CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor


Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

schnoor photo 2018
Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”


Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.


Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”


Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”


***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

Ecolotree helps clean our environment


Poplar trees
Poplar trees

Lou Licht, who received his PhD in the University of Iowa’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is using poplar trees to clean polluted water.

Licht started the Iowa-based company Ecolotree. This company installs forests of poplar trees near sites that leak pollutants. Through a process called phytoremediation, the roots of the poplar trees help filter some of the harmful pollutants, and keep them from contaminating the water and soil.

Ecolotree has worked with 110 sites in the U.S. and one in Europe.

Learn more about Licht and his company here.

Audio: UI’s Jerry Schnoor discusses phytoremediation


Jerry Schnoor is a Professor in the University of Iowa’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. He is also the co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

Phytoremediation refers to the process of using plants to mitigate environmental problems. This includes using plants to extract harmful contaminants from soil and groundwater. Jerry and his students have done research on phytoremediation for more than two decades.

CGRER Student Research Focus – Samantha Westerhof


Samantha Westerhof, a senior in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Iowa, discusses her research on poplar trees as a tool for phytoremediation.

CGRER Student Research Focus – Luke Smith


Luke Smith, a senior in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, details his research on an ecosystem’s ability to naturally clean oil through a process called phytoremediation.

Interview with UI’s Dr. Jerald Schnoor


Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa

Dr. Jerald Schnoor is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, as well as the co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research. Dr. Schnoor recently took time out of his busy schedule to detail his current research and discuss how he first became involved in environmental engineering:

I became interested in the environment after following Earth Day in 1970. I was training to be a chemical engineer at Iowa State University, and I thought to myself that these same techniques – basic principles of mass balance and energy balances, and thinking about how momentum is transferred in the environment – could be used for environmental concerns as well as chemical engineering. Continue reading

On the Radio: Growing Trees, Cleaning Iowa


A view of a section of poplar trees that grow on Licht's land in North Liberty.

Listen to this week’s radio spot on Lou Licht, who uses trees to clean up the land, water and air. For more information on Licht, check out the Iowa Independent, or read this interview with him: The Accidental Capitalist.

Planting trees: A proven way to clean up Iowa’s land and water – and save money.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Iowa-native Lou Licht is the founder of Ecolotree, an engineering firm that uses trees to clean up toxic sites.

He’s the first person in the world to do so.

Ecolotree has cleaned up landfills, brown fields, and hazardous waste sites around the world.  The idea can also help curb farm runoff that pollutes Iowa’s rivers and streams.

Licht’s low-cost, quick-growing poplar trees could be a solution for many Iowa towns that need to upgrade their out-dated sewer systems.

It goes to show that sometimes you can save a little green by going green.

For more information, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

I’m Jerry Schnoor with the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

Thank you.