CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate


Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

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Eric Tate, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.


Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.


Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.


Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”

 


 

***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor


Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

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Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”


Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.


Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”


Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”


***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

DNR reports 3% increase in Iowa greenhouse gas emissions


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This pie chart shows 2017 greenhouse emissions in Iowa by sector (from the 2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report). 

Julia Poska | December 28th, 2018

Greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa rose 3 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a new report from the state Department of Natural Resources.  The report accounted for 131 million metric tons of emissions released throughout the state in various sectors including energy, agriculture and solid waste.

The largest sources of increase were waste and industrial processes. Emissions from waste rose 28.62 percent due to increased decomposition of older waste in landfills. Emissions from industrial processes rose 31.73 percent percent, largely due to increased production of ammonia, up over 180 percent from 2016. The only sector to see decrease was natural gas production and distribution, which decreased about 10 percent and accounts for only 1 percent of total emissions.

Agriculture contributes about 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions,  mainly methane and nitrous oxide, which are respectively about 25 and 298 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. These emissions largely come from animal waste and soil management.

Despite this increase, total emissions are down 6 percent from 2008.  The DNR projects that emissions will continue rising through at least 2020, and drop a bit more by 2030.

This week at COP24: U.S. climate carelessness more apparent than ever


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The U.S. promoted coal at the COP24 summit on Monday (flickr).

Julia Poska | December 13, 2018

Of the 58 largest greenhouse gas emitters globally, the United States ranks second to last for its efforts to combat climate change in a new report published Monday at the COP24 Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland.

The 2019 Climate Change Performance Index evaluates countries’ advancements in energy production, use and policy to put pressure on those falling behind. The only country with a worse score than the U.S. is Saudi Arabia.

According to the report, the U.S.’s greatest failures are at a national level, thanks to President Trump’s denial of man-made climate change and his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. U.S. policy still favors fossil fuels, though individual states and cities have made some progress in spite of that position.

The nation brought its pro-fossil fuel attitude along to the summit, and hosted an event called “US innovative technologies spur economic dynamism,”there Monday to promote supposedly “clean” uses of coal, oil and natural gas . Australia, ranked just four spots above the U.S. in the index, was the only nation to support the event, but the Australian climate change policy advisor disagreed and called the event a “slap in the face” to neighboring Pacific Islands that are desperately threatened by the rising sea level, according to the Guardian.

The top countries in the index, Sweden and Morocco, have made greater progress in reducing emissions, but are still not quite on target to keep warming under 1.5°C, as the International panel on Climate Change has deemed necessary to protect the planet’s inhabitants and resources. These nations rank “High”, so as of now the top three spots on the index, marked as “Very High,” remain empty.

 

World and industry leaders talk climate at COP24


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The opening plenary at COP24 in Katowice, Poland (flickr via UNclimatechange). 

Julia Poska| December 7th, 2018

Diplomats and industry leaders from over 200 countries gathered in Katowice, Poland this week for COP24,  a global summit on climate change and carbon reductions that will continue through next week.

The Katowice summit is meant to build on the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, signed by most of the world’s countries at COP21 three years ago. The attendees hope to now agree on standards for reporting carbon cuts and emissions and to push agreed-upon reductions even further in light of recent scientific reports that climate change is moving faster than anticipated.

Most of these targets are still up in the air and will continue to be negotiated in coming days between exhibitions, presentations, workshops and more. Non-governmental bodies have made some declarations already, though, including one signed by over 40 global corporations and environmental groups urging delegates to make firm, clear guidelines for reporting and stating their commitment to supporting carbon reduction measures.

Another non-governmental figure, acclaimed naturalist David Attenborough, narrator and writer of BBC docu-series Life and Blue Planet, is holding the new “people’s seat” to represent the general public at the talks. He spoke Monday on the urgency of tackling climate change, calling it our “greatest threat in thousands of years.”

 

 

Bloomberg visits Iowa for politics, protests and the planet


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Michael Bloomberg in 2008 (Flickr). 

Julia Poska| December 6th, 2018

On a tour to premiere a new film on climate change, multi-billionaire and presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg made three stops this week: New York, London, and Iowa.

The film, titled “Paris to Pittsburg,” is a response to President Trump’s plans to pull out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. It features the efforts of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to fight climate change in the absence of government urgency. Iowans Dan and Faith Lutat of the Iowa Lakes Community College are featured as faces of the college’s wind turbine and energy technology program.

Bloomberg chose to visit Des Moines Tuesday in part to recognize the state’s efforts in renewable energy. He wrote in a Des Moines Register Guest column, “Iowans understand what too many leaders in Washington don’t: Fighting climate change is good for our health and our economy. ” According to him, if every state installed as much wind power as Iowa, the offset carbon emissions would almost bring the U.S. to its Paris Agreement goals for 2025.

He also visited the swing-state to test the waters for a potential run for presidency in 2020. Throughout the day he visited different parts of the state to talk renewable energy and gun control. Well aware of Bloomberg’s political motive, Left-wing protestors joined the screening audience to question the environmentalist’s stance on social issues such as stop-and-frisk  policing and his own billionaire status.

Bloomberg Philanthropies produced the film in partnership with award-winning company Radical Media, and National Geographic will officially broadcast it Dec. 12.

Climate change and soil: sink or source?


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Peatlands, or bogs, are wetlands where partially decomposed vegetation accumulates saturated in water. The soil is very rich and productive and contains huge amounts of carbon (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 29, 2018

The world’s soils hold massive amounts of carbon from decomposed plants and animals. In this way the soil acts as a sink, storing carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere, but soil is a source of carbon emissions.

Two studies published this month highlight just how helpful and harmful the the soil’s carbon storage capacity might be in the face of climate change.

The first, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexamined the changing role of peatlands, also known as bogs or mires, in the carbon cycle. According to author Qianlai Zhuang of Purdue University, peatlands cover about 3 percent of the Earth’s surface but contain 30 percent of soil carbon. This major sink, though, has begun to release large amounts of carbon, too.

When peatlands are drained for human uses like agriculture or mining, they release some of that carbon into the air. The rate of carbon loss is predicted to increase with climate change, even for untouched peatlands.

Northern-hemisphere peatlands in Canada, Siberia and Southeast Asia have already begun releasing significant amounts of carbon, but Zhuang and PhD candidate Sirui Wang found that Amazonian peatlands may soon follow suit, according to a Purdue University media release. The researchers estimate that by the end of the century, peatlands in that area could release an amount of carbon equal to 5 percent of current annual emissions worldwide.

The second study, published in Nature Climate Change, found increased capacity for carbon storage deep within the soil. Much of the soils carbon is stored in a dissolved form; the carbon leaches downwards in the water and attaches to minerals over 6-feet underground.

Little is known about this method of storage, but Washington State University researcher Marc Kramer and Oliver Chadwick from the University of California Santa Barbara have looked at it closely and believe humanity could take advantage of the process to bury more atmospheric carbon deep inside the earth. Unfortunately, they believe climate change will limit this capacity in tropical rainforests, currently the best locations for dissolved carbon storage.

Check out our 2018 Iowa Climate Statement to learn more about the impacts of climate change right here at home.