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.

Iowa Flood Information System predicts economic damages of flooding


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The Mississippi River in Dubuque is one of many in the state that is threatening to flood this spring. (Lesley G/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 10, 2018

Flooding has cost Iowa communities more than $18 billion in the last thirty years, and as the Mississippi and Cedar Rivers continue to swell this spring, Iowans may wonder how much they can expect to pay out on flood disasters in the future.

In recent years, scholars at the Iowa Flood Center have been working to predict just that. HAZUS, developed by the the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides predictions of the economic impact various magnitudes and types of natural disasters might have across the United States. During 2017, Research Engineer and Assistant Professor Ibrahim Demir and graduate research assistant Enes Yildirim, combined HAZUS’ information on demographics, buildings and structural content with data from the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS).

As a result, IFIS now offers flood loss and economic damage estimations for twelve communities in the state. These include Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls,  Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Independence, Kalona, Monticello, Ottumwa, Rock Rapids, Rock Valley, and Waterloo. HAZUS’ model makes it possible for users to not only view the overall economic damages to a community but also how much in damages individual buildings can be expected to accrue.

Iowa Flood Center researchers are working to expand this predictive model to other parts of the state. For now, users can use the following guide to learn more about the financial consequences of flooding in any of the aforementioned communities.

First, users must visit Iowa Flood Information System website, then:

  1. Hover their cursor over the “Flood Maps” tab and find their community under the “Flood Map Scenarios for Communities” button.
  2. After clicking on the “Damage Estimate” button, users can toggle the “Flood Map Controller” to model different scenarios.

Residents evacuated due to flooding in Western Montana


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The Clark Fork River runs through the center of Missoula, carrying water down from the mountains. (Frank Fujimoto/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2018

Sixty homes in Missoula, Montana were mandatorily evacuated due to flooding on Tuesday.

Heavy precipitation during early May and recent snowmelt from nearby mountains mixed to send rivers and streams in several parts of Western Montana flowing out of their banks. The Clark Fork River is a main artery running through the middle of Missoula and is the site of the most severe flooding. 1,300 homes along the river were encouraged to prepare for a possible evacuation.

Ken Parks is the Missoula County Disaster and Emergency Services deputy coordinator. He said to the Associated Press, “If you live anywhere near a stream or waterway in western Montana you need to be prepared to leave your home. This is going to come earlier than we expected. We’re trying to get out ahead of this thing and get the message out that this could be a very dangerous situation.”

From 1955 to 2016, snowpack on mountains in the Western United States declined by an average of 23 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, Western Montana has really only seen the beginning of this spring’s snowmelt, according to authorities from the National Weather Service. Some parts of the local mountain range are expected produce 55 additional inches of snowmelt through the spring and summer. The Clark Fork River is expected to reach higher levels than it has since 1981 this year.

Trump administration works to reverse over 65 environmental policies


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The federal government no longer requires new infrastructure projects to meet flood protection guidelines. (Melissa Galvez/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2018

Since taking office about a year ago, the Trump administration has moved to eliminate over 65 environmental regulations and policies, according to a report from the New York Times Climate Team.

The report aggregated data from climate deregulation policy trackers from the environmental law programs at Harvard University and Columbia University to come up with a total of 67 environmental regulations that the administration has sought to rollback. Reporters split the policies into three categories: those that have already been overturned, those that are on their way to being overturned and those whose fate is unclear due of court actions.  The largest category of 33 rules are those that have already been reversed.

There are a few among them that are most relevant for Iowans. First, the administration has reversed an Obama-era regulation that required federal buildings and infrastructure projects to be constructed in accordance with higher flood protection standards. Under this rule, new projects in flood plains would have had to be either elevated or flood proofed at a minimum of two feet above the 100-year floodplain. Recent research from the University of Iowa’s Flood Center found that as the climate continues to warm, the risk of flooding in Iowa and the northern U.S. is increasing.

The administration has also opted to reject the Environmental Projection Agency’s research on a particular pesticide and allow for its further use. Following the EPA’s study of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which found to pose a risk for fetal brain and nervous system development, the Obama administration proposed a ban of the pesticide. Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued that further study of the chemical is needed prior to a ban.

The list of environmental policies reversed by the administration goes on, and just three have been successfully reinstated after environmental groups sued the Trump administration.

More mudslides possible for southern California


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Rescue workers wade through debris and sediment following last week’s mudslide in Santa Barbara county, California. (Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Jenna Ladd | January 17, 2018

Meteorologists warn that rainfall during the fourth week of January could trigger another mudslide in southern California, where residents of Santa Barbara county are still reeling from last week’s massive landslide. Between two and five inches fell in the county between January 8th and 9th, sending boulders and thick sediment raining down on Montecito, California. A recent wildfire in the area left mountain slopes without vegetation to slow down the runoff and played into the destruction of 115 homes and the death of at least 20 people.

Jonathan Godt of the U.S. Geological Survey told the New York Times, “It was pretty rare, in essence a worse-case scenario from that standpoint. The same rainfall that falls on a burned landscape can cause a lot more damage than it would before a fire.”

AccuWeather officials have predicted that a shift in the jet stream will bring more moisture from the Pacific Ocean into southern California’s atmosphere by January 23rd and 24th. They caution that the weather pattern presents the risk for “locally heavy rainfall, flash flooding and a significant risk of mudslides.” Their report states that areas surrounding Point Conception, California are most likely to be affected.

February and March are heavy precipitation months for Santa Barbara county, and following California’s record-setting year for wildfires, conditions are right for faster-moving and more destructive landslides.

AccuWeather meteorologist Evan Duffey said, “People need to leave the area by evacuation deadlines as they are given. Once a mudslide begins, there may only be minutes to seconds before a neighborhood is wiped out.”

2017 Iowa Water Year summary released


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The Iowa DNR recently released the 2017 Water Year summary. (Dirklaudio/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 10, 2017

The 2017 Water Year came to an end recently according to a report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The “water year” runs from September 30th through October 1st. Overall, the 2017 water year has been drier and a bit warmer than usual. The statewide precipitation average was about 32 inches, which is roughly 3.28 inches less than usual. Precipitation was around average during the winter months, but fell below normal during the summertime.

Temperatures in the state averaged 50.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which made 2017 the fourth warmest year on the Iowa DNR’s 144 year record. While temperatures were mostly typical during the growing season, they were higher than usual for most of the winter months. This year brought the second warmest November and the third warmest February on record.

The complete 2017 Water Year summary can be viewed here.

On The Radio – Storms like Harvey more likely due to changing climate


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Texas National Guard members rescue residents in a heavily flooded area of Houston. (Texas Military Department/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 11, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how climate change is making storms like Harvey more likely.

Transcript: Over 51 inches of rain fell in the Houston area last month during Hurricane Harvey, setting a record for the continental U.S., and scientists say a changing climate added to the deluge.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a law of thermodynamics, says that the warmer a body of air is, the more moisture it can hold. Sea surface temperatures near where Harvey picked up its strength were about 1 degree Celsius higher than average, making the air above it warmer too. In this case, the atmosphere surrounding Hurricane Harvey was able to hold roughly three to five percent more moisture than usual.

In addition, sea levels have risen by about six inches in the last few decades due to global warming. Even minimal sea level rise can lead to a large increase in damages to structures on land during a flood.

While climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey directly, scientists say it will likely make category four storms like it more frequent in the future.

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

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