Climate change to decrease average number of mild weather days


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Residents enjoy pleasant weather at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Louis/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 24, 2017

The first of its kind, a recent study found that climate change is likely to decrease the number of “nice weather” days worldwide.

The authors of the study, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Princeton University, define “nice” or “mild” days as those days when temperatures are between 64 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, dew points are below 68 degrees Fahrenheit and less than half of an inch of rain falls. Currently there are an average of 74 nice days globally per year, but that number is likely to drop to 70 in the next twenty years and to 64 by 2081.

Karin van der Wiel is a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and lead author of the study. She said,

“We used a climate model to simulate the current climate. In that simulation we counted the number of mild days. Then, we increased greenhouse gases in the climate model to simulate the future effects of climate change. This leads to increasing temperatures, changes in humidity, changes in precipitation over the whole world and with very specific patterns. In this new, future climate, we counted the number of mild days again. We could then calculate the change — increase or decrease — of mild weather days for each location globally.”

Not all corners of the Earth will be affected equally, however. Tropical regions are expected to lose the most nice days, with some areas losing up to 50 per year by the end of this century. Meanwhile, London is expected to gain 24 nice days each year.

Predictions for Cedar Rapids, Iowa mirror global averages. Eastern Iowa currently enjoys 76 nice days annually; researchers say that number is expected to drop to an average of 72 between 2016 and 2035 and to 66 each year between 2081 through 2100.

Frequent high humidity makes it tough for Iowa to meet the pleasant weather criteria outlined in the study. Absolute humidity has risen by 13 percent during the summer months in Des Moines since 1970, according to Iowa State climate scientist Gene Takle. Increased humidity also contributes to the extreme rain events that have plagued Iowa in recent years.

van der Wiel said, “Mild weather is something everyone knows, experiences, and has memories of,” she continued, “Our study shows that human-caused climate change is going to lead to changes in mild weather all over… The changes are happening now, and where people live.”

Report provides inventory of water monitoring efforts in Iowa


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Constructing wetlands is a proven practice that helps to reduce nutrient runoff from agricultural land. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 23, 2016

A 2016 report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship summarizes Iowa’s water quality monitoring efforts.

The report, which was also supported by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering Center, provides a complete list of all nutrient-specific water monitoring sites in the state. The first of its kind, it was developed to inform the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aims to monitor and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and subsequently to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said,

“Iowa has a comprehensive water quality monitoring effort in place that is supported by a variety of partners. Monitoring results were central to identifying the practices highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and have provided valuable information as we have established priority watersheds. It continues to be an important part of our efforts as we work to increase the pace and scale of practice adoption needed to improve water quality.”

The report outlined all water monitoring efforts according their type and scale:

  • Edge-of-field monitoring
    • Researchers partner with farmers to monitor water quality on the edge of farm fields in order to accurately prioritize nutrient reduction practices.
  • Paired watershed monitoring
    • These are sites wherein the effectiveness of conservation practices are tested on two similar watersheds, one watershed receives intentional conservation measures and the other does not.
  • Large watershed monitoring (950,000 total acres)
    • These sites are either part of University of Iowa’s IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering management of 45 real-time management stations or Iowa DNR’s 60 statewide sites.
  • Small watershed monitoring (22,500 total acres)
    • Several small watershed monitoring projects are ongoing including 18 established by the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Many of these projects measure the effectiveness of conservation practices implemented by farmers.

The report also detailed the many challenges associated with nutrient-specific water quality monitoring. Complicating factors can include frequently changing land-use, varying streamflow and precipitation, and a lack of long-term monitoring records.

Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp said, “While challenges exist, we believe continued nutrient monitoring is critical to understanding what Iowa can do to be successful.” He added, “All partners involved in developing this report know the value of long-term evaluation and are committed to continuing with a science-based approach to nutrient reduction in Iowa waters.”

ISU researchers develop decision-making tool for sustainable cities


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The city of Des Moines is involved in ISU’s “Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making” research project. (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 28, 2016

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) and the city of Des Moines are working together to develop a decision-making tool that could revolutionize the way cities tackle climate change and social issues.

Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”

Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”

The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.

Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”

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The above graphic outlines the four phases of the research project along with the 16 ISU faculty that are involved. (Iowa State University)

Frequency of Iowa flooding and precipitation on the rise


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Graph showing the average amount precipitation per year in Iowa. The average amount of has increased dramatically in the state. Since 1960, has seen 10 percent increase in the amount of annual precipitation. (Iowa State University)
Jake Slobe | October 26, 2016

Recent Iowa State University data shows that 100-year flood plain maps actually map 25-year flood plains.  The data also shows that an increasing frequency of large rainfall events throughout Iowa. In Cedar Rapids, the number of heavy rainfall events has increased by 57 percent over the last 100 years.

Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education says that part of the reason for these increases in flooding is coming from changes in land use.

“Over the last 100 years, we have significantly altered the hydrology of our state. The part that we can do something about that would have fairly immediate results is land use change, meaning changing the way our cropping system works, and reestablishing some of the elements we’ve lost like wetlands and forests.”

Currently, the vast majority of Iowa’s agricultural land has, for a long time, been under cultivation in a two-year, corn-soybean rotation. Long-term studies at Iowa State University have demonstrated that moving to a three or four-year crop rotation would lead to a significantly different system that could naturally reduce flooding.

Researchers in Iowa are now analyzing the impact of upstream flood mitigation efforts — as well as determining the costs of potential efforts.

For example, the cost of funding watershed management projects, to help mitigate flood in the state is estimated to be around $5 billion, which is a bargain when put in the context of the cost of flood damage recovery. The damage from the 2008 flood alone was estimated at $10 billion across the state.

Iowa State’s agricultural and biosystems engineering program ranks best in country


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Bird’s eye view of Iowa State University’s new Biorenewables Complex which was completed in 2014. (Iowa State University.)
Jake Slobe | October 12, 2016

Iowa State University’s agricultural and biosystems engineering undergraduate program was recently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges.

The report stated that, “Students who enroll at this major research, land-grant university experience a unique personal, welcoming environment, and a rich collection of academic and extra-curricular programs that help them discover their own individual greatness.”

Department Chair Steven Mickelson credits much of the ranking to the university’s new Biorenewables Complex. The complex, consisting of Elings Hall, Sukup Hall and the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, opened in 2014 and offers cutting-edge classrooms and laboratories.

While the new complex has been significant in boosting the level of ISU’s engineering department, it is just one of many changes within the program in the last few years.

In the summer of 2013, ISU teamed up with the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) to invest in a 3-D metal printer that will contribute to students’ learning. The new laser printer has been building parts for Iowa manufacturers since last fall and allows students to learn about the advantages of adopting metal 3D printing as part of the design and manufacturing process.

The department has also recently acquired a state-of-the-art water flume.  The new water flume allows students to simulate Iowa streamflow which assists them in crop research.

“These two new pieces of technology are used for teaching and learning that gives great experience to help students with jobs and research,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson also attributes the ranking to the program’s growth in undergraduate and graduate students. The program has seen a 46 percent increase in undergraduate students and a 25 percent increase in graduate students over the last 5 years.

He emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning experiences in the classroom. He says hands-on learning curriculum accounts for 38 percent of all classes in the department.

“Hiring high-quality faculty, getting the right people on the bus to being with is what makes this department great.”

Iowa State researcher looks at corn’s adaptive powers


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The corn plant can grow in high elevations near mountain ranges or at sea level, researchers at the Iowa State University are taking a closer look at what makes this crop so versatile. (jev55/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 20, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is taking a closer look at how corn has adapted over many centuries to prosper in several different environments and elevations throughout the Americas.

Matthew Hufford, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution and organismal biology at the University, is co-principal investigator of a collaborative study with scientists from University of California at Davis, University of Missouri, and the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico. The research project recently received a five year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $800,000 of those funds will be used to support Hufford’s laboratory at Iowa State University.

Hufford said that gaining a better understanding about how corn adapted to grow beyond its origin in Mexico could help plant breeders to produce crops that perform better. He said, “With this project, we hope to identify good candidates for genes that played key roles in helping maize adapt,” he added, “You could use that new knowledge to design corn to deal with the environmental challenges of today, like climate change and other stresses.”

Corn started growing in the hot lowlands of southwestern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Hufford explained that in a relatively short amount of time the plant has changed to grow in much higher elevations with different climates across the Americas. After he compared highland corn to lowland corn, Hufford found that highland corn is darker in color and equipped with macrohairs that insulate plant when temperatures drop. Striking differences such as these help explain how the plant is able to grow anywhere from near sea level up to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to cross highland corn with lowland corn in order to study the genetics of parent and offspring varieties.

Iowa Flood Center partners with NASA to improve soil moisture measurement


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An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive Satellite from outer space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA)
Jenna Ladd | August 25, 2016

Students and researchers at the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) spent this summer working with NASA on a research project aiming to better understand and measure soil moisture.

The IFC team, based at the University of Iowa, is working to compare soil moisture data provided by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite with data gathered on the ground by IFC’s soil-moisture monitoring sensors. Researchers are specifically comparing soil moisture data from the South Fork watershed near Ames, a tributary of the Iowa River. IFC’s ground instrumentation provides real-time soil moisture measurements to farmers and researchers, while NASA’s satellite collects information in a different way. Put simply, the SMAP satellite views the Earth surface at a specific microwave-radiation wavelength that allows it to see through vegetation. The more water that is held in the soil, the darker it appears to the satellite. NASA is comparing this data against that which is measured on the ground by IFC to determine whether the water held inside of crops affects the accuracy of satellite imaging.

“As with many remote-sensing products, there is a continued need for evaluation,” says IFC Director Witold Krajewski. Validation of the satellite is a two part process. Researchers began by analyzing NASA’s satellite data from the end of May through early June, when crops were only beginning to emerge from the soil. During this first phase, IFC researchers and graduate students also set out to install and maintain soil-moisture instruments on the ground. They took a second look at soil moisture in early August when corn, soy, and other agricultural crops densely cover the ground in order to determine the satellite’s accuracy.

In addition to these measurements, IFC is taking a closer look the relationship between rainfall and soil moisture. The research team is using two mobile X-band polarimetric radars to study rainfall with increased temporal and spatial precision. IFC is also gathering data using several rainfall measuring tools provided by NASA. Krajewski explains, “Understanding the rainfall variability gives you an idea how much water gets into the soil and how it dries out.”

IFC is working with research partners at Iowa State University as well as those from universities and institutions across the country.

 

Reflections on my two years at CGRER


The Iowa Advanced Technologies Laboratory, left, houses the University of Iowa's Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
The Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, left, houses the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | August 5, 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over two years since I first entered the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories – which I had previous referred to as the shiny metal building next to the Iowa Memorial Union – to interview for a graduate assistantship with the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

Despite having studied at the UI for my undergrad and the fact that I have had a casual interest in the environment for as long as I can remember, I had never heard of CGRER prior to my interview. I interviewed with CGRER’s Outreach and Community Education Director Joe Bolkcom – whose name I was quite familiar with from constantly reading about his efforts as a state senator – who made it clear from the start that his work with CGRER is separate from his work in the Iowa legislature. Though I had no formal experience covering scientific issues, I was offered the position because of the journalistic skills I had developed as an undergrad and during my time as a reporter with the Iowa City Press-Citizen. My colleague, KC McGinnis, was hired at the same time I was and similar to me he had little formal experience covering environmental or scientific issues. Joe felt that KC and I would compliment each other well as he was more of the multimedia expert while my specialty was writing.

During my two year stint with CGRER I not only learned a tremendous amount about environmental policy in the Hawkeye State specifically and environmental research more broadly but I also informally served as a teacher educating my friends, family, and others about these issues. Whenever possible I avoided the partisan divisiveness often associated with environmental issues and instead focused on the positives. As a lifelong Iowan I’m proud to tell people about how this upper-Midwestern state with just over three million inhabitants is a national leader in wind energy. Or how there is tremendous potential for solar energy in the Hawkeye State despite cold and snowy winters that occupy about a quarter of the year. I’ve even had intelligent and civil conversations with farmers about the benefits of cover crops, no-till, and other conservation practices, even though I know we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on many political issues.

My time at CGRER was not only a learning experience for me in terms of the environment but I was also able to further develop my journalistic skills, especially in terms of multimedia. I felt that I learned more about video production working with KC during two short years than I did during any of my formal education.

My two years with CGRER has paid off as next week I will begin my new position as a Communications Specialist for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University. (Don’t worry I’ll always be a Hawkeye at heart!) I am confident in the abilities of KC and I’s replacements – a graduate student from the College of Education and an incoming freshman – and am eager to see the direction they take things. There are already talks of revising our On The Radio segments to follow more of a longer-form podcast format, which as an avid podcast listener myself, I think has potential to be awesome.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my time at CGRER is that many of these environmental issues should not be political. I’m not a scientist myself but I understand that a certain amount of skepticism is important with scientific research but there’s a difference between healthy skepticism and outright denying what is perceived as fact by the majority of the scientific community. I understand that politicians and lobbyists often have business interests which will influence their opinions. While I would still disagree with them on ideological grounds, it would be a step in the right direction if these politicians would come out and say “I’m not going to deny the science but I disagree with this policy because I think it’s detrimental to a particular business or economic interest.”

I’m not one to buy into American exceptionalism but I think higher education is one thing we truly do right in this country. (With that said, I think there are always ways higher education can be improved.) During my time at the University of Iowa, I have met hundreds of students from dozens of different countries, all of whom came to the UI to get a world class education. Not only should we as country be quick to welcome these international students to our colleges and universities but we should do more to support the scientific research taking place as opposed to denying it, especially when that opposition is often based in political ideology as opposed to scientific fact.

Iowa State’s solar car team prepares for 1,800-mile trek across Midwest


Members of Team PrISUm -- from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode -- are preparing their solar racing car for this summer's two races. Larger photo. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Members of Team PrISUm — from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode — are preparing their solar racing car for this summer’s two races. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Nick Fetty | July 21, 2016

Members of Iowa State University’s solar car team – PrISUm – are preparing for an 1,800-mile trek from Ohio to South Dakota.

Later this month Team PrISUm will compete in the Amesican Solar Challenge road race which will begin at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Brecksville, Ohio and end at Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The race is in collaboration with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and will include stops at national battlefields, monuments and historical parks. The route does not go through Iowa and instead cuts south across Missouri.

Prior to the American Solar Challenge (July 30-August 6), Team PrISUm will compete in a qualifying race at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex July 26-28. The team hopes to use these races to prepare them for the 2017 World Solar Challenge, a 1,900-mile trek across the Australian outback scheduled for next October.

Team PrISUm claimed its first overall victory last year during the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. The team and its car, Phaëton, bested the second place team by more than 31 laps and also recording the fastest lap of any of its competitors by about 14 seconds. The car, Phaëton, is named for the son of Greek sun god, Helios.

The team’s newest model, Phaëton 2, improved upon several aspects from the previous design including a new motor, new batteries, and live telemetry which allows the public to use the internet to track location, speed, and other metrics measured by the car.

PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car's batteries and fuses outside the team's Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car’s batteries and fuses outside the team’s Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)

Coralville event focuses on management practices within Clear Creek Watershed


IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presents at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presented at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 16, 2016

Officials with the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering hosted an event Wednesday in Coralville focused on reducing flood damage and improving water quality within the Clear Creek Watershed.

IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber was the event’s main presenter as he discussed efforts in the Clear Creek Watershed which will in part be funded by a $96.9 million grant awarded to the state of Iowa in January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 60 were in attendance for Wednesday’s event at the Coralville Public Library including representatives from city, county, and state governments, Iowa’s three regent universities, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), landowners, farmers, and various engineering firms. Weber said he thinks cooperation between public and private entities will be key in many of the upcoming projects.

“It is a great partnership between the public and private sectors. With the federal and state agencies they have a jurisdiction and they have an authority. So they all work within in their authority to contribute to the program,” said Weber. “Then we have the private sector involved through design consultants, engineering services, technical assistance, and what I was really impressed with in today’s meeting were the number of landowners that were here. So there’s interest. We know there is interest in landowners wanting to make their waters better and to have that number of landowners here interested in the program, already thinking about practices they might want to enroll on their property, that’s exciting.”

Jeff Geerts, Special Project Manager for the Iowa Department of Economic Development, answered questions during the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

The $96.9 million grant was awarded to Iowa through the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The landlocked Hawkeye State received the fourth largest amount of funding behind disaster-prone coastal areas. Weber said this large sum of funding shows the need for pursuing these projects in Iowa.

“It is really interesting especially since this competition was born out of Superstorm Sandy. The largest recipient was the state of New York followed by Virginia and then New Orleans which has been impacted by every landfall and gulf coast hurricane over the last decade,” said Weber. “Iowa was fourth behind those disaster-prone areas so it really spoke to how well the partnership was, how sound the approach is, and how great the ideas are.”

Weber also said that IIHR’s prior involvement in HUD-funded projects made the process easier when pursuing the most recent grant.

“The Iowa Flood Center and IIHR was fortunate to be part of the team that helped to create this proposal and having the experience from running the previous HUD project we knew what the needs were. We needed money for conservation, we needed technical design assistance, we needed project coordinators, we needed the monitoring and modelling and other outreach services that we provide. So when we saw how all of those elements could fit together we wrote a compelling story for HUD and then ended up with a successful proposal.”

Another reason Iowa was successful in receiving the HUD funding was because of programs and other efforts already in place that will contribute to the HUD project. The Iowa Flood Center, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Iowa Geologic Survey, the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and other agencies already have programs in place which HUD felt could be further developed with the funding it granted to Iowa.

Coralville Mayor John Lundell. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Coralville mayor John Lundell also spoke at the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

In addition, Weber said Iowa was unique among its adversaries in the National Disaster Resilience Competition because of the amount of local financial support for the practices outlined in the state’s plan.

“We have 25 percent local support of these practices. So think about going to a coastal area where they’re going to build a seawall. They don’t ask the residents behind that seawall to commit 25 percent of the funding yet here we’re building practices on private land for public benefit and we’re getting that landowner to cover 25 percent of that cost.”

Weber credited the Iowa legislature and other state leaders for their support with establishing the Iowa Flood Center and funding other water-related activities in the state which helped Iowa’s case when applying for the recent HUD funding.

“Without that commitment we wouldn’t have had the leverage that we did and we wouldn’t have been successful like we were,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was part of an eight watershed tour that concludes today in Vinton.