September 2017 record-setting month for hurricanes


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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


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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


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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?”

Lessons for Iowans in the wake of Harvey


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A map from the National Hurricane Center illustrates predicted landfall for Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, over the weekend. (National Hurricane Center)
Jenna Ladd| September 7, 2017

As some of the floodwater finally recedes from the Houston area following Hurricane Harvey,  Hurricane Irma, a category five storm, threatens to devastate the Florida Keys this weekend.

Climate change increased the amount of rainfall that fell on Houston during the recent storm, according to a statement from Clare Nullis Kapp, media officer for the World Meteorological Organization. Karen Tigges, a Des Moines resident and operations analyst at Wells Fargo, said in a recent Des Moines Register Letter to the Editor that Harvey has something to teach the people of Iowa. The letter reads:

“Houston: A tragic example of a city caught at the mercy of worsening storms and increased rainfall. Flooding is nothing new to Houston, but it appears that this time they are really paying the price for unwise growth.

Unfortunately, flooding is not unfamiliar to the city of Des Moines either. We are growing in the metro as well. We must take the warnings of storm events seriously. It’s said that the lack of zoning ordinances in Houston led to the loss of wetlands and grasslands that could have absorbed at least some of the onslaught of water. How does that compare with planning for growth here in the metro area? Is the growth of our urban areas leading to higher risks of flooding due to more impermeable surfaces in the form of more paved roads and rooftops?

As the city prepares for a future that will likely include more intense rainfall events, thanks to a warmer, more humid climate, we citizens need to take an active role in seeing that effective planning and policies are put in place to make Des Moines ready to face this unpleasant reality.

We can do that by weighing in on the city’s new planning and zoning code. We also need to do that by electing and supporting leaders that will be proactive in setting the course of the metro area on a path of resilience and preparedness for what storms of the future may bring.”

— Karen Tigges, Des Moines

Houston flood expected to drain slowly


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Give its flat landscape and dearth of flood control infrastructure, the city of Houston will rely primarily on slow-moving bayous to drain the area. (Adam Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 1, 2017

While the downpour in Houston has finally subsided, the Texas city has few options for draining the 15 trillion gallons of water that fell in the region.

The city of Houston has no levees or pumps or flood walls it can call on to drain water more quickly back into surrounding bayous. As a low-lying coastal plain, it also has a rather flat landscape. Arturo Leon, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Houston said, “This means the capacity for drainage is very slow. If there were a slope, then it would drain faster,” in a report by Scientific American.

In the last thirty years, the city has grown a great deal, all without any zoning laws that regulate development, even in flood prone areas. For example, since 2010 about 7,000 residential buildings have been built on land the federal government considers a 100 year floodplain, according to a review by the Washington Post. Stormwater drainage systems have not kept pace with the area’s development.

Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, said, “Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as an infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth. The stormwater system has never been designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.”

As a result, the city relies heavily on surround bayous to reabsorb rainwater. Bayous are slow moving, and especially so on Houston’s flat landscape.

A list of options for donating to victims and displaced residents in the area can be found here.

Climate change to make storms like Harvey more frequent, intense


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A Texas National Guard member rescues a Houston resident during Hurricane Harvey. (The National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| August 30, 2017

More than fourteen million olympic-sized swimming pools could be filled with the amount of rain that has fallen in Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and scientists say that climate change added to the deluge.

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

“The water in the Gulf of Mexico is the heat reservoir to support these hurricanes,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, in a report from NPR. Kirtman added, “For a small change in temperature, you get a huge amount of evaporation.”

In the last three decades, sea levels have risen worldwide by about six inches thanks to a warming climate and, in part, to human activities like offshore oil drilling. Higher sea levels make inland floods more devastating.

Climate Central scientist Ben Strauss said, “Every storm surge today reaches higher because it starts from a higher level, because sea level is higher. A small amount of sea-level rise can lead to an unexpectedly large increase in damages to most kinds of structures.”

Scientists are careful to point out that climate change did not directly cause Harvey, but is likely to produce storms like it more often. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that category 4 hurricanes like Harvey will occur more frequently in the future due to a warming climate.

So far, fourteen casualties have been identified as the storm continues to devastate the area.