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.

Important factors in preserving biodiversity on coffee plantations


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Black coffee beans begin as red cherry-like fruits on a tree. (Coffee Management Services/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 19, 2018

As final exams loom closer, many students may find themselves relying a little too heavily on coffee to get them by. But what is the relationship between the black midnight oil and biodiversity?

There are two distinct coffee plants that produce the stuff that fills students’ mugs: coffee arabica and coffee robusta. Arabica plants provide fuel for the coffee connoisseur as its flavor is know for being smoother, richer and more nuanced than coffee robusta. The two plants require different growing conditions, too. Arabica does well in areas that are partly shaded by surrounding canopy while robusta grows better in cleared out areas with more sun.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought to determine whether there was a difference in impacts on biodiversity between the two plants. They collected bird species biodiversity data from coffee plantations in Western Gnats, India between 2013 and 2015. Some of the plantations grew arabica coffee while others grew robusta. Those areas producing arabica had roughly 95 percent canopy tree cover, and those areas growing robusta had 80 percent canopy tree cover. Shockingly, however, this had little effect on bird biodiversity. The difference between the number of species each of the areas supported was not significant.

“An encouraging result of the study is that coffee production in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot, can be a win-win for birds and farmer,” said lead author Charlotte Chang to SIERRA magazine.

The story is not the same on a global scale, however. It has become increasingly popular for coffee farmers in South America and other parts of Asia to clear-cut forests around coffee plantations to make harvesting easier and increase plant productivity.

Researchers suggest that coffee consumers take more time to consider in what conditions their cup of joe was grown. If coffee is labeled Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird Friendly, it is likely have had less of a negative impact on land use and biodiversity.

“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.

Biodiversity declining worldwide


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The sun sets over one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, the Amazon Rainforest. (Anna & Michael/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 30, 2018

Biodiversity, or the overall variety of life forms on Earth, is decreasing substantially in every region of the world due to land use change and climate change.

A compilation of four new United Nations scientific studies, which were recently approved by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), details the loss. Over three years, researchers assessed biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Americas, Asia, the Pacific, Africa and Europe. They found that biodiversity and nature’s ability to provide for humans’ basic needs has declined in every region due to habitat loss overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources, pollution, increasing numbers of invasive species and climate change.

In the Americas, the studies found that species richness is about thirty percent less than it was when Europeans first arrived on the continent, and the rate of biodiversity loss in that region seems to be speeding up. They report that under “business as usual” circumstances, 40 percent of the region’s biodiversity will be lost by 2050. While land use and population growth plays a larger role in other regions of the world, climate change is the primary driver behind species loss in the Americas. Given that the natural world provides an estimated $24 trillion per year in ecosystem services to humans in the Americas alone, biodiversity loss is not a concern reserved only for environmentalists.

Protection of key biodiversity areas in the Americas increased by 17 percent between 1970 and 2010. However, the authors point out that these efforts fall short as less than 20 percent of crucial biodiversity areas in the Americas are currently protected.

Sir Robert Watson is the chair of IPBES, he said,

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth – they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life. The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: we must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature – or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead. Fortunately, the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets.”

To read more about the types of biodiversity loss in other areas of the world, click here.

Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy draft released


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Female monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed pods. (Charles Dawley/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 15, 2018

A draft of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy was released on Monday, and Iowa plays an integral role in its success.

North American monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers are less than half of what is needed to guarantee a sustainable population. The black and gold pollinators spend their winter months in Mexico and southern California and travel to the northern midwest for the summer. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively in milkweed pods.

Released by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the conservation strategy draft explains that midwestern states plan to establish 1.3 billion new milkweed stems over the next two decades. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is included within the midwestern effort. Written by Iowa State University’s Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, its aims to establish between 480,000 and 830,000 acres on monarch habitat by 2038.

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said, “The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides, and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway.”

Iowa’s strategy provides evidence-based recommendations for creating monarch habitat and aims to document all voluntary efforts. 127 to 188 million new milkweed stems are estimated to be planted in Iowa in accordance with the plan.

Given that the vast majority of Iowa land is in agricultural production, the plan’s authors emphasize that agricultural lands must be a part of the solution. The strategy considers both expanding on existing conservation practices and planting milkweed stems in underutilized farm land as viable options. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will decide in June 2019 whether the monarch butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said, “Iowa falls entirely within the monarch’s northern breeding core. This means that every patch of milkweed habitat added in Iowa counts, and Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”

The full draft of the Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.
The complete Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.

Record high winter temperatures in Arctic, again


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The Rink Glacier in Greenland captured melting into the sea during the summer of 2012. (NASA/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 8, 2017

The data is in, and winter temperatures in the Arctic reached record highs again this year.

U.S. weather data shows that average temperatures during December, January, and February this year were 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. There are fifteen weather monitoring stations throughout the Arctic, many of them in Alaska and Greenland. Winter temperatures in some regions soared higher than the average. Barrow, Alaska, for example, sizzled with average winter temperatures a full 14 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

Even the weather monitoring station that is located closest to the top of the world in northern Greenland recorded 60 hours of above freezing temperatures this winter. Prior to this winter, scientists say, the station had only experienced above-freezing temperatures during February a few times in history.

The rising temperatures caused sea ice to vanish in the North Pole again this year. North Pole sea ice coverage hit a record low in February 2017 and decreased again this year by a full 62,000 square miles, which is about the size of the state of Georgia.

Ruth Mottram is a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute. She said to the Associated Press, “The extended warmth really has kind of staggered all of us.”

Some scientists have pointed to melting sea ice as an explanation for the extreme and strange winter weather that has plagued the eastern United States this year. Simply put, less sea ice means that there is less of an atmospheric pressure difference between the Arctic and areas further south, which weakens the jet stream. A weak jet stream causes  storms to linger over regions in the eastern U.S. and Europe before moving along, often making them more destructive.