Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


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Researchers found that drier areas, like this drought-stricken field in Texas, are getting drier in a recent study. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2018

A recent study by NASA, the first of its kind, found that significant amounts of water are shifting around Earth’s surface.

Scientists used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), two satellites, to track gravitational changes made by hydrologic shifts in 34 regions around the world. From 2002 through 2016, they paired this information with satellite precipitation data, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and public reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

In short, researchers found that wetter areas are getting wetter and drier areas are getting drier. Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the study’s authors. He explains, “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

Scientists point to a couple of things to explain freshwater depletion in areas that are getting drier. In Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the world, for example, ground water has been depleted for agricultural purposes. The study also found that groundwater availability changes with periods of drought. From 2007 through 2015, southwestern California lost enough freshwater to fill 400,000 Olympic size swimming pools because the region saw less precipitation and snowpack during that time and had to rely on groundwater more heavily.

Freshwater loss in many regions was attributed to global warming that caused glaciers and ice sheets to melt away. However, Famiglietti said that much more research is needed to determine whether climate change caused the other hydrologic shifts.

GRACE Follow-On, GRACE’s successor, will continue to monitor the movement on water on Earth and is set to launch on May 22nd from Vandenberg Air Force Base California.

Women more likely to be affected by and act on climate change


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Women and children are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses that are becoming more common due to climate change. (Janet Mailbag/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 8, 2018

During a recent speech at Georgetown University, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out that women are disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide.

Research from several sources back up this claim. Discussing global desertification due to drought and intense heat waves, Clinton said, “I would say that particularly for women…they will bear the brunt of looking for the food, looking for the firewood, looking for the place to migrate to when all of the grass is finally gone.”

The gendered effects of climate change extend beyond communities in developing nations, however. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Fund point out that two-thirds of those jobs lost after Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans were lost by women. Job creation during the rebuilding periods following natural disasters are primarily in the construction industry and go almost exclusively to men. As a result, 83 percent of single mothers were not able to return to New Orleans following the hurricane.

The changing climate poses unique risks to women’s health as well. Increasingly frequent and intense heat waves can cause low birth weights among pregnant women. Women are also fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. Researchers link this to insufficient access to information and warnings as well as a difference in women’s ability to cope with such events.

As Clinton put it, women “bear the brunt” of a changing climate. Perhaps that’s why women in political positions of power are more likely than their male counterparts to sign off on treaties that combat climate change.

Perrin Ireland is a science reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. She said, “Women play critical roles in our communities, and our voices must be heard for climate action. In order to have a resilient future, for the thriving of our communities, women must have a seat at the table.”

Cape Town in water crisis


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Cape Town’s booming tourism industry will likely suffer along with its residents as the city runs dry. (Harshil Shah/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 1, 2018

Day Zero is coming for Cape Town, South Africa, and it’s just as scary as it sounds.

Day Zero is the term officials have given to the day, April 16th, that the tourist city is expected to run out of water. Beginning today, city officials are enforcing stricter water restrictions in order to stretch the supply further. Each person will be allotted to 13.2 gallons of consumption per day and those found in violation will be subject to steep fines.

After about three years of below-average rainfall, the city’s dams are less than 25 percent full. Cape Town’s population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years as well, putting additional stress on natural resource supply. Residents may still be able to collect water from local springs and pumps after the taps are turned off on Day Zero but can expect a strong police presence. Reporting from National Public Radio states that South African police and soldiers plan to guard over 200 natural spring and waterhole sites in the city after Day Zero, limiting each person’s supply to 6.6 gallons.

At present, just 55 percent of Cape Town residents are honoring the city’s water consumption restrictions. Sitar Stodel is a 26 Cape Town resident that was interviewed by NBC. She described what she’s seen, “People are still watering their lawns, filling their pools and bathing. They seem happy to just pay the fines. It’s so upsetting. I think ‘Day Zero’ is inevitable, we’re at the point of no return. Cape Town will just have to deal with the consequences that day when it arrives.”

The city is working to access alternative water sources, but none of its seven projects are more than 60 percent completed.

November 2017 brought drought to Iowa


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A portion of the dried up East Indian Creek southeast of Nevada during the 2012 drought. (Carl Wycoff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 5, 2017

Last month was the driest month since 2007 according to state climatologist Harry Hillaker.

Hillaker spoke with Radio Iowa this week and said, “Overall a state average of .43 of an inch of moisture for the month, which is about 20 percent of what is usual. And actually the driest of any calendar month going back to November of 2007.”

Conditions were abnormally dry at all monitoring stations, especially in northwestern Iowa, where some areas of Ida county and Cherokee county received zero precipitation last month. The whole state only saw a minuscule amount of snow for the eighth time in Iowa’s 131-year weather record.  Hillaker said, “The statewide average was just a trace of snow and typically we’d get three to four inches of snow during the month of November.”

While there were some colder days in the beginning of November, warmer than average temperatures during the second half of the month made snowfall even less likely. The climatologist pointed out that there was virtually no precipitation in the state after the 18th of November.

November wraps up the fall season of September, October and November. Although November 2016 brought record-high temperatures, Iowa Environmental Mesonet reports that temperatures for last month were near average.

Climate change to cause chocolate scare


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Cacao trees do best within about 20 degrees of the equator. (Rain/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 31, 2017

Trick-or-treaters will bound from door-to-door this evening hoping to take home one of the world’s sweetest treats: chocolate.

While Halloween may feel like business-as-usual tonight in Iowa, chocolate producers across the globe are feeling the heat of climate change.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which can only be cultivated very close to the Earth’s equator. This part of the world provides little temperature variability, lots of humidity and rain, nitrogen-rich soils and protection from wind that cacao trees need to thrive. Most of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans grown in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia.

If the climate change continues unabated, these regions of the world are expected to warm by  3.8°F before 2050. It’s not necessarily the heat that will hurt cacao trees, it’s a decrease in humidity. About two-thirds of the world’s chocolate comes from Western Africa, where precipitation is not increasing to offset the effects of a hotter climate and drought has been a major problem in recent years.

Kevin Rabinovitch, a spokesperson for Mars, Incorporated, told Yale’s Climate Connections, “As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, some of the current cocoa-producing regions may become less suitable for producing cocoa.”

Rising temperatures and less rainfall may push cocoa growing operations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana up some 800 feet in elevation in order to keep up with demand, according to NOAA.

For its part, Rabinovitch explained that Mars is taking steps to reduce carbon emissions from its products by 67 percent before 2050. Cacao farmers are adapting to drought and temperature spikes by selectively breeding more drought resistant crops and planting cacao trees under taller rainforest trees for shade cover.

On The Radio – Leaves drop early due to fall drought


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Some leaves in Iowa fell to the ground before changing color this year due to drought. (Liz West/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 9, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how drought conditions in late September pushed some trees into early dormancy.

Transcript: Tree leaves in Iowa began changing colors and falling to the ground earlier than usual this year due to drought conditions.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Leaf color change is closely tied to weather conditions. During the last week of September, the U.S. Drought Portal reported that about thirty percent of Iowa was experiencing abnormally dry conditions and about twenty-five percent of the state was in a moderate drought.

Officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explained that if trees do not have enough moisture, they can be pushed into dormancy earlier than usual. As a result, many leaves died and fell from trees before they bursted into autumn’s hues of red, yellow and orange this year.

In a typical year, leaves change color in northern Iowa between the last week of September and the second week of October, from the first to third weeks of October in central Iowa and from the second to fourth weeks of October in southern Iowa.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Leaves drop early due to fall drought


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Vibrant fall leaf colors may be missing in some parts of Iowa this year due to drought conditions. (Ashley Webb/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 26, 2017

Tree leaves in Iowa began changing colors and falling to the ground earlier than usual this year due to drought conditions.

Leaf color change has a lot to do with weather conditions, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. Drought Portal reveals that about thirty percent of Iowa is currently seeing abnormally dry conditions and about twenty-five percent of the state is experiencing moderate drought.

Kandyce Weigel is the administrative assistant of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ State Forest Nursery. She told the Des Moines Register, “When they (trees) don’t have enough moisture, they’ll start to go into dormancy. They need moisture and they need cool nights. And usually, the light change — when we have less light as the days get shorter — that cues them to change, too. But that dryness is cuing them to push into dormancy earlier.”

In a typical year, leaves change color in northern Iowa between the last week of September and the second week of October, from the first to third weeks of October in central Iowa and from the second week through the end of October in southern Iowa.

Unfortunately, dry conditions cause leaves to die and fall from trees before they burst into autumn’s hues of red, yellow and orange.