ISU researchers develop decision-making tool for sustainable cities

The city of Des Moines is involved in ISU’s “Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making” research project. (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 28, 2016

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) and the city of Des Moines are working together to develop a decision-making tool that could revolutionize the way cities tackle climate change and social issues.

Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”

Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”

The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.

Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”

The above graphic outlines the four phases of the research project along with the 16 ISU faculty that are involved. (Iowa State University)

Iowa Rideshare program to cut costs and emissions

Iowa Rideshare allows users to match with other commuters using various modes of transportation. (Iowa Rideshare)
Jenna Ladd | October 27, 2016

Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) recently launched a statewide rideshare program.

Iowa DOT partnered with several agencies to consolidate existing rideshare programs across the state into one state-of-the art system. Among those agencies are Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, East Central Iowa Council of Governments, and the University of Iowa. University of Iowa (UI) staff, students, and faculty can login to the system using their HawkID and password in order to be matched with other commuters on similar transportation routes. Iowa Rideshare has the capacity to detect matches for carpooling, biking, public transit, and walking, and officials say it has the potential to cut travel costs in half for users.

According to a survey done in 2012, a little more than half of UI employees drive to work alone, and 57 percent of commuters in the Iowa City area do the same. UI Parking and Transportation professionals say that Iowa City is among the most congested urban areas in Iowa, despite the fact that the state ranks seventh for shortest commute distance. Additionally, solo commutes by car can add up over time. Depending on the vehicle type and driving style, the Iowa DOT says that driving a car can cost between 60 cents and $1.20 per mile. After tacking on parking costs, which range from $27 to $110 per month, a person commuting just ten miles to work could pay an additional $555 to $1,500 per year in transportation costs. Consistently commuting alone by car has environmental impacts as well. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted per gallon of gasoline burned by automobile. The administration estimates that burning motor gasoline resulted in about 1,105 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2015.

Michelle Ribble is the commuter programs manager for the UI Office of Parking and Transportation. She said, “The UI is an extremely busy place and parking infrastructure is expensive. Each person using UI RideShare reduces pollution and frees resources that can more directly benefit everyone.”

The system, designed by a company called Rideshark, allows users to calculate miles traveled, emissions curbed, and money saved. Iowa DOT partnered with institutions like the UI to launch the rideshare program in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. A link to sign up for Iowa Rideshare in the Corridor area can be found here, or check out CorridorRide’s Facebook page to get news and updates about the service.

Frequency of Iowa flooding and precipitation on the rise

Graph showing the average amount precipitation per year in Iowa. The average amount of has increased dramatically in the state. Since 1960, has seen 10 percent increase in the amount of annual precipitation. (Iowa State University)
Jake Slobe | October 26, 2016

Recent Iowa State University data shows that 100-year flood plain maps actually map 25-year flood plains.  The data also shows that an increasing frequency of large rainfall events throughout Iowa. In Cedar Rapids, the number of heavy rainfall events has increased by 57 percent over the last 100 years.

Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education says that part of the reason for these increases in flooding is coming from changes in land use.

“Over the last 100 years, we have significantly altered the hydrology of our state. The part that we can do something about that would have fairly immediate results is land use change, meaning changing the way our cropping system works, and reestablishing some of the elements we’ve lost like wetlands and forests.”

Currently, the vast majority of Iowa’s agricultural land has, for a long time, been under cultivation in a two-year, corn-soybean rotation. Long-term studies at Iowa State University have demonstrated that moving to a three or four-year crop rotation would lead to a significantly different system that could naturally reduce flooding.

Researchers in Iowa are now analyzing the impact of upstream flood mitigation efforts — as well as determining the costs of potential efforts.

For example, the cost of funding watershed management projects, to help mitigate flood in the state is estimated to be around $5 billion, which is a bargain when put in the context of the cost of flood damage recovery. The damage from the 2008 flood alone was estimated at $10 billion across the state.

Human activity, El Niño contribute to record-setting CO2 levels

Former CGRER graduate outreach assistant, Nick Fetty, interviews Dubuque mayor Roy Buol at the COP21 conference in Paris last December. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2016

With carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million (ppm), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently announced that a new era of “climate change reality” has begun.

Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 molecules of CO2 for every one million molecules for the first time in globally recorded history in 2015, and 2016 is likely to be the first year where global averages exceed this threshold.

Even though human outputs of CO2 remained steady from 2014 through 2015, a particularly strong El Niño in 2015 caused a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels. El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by especially warm temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean that have far-reaching weather effects. In 2015, the phenomenon caused drought in tropical regions around the globe, which negatively affected the amount of gases that forests, vegetation, and oceans were able to absorb.

While El Niño heightened the spike of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere last year, human activities like agriculture and industry caused 37 percent of the warming effect due to methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide increase from 1990 through 2015. Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general, said, “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.” Scientists at the longest-running greenhouse gas monitoring station in the world in Hawaii say that CO2 levels will not drop below 400 ppm for several generations. Carbon dioxide is responsible for around two-thirds of the warming effect that long-lived greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere.

WMO released this report just before the next round of climate talks associated with the Paris Agreement, a climate change mitigation plan signed by 200 nations last December. Participating countries committed to limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Taalas said, “The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The 200 nations will meet in Morocco next month to forge a path forward.

On The Radio – Student Garden coming closer to campus

The current student garden is located off campus on Hawkeye Park Road in Iowa City. (Jake Slobe)
Jake Slobe | October 24, 2016

This week’s On The Radio discusses the announcement of a new, on campus student garden coming early next year.

Transcript: The University of Iowa Student Government is working with student gardeners to develop a new garden on campus.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The UI Student Government, last month, voted unanimously to give $17,000 to UI Student Gardeners to build a brand new garden on campus. The new garden will be located near North Hall.

Formed in the spring of 2009, the UI Student Garden has been producing a variety of spring and summer produce for meals served to university students, faculty and staff at the Iowa Memorial Union.

Currently, the student garden is located several miles from campus and can be inconvenient for student gardeners.

The new garden is expected to ready for planting by early next year allowing students to begin planting as soon as next spring.

More information about the student garden can be found at

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

NOAA expects Iowa winter to be unpredictable

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.

City council extends recycling services to all Iowa City residents

Changes to Iowa City code make curbside recycling services available to all residents of Iowa City. (Mike Mahaffle/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 20, 2016

Iowa City council voted unanimously on Tuesday to ramp up recycling efforts in the city.

The first consideration of the amendment to City Code Title 16, Article 3H passed  7-0. It requires recycling services to be available for all multi-family units; currently the city only services single-family households up to four units. Changes made to city code will also provide curbside food-waste collection services and prohibit residents from dumping computers and televisions into the municipal landfill.

City council member Rockne Cole is a long-time proponent of the measure. He said, “We’re looking at diverting over 1,700 tons of material from the landfill.”

University of Iowa and community environmental groups have been advocating for a city-wide recycling program for years. Jacob Simpson, UISG City Council Liaison, said that these changes benefit students who wish to continue recycling after moving off campus. He said, “At the university, we have the opportunity for students to recycle in the dorms and practice something that they’ve learned, and then a lot of the time, they have to go off campus, and they don’t have that ability,” Simpson added, “I think now that the city has taken this step to provide this in off-campus buildings, we cannot just see a benefit to Iowa City, but I think this is going to be something that benefits the state and beyond, as people become more accustomed to recycling.”

City director of Transportation Services Chris O’Brien said that all residential complexes built after January 1, 2017 must immediately comply with the new recycling policy. Landlords that own existing dwellings will be granted a grace period to get in compliance.

City council member Cole added, “It’s a real great victory for the University of Iowa, our community and most importantly, the environment.”