to address weeds that have become resistant to other groups of pesticides.  Unfortunately, dicamba is volatile and can form drifting clouds which can result in damage to nearby crops like soybeans which are sensitive to the pesticide.

The first factor which led to high dicamba damage is that the 9th  U.S. circuit court of appeals ruled the EPA had understated the risks of dicamba application to crops creating uncertainty for the future use of dicamba products.  The second factor was that poor environmental conditions for dicamba application were prevalent during June when the pesticide needed to be applied.  High wind speeds and heat can allow the pesticide to volatilize and early June had limited times when conditions were right. These two factors likely led to dicamba applications in non-ideal conditions that resulted in extensive volatilization and damage to crops.

Crop injury from dicamba has been found in many areas of the Midwest where the pesticide is applied and concerns about the pesticide’s safety have been growing in recent years.  Crop damage can result in agricultural losses for farmers and disputes over the pesticide have even escalated to murder.

Des Moines Registers Worst Air Quality In The Country After July 4th


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Thomas Robinson | July 14th, 2020

After July 4th celebrations earlier this month Des Moines had the worst air quality in the country measured at an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 588.

Fireworks shot off overnight on July 4th triggered an air quality advisory from July 5th into the morning of July 6th.  The highest reading occurred early in the morning on the 5th with conditions returning to safer levels later on that day.  The poor air conditions were caused by a high pressure weather system with slow moving air that prevented the movement, and dissipation, of pollutants away from Des Moines.

The AQI is a national metric used to describe air quality through reporting on common air pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act.  There are six AQI levels which range from good (0-50) to hazardous (301 and above).   Local air quality can be found using AirNow, which supplies the AQI and also which pollutant is primarily responsible for any poor air quality.

When the AQI is as high as it was in Des Moines (588) pollution in the air poses a noticeable risk to human health.  Symptoms of poor air quality can include irritation of eyes or nose, shortness of breath and coughing.  When poor air quality conditions like in Des Moines persist outside activity should be avoided to limit inhalation exposure to pollution.