Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


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Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.

Overview of the Devastating Derecho that Swept Across Iowa in August


RADAR composite of the August 10, 2020 Derecho.
RADAR composite from the National Weather Service

Justin Glisan | January 18, 2021

Aug. 10, 2020 will go down as a significant weather date in state history. A derecho, which is a convectively (thunderstorm) initiated straight-line windstorm, propagated through Iowa’s central west-to-east corridor. The term “derecho” was coined by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs at the University of Iowa in the late 1800s and is derived from a Spanish word that can be interpreted as “direct” or “straight-ahead.” Formed in the early morning hours in southeast South Dakota, the line of thunderstorms moved across the Nebraska border into Iowa where it significantly strengthened east of Carroll, Iowa, as downbursts formed. Downbursts are key for the formation of low-level, strong straight-line winds; moist air high up in a thunderstorm interacts with surrounding drier air, forcing atmospheric water vapor to evaporate fast. Rapid evaporation cools the air producing a relatively large volume of cold, dense air. These bubbles of dense air drop rapidly, hit the surface and spread out, creating straight-line winds that can produce widespread damage. As the derecho entered central Iowa, the center of the line pushed out creating a bow echo; this feature indicated rapid strengthening as downburst clusters became more numerous. The system expanded north and south as it moved through east-central Iowa where a broadening swath of damage was found in satellite images. The derecho held together for 770 miles and over 14 hours before losing strength as it entered western Ohio.

Damage to crops, grain bins and structures was catastrophic. The derecho also moved over the D3 (Extreme Drought) region in west-central Iowa, producing agricultural damage to already stressed corn and soybeans. USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) data indicated that around 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans across 57 counties may have been impacted by the derecho. Urban areas from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities reported substantial and long-lasting power outages along with severe damage to trees and structures from extremely strong, sustained winds. Recorded wind gusts along the derecho’s path ranged from 58 mph to well over 100 mph; according to the National Weather Service, “maximum recorded wind speeds were around 110 mph over portions of Benton and Linn Counties in eastern Iowa.” A personal weather station in Atkins (Benton County) reported a gust of 126 mph.

The Fate of Cedar Rapids’ Trees Featured in National Geographic Article


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Nicole Welle | December 14, 2020

Cedar Rapids residents were devastated after the August derecho swept through and destroyed most of the city’s trees. But in the months following the disaster, their efforts to replant smarter and ensure that the city’s trees will return for future generations has captured national interest and become the topic of news stories across the country.

Freelance journalist Dustin Renwick took interest in the fate of Cedar Rapids’ trees shortly after the derecho hit and chose to write an article for National Geographic. In it, he highlighted personal stories from community members and local arborists and discussed both the role urban trees played in the community and how the city will replant to ensure the resiliency of its trees in the future.

Click here to read Renwick’s National Geographic article and learn more about Cedar Rapids’ fight to restore its urban forest.

Climate Change Clearly Linked To Hurricane Intensity After Landfall


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Thomas Robinson | December 1st, 2020

In a recent study, researchers demonstrated have linked slower hurricane decay after landfall to increased moisture from warming oceans.

As a historic hurricane season ends, a paper has linked global warming to the increased strength of hurricanes after they’ve hit land.  The researchers found that hurricanes are decaying slower now compared to 50 years ago, with rates that correlated with sea surface temperatures.  They also discovered that moisture in the storms provides a heat source which allows the storm to travel further inland and affect communities that may not be prepared for hurricanes.

The 2020 hurricane season broke numerous records, and was predicted to be an above-average hurricane season.  Scientists projected 12 named storms to occur in 2020, but instead, there were 30 named storms.  A concerning trend is that each named storm, except for three, was the earliest named storm on record.  This indicates that these storms are coming earlier than previous years, and that there are connections to climate change.

Climate change is also likely to influence storms affecting Iowa such as the Derecho event in August.  While the conditions that led up to the storm are difficult to forecast, it is believed that warming could increase the frequency of severe storms.

August’s Derecho Was The United States Most Expensive Thunderstorm In Recent History


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Thomas Robinson | October 20th, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that August’s Derecho caused $7.5 billion worth of damages and that the number is still increasing.

The Derecho in August resulted in extensive damage to Iowa and has been identified as the most expensive thunderstorm to hit the US in recent history.  August’s storm comes second only to Hurricane Laura, which had a damage cost of $12 billion, for storm damages for this year.  Cedar Rapids was hit particularly hard, where it is estimated that 90% of all buildings sustained damages from the storm.

A factor for why the storm has cost so much is that the corn crop had grown enough in August to be damaged by the heavy winds.  That damage has resulted in around 850,000 acres of corn crop lost, around 50% more than previously thought.  Unfortunately, grain silos were also affected by the storm where it is estimated that 57 million bushels of stored grain were damaged.

Even now in October, Iowa is still working to recover from the storm.  Some Iowans remain unable to return home after the events and there was a spike in people filing for unemployment benefits after the storm.  Around $4 billion in federal help was asked for by Gov. Kim Reynolds to address the damages to Iowa’s farms.

Record Pesticide Complaints As Iowa Sees Excessive Dicamba Damage


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Thomas Robinson | October 13th, 2020

Crop damage from the weedkiller Dicamba is the “most excessive” it has been since the 1960s leading to a record 329 pesticide misuse complaints.

Dicamba damage was already being observed at high levels earlier this summer as agronomists raised awareness about the pesticide.  The record number of complaints comes as farmers across the state have experienced crop damage even after proper application of the pesticide.  Dicamba application has been made more difficult this year as poor weather conditions for the pesticide’s application covered Iowa, and a court decision created uncertainty about the future of the pesticide. 

Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has a history of lawsuits for Dicamba damages.  In 2016, Monsanto settled a complaint for $265 million after the destruction of a Missouri peach farm was connected with Dicamba drift.  A class-action lawsuit against Monsanto in Missouri resulted in an additional $400 million settlement with other plaintiffs across the state. 

Iowa currently allows Dicamba to be applied up to 45 days after planting, a practice which has come under criticism with calls for stronger restrictions.  Dicamba use is fraught with difficulty and without serious changes it is unlikely that Iowa will see any changes in the number of pesticide misuse complaints moving forward.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


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Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.

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.