Wildfires become more common and intense as Earth warms up

Smoke billows from the Lodgepole Complex wildfire of eastern Montana. (Montana Public Radio)
Jenna Ladd| July 26, 2017

A wildfire as large as New York City is currently ripping across eastern Montana, and experts say climate change making fires like these larger and more common.

As climate change takes hold, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming drier. Rising temperatures in spring and summer months mean that soils are remaining dry for longer, which makes drought more likely, thereby lengthening the wildfire season.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires have become more likely and more intense since the 1980’s. They last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

Moving forward, residents of fire-prone regions can expect the wildfire season to lengthen. In the southwestern U.S., scientists predict wildfire season will increase from  seven months to twelve months.

The economic impacts of wildfires are staggering. Since 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in one fiscal year on two occasions. During the first decade of the 21st century, wildfires cost an average of $665 million per year in economic damages.

In their full report on this issue, the Union of Concerned Scientists say it’s not too late for humans to slow the course of climate change. They write,

“The global temperature is increasing and the climate is changing due to the greenhouse-gas emissions we have already produced, leading to a likely rise in the incidence of wildfires. But it is not too late. What we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of these fires and their effects on us.”

Researchers use climate data to predict Zika outbreaks

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The Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits many diseases including Zika. (Sanofi Pasteur/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 25, 2017

Zika virus spread rampantly throughout the Americas in 2014 and 2015. While the infection itself presents with few noticeable symptoms, it has been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis.

So far, there have been 5,932 cases of the virus reported in the U.S. and nearly 40,000 in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and human sexual contact.

In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers developed a way to predict Zika outbreaks before they happen. The scientists used climate data from Zika-prone areas to build computer models for Aedes mosquito populations.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Ángel Muñoz of Princeton University, said, “Both the mosquitos that transmit Zika and the virus itself are climate-sensitive.” He continued in an interview with E & E news, “High temperatures, like the ones observed during the record-breaking years 2015 and 2016, generally increase the virus replication rates and also the speed of mosquito reproduction. The overall effect of high temperatures is an increase in the potential risk of transmission.”

The researchers used their computer model to test how well their projections of the virus spreading matched with what actually occurred in 2014 and 2015. They found that their model could consistently predict a Zika outbreak one month before it occurred. In some areas, the model predicted an epidemic three months in advance.

Their computer model is not without its limitations. First, the study notes that scientists can only confidently make predictions for entire countries and regions, not cities or towns. Second, Aedes mosquitos also carry dengue and chikungunya, so the model does not distinguish whether the mosquitos are carrying Zika or another vector-borne disease. It simply indicates when conditions for disease transmission are highly suitable.

Dr. Benjamin Beard is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Referring to the changing climate and increased international travel, he said in an email, “We are seeing an accelerated threat from mosquito-borne diseases overall. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of dengue and the introduction of West Nile, chikungunya, and now Zika virus into the Western Hemisphere.”

On The Radio – Urban areas to suffer economic costs of climate change

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According to a recent study, the world’s larger cities, such as New York City, will be hit hardest by global warming. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 24, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment describes how climate change will have a disproportionate economic impact on urban areas.

Transcript: A recent study by an international group of economists found that climate change will likely cost cities twice as much as rural areas.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the largest quarter of the world’s cities could see more intense temperature spikes by 2050 due to the combined effect of global warming and urban heat island effects. Urban heat islands are formed when naturally cooling surfaces like vegetation and bodies of water are replaced by surfaces that trap heat like concrete and asphalt.

Higher temperatures in cities have negative economic impacts including less productive workers, higher cooling costs for buildings and poorer water and air quality. On average, the global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by 5.6 percent by 2100 due to climate change. The combined climate change and heat island effect means that the most-impacted cities are expected to lose about 11 percent of their GDP in the same period.

The economists noted that some actions can be taken to mitigate these effects including installing cooling pavements and green roofs and reintroducing vegetation in urban areas.

To read the full story and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Linn County joins growing coalition still committed to Paris Climate Accord

The Linn County Board of Supervisors recently voted to stay committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. (cedar-rapids.org)
Jenna Ladd | July 18, 2017

The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Monday to remain committed to the Paris Climate Accord, despite President Trump’s withdrawal at the federal level.

Linn County joins a group of more than 1,200 mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors that make up the We Are Still In coalition. An open letter from the coalition, which makes up more than $6 trillion of the U.S. economy, reads:

“In the absence of leadership from Washington, states, cities, colleges and universities, businesses and investors, representing a sizeable percentage of the U.S. economy will pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.”

Iowa City, Johnson County, Des Moines and Fairfield are also members of the coalition.

Following the board’s decision, businesses, local organizations and local leaders spoke during a news conference. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said, “Leadership on the tough issues can originate at the local level. One community can make a difference, this is our hope here today,” according to a report from The Gazette.

Local leaders emphasized that to keep the U.S.’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent before 2025, coalition members must walk-the-talk. Walker continued, “In absence of leadership in the federal government, the job is up to us locally.”

On The Radio – New science curriculum being developed for students in Iowa

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Teachers work in small groups to develop curriculum plans that align with Iowa’s new science standards. (Left to right: Taylor Schlicher, Southeast Junior High; Zach Miller, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Susanna Ziemer, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Ted Neal, Clinical Instructor, University of Iowa; Courtney Van Wyk, Pella Christian Grade School; Stacey DeCoster; Grinnell Middle School)
Jake Slobe| July 17, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the new science curriculum currently being developed for students in Iowa.

Transcript: Science teachers from around the state gathered at the University of Iowa Lindquist Center late last month to develop new curriculum for eighth grade students.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The working group was hosted by the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative, a combined effort of the UI College of Education and the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

The initiative seeks to implement Next Generation Science Standards which were approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015. Many of the new standards require students to explore how the Earth’s climate system works. University of Iowa faculty will make some science data available for Iowa students to explore and better understand their local environment.

The seven teachers in attendance worked to develop lesson plans that meet the criteria laid out by the Next Generation Science Standards.

For more information visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org. From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

The role of climate change in extreme weather events presented in interactive map

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A screenshot of Carbon Brief’s new interactive map. Extreme weather events attributable to human-induced climate change are in orange, those that are not are in blue. (Carbon Brief)
Jenna Ladd | July 14, 2017

The body of scientific research examining the extent to which extreme weather can be attributed to human-induced climate change is growing. Carbon Brief, a climate journalism site out of the United Kingdom, recently created an interactive map that color-codes these studies, making it easy to discern which events were caused by climate change and which were not.

Carbon Brief mapped a total of 144 extreme weather events worldwide that have been included in “extreme event attribution” studies.  The investigators determined that 63 percent of all extreme weather events studied thus far “were made more likely or more severe” by human-induced climate change. Extreme heat waves account for almost half of those events that can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

Roz Pidcock is one of the map’s creators. She said, “The temptation is to look at the result of one study and think that is the definitive last word, but in reality, the evidence needs to be considered in its entirety to make sense of how climate change is influencing extreme weather.”

In 14 percent of the studies, scientists determined that humans had no discernible impact on the likelihood or severity of the weather event. For five percent of the weather events studied, climate change made the event less likely or less intense. The vast majority of these occurrences included cold, snow and ice events.

Perhaps the most striking finding included in the report is the overwhelming effect climate change has on the intensity and severity of heat waves. The investigators looked at 48 heat wave attribution studies and determined that 85 percent of those events were made more severe or more likely thanks to global warming.

The authors write, “One study suggests that the Korean heatwave in the summer of 2013 had become 10 times more likely due to climate change, for example. Only one study on extreme heat didn’t find a role for climate change – an analysis of the Russian heatwave in 2010.”

Fewer than ten extreme weather attribution studies have been published so far in 2017. Carbon Brief plans to continue adding updating its map and providing analysis for new studies as they are published in peer-reviewed articles.

Research profile: Dr. Art Bettis

Dr. Art Bettis presents during a Clear Creek Watershed bus tour in June of last year. Dr. Bettis serves as site coordinator for the Clear Creek critical zone observatory project. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

Dr. Art Bettis acts as program director for the UI Environmental Sciences program and is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. He also holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Hydraulic Research. Dr. Bettis has been at the university since 2000.

We sat down with Dr. Bettis to discuss his work within the Critical Zones Observatory program. The Critical Zones Observatory is an interdisciplinary research initiative examining the processes that take place at specific research sites across the U.S. and how those processes are altered by human action. Dr. Bettis’ work centers around the impacts of industrial agricultural on sites in the Midwest.

Jenna Ladd: What is your research focus?

Dr. Art Bettis: I am really interested in lots of things, but my main focus lately has been on soils and how they’re connected to the deeper geology. It’s how water moves through them, how water interacts with the solid materials and with the organic materials and how that impacts both the soils and the water that ends up in river and streams.

Jenna Ladd: Tell me about the Critical Zones Observatory and how it came to be.

Dr. Art Bettis: The Critical Zones Observatory (CZO) is a National Science Foundation Project that was conceived about almost ten years ago. The idea with the CZO was to sort of try to document and understand the processes that were taking place from the top of the canopy of the vegetation to the bedrock surface or to some sort of deep aquifer. It’s an integrative science program so it involves geology and hydrology and biology and land-use studies, all sorts of things. Originally, there were five observatories across the country that were funded for five years. After the first five years, there was another call for proposals and they funded four of the original observatories again and brought in another seven new observatories and the Clear Creek observatory or the Intensively Managed Landscapes (IML) critical zone observatory was one of the new ones. This is our fourth year that we’re in with this project. It’s primarily National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, but it’s also, part of the whole idea of the CZO program is to engage other agencies and groups in research. It’s supposed to be sort of a research tank where people start doing things and it attracts other people to come and start doing more things.

JL: So, there are three research sites in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Why were these locations selected?

AB: Well, the whole idea of the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO was to look at this critical zone in an area that really is an very important regional area that hasn’t been looked at. The other CZOs were all in mountainous areas or in forested regions and none of them were agricultural landscapes at all. So, that was the general impetus for setting up the Intensively Managed Landscape program. The idea was to try to capture some of the range of settings that are present to see how they may have similar issues or similar mechanisms or if they differ significantly. So, we chose Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota because they’re three really different landscapes. There’s a different lay of the land, different water issues, but they all share a common intensive row crop agricultural land use.

JL: You mentioned that these Midwestern states were brought in to see if there were similarities in the natural processes that are happening. Have you found similarities?

AB: Oh yeah, there are a lot of general things. Row crop agriculture dominates all three areas. Agricultural tile drainage is a really common thing in all three areas. Degradation of surface waters is a really common thing. The impacts on streams and lakes is a really common element. Also, sort of a non-scientific thing, the economy of all those areas is really heavily dependent upon this kind of land use. There’s a lot of commonalities. Even though it may be a really different kind of landscape, just the intensity of agricultural land use makes it similar to the Central Valley in California or places in Europe or places in China or something like that that are under those same kinds of pressures from intensive agricultural use.

JL: So humans have almost forced them into uniformity?

AB: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly intentionally engineered for crop production. That engineering of the landscape has really made it behave in ways that are more similar among those drastically different places than they would normally be.

JL: Within Iowa, why was the Clear Creek watershed selected specifically?

AB: It’s sort of a historical thing. There was a guy, Thanos Papanicolaou, who used to be a researcher in engineering at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, who had already started doing quite a few projects out there, maybe five or six years previous to the first call for the CZOs. So, he had already had a watershed experiment station kind of set up there and had already been doing some things. Then also, Clear Creek is really typical of a large part of the landscape in the Midwest that wasn’t glaciated during the last glaciation so it’s an area that has the same kinds of issues and same kinds of landscapes and soils and stuff that a lot of the other areas in the region do too, plus it’s close [laughs]. But that wasn’t the reason why. Mostly it was the previous investigations and then this similarity to a lot of other areas.

JL: So what are some of the CZOs major findings so far?

AB: What we’ve found, you know, no surprise, the workings of the landscapes have been altered a whole lot. Basically, the main finding that is sort of driving things along is that prior to intensive agricultural land use, the landscape and the processes on the landscape acted to transform materials on the landscape: To turn dead vegetation into organic matter, to turn decaying organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals without having them end up in a stream to degrade the stream. Basically, processes were around where there was a lot of contact time and things were moving sort of slowly through the system, and with agricultural land use, in an effort to increase crop production, they’ve sped everything up and the landscape has really changed from a transformer of materials into a transporter of materials. So, there’s really short residence time on the landscape: sentiment gets moved to the stream quickly, nutrients go through the system really quickly, that’s why we have to add so much now and a lot of what we add goes through the system. That’s had huge impacts, both locally and off site. That presents us with lots of problems and lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to change the system so that it transforms more things. We’re not going to go back to the way it was, we’ve changed it to where it can’t go back to the way it was, but there might be some things that can be done to alter the way things work on a landscape now in its new mode of operation.

JL: I’ve never heard it describe that way, in terms of transformation versus transportation. That’s a really nice way to conceptualize it.

AB: It’s sort of the essence of what it’s about.

JL: Can you expand a little bit about the impacts of a transportive system?

AB: A transportive system does a lot of things. Number one, it’s very efficient. Water doesn’t stay on the landscape a long time so you don’t have areas that are too wet to plant in the spring, thanks to agricultural drainage. You don’t have places that are too wet year round for agriculture. You are able to control moisture conditions in seedbeds to where your seeds are more likely germinate or find favorable conditions.

With sediment, you know, there are not a lot of positives with transportation because we removed soils and remove solid materials from the landscape and we clog streams and lakes with sediment. The downside of the water moving fast is that the water doesn’t move all by itself. It moves with either sediment or with nutrients. Really what it’s about is that the system now is better for growing crops without considering the costs. So, whether the system is better in the long run, I think, is fairly debatable.

JL: What steps has the CZO taken to engage the general public?

AB:  We have an education and outreach component. We have led several field trips for both agencies and local people. Then we also engage K-12 teachers every summer. We had a workshop last summer for twelve K-12 teachers, and this year we’ve got eleven or twelve K-12 teachers that Ted Neal, over in the education  department is working with. So, they’re working in the CZO. They get to choose what kind of things they’re interested in and how they want to develop some curriculum.

That’s the other thing about the CZO, the data is publicly available really fast. Of course, it’s data that might be hard for the public to digest, but the whole idea is to have it available for people that want to use it and then to make it available as things are going along. So, it’s not like data that gets stored away for years and years and nobody has access to it. That’s part of the NSF program, is to make the data very readily available to anybody who wants to use it. So there’s a really short period where the data is not available and then it’s out there for everybody.

JL: It seems like farmers get much of blame when it comes to erosion and water quality issues in Iowa. What are your thoughts on that?

AB: We work on farms so we work with farmers and we have some really great cooperators. On one side, as an environmental scientist, row crop agricultural and industrial farming is really not very good for our landscape or for our environment. On the other hand, I know these people that are totally engaged in it and sort of see that they are indeed concerned about the environment, but they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because it’s how they make a living. It’s been really interesting to sort of see both sides of this story and come to the realization that, you know, most farmers, just like most people, are good people and want to do right, but they also have to make a living, just like we all have cars. [laughs]

JL: How does climate change affect these intensively managed landscapes?

AB: That’s a huge thing. Obviously, climate change will have an impact and is having an impact on our crops on many fronts. I think we’re going to see more of these large storms and seasonal pattern issues and then along with that is just a change in weather. Like this last winter, you know, case in point. It was very weird, it froze but not for very long and so that really changes the whole subsurface hydrology and all of the relationships of what goes on geochemically and biologically in the ground.

But yeah, climate change is going to be huge. Floods are the things we think about when we’re in towns, but out in the country, whenever there’s that much water, that water is full of sediment so it’s also erosion that’s going right along with that flood—both in the channels and off the fields. That’s a real tough aspect of how we deal with our soils that intensively. Soil is like a bank account and before people started using it heavily for agriculture, there were a lot of deposits, lots of organic matter and lots of nutrients. We’ve been withdrawing for a long time [laughs], and we’re at the point now where they don’t have much in reserve so if you don’t put on chemicals, you can’t grow a crop very well after a few years. That’s also going to be really impacted by climate change because, once again, this stuff doesn’t do any good if it’s not there when the plant needs it.

JL: Are you concerned that CZO funding will be affected by the new administration?

AB: We don’t know. There was just a national meeting in Virgina earlier this month for the CZOs with NSF, and NSF is very pleased with how the CZOs have gone and there’s no talk of not having another five year funding round, which will be next year. So, you know, between you and me, it’s easy not to say climate in the CZO [laughs] and I think that’s kind of a good thing right now. There are one or two or three principle investigators for each CZO, but each one of them has probably at least 15 different investigators from different institutions. So, that’s kind of what NSF likes to see and it’s really worked well in this program. There’s a large network of international sites that are starting to come up. They’re not funded by NSF, they’re funded by their own countries. China has five now and they’re building four more real soon, Germany has three. I think there are forty of them internationally or something like that so the concept has caught on.

A Critical Zones Observatory researcher collects soil samples at the Clear Creek watershed intensively managed landscape research site. (Critical Zones Observatory)