Heavy rainfall events more common nationwide


Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 9.22.27 PM.png
This map illustrates the percent increase in heaviest precipitation events from 1958 through 2016. (Climate Central)

Jenna Ladd | May 11, 2018

As the climate continues to warm, many U.S. cities are experiencing heavy rainfall more frequently.

Research and news organization, Climate Central, examined the number of days per calendar year that each of 244 sites nationwide experienced 0.25, 0.50, 1, and 2 inches of precipitation from 1950 through 2017. The report found that incidents of heavy rain events are increasing in frequency in all regions of the U.S. In Des Moines, the number of days per year where the city experienced two or more inches of precipitation has increased by about seven percent since 1950.

For each 1°F of global warming, Earth’s atmosphere becomes four percent more saturated with water. This makes more moisture available to condense and fall down as precipitation. As a result, extreme floods are more likely to happen now than they were in the past. According to NOAA, 29 flood disasters that cost more than $1 billion each have happened since 1980. In Iowa alone, floods have caused more than $18 billion in damages in the last thirty years. That puts us in fourth place nationwide for the number of floods experienced since 1988.

The northeastern United States has seen a 55 percent increase in heavy precipitation events from 1958 through 2016, the sharpest increase in the nation, according to the report. The midwest follows close behind, with a 42 percent increase in heavy precipitation events.

Users can determine whether incidents of heavy rainfall have increased in Dubuque, Mason City, Ottumwa, Sioux City, and Waterloo by using Climate Central’s interactive map.

Residents evacuated due to flooding in Western Montana


35536976332_940271e500_k
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.

Extreme weather costlier than ever in 2017


36145818535_8717d011b2_k

Jenna Ladd | March 28, 2018

As the Northern Hemisphere enters warmer seasons where severe weather and flooding are more likely, it is yet to be seen whether 2018 will top 2017 as the most costly year for natural disasters ever.

Since 1980, the yearly average for natural disasters in the U.S. that cause more than $1 billion in damages has been 5.8 events. Last year, the country saw 16 such events, including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought and wildfire. While this number technically ties with 2011, 2017 had more extreme weather as wildfires are tallied by region rather than single events, and last year brought more wildfires costing upwards of $1 billion than ever before.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the total cost of severe weather last year was $306.2 billion. This surpassed the previous record by nearly $100 billion dollars. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused $265.0 billion of 2017’s damages. Researchers figure physical damages to buildings and infrastructure as well as crop damages and losses to business into the total cost.

The midwest U.S. saw at least two severe storms last year that caused more than $1 billion in damages, both of them in mid-June. Flooding associated with storms like these has caused some $13.5 billion in economic losses from 1988 to 2015 in Iowa alone, according to a recent op-ed by Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski. Midwesterners also faced early tornado outbreaks in 2017, which tore across the region in late February and early March. Both events cause more than $1 billion in damages.

The National Centers for Environmental Information point out that increased development in vulnerable areas like coastlines, floodplains and fire-prone areas are causing the increase in billion dollar disasters. Climate change plays a role too. They write,

“Climate change is also paying an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters. Most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall and inland flooding events are most acutely related to the influence of climate change.”

September 2017 record-setting month for hurricanes


15049990995_b4bb48f85b_o
A satellite image of Hurricane Maria. (Sturart Rankin/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 4, 2017

September 2017 was a record-setting calendar month for hurricane activity in the Atlantic ocean.

The beginning of September brought Hurricane Harvey, a category four storm which caused unprecedented damage to the U.S.’s fourth largest city, Houston. Five additional hurricanes left paths destruction across the Caribbean and Florida later in September, with Irma and Maria both reaching category five status.

It is common for September to be the most active month for hurricanes because low pressure systems often move across the Atlantic from Africa and meet the tropical waters of the Caribbean at this time, but September 2017 was a cut above the rest. According to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University, September 2017 featured 18 “major hurricane days,” beating 1961’s record of 17.25 “major hurricane days.” Last month, the overall intensity and duration of storms, known as “accumulated cyclone energy,” was 175 units, significantly higher than September 2014’s record of 155 units.

While climate change has not been found to cause hurricanes, there is evidence to say that rising sea temperatures cause hurricanes to be more intense.

An economic argument for slowing climate change


37073754975_29629933b3_o.jpg
Damages from Hurricane Harvey are estimated to exceed $100 billion. (Jill Carlson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 29, 2017

Human-induced climate change costs more than the U.S. economy can afford according to a recent report from the Universal Ecological Fund.

The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” published recently by the non-profit research organization, found that severe weather intensified by climate change and the health impacts associated with burning fossil fuels have cost the U.S. economy $240 billion per year in the last decade.

Economic losses due to extreme weather have doubled in the last ten years. To illustrate this point, the authors point out that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused an estimated $300 billion in damages, which is double the $145 billion in losses caused by all hurricanes in the last decade.

The press release points out that the number of extreme weather events costing $1 billion or more in damages has increased by 400 percent since the 1980s. Iowa, for example, has endured three floods costing more than $1 billion in the last decade, up three fold since the 1990s.

If climate change is not curtailed, researchers predict annual costs associated with severe weather and the health impacts of greenhouse gases will reach $360 billion.

Sir Robert Watson, coauthor of the report and former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said during a press conference, “Simply, the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the climate continues to change and cost. Thus, transitioning to a low-carbon economy is essential for economic growth and is cheaper than the gigantic costs of inaction.”

Cooler August slows melting in Arctic


Figure1-1
The orange line indicates a median ice extent from 1981-2010, while the white areas represent current ice cover. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Jenna Ladd | September 27, 2017

The summer melting period has come to an end in the Arctic, and ice cover is at not quite as minimal as scientists had predicted.

Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal minimum extent of 1.79 million square miles on September 13, the eighth lowest of a 38-year satellite record.

The Arctic saw its record minimum ice coverage in 2012 and officials from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) were expecting lows after this summer to near record lows, but there was a twist in the plot. August brought more cloud cover and lower temperatures to the region and slowed melting.

Still, the 2017 ice cover minimum was 610,000 square miles below the minimum average recorded between 1981 and 2010. In an interview with the Guardian, Ted Scambos of NSIDC noted that Arctic ice melt has been linked to heatwaves, floods and extreme winters in many parts of the world.

Scambos said that although there is some variation from year to year, “The Arctic will continue to evolve towards less ice. There’s no dodging that.”

Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”