In recent years, the Caribbean islands have been repeatedly pummeled by unusually intense hurricanes. In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma virtually destroyed Caribbean islands Dominicana and Barbuda. Puerto Rico is still recovering from devastation that same year.
This week, Hurricane Dorian, the second strongest Atlantic storm on record, hit hard in the Bahamas. An aerial video from NBC reveals widespread flooding and buildings reduced to rubble on Abaco Island.
Once these islands recover, spending billions to do so, they can expect to see more intense storms in the future, as climate change increases the impacts of hurricanes. Though mitigation can be at least partially achieved through social and infrastructural means, many islands lack the financial means to implement them, as well as ample time between storms.
Evacuation orders protect human life, but accessing transportation by air or water can be expensive, leaving inland shelters as the best option for many. In the Bahamans, 24 shelters were established inland on Abaco and Grand Bahamas Island, with 73,000 residents at risk, according to the Washington Post. The Bahamasair airline offered discounted flights off the island.
As climate change progresses, rising sea levels will make coastal flooding a permanent feature of island life, as well, reducing inhabitable land and threatening freshwater resources within the islands. Just two degrees of warming would put Bahamian capital island Nassau and many smaller Caribbean islands almost completely underwater (see this map from Climate Central), forcing residents to relocate as “climate refugees.”
The Iowa City Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night declaring a climate crisis. The resolution set new targets for the city’s carbon emissions and directed the City Manager’s office to provide a report within 100 days, recommending ways to meet those targets.
The Council approved a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan last September, setting carbon emissions targets that matched the Paris Agreement. Then in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To meet that goal, human-caused emissions would need to fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.
Activists around the world have been pushing for cities and local governments to declare a climate emergency as a first step towards mobilizing to combat global warming. The movement has grown momentum in the past few months, with hundreds of cities, as well as a few regional and national governments, declaring climate emergencies. In July, members of the U.S. Congress introduced a national Climate Emergency declaration, which several representatives, senators, and presidential candidates have endorsed. Iowa City is the first city in Iowa to pass such a resolution.
Iowa City students regularly walked out of class this spring to demand local action on climate change. Mayor Jim Throgmorton claims that their advocacy, in addition to the IPCC report, contributed to this move by city leaders.
The IPCC report in 2013 only considered a 17-83% of the possibilities of sea level rising, where areas, this new study covers 5-95% estimates—which means this study looks at a broader range of results, according to BBC news.
Researchers believe that if there are no significant reductions in emissions, we would see global waters rising between 62cm and 238cm by 2100. According to these studies, the earth could lose an equivalent area of land to 1.79 million square kilometers—approximately the size of Libya.
If this becomes a reality, this could have severe implications to the planet, and hundreds of millions of people could be displaced. Many of the affected areas would be major cities such as London, New York, and Shanghai as well as large swathes of Bangladesh, where it will be nearly impossible for people to live in.
Researchers remain hopeful and believe that there is still time to prevent these scenarios from occuring. The governments around the world must take action to inform the people and bring awareness to the rising levels of emissions.
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. ***
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. ***
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.
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.