EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Gregory Carmichael


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael has worked closely with scientists in East Asia since 1983 to address pressing air quality problems in that region. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | February 17, 2017

In Episode 5 of EnvIowa we speak with Dr. Gregory Carmichael, Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and Co-Director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, about his extensive research on global air pollution.

Dr. Carmichael shares his experiences collaborating with scientists in China, explains why air quality issues in East Asia should matter to Iowans and offers some perspective about what climate science research may look under the new federal administration.

More than 700 threatened animal species hit hard by climate change


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Tropical marsupials, such as the bushtail opossum, are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change. 
Jenna Ladd | February 16, 2017

The changing climate has had a significant negative impact on 700 mammal and bird species according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change.

While the majority of existing research focuses on the impact climate change will likely have on animal species in the future, new research suggests that the future is now. Researchers performed a systematic review of published literature and found that 47 percent of land mammals and 23 percent of bird species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of threatened species have already been been negatively effected by climate change.

At present, the IUCN reports that only seven percent of mammals and four percent of bird species are threatened by the warming planet.

The study found that climate change is impacting animals on every continent. In general, animals that breed more slowly and live in high altitudes are suffering the greatest losses. Mammals with a more specialized diet are most profoundly effected due to regional vegetation change. For birds, species with small dispersal distances and longer generation lengths are most at risk.

The article read, “Our results suggest that populations of large numbers of threatened species are likely to be already affected by climate change, and that conservation managers, planners and policy makers must take this into account in efforts to safeguard the future of biodiversity.”

Those animals belonging to taxonomic orders which have been most extensively studied showed the most significant trend. Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment program at Sapienza University of Rome is the report’s lead author. He said,

“We have seriously underestimated the effects of climate change on the most well-known groups, which means those other groups, reptiles, amphibians, fish, plants, the story is going to be much, much worse in terms of what we think the threat is from climate change already.”

Animals that live in tropical regions, like primates and marsupials, are at the highest risk because they have adapted to that biome’s climate, which has been relatively stable for thousands of years. The study said, “Many of these [animals] have evolved to live within restricted environmental tolerances and are likely to be most affected by rapid changes and extreme events.”

Just two orders of mammals, rodents and insect-eaters, were found to have benefited from climate change. Generally, these animals thrive in a variety of climates, breed quickly, and can burrow to protect themselves from changes in weather.

One of the study’s authors, James Watson, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, said climate researchers should shift their focus to present-day.

“It’s a scientific problem in that we are not thinking about climate change as a present-day problem, we’re always forecasting into the future,” Watson added, “When you look at the evidence, there is a massive amount of impact right now.”

Iowa State researchers receive grants to improve glacier flow models and sea level predictions


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                         Calving of the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. (Alaska National Park Service)
Jake Slobe | February 15, 2017

Iowa State University’s Neal Iverson and a team of researchers are working on research that will predict how much glaciers will contribute to the rise of sea levels.

The research will focus on the extent to which glacier-flow to oceans is likely speed up over the next century as the climate warms.

Iverson, an Iowa State University professor of geological and atmospheric sciences who has studied glaciers in Iceland and Norway, and the rest of the research team will look to lab experiments and field work to build more realistic computer models of glacier flow.

Iverson said about the project:

“Glaciologists are trying to predict how fast glaciers will flow to the oceans. To do that, we need new lab and field data to include complexity in models that is usually neglected. These are complicated systems. Modeling them is hard. But we need to include how water in ice affects its flow resistance, and we need sliding laws that are based on the real topography of glacier beds and that include rock friction. Adding these things really matters.”

Two new grants will help Iverson and his team fund their research, both of which grants are from the National Science Foundation.  The research will also receive funding from the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council to support the work of applied mathematicians at the University of Oxford in England.

Iverson is the lead investigator on both grant proposals. The other researchers are Lucas Zoet, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral research associate at Iowa State; Ian Hewitt, an associate professor and university lecturer at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute; and Richard Katz, a professor of geodynamics at Oxford.

The first project will look at temperate ice, or ice at its melting point, and how this soft, watery ice resists deformation. That’s important because the resistance to deformation of temperate ice at the edges of ice streams – areas of rapid ice flow within the Antarctic ice sheet that can be hundreds of miles long and tens of miles wide – holds back the flowing ice.

The second project will support development of better “sliding laws” to help predict the sliding speeds of glaciers and ice sheets. Sliding laws are the mathematical relationships between the glacier sliding speed and the factors that control it, such as the stresses below the glacier, the water pressure there, the topography of the glacier bed and the concentration of debris in glacier ice.

Both projects will use the glacier sliding simulator Iverson has been using since 2009 to study glacier movement.

The new projects will add complexity to Iverson’s lab experiments. Debris, for example, will be added to the ice ring to study friction between it and the rock bed during sliding. In other experiments, temperate ice will be sheared between rotating plates to study how its resistance to flow depends on its water content.

University of Iowa drinking water exceeds maximum contaminant levels for disinfectant by-products


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Chlorine treatments react with organic matter in waterways to form Total Thihalomethanes, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2017

University of Iowa facilities management received notice on February 1 that its drinking water system contains levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) that exceed the federal drinking water standard.

In an email sent out to University faculty, staff and students on February 9, it was reported that the drinking water tested on average between 0.081 and 0.110 mg/L over the last year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHM is 0.08 mg/L.

TTHM is a group of four chemicals: chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane and bromoform. TTHM form when chlorine reacts with natural organic matter like leaves, algae and river weeds in drinking water. In its statement, the University said that more chlorination was necessary this year because higher than usual temperatures led to more organic waste in waterways.

The notice read, “You do not need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply. Disease prevention specialists with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say special precautions are not necessary.”

Chloroform and dibromochloromethane are Class B carcinogens, meaning they have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. TTHM has also been linked to heart, lung, kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage, according to a report by the University of West Virginia.

University officials cautioned, “However, some people who drink water-containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

A study by the California Department of Health suggests that even short-term exposure to high TTHM levels in drinking water can have serious consequences for pregnant women. Scientists monitored 5,144 women during their first trimester of pregnancy. Participants who drank five or more glasses of cold home tap water containing 0.075 mg/L or more of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.9 percent. Women that drank less than five glasses per day or who had home tap water with less than 0.075 mg/L TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 9.5 percent.

A reverse osmosis filtration system for the University of Iowa drinking water supply is currently in its design phase. Facilities management expects to have the new system up and running within the next 18 months. Officials say it will help address Iowa’s nitrate problem and filter out naturally occurring organic matter, resulting in fewer TTHM.

Nearly 50,000 gallons of oil spill from Iowa pipeline


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Heavy snowfall in northern Iowa early this week complicated diesel oil clean-up efforts in Worth County, Iowa. (echoroo/flickr)
Jake Slobe | Febraury 13, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a  oil spill onto a Worth County farm that took place last month.

Transcript: An underground pipeline recently leaked 47,000 gallons of diesel fuel onto a Worth County, Iowa farm.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The pipeline, which is owned by Magellan Midstream Partners, was first discovered to have ruptured last month. Situated twelve inches underground, the pipeline stretches across Iowa, Illionois Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Clean-up crews worked to vacuum the diesel fuel from the soil despite high winds and heavy snow. The spilled diesel fuel was transported to a facility in Minnesota while the remaining contaminated soil went to a landfill near Clear Lake. The spill did not reach the nearby Willow Creek and wildlife reserve.

Transnational oil pipelines remain a controversial issue in the United States. Following President Trump’s executive orders reviving the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, opponents expressed concerns about the environmental and human health impacts associated with refined oil pipelines. Since 2010, 807 spills have been reported, causing an estimated $342 million in property damages.

The spill in Worth County is the largest diesel oil spill since 2010, its cause is still under investigation.

For more information about the oil spill in Worth county, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.  

Iowa Falls family honored with sustainable agriculture award


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Wetlands can improve water quality and create habitat for wildlife on Iowa farms. (Scott Smithson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 10, 2017

John and Beverly Gilbert were honored with the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at last month’s Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.

John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.

The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.

John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”

Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,

“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”

Hy-Vee supermarkets take on U.S. food waste problem


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Hy-Vee stores have announced a program offering “ugly” produce in order to combat food waste in the United States. (Sarah R/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2017

Iowa’s Hy-Vee supermarket chain announced a new initiative to reduce food waste last month.

The employee-owned corporation began offering “ugly” produce in nearly all of its 242 stores in mid-January. “Ugly” produce are those vegetables and fruits that typically are not sold at market due to industry size and shape preferences. Hy-Vee partnered with Robinson Fresh to offer its original line of Misfits® produce. Depending on what is available seasonally, four to six Misfits® produce items are delivered to Hy-Vee stores where shoppers can purchase them at a discounted price. The program’s produce offerings include peppers, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and apples, among other fruits and vegetables. On average, consumers can expect to pay 30 percent less for the “ugly” items.

John Griesenbrock is Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said, “As a company with several focused environmental efforts, we feel it’s our responsibility to help educate consumers and dispel any misperceptions about produce that is not cosmetically perfect.”

The company’s press release notes that a movement to reduce food waste through the purchase of less-than-perfect produce has spread across Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. Food waste makes up the vast majority of waste found in municipal land fills and quickly generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Hy-Vee’s Misfit® program supports the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effort to achieve a 50 percent food waste reduction nationwide by 2030.

“We understand that there is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Robinson Fresh general manager Hunter Winton. He added, “With the Misfits program, farmers have an outlet to sell more produce and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”