Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy draft released


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Female monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed pods. (Charles Dawley/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 15, 2018

A draft of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy was released on Monday, and Iowa plays an integral role in its success.

North American monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers are less than half of what is needed to guarantee a sustainable population. The black and gold pollinators spend their winter months in Mexico and southern California and travel to the northern midwest for the summer. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively in milkweed pods.

Released by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the conservation strategy draft explains that midwestern states plan to establish 1.3 billion new milkweed stems over the next two decades. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is included within the midwestern effort. Written by Iowa State University’s Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, its aims to establish between 480,000 and 830,000 acres on monarch habitat by 2038.

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said, “The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides, and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway.”

Iowa’s strategy provides evidence-based recommendations for creating monarch habitat and aims to document all voluntary efforts. 127 to 188 million new milkweed stems are estimated to be planted in Iowa in accordance with the plan.

Given that the vast majority of Iowa land is in agricultural production, the plan’s authors emphasize that agricultural lands must be a part of the solution. The strategy considers both expanding on existing conservation practices and planting milkweed stems in underutilized farm land as viable options. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will decide in June 2019 whether the monarch butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said, “Iowa falls entirely within the monarch’s northern breeding core. This means that every patch of milkweed habitat added in Iowa counts, and Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”

The full draft of the Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.
The complete Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.

Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


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Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.

4th National Climate Assessment public draft released


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St. Paul, Minnesota, like many U.S. cities, has developed its own climate adaptation plan. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)
Jenna Ladd | November 21, 2017

The U.S. Global Change Research Program released the first public draft of the 4th National Climate Assessment this November.

The assessment, which is projected to be complete in late 2018, is required through the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990 to “analyze the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity.”

Findings from the report are separated into several geographic regions of the United States, with Iowa included among the Midwestern states. Scientists say that Iowans and others in the Midwest region can expect longer growing seasons and increasing carbon dioxide levels to bump yields for some crops, but that positive effect will be reversed over time. As the climate continues to change, increased humidity, severity and frequency of heat waves along with poorer water and air quality are expected to endanger agricultural yields.

Gene Takle and Charles Stainer, both CGRER members, were recently interviewed on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River about the program’s findings. Takle said,

“Humidity has been going up for the last 30 years, and it continues to go up. This fields a number of different consequences, heavy rainfall, the 5, 6, or 7 inch rainfall events that we seem to be experiencing every year. We’re also experiencing a rise in both summertime and wintertime temperatures which are going to be bumping up against our crops.”

To drive home the economic impact of a changing climate, Takle added, “In 2013, we were not able to plant 700,000 acres in Northwest Iowa.”

Scientists point out that Midwesterners burn through 20 percent more carbon emissions per capita than the national average. That said, they argue, the region has incredible potential to take actions that reduce those emissions that cause climate change.

The current draft of the 4th National Climate Assessment can be found here.

Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


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The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.

2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll released


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Jenna Ladd | May 4, 2017

Results from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll were released last month, providing insight into rural public opinion on a variety of topics.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, managed by the Iowa State University Extension Sociology, was established in 1982 and is the longest running survey of its kind. This year’s survey was completed by 1,039 farmers, who were 65-years-old on average. The poll is sent to the same 2,000 farmers every year so that researchers can track changes over time. This year, it asked respondents about conservation techniques, farming practices, monarch butterfly population restoration and trustworthy information sources.

According to the poll, 42 percent of farmers surveyed practice no-till farming, which can be effective in reducing topsoil erosion. On average, farmers lose 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre per year which can lead to a loss of 15 bushels of yield per acre each year, according to the Corn and Soybean Digest. Buffer strips along water ways and field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff was the most common conservation practice among respondents. Forty-six percent of farmers reported using buffer strips in 2015, while fewer than 40 percent reported implementing extended crop rotations, terraces, or ponds.

The survey also asked about participation in The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. NRCS is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with the protection of natural resources on agricultural lands. It provides technical and financial support to farmers looking to conserve soil and water. More than 60 percent of farmers said that they were currently participating in an NRCS program, just about 34 percent said that they were not. For those not enrolled in NRCS programs, their primary reason was that they did not believe they had enough natural resources on their land to warrant participation.

The farm poll also analyzed which sources of agricultural advice respondents were most likely to trust. More than any other source, farmers said they would be most likely to trust another farmer that grows nearby.

The survey is collaborative project of Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Information from the Farm Poll is used to guide policy decisions and actions and as the basis for public policy seminars, Extension reports, radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper and journal articles,” reads the Iowa State University Extension site.

Winter tornados move through Midwest


West of Tuscaloosa, Alabama
(Frank/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 2, 2017

More than 20 tornados ripped through parts of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee on Tuesday.

The severe thunderstorms and tornadoes killed at least three people and left thousands of residents in the Midwest and Southeastern U.S. without electricity. While tornados during winter months are rare, they seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

Typically wintertime tornados form when a forceful jet stream moves across the Southern U.S. and meets colder, retreating air fronts. According to The Weather Channel, usually these tornados crop up in the Deep South, however, in February 2016 severe tornados touched down in Pennsylvania and Virginia, ultimately killing seven people.

On average, February is second-least tornadic month of the year, but recently averages for that month are increasing. February 2008 had 146 total tornados, making it the most tornadic February since the 1950s, and February 2016 came close behind with 138 total twisters.

While an abundance of scientific evidence links climate change with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like heat waves and coastal flooding, the relationship between climate change and tornado frequency remains unclear.

Due to particularly strong jet-stream level energy characteristic of the winter months, winter tornados can occur at any time of the day or night, unlike more predictable spring and summer tornados that almost always form during the late afternoon and evening. The Weather Channel also points out that it is common for winter twisters to be wrapped in rain, making them more difficult to spot.

Experts remind Midwestern and Southeastern U.S. residents that severe weather in the winter months can be deadly and to create or review their severe weather plans.

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(The Weather Channel)

NOAA expects Iowa winter to be unpredictable


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Iowa falls between regions of the country that will a experience particularly  cold winter and those that will have a particularly warm winter. (NOAA)
Jenna Ladd | October 21, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its predictions for winter weather on Thursday.

Last year the midwest experienced the warmest winter on record in 121 years, but this year NOAA says that Iowans can expect a grab bag of both warm and cold temperatures. Both temperature and precipitation are expected to hover around average from December through February for much of the state, except for the northern most part of the state, which is expected to be colder than usual.

NOAA also expects a weak La Niña this year. La Niña is characterized by particularly cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, and often affects weather trends in the United States. Variances in La Niña’s strength and duration from year to year can make forecasting winter temperatures difficult. Mike Halpert is deputy director with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, he said, “Because there is still some uncertainly about when La Niña will develop and persist through the winter, probabilities on the maps this year are fairly conservative.”

Winter 2015-2016 was the wettest Iowa winter on record in 101 years. Other parts of the Midwest and the Western U.S. are predicted to receive high amounts precipitation this year, with Idaho, North Dakota and the Ohio Valley all among those that will be affected. Unusually cool temperatures are on the forecast from Eastern Montana through Wisconsin.

In short, NOAA expects wetter and colder than usual temperatures for the far northern Midwest and warmer with drier winter conditions for the Southern U.S., and most of Iowa falls somewhere in the middle. Much like most winters, Iowans should prepare for anything.