New study finds that the pace of sea level rise has nearly tripled since 1990


Glaciers_and_Icebergs_at_Cape_York
Icebergs are breaking off glaciers at Cape York, Greenland. (Wikimedia)
Jake Slobe | May 24, 2017

Scientists, in a new study, have found that the Earth’s oceans are rising nearly three times as quickly as they were throughout most of the 20th century.

This new finding  is one of the strongest indications yet that a much feared trend of not just sea level rise, but its acceleration, is now underway.

Their paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t the first to find that the rate of rising seas is itself increasing — but it finds a bigger rate of increase than in past studies. The new paper concludes that before 1990, oceans were rising at about 1.1 millimeters per year, or just 0.43 inches per decade. From 1993 through 2012, though, it finds that they rose at 3.1 millimeters per year, or 1.22 inches per decade.

Studying the changing rate of sea level rise is complicated by the fact that scientists only have a precise satellite record of its rate going back to the early 1990s. Before that, the records rely on tide gauges spread around the world in various locations.

But sea level rise varies widely in different places, due to the rising and sinking of land, large-scale gravitational effects on the waters of the globe and other local factors. So scientists have struggled to piece together a longer record that merges together what we know from satellites with these older sources of information.

The new study takes a crack at this problem by trying to piece together a sea level record for the 20th century, before the beginning of the satellite record, by adjusting the results of local tide gauges based on an understanding of the factors affecting sea level rise in a given region, and then also weighting different regions differently in the final analysis. That’s how it came up with a relatively small rate of sea level rise from 1900 through 1990, followed by a much faster one afterward.

 

That 2015 study found that from 1901 to 1990, sea level rose at a rate of 1.2 millimeters per year, very close to the current study’s estimate. But other researchers have found figures more in the range of 1.6 to 1.9 millimeters.

 Overall, though, the disparities between different studies — many of which point to an acceleration, but which vary upon its size — suggests that scientists have converged on the big picture but are still debating the details.

Just how much control we are able to exert over the rate of sea level rise will critically depend on how rapidly global greenhouse gas emissions come down in coming years — making the entire outlook closely tied to whether the United States sticks with the rest of the world in honoring the Paris climate agreement.

 

On The Radio – A new campaign, Good Neighbor Iowa, looks to reduce lawn pesticide use in Iowa


good niegbor iowa
Jake Slobe | May 22, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Good Neighbor Iowa, a statewide campaign attempting to reduce the use of lawn pesticides in Iowa.

Transcript: Good Neighbor Iowa, a statewide public education campaign to reduce children’s exposure to lawn pesticides was recently launched.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Good Neighbor Iowa campaign involves school districts, park managers, childcare centers, and community leaders who are demonstrating that it is possible and practical to manage large areas of turf without the use of pesticides including herbicides and insecticides.

Ultimately, their goal is to transform Iowa’s culture so that we appreciate diverse lawns as a way to protect children’s’ health, water quality, and biodiversity.

The entire initiative and the website were researched and developed by students at the University of Northern Iowa in the Interactive Digital Studies Practicum class taught by Professor Bettina Fabos.

The website contains a map that highlights schools, parks, childcare centers, and institutions in Iowa that have pledged to manage their lawns without the use of pesticides.

The website also contains tips on managing a healthy lawn and a blog discussing the effects of lawn pesticides.

For more information, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Scientists find 38 million pieces of trash on remote Pacific island


WireAP_e870240029284dc6bec7104708d5e667_12x5_1600
Garbage on Henderson Island in the south Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited island has been found to have the world’s highest density of waste plastic, with more than 3,500 additional pieces of litter washing ashore daily at just one of its beaches. (Jennifer Lavers, AP)
Jake Slobe | May 15, 2017

When researchers traveled to a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.

A new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that there were 17.6 tons of debris on the shores of the tiny island. The world produces that amount of plastic every 1.98 seconds, the researchers wrote.

Over 99 percent of the debris is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments.  The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based sources seem to have produced the majority of the debris.

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

170516_pollution_henderson_island_cr_0418_02_98f4e555ea88637919aa184e1af02525.nbcnews_ux_2880_1000.0
Henderson Island sits at the western side of the South Pacific Gyre, a counterclockwise current that collects floating debris from the shore of South America. Researchers found that most items on the island came from China, Japan or Chile.  (Jennifer Lavers, AP)

Dr. Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, was the lead author of the report.

What’s happened on Henderland Island shows there’s no escaping the effects plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans, said Lavers in a press release discussing the study.

“It speaks to the fact that these items that we call ‘disposable’ or ‘single-use’ are neither of those things,” she said, “and that items that were constructed decades ago are still floating around there in the ocean today, and for decades to come.”

On The Radio – Iowa leads midwest in clean energy momentum


Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 7.49.44 AM
The recently released top ten list ranks states not only by current performance but also their potential for clean energy development in the future. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
Jake Slobe | May 15, 2017

This On the Radio Segment discusses the recently released list of states in the U.S. that lead in the use of clean energy.

Transcript: The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published its list of top ten states demonstrating “clean energy momentum,” and Iowa led the Midwest.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

States were ranked according to twelve metrics that were organized into three broad categories: technical progress; direct, visible effects on our daily lives; and policies to build momentum for the future. California was at the top of the list as it was a top performer in eight of the twelve metrics. Other leading states included Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Oregon, Maine, Washington, and New York.

Iowa rounded out the top ten list and was ranked first among Midwestern states. The Hawkeye state was the first to generate more than 30 percent of its energy from wind and is expected to source more than 40 percent of its total energy from wind turbines by 2020.

The publication pointed out that despite recent rollbacks of Obama-era climate policy, great strides have been made in renewable energy development. It notes that enough solar panels were added in 2016 to power two million houses.

To read the full report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, visit iowenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

U.S. drought levels at record low levels


5_9_17_Andrea_CC_droughttimeline_720_321_s_c1_c_c
After years of widespread, intense drought, the US is experiencing its smallest drought footprint since 2000. (NASA Earth Observatory)
Jake Slobe | May 10, 2017

After years of intense, record-setting drought, the U.S. is now experiencing its lowest level of drought in the 17 years since the U.S. Drought Monitor began its weekly updates.

Less than 5 percent of the U.S. was in some stage of drought as of May 4, the most recent update, compared to the 65 percent in drought in September 2012.

The last time drought levels across the country were this low was in July 2010, when 8 percent of the U.S. was in drought after which came a remarkable period of deep, damaging drought that led to billions in crop and livestock losses, spurred major water restrictions, and helped fuel terrible wildfires.

The ups and downs in drought levels could be linked to some of Earth’s natural climate cycles that can usher in relatively wet and dry periods. But climate change is likely to play a role as higher temperatures lead to increased evaporation and therefore worse drought conditions.

The epicenters of drought were in the central and southern Plains states from 2011 to 2013 and in California from 2012 to this winter. At the peak of its drought, more than half of California was experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest category of drought. At the end of September 2011, more than 85 percent of Texas was in this category as well.

Both droughts were fueled by a combination of dry weather and repeated, sizzling heat waves. The exceptional heat that blanketed much of the central and eastern portions of the country in 2012 boosted it to the hottest year on record for the U.S., while California experienced back-to-back record-hot years during its drought.

That heat is the clearest link between climate change and droughts, as rising global temperatures fueled by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere tilt the odds in favor of record heat.

Studies have pointed to the role of climate change-fueled heat in California’s drought, and droughts in the future, no matter where they happen in the U.S., are likely to be more intense than those of today because temperatures will be higher on average.

 

On The Radio – Neonicotinoids found in University of Iowa drinking water


activate charcoal
Activated carbon filters were shown to effectively remove neonic insecticides from drinking water. (Minnesota Department of Health)
Jake Slobe | May 8, 2017

This On The Radio segment discusses the recent study that found neonicotinoids in UI drinking water.

Transcript: A recent study by University of Iowa Researchers and the U.S. Geological Survey found neonicotinoids, a specific class of pesticides, in tap water for the first time ever.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers compared tap water samples from the University of Iowa drinking water supply to samples of Iowa City municipal tap water. Water samples from both sources were tested for three primary types of neonicotinoids. The study found that the University of Iowa filtration system removed almost none of the neonicotinoids, while the City of Iowa City’s treatment plant successfully removed between 85 and 100 percent of each pesticide.

Dr. Gregory LeFevre is a University of Iowa environmental engineer and one of the study’s authors.

“Due to the proliferation of neonicotinoids in the environment and their chemical properties, we are not terribly surprise to find that they were present in drinking water. Most water treatment plants are designed to remove particles and pathogens like ecoli, but not trace pesticides. We were, however, more surprised by and encouraged to see how effective granular active carbon appeared to be at removing neonics from water.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a limit for neonicotinoid levels in drinking water. Neonics became widely used by farmers in the early 1990s. The pesticides are still very popular, despite mounting research that suggests they are lethal to bees and other helpful insect species. The study’s authors argue that more research is called for to assess neonicotinoid exposure on a larger scale.

For more information about the study or to read it in its entirety, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

 

Study finds that flood patterns are changing across the U.S.


regional-flood-risks-image2
The threat of moderate flooding is generally increasing in the northern U.S. and decreasing in the southern U.S. (American Geophysical Union.)
Jake Slobe | May 3, 2017

The risk of flooding is changing by region throughout the United States and two of the reasons could be shifting rainfall patterns and changes in groundwater.

University of Iowa engineers, in a new study, have determined that the threat of flooding is growing in the northern half of the U.S. while declining in the southern half. The American Southwest and West are experiencing decreasing flood risk.

UI engineers Gabriele Villarini and Louise Slater compiled water-height information from 2,042 stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. They then compared the data to satellite information gathered over more than a dozen years by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment mission showing the amount of water stored in the ground.

The study found that northern sections of the country have an increased amount of water stored in the ground and are at increased risk for minor and moderate flooding. Meanwhile, flood risk is decreasing in the southern portions of the U.S., where stored water has declined.

Why some sections of the nation are getting more, or less, rainfall is not entirely clear. The researchers say one cause could be the redistribution of rains as the regional climate changes.

The researchers hope their findings can change how flood patterns are discussed. In the past, flood risk trends have typically been discussed using stream flow, or the amount of water flowing per unit time. The UI study views flood risk through the lens of how it may affect people and property and aligns the results with National Weather Service terminology understood by the general public.