Trump Pushes For Further Environmental Deregulation During Final Weeks in Office


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Nicole Welle | November 19, 2020

The Trump administration is using its final weeks to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that weaken protections for migratory birds, expand arctic drilling and increase future threats to public health.

One proposed change would restrict criminal prosecution for industries that cause the deaths of migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 currently protects over 1,000 species of bird including hawks and other birds of prey, and it is used to recover damages in situations like the BP oil spill in 2010 that killed more than 100,00 seabirds, according to an AP article. The Trump administrations wants to ensure that companies face no criminal liability for preventable deaths such as this in the future. Officials advanced bird treaty changes to the white house two days after news organizations declared Joe Biden’s win.

Another recent proposal put forth by the Trump administration would set emission standards for dangerous particles of pollution emitted by refineries and other industrial sources. Others would allow mining and drilling on public lands around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico and in Alaska.

Most of these proposed changes directly benefit gas and oil industries, and some of them could be difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse once he takes office. Biden could easily reverse some with executive action, but others, like putting protected lands up for sale or lease, could pose a bigger challenge.

Most of the proposed changes will go quickly through the approval process. It is not unusual for presidents to push rule changes through at the tail end of their terms, but many environmentalists and former officials believe this environmental deregulation reflects a pro-industry agenda taken to the extreme. It could have serious negative impacts on the safety of imperiled wildlife, climate change and human health.

Unhealthy Levels of Pollution Spread Across Western U.S. as California Wildfires Burn On


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Nicole Welle | August 24, 2020

More than 600 individual fires and some of the largest wildfire complexes in California’s history are still burning after thousands of lightning strikes triggered them last week.

Unhealthy levels of pollution have been reported across the state in the last few days. The large number of individual fires and the size of the fire complexes has caused an unusually high amount of of smoke to enter the atmosphere, and the smoke has spread across parts of the western United States and the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric testing showed that Northern California had the worst air quality in the world on August 19.

Extremely hot and dry conditions in California could cause the smoke to stay in the air longer. The black carbon particulates in the air will cause health problems for humans and animals as they enter the lungs and bloodstream, and they play a role in global warming, according to an article published by NASA. The National Weather Service issued a poor air quality alert for California’s Central Valley until the fires are extinguished.

New Study Shows that Rising Water Temperatures Could Reduce Fish Populations Worldwide


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Nicole Welle | July 6, 2020

A new study conducted by researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research shows that rising water temperatures caused by climate change will negatively affect many fish species’ ability to breed.

Researchers found that fish are at a much higher risk than previously assumed. The study, which included 694 species of fish, showed that both embryos and adult fish that are ready to mate have a much lower tolerance for heat that adults outside the mating season and that that rising water temperatures could impact the reproduction of up to 60 percent of all freshwater and saltwater fish species, according to a Science Daily article.

Like many organisms, fish need to take in oxygen to produce energy, and their energy needs depend on the temperature of their surroundings. When the water is warmer, their need for energy rises and they need to take in more oxygen. Fish embryos do not have the ability to take in more oxygen as temperatures rise since they don’t have gills. Additionally, adults ready to mate produce egg and sperm cells and have an increased body mass, so their cardiovascular systems are already strained and struggle to handle any increased need for oxygen. This means that both of these groups cannot survive in warmer temperatures that require them to produce more energy.

If climate change continues unchecked, many species of fish will be forced to leave their traditional spawning areas. This could be disastrous for fish that do not have the ability to find cooler areas to reproduce due to the geographical restrictions of their habitat, and many fish populations are likely to decline.

Researchers Develop a New Process for Detecting and Removing Harmful Wastewater Pollutants


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Nicole Welle | June 29, 2020

A group of researchers at Swansea University came up with a new, more efficient way to detect and remove pollutants found in wastewater that come from pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The research, published in Analytical Science Advances, outlines a one-step process for quantifying and separating a range of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly found in medicine and personal care products that often end up in wastewater sludge. This new method could increase our understanding of which pollutants may be released from these products and help reduce their effects on the environment, according to a Science Daily article.

Contaminated wastewater makes its way into rivers and streams or is recycled as fertilizer to be used on fields. Chemicals from certain pharmaceuticals have been found to negatively impact human health and some animal species that come into contact with them. For example, multiple species of vulture in Asia have become critically endangered after being regularly exposed to components of Diclofenac, a common non-steroidal inflammatory drug. Fish populations around the world are also decreasing after being exposed to female contreceptives that cause the feminization of male fish.

The new method will allow the detection and extraction of harmful compounds using one process where multiple where needed before. Researchers hope that this process will allow for future advances in the wastewater treatment process that will ensure these harmful pollutants are degraded or removed before they come into contact with humans and wildlife.

Trump Signs an Executive Order Waiving Environmental Reviews for Key Construction Projects


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Nicole Welle | June 8, 2020

The current economic “emergency” caused by COVID-19 gave President Trump the ability to sign an order on Thursday that allows federal agencies to waive environmental reviews for the approval of major construction projects.

The president used a section of federal law that allows “action with significant environmental impact” without observing the usual requirements set by laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environment Policy Act. These laws normally require agencies to analyze how decisions on construction projects could negatively impact the environment, according to a Washington Post article.

The executive order will speed up approval for the construction of highways, pipelines, mines and other federal projects. In the order, the president stated that the normal regulatory processes required by law would keep Americans out of work and hinder economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this decision could lead to increased negative environmental impacts and harm plant and animal life in construction areas.

Many conservation groups are concerned that this could also lead to further dismantling of environmental laws in the future. However, while some companies could benefit from these changes in the near future, they also may be reluctant to rely on the order out of fear of legal backlash from environmental and public interest groups. Some companies may also hesitate to use the order to push projects forward since they would likely need to show proof that they were operating in an emergency.

Earth Day in the time of COVID-19: A Message from Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


Jerry Schnoor at Eawag
CGRER Co-Director Jerry Schnoor shares his reflections on the 50th annual Earth Day (contributed photo). 

Jerry Schnoor | April 22, 2020

April 22, 2020, is not just another Earth Day.  It is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day – the one that changed my life forever.  Naive and over my head as student body president at Iowa State-1970, my world was on fire with righteous indignation against a compulsory draft for an unjust War in Vietnam.  At times I actually thought that it would tear the country apart.

The first Earth Day strangely diverted my immediate attention, and the diversion would last a lifetime.  Brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and organized by Denis Hayes as a national Teach-In, Earth Da

 

y spawned immense bipartisan gatherings of 20 million people in the streets for one unifying goal – a healthy Planet Earth.  Earth Day ignited in me a realization that my chemical engineering education from ISU could morph into something green and more fascinating, that is, trying to understand water quality, biodiversity, and the biogeochemistry of Earth’s processes.  Discerning remedies for the massive disruptions that 7.7 billion people and an $80 trillion GWP can inflict on the earth has proven even more challenging.

This year we celebrate Earth Day with digital gatherings due to coronavirus.  It’s not the same, but perhaps the pandemic can teach us some valuable lessons.  Some people were slow to accept the dismal science of a spreading pandemic – they lacked trust in health professionals’ recommendations for social distancing, staying home, and closing businesses, sporting events, churches and social gatherings.  But the flattening curves of Wuhan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Italy, Spain, and New York bear testament to the wisdom of their call.

Our national plan for the pandemic Covid-19 was non-existent, like the Emperor’s new clothes, plain for all to see.  Pandemics are “global disease outbreaks” and they require national plans and concerted global action.  As recently as 2003-2004, WHO mitigated much more rapidly a similar virus, SARS, by careful messaging and international cooperation of 11 labs in 9 different countries.  U.S. and Chinese scientists together developed a vaccine within a year.  Far too little cooperation exists today, both at home and abroad.  Politics and hyper partisanship are disastrous in a time of global need.  We can do better.

Analogies between climate change and our pandemic response are obvious.  We have no national plan for either.  As a young egg-head professor at the University of Iowa, I published my first modeling paper on climate change and its consequences in 1994, many years after others had done so.  It projected (surprisingly accurately) the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today with business-as-usual.  That’s exactly what happened – business as usual.  If you had told me that the U.S. would still not have comprehensive climate change and energy legislation in 2020, I would have told you, “you’re crazy”.

But it’s in the history books.  We have failed to listen to the science and failed to reduce our gargantuan greenhouse gas emissions — the planet cannot take it anymore.  Now it really is a Climate Emergency.  What’s more, we are threatening to extinct 1 million species in the next generation as well – the Biodiversity Crisis.

Coronavirus humbles us all.  How can one not be moved by the sight of doctors, nurses, custodians, and admissions clerks risking their lives for the rest of us?  How can one not weep to see the miles of cars lined-up at food banks because families have nowhere else to turn?  Playing out in the richest country in the world gives great pause.

Yes, we need science-based decision making on coronavirus and on climate change, but we need compassion and understanding as well.  Noted columnist Sarah Van Gelder writes, “Changing hearts and opening minds begins when we listen”.  Imagine the world we want, where everyone is safe and healthy, where the air is clean and the water is pure. Then, let us celebrate the 50th Anniversary of that spontaneous, bipartisan, original Earth Day by speaking from the heart and listening to each other.

Jerry Schnoor is professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Research at the University of Iowa.

 

Mussels as water cleaning ‘ecosystem engineers’


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Mussels play helpful roles in river ecosystems (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | March 12, 2020

A group of citizens in Muscatine, Iowa are pushing to restore the over harvested Mississippi River mussel population. The “Mussels of Muscatine” group hopes to create learning opportunities, reverse damage to the river ecosystem and improve water quality.

The group wants to convert a dilapidated pump house into a mussel research and propagation facility, according to the Des Moines RegisterThat plan faces several logistical hurdles, but the idea that mussels could help reverse some of Iowa’s water quality degradation is valid.

CGRER member Craig Just, a University of Iowa associate professor of environmental engineering described mussel’s role as ‘ecosystem engineers’ to the Register. As the molluscs filter nutrients from the water to feed, they remove pollutants like nitrogen. Just said mussels can also remove microorganisms like algae and phytoplankton, which are harmful to ecosystems when their populations explode.

Just pointed to several challenges to restoring the Mississippi mussels as well. Iowa soil erodes into waterways at high rates, which would bury mussels and prevent them from reproducing. Mussels also must eject their larvae into fish gills, a difficult process to recreate in a lab or propagation facility.

City dwellers rejoice: spring greening comes earlier for urban plants


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The first signs of spring occur earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, new research found (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | February 27, 2020

Vegetation starts turning green earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, but urban plants are less sensitive to unseasonable warmth, new Iowa State University-led research found. The authors attribute the difference to the urban “heat island” effect.

Cities typically have somewhat higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas because materials like asphalt and brick absorb heat more readily than natural landscapes. For example, New York City is about 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding areas in summer, according to NASA’s Climate Kids site.

Researchers found this “heat island” phenomenon causes urban vegetation to perceive the start of spring and begin greening an average of six days earlier than surrounding rural plants.

As climate change progresses, however, plants in both rural and urban areas are responding to unseasonably warm temperatures by beginning growth earlier and earlier over time. Pollinators and last frosts have failed to keep up, which has damaged the early bloomers’ ability to survive and reproduce.

The study found that rural vegetation is more sensitive to early spring weather than urban vegetation, perhaps due to the urban heat island effect as well.

ISU Ph.D. student Ling Meng led the research team, which included CGRER member Yuyu Zhou, an ISU geological and atmospheric scientist, among others. The study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on satellite images from 85 large U.S. cities from 2001 to 2014.

Zhou told the Iowa State News Service that this sort of research can help predict how plants will respond to climate change and urbanization.

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking insect ecology with Dr. Andrew Forbes


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Dr. Andrew Forbes, contributed photo.

Julia Poska | February 17, 2020

Today’s installment of the EnvIowa podcast features an interview recorded Feb. 7 with Dr. Andrew Forbes, an evolutionary ecologist at in University of Iowa biology department. Forbes chats about the ecological importance of parasitic insects and shares insights about other creepy crawlies like emerald ash borers and periodical cicadas.

Listen to learn more about his work on insect diversity and speciation.

Listen here!

 

DNR confirms further spread of deer disease through Iowa


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Deer testing positive or chronic wasting disease in Iowa since 2013, via the Iowa DNR. 

Julia Poska | February 14, 2020

Forty-three deer killed by hunters and vehicles in Iowa during the 2019-2020 hunting season tested positive for chronic wasting disease, also known as “zombie deer disease.”

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in Iowa’s wild deer population to 89 since 2013, according to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources press release. That’s a 93% increase in one year.

Chronic wasting disease is a 100% fatal neurological disease found primarily in deer and elk that causes loss of bodily functions. An abnormal protein causes the infection, spread via bodily fluids from deer to deer. Some symptoms include excessive salivation, weight loss, listlessness and drooping ears and head.

The disease is in the same family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease. The Centers for Disease Control reports that there is no conclusive evidence of the disease transferring to humans, but the center recommends avoiding contacts with infected venison.

The Iowa DNR collected samples from about 7,000 deer hunted or killed by cars across the state during the 2019-2020 hunting season. Samples from Woodbury, Winneshiek, Fayette and Decatur counties tested positive for the first time.

Officials have identified chronic wasting disease in wild deer populations in eight counties overall. Deer in several captive populations have tested positive as well (see this interactive map for more information).

For more information on how hunters can help limit the spread of chronic wasting disease, check out this flyer.