Saharan Dust Cloud Reaches Iowa and Affects Air Quality


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 2, 2020

A giant plume of dust that originated in the Sahara Desert traveled across the Atlantic ocean and into the United States early this week.

The dust cloud first appeared over states in the gulf of Mexico before traveling up into the Midwest. It reached Iowa last weekend, and the EPA issued an air quality forecast for Iowa June 29 placing parts of the state in the “moderate” category. This level of pollution could pose some health risks for a small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution, according to air quality forecasts on AirNow.

The dust plume was part of the Saharan Air Layer, which is a mass of dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert in the summer and moves over the North Atlantic every few days, according to NOAA. The dust caused the air to appear hazy in parts of the Midwest, especially during sunrise and sunset.

When the wind is strong enough, the dust can reach the United States and be concentrated enough to cause air quality issues. However, the extremely dry air can also help suppress hurricane and tropical storm development over the Atlantic Ocean, and minerals in the dust can help replenish nutrients in rainforest soil when it is able to reach the Amazon River Basin.

Remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal Reach Iowa in a Rare Occurrence


Source: NASA earth observatory

Nicole Welle | June 10, 2020

Parts of Eastern Iowa saw heavy rainfall and flash flood warnings yesterday as what was left of Tropical Storm Cristobal moved into the Midwest.

Tropical storms over the Gulf of Mexico usually break up before they reach Iowa, but this one remained a post-tropical depression in an extremely rare phenomenon, according to Meteorologist Brooke Hagenhoff at the National Weather Service. This system brought an abrupt end to the hot, humid weather that eastern Iowans had been experiencing as it was followed by a cold front that brought cooler, dryer conditions, according to an Iowa News Now article.

The post-tropical depression caused heavy rainfall in the state, and flash flooding occurred near waterways and in low areas. Along with posing threats to human safety, flash floods can also raise environmental concerns. Floods have the ability to pick up hazardous chemicals and materials and transport them into waterways. This can threaten the safety of drinking water as well as the plant and animal life that rely on Iowa’s waterways.

Proposed Changes to Iowa’s Bottle Bill Could Make it Harder for Rural Iowans to Recycle


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | May 28, 2020

Iowa’s grocery industry recently proposed changes to a 40-year-old bill that requires grocery and convenience stores to take back cans and bottles for recycling.

One of these proposals would allow stores to stop accepting cans and bottles if there is a redemption center within a 15-mile radius of their store. Currently, the law states that they do not have to accept these recyclables if there is a redemption center within a 10-minute drive of their store, according to an article published in The Gazette.

Grocers urged the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to make this change just a day after Gov. Kim Reynolds extended the suspension of the bottle bill requirement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This change could lead to an increase in litter and the number of cans and bottles going into landfills since recycling would become more difficult for rural Iowans. It could also put a strain on smaller redemption centers that are not prepared to take in larger quantities of recyclables.

Some Iowan’s also raised concerns over a part of the proposal that would waive a requirement that retailers establish a written agreement with a redemption center before they are allowed to stop accepting cans and bottles. If that requirement is waived, retailers could simply tell the DNR that there is a redemption center within the 15-mile radius without the need for documentation. A lack of paper trail would make it difficult to require stores to begin accepting recyclables again if a redemption center were to go out of business, according to Troy Willard, owner of the Can Shed that services markets in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

The DNR has not yet set a deadline for making a decision on the proposed changes.

Corn and Soybean Production May Move out of Iowa in Coming Years Due to Warming Temperatures in the Midwest


(Image Via Flickr)

Nicole Welle |May 7th, 2020

The production of corn and soybeans makes up a huge part of Iowa’s economy, but studies show that warming in the Midwest caused by climate change may cause the ideal growing conditions for the crops to move north into Minnesota and the Dakotas in the next 50 years.

Researchers at Penn State University studied county-level crop-yield data from 18 states compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service over approximately a 30-year period. The team also studied weather patterns and the relationships between climate and corn and soybean yield over that same time period.

Their findings showed that this northward shift has already begun and is likely to continue if there is no intervention. This may be concerning to Iowans who rely on the production of these crops for their livelihood. However, the current changes are happening gradually, so farmers would have adequate time to adapt over the coming decades, according to Armen Kemanian, a researcher at Penn State.

Iowa farmers would have to begin growing a different variety of crops or switch to a system that involves growing two crops a year once corn and soybeans are no longer a viable option. The new crops would also need to have a lower sensitivity to extreme temperatures and changes in humidity to thrive in an environment with more extreme fluctuations in temperature caused by climate change.

Iowa School Districts Receive $300,000 from the EPA to Replace Older School Busses and Reduce Diesel Emissions


(Image Via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | April 30th, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded $300,000 to 10 Iowa School districts April 23 to help replace old diesel buses with new, more efficient models that will decrease diesel emissions.

These funds were part of a $11.5 million plan to replace 580 buses in 48 states and Puerto Rico. The EPA hopes the new buses will reduce the emission of harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, both being commonly associated with aggravated asthma, lung damage and other health issues.

The EPA’s Diesel Emission Reduction Act provides funding for the plan. Applicants receive rebates between $15,000 and $20,000 per bus when replacing engine models older than 2006. The amount awarded depends on the size of the bus. Buses made before 2006 were not required to meet certain emission standards, and the EPA hopes to phase out the use of those older buses still in operation. Newer models that meet EPA standards are up to 90% cleaner, according to the EPA’s news release.

The funds were distributed in conjunction with the 50th annual Earth Day celebration.

“Earth Day’s primary goal is to protect the environment for future generations. These rebates help to do just that by continuing to improve air quality across the country and providing children with a safe and healthy way to get to school,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement on the EPA’s website.

The DERA program has funded more than 1,000 clean diesel projects and reduced emissions in over 70,000 engines since 2008.

AP story showcases tension in Iowa over factory farming


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Large animal feeding operations (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | February 13, 2020

A news story published last week featured an Iowa farmer who illegally built to un-permitted barns containing about 2,400 hogs. State officials were unaware of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for years. 

That farmer and others are fighting in what Associated Press correspondent John Flesher called a “battleground” in Iowa. Questions of pollution and regulation have inspired lawsuits, anti-CAFO alliances and neighborly tensions throughout the state, as animal feeding operations continue to proliferate.

Below are four key takeaways from Flesher’s in-depth report. Read the full-length story on apnews.com.

  1. The federal government relies state data for animal feeding operation data. In many cases, states keep tabs on only the largest operations (in Iowa, a true “CAFO” has a minimum of 1,000 species-variable “animal units” per confinement). The EPA counted about 20,300 CAFOs nationwide in 2018.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 450,000 animal feeding operations–places animals are raised in confinement (of any size)– nationwide.
  2. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered thousands of previously undocumented animal feeding operations in 2017.  Some point to this case as proof of under-regulation, but state regulators said the discoveries indicated a well-functioning system.
  3. Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, especially large livestock operations need permits for discharging waste into waterways. Since such discharges are often unintended, however, state and federal environmental agencies can only mandate permits for operations caught discharging waste. In some cases, farmers have been able to make spill-proofing improvements instead of applying for permits.
  4. Studies show that livestock operations and anaerobically decomposing waste release massive amounts of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Because such emissions are difficult to measure, though, they are unregulated by the Clear Air Act. Studies have additionally correlated these emissions to human health issues such as childhood asthma. Cause/effect is impossible to prove, however.

 

60 degree Christmas part of a larger pattern of atmospheric warming


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Temperatures across Iowa at 2:51pm Dec. 25 (via Iowa Environmental Mesonet). 

Julia Poska| December 27, 2019

High temperatures on Wednesday, December 25 2019 broke records across the state of Iowa and much of the Midwest.

Des Moines reached 60 degrees, breaking the 1936 record of 58 degrees. Cedar Rapids reached 58 degrees, breaking the previous record of 54, according to Weather Underground.

The Christmas day highs were preceded and followed by unseasonably warm weather as well.

Though a 60 degree December day is not unheard of (the Des Moines Register reports that at least one December day in Iowa has reach 60 degrees 29% of years since 1878), average winter temperatures in the Midwest are undoubtedly rising.

A Union of Concerned Scientists report shares that average annual winter temperatures in the Midwest have risen about 4 degrees since 1980. Winter temperatures are forecast to continue rising, while snow and days below freezing will decrease.

U.S. formally withdrawals from Paris Agreement, but 26 Iowan parties are still in


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The Paris Agreement aims to limit harmful emissions (via flickr)

Julia Poska | November 6, 2019

The United States has officially notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

President Trump announced his intent to withdraw on the campaign trail and again in January 2017. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that the administration had begun the formal, one-year withdrawal process that day. U.N. rules declared Nov. 4 the first day formal withdrawal was possible, according to the BBC. 

If a new president is elected in 2020, he or she may choose to reenter the agreement, which intends to minimize global temperature increase by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in participation nations.

In the meantime, over 3,000 U.S. cities, counties, states, businesses, tribes and institutions have declared intent to cut emissions in line with the agreement via the “We Are Still In”  declaration. In Iowa, 26 parties have signed on including…

  • The cities of Des Moines, Iowa City, Dubuque and Fairfield
  • Johnson and Linn Counties
  • Coe College, Grinnell College, Kirkwood Community College, Luther College, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa

 

 

Does October snow contradict climate change theory? Absolutely not.


Julia Poska | October 30, 2019

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Map from Iowa Environmental Mesonet (accessed through Des Moines Register).

Iowans across much of the state awoke Tuesday morning to find a blanket of fresh snow atop vibrant orange and yellow autumn leaves, many still attached to the trees. Parts of east and east central Iowa saw as much as three to four inches, according to the Des Moines Register. 

The National Weather Service  puts eastern Iowa’s average date of first one-inch snowfall in early December.  The unseasonable flurry might have some Iowans questioning how serious Midwestern climate change–characterized by increasing average temperatures– could really be.

But climate (average temperature and precipitation over several decades) is not the same as weather (daily atmospheric conditions). Years of abnormally high snowfall or abnormally cold weather could impact climate averages over time, but singular snow and frost events are products of normal weather variation throughout the year.

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Records show that overall, average annual temperatures in Iowa and most of the world are increasing, despite weather variation. This pushes local 30-year climate averages (shown below for Iowa City) up by small increments over time.

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From U.S. Climate Data

 

Iowans can still expect snow and cold in coming decades, though the overall frequency and intensity of such events may decline over time. Somewhat milder winters will be followed by much hotter, dryer summers, with an increased number of intense rainstorms added to the mix.

University of Iowa unveils new water well map


Many Iowans rely on wells for their water | Photo by Pedro Craveiro on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 25th, 2019

Varies research teams at the University of Iowa recently launched an interactive private well map for Iowa residents. Lead by CHEEC (The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination), the Iowa Geological Survey and the UI Hydroinformatics Lab, the Iowa Well Forecasting System–otherwise known as the IWFoS–is a powerful tool for the public.

Users looking to build new wells can use the map to determine the new well site and the quality of the water in that area. By looking at the water quality data of existing wells adjacent to the potential new build, a safe location for a new source of water can be determined.

Thousands of Iowans relay on wells for their water. CHEEC director David Cwiertny estimates that roughly 60% of Iowans rely on groundwater, with about 300,000 Iowans relying on private wells specifically. While recent news about nitrate levels from agricultural fertilizers has been concentrated on Iowa’s rivers, Iowa’s wells suffer from contamination issues too, and the comprehensive data that IWFoS provides is vital for those looking to expand a town’s water resources.

Well forecasts–the details of well water quality and the locations of safe private wells–have been available through the Iowa Geological Survey for years, but these forecasts were generally only available during business hours. IWFoS is accessible 24/7 and uses IGS’s geological info for the well locations, combining this with datasets on well water quality from the Private Well Tracking System that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources manages.

Transparency with our water quality data is one of the best ways to ensure that safe natural resources are available for all Iowans, all the time.

Check out IWFoS.