UI scientists and Iowa teachers work together to create 8th grade curriculum


Kasey Dresser & Jenna Ladd | November 3, 2017

Eighth grade teachers from around the state came to the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center for a special kind of professional development last weekend.

The twenty-one participants worked with University of Iowa faculty and graduate students to design new eighth-grade science curriculum as a part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) development. A large step away from traditional rote memorization, NGSS allows students to engage in self-guided inquiry about phenomena occurring in their local environment.

Chelsea Salba is a high school science teacher at Dike-New Hartford. She said, “I love it all because the old way of doing things was ‘know and understand.’ Well, science is not memorizing facts and figures. It never has been. NGSS challenges teachers to make science actually happen in their classrooms. What I mean by that is [the students] are investigating, reading, creating a claim, doing something, getting feedback and then doing it again.”

Ted Neal, clinical associate professor in the College of Education and project lead, explained that eighth grade NGSS curriculum requires education about the natural systems and climate science. During morning and afternoon breakout sessions, teachers were asked to provide feedback about lesson plans related to how and why Iowans have changed the land and how climate change has affected local landscapes. These lesson plans, bundles five and six, are a part of a six bundle curriculum required by NGSS for eighth grade students. CGRER researchers Scott Spak and Charles Stanier developed their content as a part of the College of Education and CGRER’s effort to connect Iowa educators with local climate science in realtime.

Approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, the bulk of the 8th grade NGSS curriculum will be implemented in Iowa schools next semester. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative team has recently developed a free and public online pressbook where Iowa teachers can access course-related climate science data from CGRER researchers, as well as lesson plans and suggestions from other Iowa teachers.

Ted Neal explained, “This whole curriculum is free. Use it how you want, where you want, how you want, we’re just trying to compile this together for school districts in a time when budgeting is so tight.”

The NGSS standards require students of all ages to understand Earth’s systems. Scott Spak, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning, said, “Of the dozens of standards, there are 36 that from kindergarten through high school that are required to be able to understand how the climate system works.”

Spak and his fellow CGRER researchers will provide data that is relevant to learners specifically in the Hawkeye State.

Drew Ayrit is high school teacher from Waco that participated in last weekend’s workshop. He said, “I really believe in the standards because it’s very student-centered, students doing real science, students engaging in discussion based on evidence.”

Climate change made California wildfires more severe


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Smoke looms over homes in California during the Solano fire of 2013. (Robert Couse-Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| October 13, 2017

A report published on Thursday in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review stated that human-induced climate change is likely to blame for the nearly two dozen wildfires ripping across northern California.

The wildfires have burned nearly 190,000 acres so far and killed 31 residents. While the source of the initial flames remains unknown, MIT points out that parts of California recently experienced a five-year drought which was “very likely” caused by climate change. The long drought left more than 100 million dead trees in its wake, which added to the amount of fuel available to this week’s wildfires. Couple that with record-setting heat in California this summer, another consequence of a changing climate, and conditions were perfect for fire.

Climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country. Since the 1980’s they’ve become more likely and more severe. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires now last five times as long, occur nearly four times as often and burn an average of six times more land area than they used to.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, recently published a study looking at the impact of human-induced climate change on the size of the area wildfires have burned the western U.S. Referring to climate change, he said, “No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear.”

EPA moves to repeal Clean Power Plan


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The Sutton coal plant in Wilmington, North Carolina closed its doors in 2013. Despite the Trump administration’s pro-coal policy, coal plants are shutting down around the U.S. (Duke Energy/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 11, 2017

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Monday that the Trump administration would begin the process of rescinding the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

President Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan was designed to reduce the power industry’s carbon dioxide pollution levels by 32 percent below 2005 levels before 2030. The plan was a part of a larger effort to meet the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, from which President Trump decided to withdraw shortly after taking office.

Gina McCarthy served as EPA administrator during Obama’s second term in office. She said in a statement, “They’re adding more pollution into our air and threatening public health at a time when the threats of climate change are growing and the costs are growing immeasurably higher on our children and their future.”

Pruitt is said to have filed his proposal to rescind the climate policy on Tuesday, but the proposal is subject to public comment for months before it is finalized. Attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts have said they will sue the administration after the repeal goes through. California and New York state have both adopted their own climate smart polices, which include emission-cutting regulations that exceed those outlined by the Clean Power Plan.

Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”

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.

Safe drinking water symposium next week in Des Moines


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Jenna Ladd| September 14, 2017

Water quality has been a growing concern for many Iowans in recent years, primarily due to nitrate runoff from agricultural fields frequently exceeding the EPA’s safe drinking water limits. A safe drinking water symposium will be held next Thursday and Friday, September 21 and 22 in Des Moines to unpack this issue and many others.

Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest” will feature Iowa-based and nationally-recognized speakers and discussion panels related to local, regional and national water quality issues. A few of the topics to be discussed are the Health Impacts of Nitrate in Drinking Water, Drinking Water Treatment Concerns, New and Emerging Drinking Water Threats, and Communicating with the Public on Drinking Water Issues.

The one-and-a-half-day event is co-sponsored by several centers at the University of Iowa, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa as well as the Iowa Association of Water Agencies, and the Central Iowa Drinking Water Commission.

The event, which will be held at the Drake University Shivers Facility, is open to the public. Additional information regarding agenda, registration, hotel, and parking is available at https://cph.uiowa.edu/ehsrc/drinking-water-symposium-2017.html.  Alternatively, call (319) 335-4756 to speak with an organizer.

What: Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium

When: September 21 from 8 am to 5 pm, September 22 from 8 am to 12 pm

Where: Drake University, Shivers Facility, Des Moines

Climate change to make storms like Harvey more frequent, intense


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A Texas National Guard member rescues a Houston resident during Hurricane Harvey. (The National Guard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| August 30, 2017

More than fourteen million olympic-sized swimming pools could be filled with the amount of rain that has fallen in Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and scientists say that climate change added to the deluge.

To begin, sea surface temperatures near where Harvey picked up its strength were about 1 degree Celsius higher than average. The Clausius-Clapeyron equation, a law of thermodynamics, says that the warmer a body of air is, the more moisture it can hold. In this case, the atmosphere surrounding Hurricane Harvey was able to hold roughly three to five percent more moisture than usual.

“The water in the Gulf of Mexico is the heat reservoir to support these hurricanes,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, in a report from NPR. Kirtman added, “For a small change in temperature, you get a huge amount of evaporation.”

In the last three decades, sea levels have risen worldwide by about six inches thanks to a warming climate and, in part, to human activities like offshore oil drilling. Higher sea levels make inland floods more devastating.

Climate Central scientist Ben Strauss said, “Every storm surge today reaches higher because it starts from a higher level, because sea level is higher. A small amount of sea-level rise can lead to an unexpectedly large increase in damages to most kinds of structures.”

Scientists are careful to point out that climate change did not directly cause Harvey, but is likely to produce storms like it more often. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that category 4 hurricanes like Harvey will occur more frequently in the future due to a warming climate.

So far, fourteen casualties have been identified as the storm continues to devastate the area.