Carbon dioxide concentration reaches record-high


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Human activity and El Niño drove carbon dioxide levels up significantly last year. (Zappys Technology Solutions/flickr)
Jenna Ladd |November 1, 2017

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose to a record-high during 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

The average accumulated CO2 level in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403.3 parts per million last year, thanks to human activity and an El Niño weather event which brought drought to much of the world’s CO2-capturing vegetation. Last year’s increase of CO2 levels was 50 percent higher than average year-to-year increases over the last ten years.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas measurements were taken by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at 51 sites around the globe. Dr. Oksana Tarasova, head of WMO’s global atmosphere watch program, told the BBC, “It is the largest increase we have ever seen in the 30 years we have had this network.”

Tarasova also pointed out that while humans have slowed their greenhouse gas emissions, the cumulative excess CO2 already in the atmosphere will remain problematic for centuries to come.

Scientists say that Earth has not had the same concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere since about three to five million years ago, when temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were several dozen feet higher.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said that urgent and drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions should be made to avoid “dangerous temperature increases” by 2100.

Taalas added, “With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident.”

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 – Economic cost of changing climate is growing


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Members of the the National Guard in Puerto Rico work to clear roads after Hurricane María devastated the island. (Puerto Rico National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 30, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the growing economic consequence of climate change. 

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

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Titled, “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” the report 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.

The authors point out that the number of extreme weather events resulting in $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 costs associated with severe weather and the health impacts of emitting greenhouse gases will reach $360 billion annually.

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

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

Global temperatures continued to rise in September


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A climate anomalies map from NOAA details significant some climate events during September 2017. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Jenna Ladd | October 20, 2017

Earth’s climate continued to warm during September 2017, setting some alarming records.

September 2017 was the planet’s fourth warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880. The three warmest Septembers were in 2015, 2016 and 2014. This year’s September was especially notable because no El Niño effect was present. El Niño events typically bring warmer weather because they cause the ocean to release warm air into the atmosphere.

Even in the absence of an El Niño effect, temperatures in January through February of this year have made 2017 the second hottest year on the 138-year record kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the top spot? 2016, which was 1.02 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average.

Sweltering temperatures were experienced across the globe. The hottest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere was 109 degrees Fahrenheit on September 27th in Birdsville, Australia. In the northern hemisphere, temperatures soared to 123 degrees Fahrenheit on September 3rd in Mitribah, Kuwait.

Record high temperatures are not without consequences. September 2017 also had the second lowest Antarctic sea ice cover during that month on record. The Arctic sea fared slightly better, coming in at number seven for record low sea ice cover during September.

A concise summery of NOAA and NASA’s September climate report can be found here.

On The Radio – Humidity on the rise in Iowa


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Increased humidity poses health risks for Iowans according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement. (Teresa Shishim/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 18, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how humidity has increased significantly during all seasons in all parts of Iowa since 1971.

Transcript: Humidity in the state of Iowa has increased significantly since 1971, according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement released last month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Absolute humidity, usually measured by dew point temperature, has increased significantly in all parts of Iowa during all seasons. The largest increase was found in Dubuque with a 23 percent increase in springtime humidity from 1971 to 2017.

The statement’s lead co-authors Gene Takle, director of Iowa State’s Climate Science Program and professor of geological & atmospheric sciences at ISU, and Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, warned that increasing humidity makes conditions more favorable for increased rainfall, extreme rain events, mold and mosquitoes.

High humidity also presents health concerns for Iowans. More humid air along with rising temperatures can make conditions dangerous for manual laborers and individuals sensitive to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Titled, It’s Not Just the Heat, It’s the Humidity!, the statement ends with a call for Iowans to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change through improving energy efficiency, cutting emissions and advancing renewable energies.

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

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

Wind energy continues to be a competitive and growing industry


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Wind turbines are an increasingly common site along rural Iowa roads. (Samir Luther/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 12, 2017

The recently released 2016 Wind Technologies Market Report found wind energy to be a competitively priced and growing part of the U.S. energy picture.

According to the annual U.S. Department of Energy report, wind energy is expected to continue being a cheaper option for consumers than other energy sources. Without figuring in federal tax credits and state-run programs, wind energy costs an average of 5 cents per kilowatt hour whereas a highly efficient natural gas power plant charges consumers an average of 5.4 cents per kilowatt hour.

The authors also found that wind turbines erected in 2016 are taller and more powerful than in years past, allowing them to generate more energy. In the last five years alone, the generating capacity of individual wind turbines has increased by 11 percent.

About 8,203 megawatts of new wind energy was added to the U.S. energy portfolio in 2016, which made up 27 percent of energy infrastructure additions last year. Twelve states now produce more than 10 percent of their energy with wind while Iowa and South Dakota remain the only states that generate upwards of 30 percent of their energy with turbines. Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa have the highest wind-capacity nationwide.

The entire U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technologies Report can be read here.

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